Imagine a home printed scuffed up cassette-tape gets pressed into your clam sweaty hands, you’re told ‘right here’s a never-writ history, right there’s a piece of the past’. The inlay gives stories of a mid 80’s goth scene, lost San Francisco bands, gigs and venues. It’s a bootleg of demos, rehearsals and live shows from an act that’s now barely a memory. If you’re like me, you wouldn’t resist… this might be the best thing or B.S.
But this is no homemade tape. This is no half-assed bootleg. These sketches and scraps have been lovingly picked to prove Altar De Fey DID exist. They shared stages with 45 Grave, shared lineups with Christian Death, I’m told they paved way for deathrock, helped shaped Westcoast gothpunk and were underground heroes of San Francisco’s counter culture. From here in the UK in 2019 I can’t prove or disprove this status, and neither would I want to spoil it. Through the clatter and hiss of unfiltered recordings I hear the postpunk and goth spikes of Souxie and the Banshees, Skeletal Family, Sex Gang Children, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. I hear the leads in and on to Alien Sex Fiend, Ministry and the emergence of ties into thrash. I’ve been given a piece of a jigsaw. All pictures and bent lines are forming.
Unpolished and somehow unspoilt, these recordings made between ’84 and ’86 show off a raw potent potential. An aged telltale mix of spider thin half-tunes, chorus-scratched chords, frantic tear-away baselines and never-settle drums comes to permeate every track here. There’s no let up in speed, no release from the frantic, no breakout from punk’s vintage violence.
‘Crimson Sin’ could be straight out of Joy Devision’s ‘Still’ with descending ripped cascades, clean busy bass, and vocals that set a detached sense of panic. Those straight and unwavering high-hats and toms, they’re the pulse in the blood of the song. There’s an urgency pressing, an acute disconnection, there’s the threat of a deep felt unease.
‘Veil Of Death’ cuts a thicker, more chaotic course where the song rips at runway speeds. We’re propelled by a voltage and combustion energy that’s barely contained by its parts. ‘You Do Not Scare Me‘ is pure ‘Juju’ Banshees with a manic emotional fever; that disconnect haunts and those rough slides return, alongside a mean angst and defiance.
After the demos that make up the front of the album, we move on to live track selections. These are tough on the ears and a chore for the senses; the room and the space and the reverb and chatter, the hiss and that live bootleg buzz. But it’s clear even here, in unflattering light, that the songcraft and guts stay the same. Take out the tough to discount poor production and your left with that same intense feel; of a band with a prowess for unnerving presence and a pressed stain of intrinsic anger.
The last tracks are cuts from rehearsal recordings; as clear as the demos, as sleek as the rest, further snapshots of memories in making. ‘She’s Fun’ could be taken from lost Stooges tapes with that 80’s goth chorus dripped over. Mostly instrumental, it’s less than a sketch, but somehow it’s strong in its muscular stride. ‘Vampires’ plays loose with the ’86 gothwave and rakes over NY punk ashes. CBGBs is painted all over, there’s a new clunk and grind the sound.
As I edge to the end of the album, I wonder who this release is best pitched at. Extra-hard die-hard fans? Still-standings that saw them? But Altar De Fey are brand new to me. And only in 2012, some 40 years after making, did any studio recordings reach daylight.
As said at the start it’s a part of a piece of a picture that I didn’t have. It’s a rare part of legacy, an intact artifact, it’s a lesson that’s worthy of learning.
As always the highlights of this and other featured artists are right here on Rats On Run Radio.