With the current ‘80s revival in pop culture seemingly unstoppable, the last few years have seen the goth aesthetic resurrected and repackaged for the uninitiated Generation Z.
Bands like Pale Waves have built their entire brand from the black lipstick up, affecting a style of new wave monsters The Cure and the kink-clad cast of Mute records. But sonically, many of these artists are simply slapping on a skin, the music itself more aligned with agile 21st century pop than gloomy melodrama.
Léonie Pernet may, however, be the real deal. The Parisian pianist/arranger/vocalist/drummer came to her current incarnation through a love of romantic composers, spacey eccentric Klaus Nomi and teenage affairs with Marilyn Manson and Radiohead. These influences draw together on her debut album Crave, an exercise in bleeding-heart theatrics with a talented auteur at its centre.
The record is purely Pernet’s, bar support from engineer Stéphane ‘Alf’ Briat. In an interview trailing the album, Pernet says she found working with other producers sacrificed ‘the song’s lifeblood’, eventually finalising material alone in her home studio (and deliciously gothic in her descriptions of her creative process). As with so many artists, this degree of creative control has its risks and pay-offs; for Pernet, her arrangements win out, but the production takes a hit.
The songs, at least, are mega. Starters "African Melancholia" and "Butterfly" sit in perfect opposition; the former an ominous slice of slow-burn industrial electronica, the latter twinkly DIY pop, cute with teeth like early Metric. Here, you can almost imagine Pernet as every member of her own listless grunge band; tracks later on "Father", she's a guttural force of nature, cutting through a wall of ringing delays and feedback.
Mooring these swerves in genre are Pernet’s voice – see-sawing between tense and tender – and her arrangements. A core palette of searing noise and sparkling mallets gives everything a ‘demented circus’ vibe. Throughout, her lyrics employ the intense, sex-and-death drama of 80s new wave, peak goth reached with the blistering "Rotten Tree":
I wanna be the rotten tree
Growing in your vein
You put in me a dirty seed
Is this your revenge?
Whilst Pernet's work is definitely political, these politics are densely packed in allegory, and often result more in a theme of marginalisation and oppression than a strong takeaway.
However, the album’s more jarring hitch is the lack of polish in the production and engineering. With electronics, Leonie and ‘Alf’ are extremely adept, whether orchestrating a synthetic symphony on" African Melacholia" or a drop into growling dubstep on "Father".
But with organic instruments, there’s poor attention to detail; most of the drums here, for example, are encased in a flat, overly-spacious reverb that leaves some tracks sounding like '90s prog rock a la Porcupine Tree (in a bad way). It’s possibly a homage, but more probably a dodgy engineering decision. Piano, too, feels stunted and lacks dynamics; even when Pernet smashes the keys on "The Two of Us", it fails to cut through. These missteps are few, but distractingly bad when they occur, undermining otherwise solid compositions.
Still, Crave is a record with bold intentions that are, despite these hiccups, mostly realised. As Pernet continues to find her feet, she may benefit fully embracing the pitch-black industrial electronica she showcases on the album’s peaks, even if it means limiting herself as an instrumentalist. When she’s good, she’s extremely good – an authentic dark horse in sea of posturing pop stars.