The phrase “Killed By Death,” in rock etymology at least, dates back to a 1984 Motorhead song, though it’s better known in underground circles as a lengthy series of punk compilations. Sacred Bones’ Killed By Deathrock Vol. 1 carries on the tradition of re-releasing obscure singles from the ’80s, this time focusing on the darkwave and goth subsets of post-punk.
While a genre fan would expect Killed By Deathrock’s not-ready-for-primetime players to be completely in thrall to Christian Death or 45 Grave, the sonic canvas here is a bit broader. Afterimage’s “Satellite of Love,” which could be an outtake from R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, layers strident, John Lydon-ish vocals over an instrumental base that reflects the emergence of American college rock around the same time deathrock was finding its feet. Killed By Deathrock isn’t immune to the charms of mainstream synth-pop either: The single-line keyboard riff that drives Screaming for Emily’s “The Love” harks back to A Flock of Seagulls and Berlin, while Adam Ant’s songs surely influenced the tribal drums on Glorious Din’s “Tenement Roofs.”
Mimicry is never exact; the fascinating thing about Killed By Deathrock’s iterations is the personal stamp each band adds to the sound, making the songs legitimate contributions to the deathrock genre. The homespun scrappiness of these bands, whether it’s the result of a muddied mix or an over-processed vocal, can be charming. Denver’s Your Funeral has been described as “dark postpunk,” but ultimately their “I Wanna Be You” is too cheerful to withstand the tag, with an amateurish but self-assured power-pop strut that recalls the Lyres or the Flamin’ Groovies. Elsewhere, the enthusiasm of the lead singer of the Italian band Move, who sings “Casa Domani” so breathlessly he barely acknowledges the rhythm, is infectious.
A caveat about nugget-trawling exercises such as Killed By Deathrock: though it’s admirable that people like Sacred Bones’ Caleb Braaten care enough to do this sort of archival grunt work, it’s often rare to find a deathless classic on a compilation of curiosities. The most successful inclusions here are the danceable and propulsive “I Wanna Be You” and “Tenement Roofs,” but there’s a fair amount of material that, while not bad, remains unmemorable even after repeated listening.
It’s up to the consumer whether he or she wants to treat Killed By Deathrock as a piece of music on its own terms or as a sociological survey—an examination of humans, their quirks, and their influences—that reveals an occasional great song. Given the album’s short length of less than 39 minutes, it runs out of both lost gems and intrigue fairly quickly, making one wonder whether compiler Braaten should have held out on releasing the first volume until he had more and consistently stronger material to inaugurate the series.