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Cold Cave pushes the limits of '80s nostalgia

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Wes Eisold, the mastermind behind frosty synth-poppers Cold Cave (and formerly of Boston hardcore heroes Give Up the Ghost), is missing his left hand. This isn't mentioned to suggest some kind of grab for eerie authenticity points, or as some exploitative anomaly; rather, it is an element of Cold Cave's music that explains, in part, why they sound like they do.

Having only one hand—the result of a birth defect—pushed the punk vocalist, who wanted to compose music himself, toward electronic instruments rather than guitar or conventional drums. It sent him to a more propulsive and gothic vision of "darkness," with its roots in the 1980s embrace of synthesizers and The Hunger soundtrack melodrama.

Cold Cave's '80s riffing is tricky and complex. The 2009 debut, Love Comes Close, was in-the-pocket electronic pop, though it was cut with the avant-garde screeches of the era's underground, too. Industrial noise made songs more jagged, and the hooks, though soaring, also captured the restricted feeling of those howling, lost Ian Curtis moments on Joy Division's Closer. Dominick Fernow, better known as hyper-prolific noise musician Prurient, and Caralee McElroy, formerly of Xiu Xiu, assisted this knotty cherry-picking of styles and emotions of the past.

2011's Cherish the Light Years went arena-goth. Extremely loud and over-the-top, the album kicks off with "The Great Pan Is Dead," which pairs a blackened rush with the faux-British broken wail of new wave. On the hook, the song powers into an M83 surge of feeling, complete with calls for "salvation" and a stirring, longing-filled Robert Smith-like declaration: "I will come running, gunning through the years."

A recent spate of singles lean back to a more singularly rhythmic sound, with hints of Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine and, no joke, the soundtrack to Top Gun. Every song feels like the melodramatic closing-credits music of some lost '80s movie involving doomed romance, wrecked motorcycles and dead friends.

Indulging in nostalgia is problematic, though. Eisold stumbled when he invited late-'80s/early-'90s anti-"PC" pundit Boyd Rice on tour with the band earlier this year. The involvement of Rice, a "social Darwinist" (some have called him a Nazi, others, a rape apologist), grabbed the attention of the activist side of the indie rock Internet community, and many venues dropped the shows. Bringing Rice along was an unwise throwback to an era when such figures were tolerated for what were, in retrospect, hammy "provocations."

One way to reconcile Eisold's decision to book Rice—which he still stands by—is that you can't look back only on your own terms; you have to really wrestle with things from the past. Cold Cave's music accomplishes that with its bounce between pleasure and pain.

If we're in a moment of "retromania," and the sounds and styles of the '80s continue to be chic, perhaps Cold Cave's role is to indulge that tic in the culture and turn it ever so slightly. Cold Cave is ultimately less the glowing, idyllic throb of the successful and influential soundtrack to Drive, and more like if the Driver at the center of the movie, played by a wounded, often dead-eyed Ryan Gosling, were to actually make his own menacing, head-smashing music.

This article appeared in print with the headline "In between years."

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