Fans of early '90s-era gothic & industrial music will no doubt know the name of Athan Maroulis, co-founder of legendary dark electronic project Spahn Ranch. Relocating from Hollywood to his home turf of New York after Spahn disbanded in 2000, Maroulis has drawn creative inspiration from New York City for many projects – from the production of vintage jazz and blues recordings to a variety of gothic, synth-pop and electro-industrial acts including Razed in Black and Black Tape for a Blue Girl (of which he is an official member as of 2009). For his latest solo project Noir, Athan casts his creative light on the Big Apple once again, now filtered through a hauntingly romantic perspective that is equal parts '40s detective drama, vintage sci-fi and The Twilight Zone (he cites that show's creator Rod Serling as one of his inspirations), merged in a style he describes as “a dreamy death trip of sensuality.”
The first taste of Noir's debut album Darkly Near emerged last year with the well-received single "My Dear,” signaling a stylistic return to the artist's early work in the genre and offering a first glimpse into this dark cinematic netherworld. Spahn Ranch fans will recognize that band's clean, chilly synth patterns and leads, but Maroulis also brings a warm, lush tone to that track which hints at his experience with old-school jazz.
Much of Darkly Near continues in the same mode, but with many dramatic side-trips to moodier, more experimental territory, incorporating dark ambient soundscapes on the somber ballads "The Voyeurs" and "The Tragics," and heavier industrial beats and bass lines for high-energy pieces ike "The Bells" and "Timephase," and even the mid-tempo "The Satin Box." The latter three are surefire club cuts, but I find the record works even better as an immersive listening experience. Throughout the low- and high-intensity tunes, the lyrical content is tied closely to simple but memorable song structures – which often border on minimalism in tracks like "The Grifter” and "When the Rains Came" – and Athan's vocal delivery gives the songs a dreamy, haunted vibe that feels tragically romantic without slipping into the clichés of darkwave melodrama.
There are also a couple of impressive cover songs on Darkly Near that reflect more colors in the Noir spectrum: a moody rendition of The Cure's 1980 classic “A Forest” captures the original's proto-gothic flavor (including a smooth homage to that band's distinctive bass & guitar lines), and there's a nod to the early glam days of '80s pop icons Roxy Music for "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," a dark and kinky ode to a blow-up sex doll (also memorably covered by Rozz Williams of legendary death rock unit Christian Death) that's definitely one of the eeriest tracks on the record.
As a dedicated fan of groundbreaking goth-industrial artists, I found Noir's first album a comforting, even romantic flashback to that era's style and tone, which is making quite a comeback lately. Maroulis updates the sound enough to keep it fresh, while reminding today's listeners that artists like Spahn Ranch were laying the foundation for much of the modern darkwave and synthpop genres. The ease in which he slips back into that classic style, combined with his well-honed vocal skills, moves Noir to the front of the dark electro-pop pack, with a mature refinement that places the band in a class by itself.
Darkly Near is now available in CD or download formats from Metropolis Records.