Specimen: 'Alive at the Batcave' CD Review


“No Goths, no ravers... only hundreds and hundreds of gravers...”

Over the decades, the distinct sound of certain iconic '80s bands still captures the souls of the fashionably gloomy hordes – as they did years before the term “Goth” was being flung around with abandon – and the true faithful remember the nightspots where these artists first oozed forth into the black spotlight. One of those bands is UK group Specimen, and the most famous of those hangouts is New York's legendary Batcave – a venue whose history is intimately linked to that band's founding members.

A full quarter-century after they first took that club's stage, Specimen's 1983 lineup reunited last summer to perform the hits that made them a cult favorite in post-punk's glory days. Today Metropolis Records has released an excellent recording of that historic night, and it's been reverberating through the dank corridors of FEARnet's music catacombs all weekend long. So touch up your Black #1, pick out your best feather boa and click on through for a deathly decadent trip down memory lane...

When Specimen co-founders Ollie Wisdom and Jon Klein found their anti-rock sensibilities rejected by countless British nightclubs, they decided to go into business for themselves, and create a platform where they and their fellow emerging post-punk and new wave artists could connect with disaffected UK youths looking for something dark and different... and lo, the Batcave was born.

A diverse assortment of performers took the Soho-based stage amid decadent décor and grainy projected black & white film footage (elements today's subterranean clubbers take for granted). It was on this same stage that guitarist Klein and vocalist Wisdom took notice of flamboyant performer Johnny Slut, recruiting him to play keyboards (and to dominate the band's photo ops with his unique style), and with the addition of bassist Kev Mills and drummer Chris Bell, the full Specimen lineup was a lock.

The boys soon made their away across the pond to transform two floors of New York's club Danceteria into a postmodern haunted house set, and by 1984 had taken command of the NYC dance scene with cult hits like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” It wouldn't be long before the core band members parted ways to pursue other projects, but their spirit lived on within the very walls of venue they helped create.

When Klein and former colleagues Tim Huthert and Kimba came together in 2006 under the name Azoic, it was clear that the band's “Metal Glam Punk Sleaze” vibe remained intact, and it was only a matter of time before the original members would join forces again within the walls of the original “house that Specimen built.” The end result was a 25th anniversary reunion concert last July, spearheaded by the band's classic lineup, with support from fellow notorious Batcave veterans Sex Gang Children.

The 12-song set from July 11, 2008 presents the band in top form, as flamboyantly raunchy and balls-out rocking as they were in their corrupt youth, and the passage of time seems to have made their delivery even more sly and sinister, with that knowing comic wink that they do so well. That spirit asserts itself right out of the gate in the intro “Stand Up Stand Out,” with the vocoder-distorted announcer declaring “I used to f**k to this, and I've been waiting a looooong time to be able to f**k to this again... so get back on this f**king stage!” and Wisdom's comic dismissal of his baldness with the aside, “Sorry the hair couldn't make it,” before the first echoing guitar neck-scrapes and pulsing harmonics come blasting through.

Chunky, dirty guitar riffs full of swirling, detuned chorus and busily stalking bass form the foundation for Wisdom's sardonic, sneering vocal delivery, coming together for a blend of '80s post-punk (with a touch of Clash-like groove in songs like “Syria”), swaggering '70s glam-rock and chilling vampiric seduction with just the right touch of irony. It's a solid, time-tested formula, but it's when they break through the snarkiness with heavy, intense aggression that the band really burns up the speakers, most evident in burn-up tracks like “Dead Man's Autochop” and the menacing “Wolverines.”

The band jokingly introduces their biggest hit “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” as a brand-new track they just wrote – but the audience is clearly in on the joke, as they begin cheering just one bar into the familiar drum intro. No surprise there, 'cuz it's a real roof-raiser. The dark and pensive down-tempo number “Returning from a Journey” is a perfect closer, showcasing the vast range of their talents.

For anyone who thinks '80s-era Gothic rock is too pretentious and full of itself, this band will spank that attitude right off ya – and I'm guessing you'll thank them and (politely) ask for another swat on the fanny. Dabblers in the dark musical arts – even those too young to have experienced bands like this firsthand – should consider this Goth 101: a valuable lesson in both style and substance from one of the first acts to get the time-worn formula right. And it goes without saying that long-time aficionados of spooky tunes will feel right at home with the sounds emerging from the Batcave's darkest corners... although I just said it anyway. So sue me.