Buried Behind All the Rubble

A Christmas tree burns somewhere on a Gospel tour of the U.S. in 2006 (Photo courtesy of Gospel)

There was a moment at the turn of the millennium when New York City’s art-school hardcore bands — minor legends like Orchid and The Red Scare, later Hot Cross and Off Minor — were venturing out of stalwart downtown venue ABC No Rio and traveling across the country. Meanwhile, like-minded outfits — Yaphet Kotto, Jeromes Dream, Portraits of Past — visited from other cities on what remained of the old DIY touring circuit. Screamo, the subgenre they occupied, was fleeting. But it made a vital alternative to that era’s tepid garage rock revival.

Amid this there was Gospel. Weirder and more enduring than their contemporaries, the band emerged from the screamo scene with a maximalist vision combining hardcore with prog and Krautrock. Their 2005 album, The Moon is a Dead World, out as a vinyl reissue this month, was a sonic anomaly, a document of that approach taken to it outer limits.

I first saw Gospel in 2003, well before the record came out. They played a far-flung early show at the Gold Rush, a bygone dive bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Most people’s introduction to the band was a song called “Congratulations… You’ve Hit Bottom!” that started every set. Sean Miller, tall and greasy-haired — the prototypical bassist — pawed the song open with a fuzzy, circular rumble. Their drummer, Vinny Roseboom, whose dad had schooled him on 70s art rock, played a tight figure that could equally have been lifted from early Genesis or Can’s Tago Mago. Swaying at the front of stage, pelvis thrust forward, was Adam Dooling, his blonde Telecaster wired through a kaleidoscope of echo, making unheavy sounds for heavy music. Every so often, he shouted at the microphone.

Can hardcore be soulful? Gospel was. In contrast with much underground music at that time, they were intricate without being self-consciously “mathy,” forceful without being violent. “I really had never seen anything like it,” said Jon Pastir, who later joined the band on synthesizer, of seeing them for the first time. “There was abandon and power. I was immediately jealous of how cool Adam looked.” You wanted to hate them, but you couldn’t.

I knew the members from Long Island, where we grew up. All three had been in Helen of Troy, a fixture of that scene. But Gospel was an uneasy fit. They lacked the template of a hardcore band: no singer who just sang, no skinny jeans and boys-size-large tees. They looked more like the dirtbag Long Island metalheads I’d grown up with. It was hard to put them in a category, which made them kind of scary. It also made them hard to put a critical finger on. Here, for example, is a ridiculous description from the original Pitchfork review for The Moon is a Dead World:

Gospel are cool. Cool enough to get approval from the white-studded belt, sideways trucker hat, back pocket bandana crowd, and the unadorned (and girlfriendless) music geek crowd.

Gospel was cool, but mostly in the way casual desperation can seem cool. Or in the way that it was cool to see wasted kids from working-class Long Island who still wore JNCOs legitimately not give a fuck whether the DIY scene was as into Genesis as they were. But The Moon is a Dead World isn’t being reissued because of any ephemeral coolness, or even because of the nostalgic resurgence of screamo today. The album is still vital — much more than just a time capsule.

In an act of kindness, Gospel took my band on tour with them for three weeks in January 2004. At that time, it was the longest I’d been on the road, and it was a jarring immersion into the murk of the underground. We played shows in B.O.-saturated Midwest basements and swilled beer at carpeted house parties. Strangers let us play Mario Kart for hours in their living rooms and fed us dumpster-dived vegan meals. A Michigan show at a house whose occupants called it the Ghetto Diaper was the dubious pinnacle of the trip.

One night, in St. Louis, Gospel performed by lamplight on the floor at a VFW hall. Miller, frustrated with his playing, ended the set by throwing his instrument onto the ground and stomping it to death. This was as much impulsiveness as theatrics. For years, Miller’s day job was at a deli on Long Island, and Gospel didn’t have a guitar-smashing slush fund lying around. The next day we sat with the heat on in our vans while Miller opened a Guitar Center credit line to buy a five-string bass with an absurd chrome diamond-grip pickguard. He played it until the band’s last days.

Gospel gets a lesson (Photo courtesy of Gospel)

The consummate punk-rock older brothers, Gospel played us music and told us stories. Miller and I bonded over Black Flag and other punk touchstones. And it was after my band’s drummer took mushrooms with Dooling that he began proselytizing for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Os Mutantes. Roseboom, who worked as a veterinary technician when the band was home, described the pet surgeries he assisted. Once, in South Carolina, he had nearly used that expertise to give stitches to a guy who had cut his hand on a broken bottle after a show. “Thank God I didn’t,” he said. “Cause he probably would’ve gotten, like, gangrene and needed to be amputated.” Another time, they picked up a drifter and brought her to a punk house, where she fell asleep standing up against the wood-paneled wall. All this was in the name of fun — or something like it.“You’re always worried about cash money,” Roseboom told me. “You’re always worried about what to eat, you’re worried about what floor you’re sleeping on, who’s gonna sleep in the van cause we’re in a shitty neighborhood.” Usually, he ran van security himself. “I’d always be like, fuck it, I’ve got a DVD player and some coke. I’m gonna go watch Friends and blow lines in the back seat, you know.”

At a time when small bands, even DIY hardcore bands, were becoming increasingly careerist, Gospel seemed content to be on one big dysfunctional adventure. It was the last gasp of what my band had taken to calling “hardship touring.” They were suburban kids in their 20s, mostly from broken homes. They weren’t trying to live well, and they didn’t have the emotional equipment to be in such intimate proximity for such long periods of time. But they loved each other. And they were serious about the music.

In March 2005, Gospel recorded The Moon is a Dead World with Kurt Ballou, guitarist of the legendary hardcore band Converge, at GodCity, his studio in Salem, Massachusetts.

When the band arrived, Roseboom began to unload the cheap, out-of-tune Pearl Export drum kit that he’d played since childhood. Ballou offered him the Converge kit to use. The one you heard on all the records sat pristinely tuned and mic’d in the studio. No, Roseboom insisted. He’d use his own. Fine. Together, they spent the entire first day of the session obsessively tuning it. As they prepared to track guitar, the band wanted to remove Dooling’s signature echo and use the fancy studio amps. Ballou insisted they hew to their sound. “You guys are more like impressionists,” he told them. He seemed to understand intuitively where Gospel’s power rested. The outlandish magnetism of Roseboom’s drum patterns was the attraction of their live shows, and the recording foregrounds them, capturing every weird spray and articulation he’d imagined. The thicket of Dooling’s guitar delay heightened their mystery, and there was no reason to cut it back. The album documents Gospel as they were.

At a time when small bands, even DIY hardcore bands, were becoming increasingly careerist, Gospel seemed content to be on one big dysfunctional adventure.

A year before recording, the band had added Pastir, also a Long Island native, on synthesizer and guitar. The synth inaugurated a new depth for Gospel. Something of a natural, Pastir learned the instrument specifically to join the band. Vintage synth had recently resurged in underground music, but mostly as a warped gesture toward 80s dance music. In the mainstream, bands like The Killers were earnestly mining its sounds to lucrative effect. By contrast, Pastir was winking mock-sexily at unsexy bands like Yes. The runs and flourishes you hear on The Moon is a Dead World were more or less intuited.

Dooling’s friendship with Pastir was a kind of dark pact, the source of tangled — but productive — creative and personal tension. Together, they presented a shield of impenetrable irony; sometimes they directed it at each other. Years later, I learned of the centrality of the cigarette in their microscopic power struggles: Dooling would demand, and Pastir would withhold.

These dynamics are hardwired into the album. Consider Dooling’s narration in “Golden Dawn,” the band’s most fully realized song:

Hey you, you got a cigarette, man? You know, I know you got one on you

I usually keep mine in the back seat, but it’s buried behind all the rubble

You know, after a few months I figured all this shit’d be easier

No wife, no kids. Nothin’, man. But my monkey sure is breathin’

It’s literary dialogue, a voice of grasping desperation that swells to the song’s frenzied crescendo of organ runs. Anyone who listened to Gospel recognizes that lyric as the band’s trademark, a particular cri de coeur. I’ve come to think it expresses a whole worldview.

Taken together, The Moon is a Dead World demonstrates what range and imagination the band had by then developed, what an unusual palette of influences. “Paper Tigon” opens with lush and snaking guitar before becoming a guided course through the variations of screamo. Distinguishing the song are sections of fluid bass stabs that evoke 70s art-rock pioneers like Soft Machine. The aptly titled “Opium” erects an edifice of subdued Ethiopian jazz melodies on a foundation of Roseboom’s feverish arabesques. In “Yr Electric Surge is Sweet,” the early-Metallica-style riffing reminds you that Gospel were sick Long Island shredders at heart. It also reminds you how ultra-tight they were. They recorded the whole thing live.

But it’s not just that the album — with its unconventional blend of rhythms, modes, and styles — is musically sophisticated. It also displays an emotional maturity far greater than that of its individual personnel or the scene they sprang from. Hardcore is an essentially adolescent music and lends itself to outbursts. In place of the macho posturing and activist lecturing that have long dominated the form, Gospel conjures a complex human yearning. Think, for just one example, of the way the self-directed rage of “Yr Electric Surge” resolves periodically with a nearly whimpered “ah.”

Even the album’s prog-rock excesses contribute to its staying power. The Moon is a Dead World is, as people say these days, a whole mood. For a certain subculture, it lends mystery and pathos to that wretched struggle into adulthood.

Level Plane, the defunct underground record label run by Greg Drudy of screamo progenitors Saetia and Hot Cross, released The Moon is a Dead World in August 2005. Soon Gospel was back on the road.

Dooling described traveling with Gospel like this: “It was Vinny watching videos on his DVD player, me smoking weed, Jon was sleeping, and Sean was driving.” Back home, they arranged their lives to facilitate more and more of this, the habit of DIY bands. Jobs and living situations were unstable. “It’s all I ever wanted to do,” Pastir told me. “I had no other plan. I just wanted to play music.”

The diehards they always attracted were drug-blasted boys who didn’t have much to do but follow them from town to town, partying — not scene kids but lost souls looking for a place to put their desperation. On this score, Gospel delivered. “It was always wild,” Roseboom said, “falling through tables and, you know, drinking to the point of needing to go to the hospital.” The music, too, remained raw and physical. Its very ambience could incite havoc.

Gospel burns a Coors Light box in a backyard somewhere in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Gospel)

“We’ve been banned from the Owl House forever,” Pastir told me, cryptically. One summer, he explained, some boys on acid had been following Gospel around. They played a show in the basement dirt of a DIY house for maybe 20 kids. After the show, Pastir broke up a Coors Light box and used it to start a fire in the backyard. This was already making the residents of the Owl House nervous. Then one of the boys on acid emerged from around the corner, carrying a bone-dry, khaki-colored Christmas tree.

“I’m gonna throw this on the fire,” he slurred.

“No!” said everyone in cinematic slow motion. The tree erupted in instant, towering flames. All Gospel could do was laugh. The boys jumped through the fire and the roommates scrambled to fill buckets with water and douse it.

“You can never come back to the Owl House!” the owner of the Owl House told Gospel. Somehow, he blamed the whole thing on them. Still, he let them stay the night and fed them vegan chili.

Their music made them hard to deny. That thing that every musician wants to do — to inspire just one person — Gospel did many times over. But if it sounds like a lifestyle with an expiration date, be assured it was.

Gospel ended the way most DIY bands end: unceremoniously.

At their zenith, they toured with Converge. Whereas, just weeks earlier, they had been playing in near-empty garages and basements, now they were on proper stages in front of hundreds of people every night. They found a new audience and a touch of stability. “We had enough money where we could stay in a shitty hotel and actually sleep in a bed,” said Roseboom, “and, like, go to Cracker Barrel every day, which was fucking phenomenal to me cause it’s my favorite restaurant of all time.” In the Gospel of Gospel, Cracker Barrel was the promised land. But they couldn’t linger there.

The tour turned out to be their last. Miller and Dooling had a drunken fist fight on a lawn in Indiana after the final show. From behind the windows of the van, Roseboom and Pastir looked on blankly, neither inclined to intervene. Some long-repressed tension had been released.

They began ambitious projects to follow The Moon is a Dead World but never finished them. They squabbled over the direction of the music. Should there be singing or screaming? Should they venture further into the prog abyss? “The unwavering visions everyone had for the band really destroyed the band,” said Pastir. It was the end of a certain dream, one that pained me because my own dream had ended with a similar lack of ceremony.

One night, after both our bands had dissolved, I found myself drunk and crashing with Dooling at his apartment in Brooklyn. We didn’t talk about Gospel. Instead, I got the Dooling treatment. At his kitchen table, he played me songs on YouTube by the great Greek crooner Demis Roussos, whom I’d never heard. Dooling is generous that way with the things he likes.

I can’t remember whether this was before or after Dooling became a gardener. There’s a certain cosmic justice that his path has wound its way from the ragged brambles of Gospel to the order of the artificial landscape. There’s a similar poetry in Pastir’s attraction to industrial design. Miller and Roseboom, who had always been close, are brothers-in-law now. They married sisters and had kids and live three blocks from each other in Bellmore, a suburb on Long Island.

Maybe this all sounds elegiac. But that’s just how the life course changes, how subculture gets sublimated.

Did I mention that Gospel began to write an album-length song, “The Magic Volume of Dark Matter,” that they never recorded and you’ll never hear? Did I mention that they reunited in 2010 and an EP sits on a hard drive somewhere unfinished? Have you ever heard the gorgeous, chanted dirge that came of that reunion? These are only artifacts. Gospel was generous enough. If you love them, content yourself with The Moon is a Dead World. It offers plenty to move you.

A version of this article appeared as liner notes to the 2019 vinyl reissue, on Repeater Records, of The Moon is a Dead World.

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