The founding fathers of American goth rock, Christian Death took a relentlessly confrontational stand against organized religion and conventional morality, with an appetite for provocation that made Marilyn Manson look like Stryper.
Regardless of who was leading or performing in the group, Christian Death set themselves up to shock, both in their cover art and their lyrics, which wallowed in blasphemy, morbidity, drug use, and sexual perversity. Their self-consciously controversial tactics set them apart from the British goth scene, having more to do with L.A. punk and heavy metal, and thus the band dubbed its sound "death rock" instead; however, their sensibility was ultimately similar enough that the "goth" designation stuck in the end. Their music also relied on slow, doomy, effects-laden guitar riffs and ambient horror-soundtrack synths, and their theatrical performances were strongly influenced by British glam rockers like David Bowie and Roxy Music, as well as industrial provocateurs Throbbing Gristle. The latter was especially true of the band's first incarnation, led by vocalist and founder Rozz Williams, who masterminded much of what many critics consider their best work. When Williams left in 1985, guitarist Valor Kand took over leadership and sent the group in a more intellectual, political, and metal-oriented direction. A subsequent dispute over ownership of the Christian Death name led to a bitter feud between the two, not to mention competing versions of the group, leading many of their fans to take sides. The unconverted tended to dismiss Christian Death no matter who was involved; critics often found their poetry florid and overwrought, their subject matter self-important, and their shock tactics ham-handed. Nevertheless, Christian Death had an enormous influence on the American goth scene, shaping the sensibility of countless goth, metal, and even industrial acts that followed. Sadly, the Kand-Williams dispute ended in tragedy in 1998, when a heroin-addicted Williams took his own life.
Rozz Williams (born Roger Alan Painter, November 6, 1963) founded Christian Death in Los Angeles in 1979, having grown up in the eastern suburb of Pomona in a Christian family. Originally, the 16-year-old Williams called his group the Upsetters, which also included guitarist Jay, bassist James McGearty, and drummer George Belanger. The band didn't really take off until it changed its name to Christian Death (reportedly inspired by a goof on designer Christian Dior's name) and added onetime Adolescents guitarist Rikk Agnew. In 1981, they made their recorded debut with several tracks on the L.A. scene compilation Hell Comes to Your House, which also featured the more tongue-in-cheek death rock compatriots .45 Grave. Hooking up with Frontier Records, Christian Death issued their debut album, the goth landmark Only Theatre of Pain, in 1982. Featuring genre touchstones like "Romeo's Distress" and "Spiritual Cramp," the record also included guest vocals from Superheroines leader Eva O. (born Eva Oritz), who would become Williams' wife and semiregular collaborator in 1987.
Having already booked a European tour, the original lineup of Christian Death splintered amid infighting and drug abuse. Williams quickly assembled a new version of the band in 1983 by merging with their scheduled opening act, another L.A. death rock band called Pompeii 99, and eventually settled on retaining the more evocative Christian Death name. Australian-born guitarist Valor Kand, keyboardist/vocalist Gitane Demone, and drummer David Glass joined with Williams to create the best-known Christian Death lineup (bassist Constance Smith was also onboard, but was soon replaced on the tour by the Sex Gang Children's Dave Roberts). While overseas, the group recorded the second Christian Death album, Catastrophe Ballet, another much-revered goth rock record that appeared on the French label L'Invitation au Suicide in 1984. Returning to the U.S., the band formed its own label, Nostradamus, and the Valor/Rozz lineup issued its second album together, Ashes, in 1985, once again to an enthusiastic reception from goth fans. A live album, The Decomposition of Violets, was culled from the supporting tour (with second guitarist Barry Galvin now in tow) and released by ROIR.
By this time, Christian Death were drawing predictable fire from religious groups in the U.S. over their lyrics, artwork, and concert performances, and were finding it easier to mount tours for their growing European fan base. In mid-1985, Rozz Williams left the band he'd founded, partly due to his increasing interest in experimental music and surrealist performance art. Valor Kand took over leadership of Christian Death, now serving as lead vocalist and songwriter. Reportedly, Kand and Williams had agreed to rename the existing band Sin and Sacrifice; however, on the ensuing tour of Italy, fans assumed they were still watching Christian Death. Defrauded and left penniless by the tour promoter, the band recorded a quick EP for the Italian label Supporti Fonografici called The Wind Kissed Pictures, which was credited to the Sin and Sacrifice of Christian Death in order for fans to know whom they were buying. The band raised enough money to return to England, which they made their permanent base; meanwhile, The Wind Kissed Pictures was issued in the English-speaking world under the Christian Death name, as once again few people comprehended the change. Williams, meanwhile, all but dropped out of sight for several years, eventually resurfacing in side ventures like Premature Ejaculation, Heltir, and Shadow Project (the latter with his wife Eva O.).
Now settled in England, Christian Death added bassist Johann Schumann and returned to the Welsh studio where they'd cut Catastrophe Ballet. Their first post-Williams effort was 1986's Atrocities, a concept album about the aftereffects of World War II on the European psyche. Their next project was Jesus Christ Proudly Presents Christian Death, a box set of concert EPs from 1986 and early 1987. The proper follow-up to Atrocities was even more conceptually ambitious; 1987's The Scriptures was Kand's musical treatise on comparative religion, and surrounded him with a revamped lineup of Demone, Glass, guitarist James Beam, and bassist Kota. The Scriptures marked the beginning of Christian Death's evolution into a mouthpiece for Kand's one-man crusade against political corruption and organized religion (the Catholic Church in particular). His liner notes explained his elaborate intellectual concepts in painstaking detail, and he increasingly used interviews as a platform to launch vitriolic attacks on his favorite targets.
Longtime drummer David Glass left the group following the release of The Scriptures, and returned to California, where he eventually worked with several of Rozz Williams' side projects. That whittled Christian Death down to a quartet for the 1988 single "Church of No Return," one of their more accessible efforts. Despite the group's more intellectual bent, they weren't above resorting to the calculated offensiveness of old; the cover of their 1988 LP Sex and Drugs and Jesus Christ depicted Jesus shooting heroin. The ensuing furor helped make the album the group's biggest seller; it also saw them evolving into a more basic, straightforward goth metal band. In 1989, with new second guitarist Nick the Bastard onboard, the group issued the concert document The Heretics Alive. Gitane Demone subsequently left the band, not to mention her longtime lover Valor Kand, citing dissatisfaction with his new direction; she relocated to Amsterdam and pursued a jazz singing career.
With Demone's departure, the always unstable Christian Death lineup splintered completely, leaving Kand essentially a solo auteur despite continued instrumental assistance from Nick the Bastard. In 1989, Kand completed another far-reaching concept opus, All the Love All the Hate, which was released in two separate full-length LP installments that covered "love" and "hate" themes respectively. The latter featured one of the band's more notorious latter-day cuts in "I Hate You," a profane tirade by Valor and Demone's five-year-old son Sevan Kand; its artwork also utilized Nazi imagery to a somewhat ill-defined end. Nick the Bastard subsequently departed, and bereft of any backup, Kand turned his attention to archival material; 1990 saw the release of the demos/outtakes compilation Insanus, Ultio, Proditio, Misericordiaque, and 1992 brought the Valor Kand-era singles retrospective Jesus Points the Bone at You?
Meanwhile, a penniless Rozz Williams had resurrected his own version of Christian Death during the late '80s, with his wife Eva O. contributing guitar as well as the band's signature female vocals. Billing themselves as the original Christian Death, they were rejoined by first-album guitarist Rikk Agnew for a 1989 tour of Canada. Despite the dubious legality of Williams' use of the Christian Death name, his efforts attracted the interest of the goth-oriented Cleopatra Records label. In 1992, with Valor's version of the band in recording hibernation, Williams issued The Iron Mask as Christian Death, its title a pointed reference to the Alexandre Dumas novel about a usurper who imprisons the rightful heir to the throne. He and Eva O. were joined by bassist Listo and drummer David Melford, and most of the repertoire dated from Williams' first three albums with the original band. The similarly conceived Skeleton Kiss EP appeared on its heels. An all-new studio effort, The Path of Sorrows, followed in 1993, with a new lineup behind Williams and O.: keyboardist Paris, multi-instrumentalist William Faith, and drummer Stevyn Grey. In June that year, Williams re-formed most of the early Christian Death lineup -- bringing back Rikk Agnew (once again) and George Belanger, with support from guitarist Frank Agnew and bassist Casey Chaos -- for a one-off show in Los Angeles. The result was released in 1994 by Triple X as the live album Iconologia.
Williams' reclamation of the Christian Death name sparked a fierce court battle with Valor Kand, who eventually won trademark rights and forced Williams to bill his version of the band as "Christian Death Featuring Rozz Williams." In part to keep his rival from stealing his thunder, Kand assembled a new Christian Death of his own, centered around himself and new wife Maitri on bass and vocals. He returned with 1994's Sexy Death God, which many longtime fans greeted as his best and tightest effort in quite some time. Confusingly, Williams' Christian Death also issued a new album that year, The Rage of Angels, which found its leader dabbling in spoken word at times. A steady stream of archival reissues -- live material, outtakes, remixes, etc. -- from throughout the band's history also began to appear on Cleopatra.
Adding guitarist Flick and drummer Steve Wright, Valor's Christian Death picked up their recording pace, offering the double live set Amen in 1995, and returning to the ambitious concept works of old with 1996's Nostradamus-themed Prophecies. As it turned out, Williams' version would not release another full album of original material. He pursued several other projects, including a duo album with Gitane Demone (1995's Dream Home Heartache) and a spoken word examination of his heroin addiction (1996's The Whorse's Mouth). That addiction would help claim his life on April 1, 1998, when the 34-year-old Williams hanged himself in his West Hollywood apartment. He was mourned by a still-devoted cult of fans, and even Valor Kand put aside his previous animosity to dedicate that year's Pornographic Messiah album to Williams, going so far as to draw from some of Williams' more experimental influences.
Kand's Christian Death soldiered on, issuing the two-disc singles/outtakes compilation The Bible in 1999. In 2000, they added drummer Will "Was" Sarginson (ex-Cradle of Filth and Blood Divine) and toured Europe alongside Britain's Cradle of Filth, one of the more popular black metal bands of their time. The two groups got along well enough for several Cradle members to guest on Christian Death's 2001 album Born Again Anti Christian, helping it become one of the most metallic records in their catalog. The following year, bassist Maitri issued the black metal-influenced solo album Lover of Sin (confusingly labeled on the cover as "Christian Death Presents..."). In 2003, Cradle of Filth guitarist Gian Pyres officially joined Christian Death for their European tour.
Following a four-year silent period, Christian Death returned in 2007 with a new drummer (Nate Hassan) and the politically minded American Inquisition, released by metal label Season of Mist. The group spent the following year performing extensively, completing four European tours and one American tour by the year's end. In 2009, Season of Mist reissued ten Christian Death albums and the band continued touring. Cleopatra compiled much of Rozz Williams' '90s incarnation of Christian Death onto a five-CD/one-DVD box set titled Death Box in 2012. The following year, Knife Fight Media initiated a digital reissue campaign of the Christian Death back catalog, which continued in 2014. The group also spent the year celebrating the 30th anniversary of Catastrophe Ballet by touring throughout Europe as well as North, Central, and South America. Christian Death began 2015 by announcing that they would be recording a new album with the support of their fans. After a successful crowd-sourced campaign, The Root of All Evilution was released digitally by Knife Fight Media, on vinyl by Season of Mist, and on CD by The End. The group embarked on another lengthy European tour, with plans to tour the United States in 2016. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi