4 minute read

OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — With a glitchy, purple-and-black aesthetic and quartet of dour, one-word song titles, you’d be forgiven for expecting Neon Cathedral’s debut EP ‘Velvet’ to be a brooding descent into darkwave depression.

You might be surprised to instead find a collection of deeply affecting and rousing tracks that would be as much at home in an arena as on a darkened Goth club stage.

Primarily a duet, Neon Cathedral began life as an outlet for the darker musical tendencies of Shirley Sanders and Shawn Stafford, both former members of buzzy, experimental indie-rock outfit Haniwa in OKC. When that group dissolved, the duo began slowly finding their legs and developing what would become Neon Cathedral. 

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Their shockingly lush and polished home recording eventually resulted in just one single, “Anniversary,” in early 2020, before the pandemic period forced them toward the inevitable stretch of quarantine recording that seemingly enveloped every home studio-equipped artist over this past year-and-a-half. 

Rather than commit to a full album’s worth of each and every flight of shutdown fancy, as we’ve seen with the majority of “Covid albums,” Sanders and Stafford sought to tighten and fine-tune their sound and focus on perfecting just these four tracks.

And perfect them they did.

It would be easy to reel off a list of shoegaze and darkwave acts that bear passing similarity to Neon Cathedral’s sound, but doing so would only give the impression that the songs on “Velvet” are defined by easy characterizations of Goth-pop synths and reverb-drenched guitar. Those elements are clearly here, but only to serve as bedrock for a remarkably rich wellspring of influences.

Yes, there is a lot of My Bloody Valentine floating around these songs (an obvious favorite, even named by Stafford directly,) but Sanders’ ethereal, floating vocals more easily recall another atmospheric 90’s underground mainstay: Mazzy Star. 

Similarly, there are plenty of nods to modern dream-poppers like Washed Out or The XX, but there is simultaneously a major resemblance to Danish art-pop/prog-rockers Mew in the band’s ability to navigate stadium-ready choruses and triumphant, epic singalongs inside of the dense production and experimentation. It’s not all just dark New Wave here. It’s so much more.

“We both listen to a lot of different music,” Stafford tells us. “I would say the main influence for the sound is a mixture of shoegaze, Goth rock, and darkwave type stuff. There are tons of bands I could list, but I’ll refrain from hitting you with the grocery list of moody reverb music.”

Since the 80’s heyday of the New Wave and Goth movements, bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, and possibly more than any other, The Cure, have seen countless imitators that have so clearly missed the mark of what made those bands connect with listeners. Neon Cathedral takes obvious inspiration from each of those three, arguably in perfectly equal measure, but they don’t focus on the clichéd or tired tropes associated with them. 

They aren’t just pulling dancefloor drum machines and catchy synth hooks from New Order, they’re pulling the Post-Punk urgency. From Depeche Mode, they aren’t appropriating the sneering detachment or church-bell drama, they’re focused instead on the dense, pitch-dark atmosphere and underlying loneliness. And when evoking The Cure, they don’t waste time imitating the pained vocal affectations or theatrical melancholy, instead zeroing in on the otherworldly layering, the “come with me” reassurance, and the absolutely perfect lead guitar melodies.

With these powers combined, Sanders and Stafford have crafted something that always nods to their influences without ever disappearing into the kind of pastiche or emulation too often seen from modern New Wave and Goth revivalists. 

According to Stafford, that’s because they have a much more simple and admirable goal in mind than mere imitation.

“It’s about creating an atmosphere in the music that evokes a feeling.”

The four songs on “Velvet” are lush, genuine, stirring, and over way too quickly. Here’s hoping that we get a full-length release sometime soon.

Neon Cathedral’s “Velvet EP” is available for pre-order right now on Bandcamp, and drops in full Friday, August 6th. The band will be performing a virtual set for Circle Lotus Media on YouTube Sunday, August 15th. Keep up with them on Instagram @Ne0ncathedral.