The word “alternative” gets bandied around a lot in the music world. It’s used to describe all kinds of guitar based music – even stuff that’s found its way into the mainstream long ago – but there are still plenty of genuinely alternative bands out there. It would be hard to consider the dark moods of Decommissioned Forests, or the strange jazz meets metal noise of Kilter as anything but. Tulipomania are another act who’ve wilfully taken their own musical path within a truly alternative niche, rarely concerned about commercial success.
Their 2016 album, ‘This Guilded Age’ – released in a pre-pandemic era to a truly cult audience – mixed the post punk sounds of Gang of Four with the electronic drones of Krautrock; fused the dark moods of Suicide with occasional soundtrack-like indulgences, and took in more besides. Somehow, though, despite occasionally sounding like all of those things, it ultimately sounded like none of them. It showed the Philadelphia based duo carving out their own space within an alternative landscape, with often interesting results. Subsequent releases showed an equal desire to be arty within a part post-punk, part goth, very alternative landscape, destined to reach the most cult of audiences.
Their 2023 album ‘Dreaming of Sleep’ is even more interesting. It sometimes presents a more mature sound. It definitely presents a very different sound. A huge part of this comes from a decision to dispense with guitars on all but one track, but the change can also be felt within the material’s much moodier tone. There are elements here that call back to older musical experiments – namely a very natural vocal and a few heavy rhythms – but the bulk of the album finds Cheryl Gelover (keys/vocals) and Tom Murray (pretty much everything else) pushing forward, often with challenging results, in the best possible way.
The record kicks off with one of the more accessible tracks, but something that still manages to be one of the duo’s most obtuse pieces to date. ‘You Had To Be There’ works a strange rhythm that sounds like a tango placed through an industrial filter. Heavy beats underscore a cold array of synths alternating between deep drones and piercing stabs, only daring to drop into a more palatable melody for the chorus hook. When that eventually appears, things take far more of a darkwave shift, but in keeping with past Tulipomania recordings, there’s a brilliantly moody 80s heart coming through in waves. Falling somewhere between one of the less accessible tunes from Nine Inch Nails’ early years remixed by Martin Rev, this introduces the band’s “new” electronica heavy sound in great style – guaranteed to please the more adventurous fan, but have those who only love easily digested melodies running for the hills. It’s a huge shift from some of the band’s earlier tracks, but barely scratches the surface in terms of ‘Dreaming of Sleep’s general strangeness.
Even moodier, ‘From D.C. To Daylight’ takes the guts of classic Tubeway Army and pulls them mercilessly across a slow slab of synth drone. It’s ugly, but at the same time, strangely captivating. Cheryl’s keyboard work takes a slow and measured approach to disjointed melodies, filling space between each oppressive beat, whilst Tom’s voice borders on the theatrical, whispering syllables between wailed sounds. This is never big on an easy melody, but in order to work, it never has to be. In bringing classic synth goth and 80s new wave into the twenty first century with a heavy vibe, it’s perfect. Twisted, yes; even ugly, but perfect. Stoking up the beats, ‘Fading Away’ shares a hard edged beat against wavering keys, quickly sharing the kind of cold, wobbly melody that could induce a queasy feeling. It’s a really difficult listen, and yet, between the cold neo-goth and synth heavy sounds, there’s something great emerging. The way the mechanical arrangement cuts against a crying vocal is brilliant, and any hints of older material from Bauhaus, strange Cure b-sides and a love of Suicide (again) are more than welcome.
Via a big, retro sounding keyboard riff, ‘And Then’ at first pretends its going to explore some 80s synth goth brilliance, but then takes a dramatic detour into something much spikier when a drum part clatters against any melody, shifting towards really angry post-punk. The music seems to take more of a dominant role than any lyrical or vocal hooks, and to reinforce the strange qualities, the music eventually falls away completely to unveil a world of siren noises and jarring elements, before beginning the sequence again. In time, this actually becomes one of the record’s more interesting tunes, since Tom’s lengthier vocal notes eventually start to become more distinctive, but it’s fair to say, the end results are an acquired taste.
If those tracks felt in any way confrontational or impenetrable, they’re easy going compared to ‘Blank-Gone It’s Gone’, a clanking workout that sounds like a twisted tribute to Suicide crossed with the experimentation of an older synth band like BEF. There isn’t anything remotely approaching an accessible hook here, but the contrast of cinematic synths and industrial rhythms really brings out the best in the band’s newly found darkness. It feels musically distant from earlier Tulipomania songs like ‘So What Are You Looking At?’ and ‘Shape Me Up’ in the best possible way, and on its own merits, presents the very best in angry art rock.
‘Shines On’ is a touch more commercial. The number works an indie-ish beat via a loud gated snare, in a throwback to the late 80s and early 90s, but as always, anything familiar is given a massive twist. In this case, the beats are slowed to an ominous mid tempo, which allows blankets of synth to cut through, whether presenting a soundtrack inspired drone or more high toned noise. Tom’s there in the front, delivering a quietly disquieting vocal, rarely rising beyond a hushed spoken tone, but his understated approach is perfect for the piece. In terms of mood, if you imagine Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’ mangled by Fields of The Nephelim, you might have half an idea of what this actually sounds like…but you still would only be halfway there. Arty as it may be, it’s still a bit more palatable than most of the album; thanks to an actual chorus hook, it’s a definite highlight. Likewise, the droning alt-pop of ‘Do You Remember?’ is definitely more accessible since it applies a relatively big vocal hook to a musical canvas that sounds like a strange interlude from a latter day Gary Numan LP. In terms of synth goth noise, it’s got a very familiar feel, and the marriage of Tom’s wavering voice and Cheryl’s faint cry really accentuates any oddness that lurks beneath the surface. For first time listeners, checking out this pair of tunes first is advised; if these hold any enjoyment, the rest of the album can then be explored with a greater understanding of the duo’s (un)musical intents.
Almost as if to give those who’ve put in the hard yards an easier reward, the closing number ‘Time Will Tell’ plays more like a throwback to earlier Tulipomania sounds. Armed with a solid indie/goth melody, the track takes a rhythm and keyboard sound inspired by The Cure circa ‘Disintegration’ and weaves that into a slow, harmony driven song that shares a strange beauty, as well as delivering a final blast of dour retro synth-pop. By using the album’s title as its main refrain, it not only feels like a very important part of a bigger picture rather than something different tacked on the end, but also gives ‘Dreaming of Sleep’ a hauntingly beautiful coda that truly pays off the listeners’ efforts elsewhere.
Even those who’ve previously understood Tulipomania might still be challenged by the bulk of this especially bold release, but once attuned, it offers yet another reason to love their arty souls. And for those who didn’t get the band previously, this is the kind of record that ensures they…likely never will. ‘Dreaming of Sleep’ is a hundred times more marginal than even some of the band’s earlier works, and often deeply entrenched in the strange, but it’s a genuine thrill to experience musicians whom obviously don’t believe in cranking out the same music time after time, or playing safely. This probably should be approached with a cautious ear and an open mind, but if you can find a way in, ‘Dreaming of Sleep’ is actually a richly rewarding work that makes the listener think, as well as offering a post-apocalyptic soundtrack.