When You Don't See Me
I Was Wrong
An album that found goth icons The Sisters Of Mercy adding a surprising amount of sparkle to their sound, 1990's Vision Thing was an album born of personnel change, as guitarist John Perry turned down the chance to become a full-time band member – to be replaced by the unknown Andreas Bruhn – and bassist Patricia Morrison found herself usurped by former Generation X man Tony James. A second guitarist, Tim Bricheno, was added before the album as finished.
The results of all this toing an froing was a surprisingly cohesive album, one whose undeniable rock edge may have come as a surprise to those only familiar with the band's spooky, defiantly underproduced early singles. Most polished of all was the epic More, an extravagant folly with swirling strings and a near-gospel chorus, co-written with Jim Steinman.
"There are some incredibly metal parts to Vision Thing," Paradise Lost guitarist Gregor Mackintosh told Metal Hanmer. "Eldritch might never admit it – he hated the word goth and getting lumped in with it – but you don’t get more gothic than The Sisters Of Mercy. I think he got into a lot of showy metal coming from LA and the Sisters aspired to do some of that.
"It steered the ship into uncharted waters, but it also brought people together as a lot of metal fans and goth fans can see eye-to-eye because of albums like Vision Thing."
"I’m very fond of that album," said Eldritch. "I know it’s a bit 2D, but I wanted to make a 2D rock record. I wanted something that chuntered happily along, and that was very flatly in your face. Floodland has got an awful lot of murky depths, and that’s fine, but I wanted much less of the murk on Vision Thing. There’s not even any reverb on the voice – it’s just me double-tracking myself. At the time everybody said, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to be Def Leppard – and you’re not doing it very well.’"
In the 33 years since its release, The Sister Of Mercy have not made another album.
Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute.
Other albums released in October 1990
- Wrong Way Up - Brian Eno and John Cale
- Enlightenment - Van Morrison
- Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band - Ringo Starr
- Change of Season - Hall & Oates
- Chronicles - Rush
- Edge of the Century - Styx
- Girls, Girls, Girls - Elvis Costello
- The Greatest Hits, So Far - Public Image Ltd.
- Seasons in the Abyss - Slayer
- Souls of Black - Testament
- Hindu Love Gods - Hindu Love Gods
- Hold Me Up - Goo Goo Dolls
- Recycler - ZZ Top
- Up from the Ashes - Don Dokken
- Faith Hope Love - King's X
- Slaves & Masters - Deep Purple
- Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 - Traveling Wilburys
- Heart Still Beating - Roxy Music
- Raygun... Naked Raygun - Naked Raygun
- No Prayer For The Dying - Iron Maiden
What they said...
"On Doctor Jeep and Detonation Boulevard, the lack of variation becomes quickly annoying, however, and Something Fast fails entirely in its efforts to be introspective and wistful. The Jim Steinman-produced More and the clever I Was Wrong are the album's highlights, but it's a shame the rest of the album is so patchy. (AllMusic)
"Did this record deserve the scorn and derision it received at the time? Nope. But as metal was such a hot commodity then it was unfortunately grouped in with the meatheads who dominated the airwaves with their teased hair and saucy eyeliner. Debates carry on as to the true meanings of the lyrics on this one, god knows there’s little else left to discuss." (Smells Like Infinite Sadness)
"Very much a contradiction in terms as an album. Half soft-metal anthems, half soulful anti-love songs. Biting political commentary one moment, lashings of self-recrimination the next. Eldritch keeping the world under a scathing microscope, then drawing it close for heartfelt confessions. A calculated move on the US music market, or a duplicitous attempt to lure MTV in and then destroy them?" (The Blogging Goth)
What you said...
Chris Downie: Depending on your standpoint, 1990's Vision Thing is the album where the enigmatic goth-rock legends either jumped the shark, or successfully updated the rockier sound of their early works, after the ambient and often borderline impenetrable detour of its predecessor, the atmospheric masterpiece Floodland.
Those residing in the former camp cite the Americanised sound and lyrics ("lookin' for the can in the candy store", anyone?!) and suggest a blatant attempt at commercialisation, while the latter will point towards the impressively catchy riffing of the title track, or the uptempo synth-rock of Doctor Jeep.
For this writer, the truth resides in the grey area in between; while not as groundbreaking, or indeed as consistently strong, as the aforementioned Floodland or the more traditional goth-rock of their First And Last And Always (the latter more reminiscent of early The Cult and The Mission) there is much to like about Vision Thing. Sadly, we can only ponder what may have been, if not for their self-imposed boycott of releasing further studio LPs, particularly in light of some impressive material that has been showcased on several of their sporadic reunion tours since. 7/10.
Steve Pereira: Dark clothes. Dark eyeliner. Dark lips. Dark thoughts. And dark music. That's goth. A scene as much as a music genre. The music style ranged from synth-pop, though post-punk to heavy metal and industrial metal, but tended to be dark and brooding and atmospheric.
Though there are antecedents to the, predominantly 80s, goth music movement, such as Nico, The Doors, and Leonard Cohen, the movement essentially began as a development out of the post-punk scene in the late 70s through acts such Siouxsie and the Banshees with their 1978 album The Scream, and Joy Division with their 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, then in 1980 The Psychedelic Furs, Bauhaus, and Killing Joke with their albums The Psychedelic Furs, In The Flat Field, and Killing Joke, expanded the field of goth, with The Cure becoming the leading act with their 1982 album Pornography.
Sisters of Mercy added a rock element to goth in 1984 with their first album, First And Last And Always, though the drum machine and synth sounds also associated the band with the 80s synth-pop genre. Other bands picked up on the goth rock sound, such as The Cult and The Mission (who were made up of musicians from Sisters of Mercy). I particularly remember The Cult both because I loved their second album, 1985's Love, but also because I was an insurance agent for Prudential at the time, and one of my customers was a rock photographer who was very excited about the band, and followed them on their world tour. I insured his equipment.
Sisters of Mercy was formed by Andrew Eldritch in Leeds in 1980, and Eldritch has remained the only constant - him and his drum machine, Doktor Avalanche. Though many consider the band's debut. 1985's First And Last And Always, as the band's most significant album because of the rock element, it is their second album, 1987's Floodland, with less of a rock sound, though retaining a combination of goth and synth-pop, that is generally most liked and most respected.
The band's third album, the subject of this week's Classic Rock Album of The Week, Vision Thing, is a return to the rock sound of the band's debut album, though tending to be heavier, harsher, more uncompromising, yet simultaneously aiming for (though perhaps not quite making it) a more commercial sound. Eldritch had used Jim Steinman (of Bat Out Of Hell and Faster Than The Speed Of Light fame) successfully on two tracks on Floodland, and used him again on this album for one track, More, which is generally considered to be the best track on the album.
When this album was announced as the Classic Rock Album of The Week I was a little surprised. While Sisters of Mercy have a fairly prominent association with goth music, particularly the rockier end of the spectrum, they are not generally considered one of the prime or more interesting acts - that would be the Banshees, the Cure, and Bauhaus. And of the three albums they released, pretty much everyone would regard Vision Thing as the least of them. I'm pretty sure I'd not heard the album, though I'd probably heard the singles More and Jeep, both shorter, less demanding versions of the album tracks. More has elements of Billy Idol's 1983 Rebel Yell, so I might not have paid it much attention.
On playing the album, my first instinct was to skip the whole thing, and not do a review. I found it harsh, repetitive, sometimes derivative, and generally lacking in appeal. The drum machine in particular I found very off-putting. The more interesting bits I tended to link to other artists, and dismissed the album as being not genuinely creative, relying too much on the creative work of others. But, I persevered. I played the album as I did other things - not really focusing on it, or looking at the lyrics, just letting myself become familiar with it. I couldn't quite shake off echoes of Depeche Mode, Billy Idol, Tom Waits, The Cult, etc, but by the end of the week I had become more accepting of its sound and approach, and was ready to listen more seriously.
There is a power and a drive to the opening title track, Vision Thing, and while its straight ahead simplicity (I almost wrote stupidity) is irritating, it can also be compelling. Thudding drum machine, repeated guitar riffs, and a snarling lyric which hovers around authority, power, money, and has an engaging chorus of "Another motherfucker in a motorcade". Yeah, it's crude, simple, and somehow manages to be annoying and boring at the same time, but it's also melodically punk. Not a great track, but there's something about it that attracts interest.
The next track Ribbons is initially too closed in to have much appeal, and the lyrics are mostly odd rather than interesting, but toward the end there is a repeated shout of "Incoming", which is suggestive of the song being about a war situation blended with a love song, which makes me reflect back on "Flowers on the razor wire", "She looked good in ribbons", "Love is a many splintered thing", which makes for some disturbing imagery.
The album continues with songs that could almost be good, lyrics that have potential but are never quite realised, until we get to the two main tracks, the intensely irritating Jeep which is just too self-indulgent to crack open, but somehow gets inside your head. It's one of the most attention-seeking tracks on the album, along with Vision Thing and More. It's quite draining. It's a track that borders on hallucinatory - you can see it as part of a soundtrack to a scene in a film where characters are wasted - either through exhaustion, fear, or drugs (or a mix of everything) and are unable to find a way out. It's a track that sucks you in and doesn't want to let you go.
More is the most accomplished, ambitious, and structured track on the album. The first thing to note is that the drum machine is more sparingly used, which immediately gives relief. But ultimately it doesn't go anywhere, and pushes the listener away rather than engaging, especially when the drum machine is allowed to get into its monotonous groove. The album finishes with an almost pop song, which is initially a pleasant surprise after all the industrial noise, but the album's negative simplistic goth themes win over the potential lightness and melody of the music.
The album ended up being somehow more attractive, more interesting, and more compelling than I had first thought it would be. But it's still a trivial, rough album which feels unfinished and uncared for. I suppose, ultimately, part of the charm is that the album is such a rough and unloved diamond (or should that be rhinestone), and it feels like that is what Eldritch contrarily wanted it to be. It's almost a sort of "Fuck you and fuck off" album from a somewhat grumpy and troubled individual. Score 4/10.
Chris Elliott: I was for a long time borderline obsessed with the Sisters of Mercy. This album at the time was a slight disappointment - a little too mainstream - but then Floodland was for it's time a defining album of the period for me and their pre major singles the height of indie cool - so it came with unrealistic expectations. In hindsight it's definitely their most accessible album and has aged better than their other albums - certainly in terms of production. Don't misunderstand it was and remains a great album as fixed on my playlists now as 30 odd years ago.
Eldritch was always dismissive of the goth label and this was his defiantly rock'n' roll record although keeping the thunderous drum machine bass synth and lyrics of the past - but putting two guitars front and centre which was a major change from Floodland. Not a solo to be found - just a great rumbling pre-industrial beat and riffs on repeat - and the lyrics just stick on your head on repeat. Jim Steinman co-produces one track - almost subtle for Jim Steinman - not quite hitting the peaks of This Corrosion / Dominion - but it's an interesting tweak to the mix.
It just hits you from the first moment and doesn't let up. Vision Thing, Ribbons, Dr Jeep, More, Detonation Boulevard I'm still word-perfect on (the dog looked pained during today's walk). There's even what passes for a ballad.
Eldritch followed Vision Thing with a 30+ year sulk - the danger of spending time in Leeds is stubborn bloody mindedness sets in - and bar one new track and one reworked track (to promote compilations) he's refused to record again. Leaves a nearly flawless legacy mind - assuming you ignore The Sisterhood (rushed spoiler album to stop Wayne Hussey using The Sisterhood,) and the truly awful SSV album (it's actually post-Vision Thing - an intentionally awful mess to get out of his record contract).
This album however gets played regularly enough to this day and remains a favourite - and leads directly to KMFDM and Rammstein.
Gary Claydon: Andrew Eldritch - a man who goes through bandmates at a rate that would make Ritchie Blackmore do a double take. Let's face it, nobody was gonna hang around as a member of Sisters of Mercy long enough to qualify for a gold watch. Unless they were a drum machine, in which case it was a job for life. And just as Blackmore was (is?) Rainbow, then so Eldritch is Sisters of Mercy.
My own interest in goth was sparked mainly, as part of those wild, heady days of the late 70s & early 80s when the energy, experimentation and diversity made it, arguably, the most interesting period in U.K. music history. The post-punk scene spawned what would become known as Goth. Joy Division, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Killing Joke, Bauhaus (the first, true 'goth' band, to my mind), on through the likes of The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Danse Society, Cocteau Twins plus all the other usual suspects. For me, though, it was The Sisters of Mercy who were the first band to really add the 'rock' to the 'goth', in part by bringing a sense of sheer bombast to the mix.
Vision Thing has always been overshadowed by the two albums that preceded it in The Sisters of Mercy's body of work. With good reason. Put simply, it's not as good as the other two. Which doesn't make it a bad album. It certainly has it's moments. The monstrous More, with it's 'Depeche Mode meets Billy Idol' vibe and suitably overblown Steinman production, is the highlight. It burrows inside you, pulling and prodding, defying you not to groove along to it's pulsating, irresistible riff. It does suffer from a familiar Eldritch failing, though, that of not knowing when to bring a song to a halt.
The title track and Doctor Jeep are also fine efforts with their scathing political commentary. However, there is a feeling of 'sameness' about the pacing of Vision Thing, the sequencing can become a bit monotonous. Throw in some slightly patchy songwriting and you have the reasons why it doesn't reach the heights of Floodland or First And Last And Always ( plus, personally, I still think Temple Of Love is the best thing they ever did!).
One last thing, I've always loved the way Eldritch uses female backing vocals and Vision Thing is no exception, especially as it has Maggie Reilly contributing. Very cool. A solid 7/10.
Iain Macaulay: 'Oh god, no!' was the thought that went through my head when I saw the notification for this weeks album. Of all the Sisters material, why Vision Thing? Noooo!!!
I love the Sisters. First And Last And Always is one of a small number of albums in my collection I have played consistently since I got it in 1985, and I still do. I still have all the old 7’’ and 12’’ singles from Alice through to Lucretia… including a bootleg of The Damage Done (Body Electric is just too hard to find and too expensive when you do.) They are all fantastic songs produced on a shoestring budget and they exude so much class and atmosphere and have inspired a vast amount of musicians to play their music in a different way.
I still have all the early old Cult, (including Southern and Death), Mission, All About Eve, Fields Of The Nephilim singles too. Amongst many other ‘goth’ bands of the day. However, I stopped collecting the Sisters singles when I heard More, and only bought this album for the sake of completion. And have not felt any great need to listen to it very often since then.
I’m sorry, but It’s just not that great. It’s nowhere near as good as the two albums that proceed it, or even the Sisterhood album. Giving Ground, now there’s a song, even if Eldritch doesn’t sing on it. Or to be frank, any of the new material they play live currently that has ‘so far’ yet to be recorded. The lyrics to Vision Thing as a whole are good, as always, but most of the music is so uninspired and bland rock with riffs that are far too simple compared to those on the previous albums. Under the gun is one the best tracks from that era and it’s not even on the album.
Ribbons, Something Fast, When You Don’t See Me, More, I Was Wrong, I can live with them. The rest just sound unfinished to me, and to be fair, they probably are. When you read what Patricia Morrison and Tony James have to say about the recording process and how bad it was, and about how half the album was rushed together from previous unfinished mixes to complete it on time, it makes sense. Mind you, I’m sure it’s kept old Von in Marlboro cigarettes and trips to Berlin up to this very day so he won’t mind. Laughing all the way to crypt. Having said all that, I’m still going to see them in November though, and The Mission in October. It’s going to be an old Gothic winter.
Neil Wilson: Definitely has some good songs, my favourite Sisters Of Mercy album!
Richard Slee: Their best album - very heavy!
Mark Fletcher: Great album, wish the Sisters would get back in the studio, amazing live too!
Pete Delgado: This album is one of my favourite 90s releases.
Tony Bickerdike: Love this album. The driving rhythm of Dr Jeep is superb, unbeatable and I hope they play it in concert later this year.
Dave Hinsley: Oh yes! Three stone-cold classics on here! More, Vision Thing, and Detonation Boulevard!
Mark Herrington: The overall feel on Vision Thing is a successful fusion of goth and hard driving rock. Much more ‘Cult’ than ‘Cure’, Andrew Eldritch benefiting from Jim Steinman collaborating on production, refining the Sisters' darkness into something slightly more appealing to the masses.
On the whole, a less serious Mad Max world-inspired sound than the Sisters' darker, brooding, previous output. You can just picture Mel Gibson driving off laughing into the Wasteland, pursued by mutant hordes to the background of Doctor Jeep. But that’s the point - its driving, relentless, less serious tone sits just as well alongside the bands Dystopian imagery. Nothing like, say, The Cure’s Pornography, but on the same spectrum.
The album has some awesome , pounding tracks , high on energy and caustic lyrics: Vision Thing, Doctor Jeep, More and Detonation Boulevard that are the spine of the whole thing. Doktor Avalanche, the band’s legendary drum machine, working overtime. Scattered throughout though are slower, more brooding songs more akin to earlier releases: Ribbons, Something Fast and I was Wrong, which musically pause for breath, preparing you for the next headlong dash into the apocalyptic Wasteland.
Great fun - a great album
Adam Ranger: The third best Sisters' album. First And Last And Always is the best Sisters' album. That is not to say Vision Thing is a bad record. It is a very good record. Tony James, Andres Bruhn and Tim Bricheno combine very well with Doktor Avalanche and of course Andrew Eldritch.
The album is very well-produced and the songs like the title track, More and Detontion Boulevard certainly make an impact, building on the sound of This Corrosion from the previous album Floodland.
For me though, great as these tracks are, I prefer the songs that nod towards the earlier Sisters; sound. I Was Wrong and When You Don't See Me are my favourites, followed by Something Fast and Ribbons.
Still play the album. I saw the Sisters on this tour and it was perhaps the last time they sounded consistently good. Have seen them since and they are very hit and miss. A solid album.
John Davidson: In the period 1988 to 1991 I listened to a lot of Fields of the Nephilim, Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, The Cult and All About Eve - so this album is directly in my wheelhouse.
While Vision Thing doesn't quite have the same icy charm as Floodland, it is still a solid slab of pre-industrial gothic rock.
The stand-out track is More but there's not really a weak song on the album.
If I have a criticism it's that the drum machine sound and relentless propulsive beats can get a bit monotonous at times (Doctor Jeep for example seems to last longer than its 4:41 would suggest and closer I Was Wrong would be even better with less of the drum machine slap and a more organic / acoustic sound.
As an aside , Tim Bricheno left hippy/goth rockers All About Eve to play guitar on this album and inspired Julianne Reagan (his former song-writing partner) to write some of her most interesting songs. Check out Strange Way and Goodbye Mr Sorrow from "Touched By The Hand Of Jesus. Definitely the lyrics of a woman scorned.!
Mike Canoe: I came into this album cold in Jan. '91, never having heard of their album Floodland or anything about even the Sisters of Mercy themselves. But when I heard More blasting over the sound system at a Tower Records, I thought to myself, "Yeah, I need to have that."
Fortunately, the whole album is pretty great. I would pitch Vision Thing somewhere between Depeche Mode with power chords and a less purposefully ugly Ministry. It's full of fast, chugging rhythms great for dancing or driving, although I advise saving it for the open highway if doing both at the same time.
In the pre-internet days, I just assumed Doktor Avalanche was a human drummer with a nom de plume like Thunderstick or Rat Scabies. Honestly, it wasn't until many years later that I started to realise how prevalent drum machines were in the 80s and 90s. Ultimately, the synthetic beats pair well with the massive guitar sound and atmospheric keyboards.
It also took me a while to realise that the Sisters of Mercy are basically Andrew Eldritch and whoever he wanted to work with at the time. The only other consistent "band member" is the aforementioned drum machine, Doktor Avalanche. Eldritch does a great job of gathering the right people to get the sound he wants, even if the "people" are sometimes drum machines and sequencers. In the Wikipedia entry from the album, bassist Tony James is quoted as saying it took about "20 minutes" to record his bass parts. I only previously knew Tony James from Generation X and 80s oddities Sigue Sigue Sputnik, so that seems to fit.
Nonetheless, the songs are there. They sound good, and Eldritch is a mesmerising vocalist and lyricist - the adjective chosen carefully. Ribbons is one of the truly disturbing non-metal songs I have heard and When You Don't See Me packs emotional heft despite the deadpan delivery. Kudos also to singer Maggie Reilly, whose backing vocals add warmth to several tracks, especially More and Doctor Jeep.
While the lyrics are ostensibly an indictment of the George H. W. Bush administration, I'm more charmed by non-sequiturs like "Here come the golden oldies, here come the Hezbollah" from Doctor Jeep or "Long distance information just tell me where the manholes steam" from Detonation Boulevard.
I realise that Vision Thing may sound too assembled and artificial for some listeners. On paper, I would have thought I was one of those listeners but Vision Thing remains one of my favorite albums of the past 30+ years.
Greg Schwepe: Sometime in the early 90s I had a cassette sharing extravaganza with a girl who worked in the same office building that turned out had the same musical tastes as me. I now found myself giddy as I had new (free! Except for the cost of the Maxell cassettes I had to buy!) music from about 4-5 bands that I’d either never heard of or had heard of and finally got the chance to check out. One of those cassettes was Vision Thing from Sisters of Mercy.
Having mentioned in a previous review that my involvement in college radio taught me how to expand my previous rock/hard rock/some metal background to include punk, new wave, and some “gothy” stuff, Vision Thing found its way into my cassette player immediately.
And in listening to this album again for the first time since back then…not as “gothy” as I remembered. Hearing it again, I don’t really hear anything that would’ve make me think this was past my musical comfort zone back then. A mix of everything that appeals to me across all genres.
The title track starts off with a driving guitar riff that could’ve been borrowed from a Cult song. And right away you encounter what might turn you off to Sisters of Mercy; the low monotone vocals. Not a deal breaker for me. Maybe it’s because as I listened, I kept hearing snippets of other vocalist’s tones; a little Bowie here, Lemmy there, Ian Astbury, and Dave Gahan. I also like the female background vocals. Just added a nice mix to it all.
Entire album is listenable for me. Liked all the tracks but the ones I remember rewinding to the most and replaying when I had this album before are Doctor Jeep and More. Pretty much sums up what Sisters of Mercy are for me.
The pulsing synth at the beginning of More builds, then the track kicks in. Bass, guitar, the soaring background vocals. Score!
8 out of 10 for me on this one. An album I'm glad my musically like-minded office mate had in her collection back then for me to check out.
Final score: 7.98 (52 votes cast, total score 415)
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