Gothic metal was a mainstay in my discman and the neon purple cassette player in my Dodge Spirit in the 90s. As a distinct style, Gothic metal grew out of the death and doom scenes; in many ways, the bands that innovated in that style were combining the heaviness of death metal with the depressive atmospherics of doom metal.
The Peaceville label was essential at establishing the early perimeters. Their roster included three bands--My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, and Anathema--that set the pace and locked in the tone. Their work in the 90s transcended their niche genre; without their work we might not have had the Gothic infusion into black metal (as seen in Cradle of Filth and Moonspell), the heavy pop of Type O Negative, the deluge of symphonic metal bands fronted by pretty women with pretty voices, or any of the modern funereal doom bands.
But what of the original bands themselves? How has their music held up? Where were the creative missteps?
Consider what lies below a audiographic survey course.
I've always contended that there are some bands who only have three good albums in them. Anathema might best exemplify that thesis. The three heaviest albums of their career--both in terms of theme and musicality--are their first salvos. Everything after those records is lighter fare, but at the same time burdened with a curious leaden weight.
Essential listening: Serenades, The Silent Enigma, Pentecost III/The Crestfallen
Jump ship at: the end starts with Eternity but you definitely want to gtfo by Alternative 4
Confession: I didn't discover the albums I like from The Gathering until much later than their original releases. Always... is a great example of the atmospheric doom variety of Gothic metal, but The Gathering reached their peak by introducing the heavenly voice of Anneke van Giersbergen into the mix. Things rapidly went downhill when the band began incorporating alternative and trip-hop influences into their sound. It's always a bad sign when bands who started out heavy start talking about Pink Floyd in their interviews.
Essential listening: Always..., Mandylion, Nighttime Birds
Jump ship at: How to Measure a Planet?
Try before you buy: Almost a Dance (musically solid, but the male vocals are an acquired taste (at best) or a hideous mismatch (at worst)
Katatonia's best years were their early period of sorrow-infused, death metal-influenced craftsmanship. Unfortunately, the combined efforts of vocal cord issues and a change in musical direction siphoned off that initial creative spark, resulting in an "alternative metal" sound that isn't very distinctive. In interviews, the band claims to have never really fallen into the Gothic metal camp, but their first two records fall well within the pantheon for me.
Essential listening: Dance of December Souls, Brave Murder Day
Jump ship at: Discouraged Ones
My Dying Bride
The most important of the "Peaceville Three" bands that refined the idea of Gothic metal in the 1990s, My Dying Bride are a band that I can't fault at any point in their now-lived career. There was a time when I considered 34.788%...Complete hot garbage, but I've come around to it in more recent years. (I still think it's one of their weaker albums, but even a weak My Dying Bride album is better than what most can achieve.) Hardcore fans have mixed opinions about the band's recent offerings, but I'm pretty much down to hear whatever My Dying Bride is currently up to at any point.
Essential listening: Turn Loose the Swans, The Angel and the Dark River, Like Gods of the Sun
Jump ship at: Give 34.788%...Complete a listen and make up your own damn mind
Considered pioneers of two genres--death-doom and Gothic metal--Paradise lost released a series of unimpeachable albums that have since been oft-imitated but never equaled. The members of Paradise Lost were consummate workmen; over the course of six years they released five massive albums. However, for reasons that are still obscure to me, they decided that what they really wanted was to be a slightly more muscular version of The Cure--and it didn't really work. Nevertheless, this is a story with a happy ending. They found their fire again.
Essential listening: Lost Paradise, Gothic, Shades of God, Icon, Draconian Times
Jump ship at: One Second
Jump back on at: The Plague Within
Theatre of Tragedy
Theatre of Tragedy erupted onto the scene with a unique style: heavy guitars, a melancholy atmosphere, lyrics penned in the style of Early Modern poetry, and the "beauty and the beast" style of vocals that pitted Raymond István Rohonyi's guttural-but-kingly voice against the clear, ethereal singing of Liv Kristine Espenæs. Unfortunately, after two absolutely monumental Gothic metal albums, the band took a turn toward synthpop, lost Liv Kristine, and eventually ended up a rather pedestrian industrial metal outfit.
Essential listening: Theatre of Tragedy, Velvet Darkness They Fear, Aegis
Jump ship at: Musique
Tiamat is easily the most experimental band on this list, but their sound has always at least touched on the world of the Gothic. Whether or not the music is actually good is another story. Make no mistake, despite the variety of music the project has produced Tiamat is actually a pretty reliable listen--but where you find pleasure and what you should avoid is tricky to gauge as there is much more room for idiosyncratic personal taste to decide within their discography. Their first album, Sumerian Cry, is a bit too straight-ahead death metal for my tastes, but that album was followed by records that absolutely need to belong in your collection if you love this style of music.
Essential listening: The Astral Sleep, Clouds, Wildhoney
Jump ship at: A Deeper Kind of Slumber
Try before you buy: Skeleton Skeletron, Judas Christ
Jump back on at: Prey
The vast majority of their career has been spent making music that's too soft for me, but that first album is a killer. Although everything that came after tends be to about love, nature, and fantasy, Enter is chock full of songs about ghosts and tragedy. Musically, Enter is the album where they really let the music breathe; the instrumental passages are more expansive, punctuating by the lovely female vocals (which would later become the main focus) and even occasional male growling vocals.
Essential listening: Enter
Jump Ship at: anything after Enter