It’s been three years since the scene crashed and burned. It started with venue closures: twenty clubs in the space of six months. Without anywhere to hold gigs, the small promoters went out of business. The European tours passed us by, with only a few highly choreographed and very expensive arena gigs appearing. The smaller clubs lay empty, boarded shut.
Burning Stars Productions started up a few months ago, out of nothing. A couple of adverts in the back of the surviving music magazines calling for unsigned acts, a few calls to the labels. They bought the discarded venues. They started promotion.
Bands that approached them had to meet a very specific set of criteria, including non-disclosure about the terms of the contract itself. Some were well-known, often listed in the adverts themselves. No drugs. No after-parties. No other appearances during the period of the tour. Stipulations about fan behaviour. All subject to the Burning Stars penalty clause. No one talked about the details and no one I knew ever met an actual employee of Burning Stars face-to-face. There were plenty of lawyers and minders, reams of emails and faxes, but for all anyone knew, Burning Stars could have been run by a machine. Later, when people went looking, they traced it back to a multi-fronted venture capital firm, but the trail went cold with a holding company in the British Virgin Islands.
The gigs were popular. We’d had enough of a dry spell. They started with young acts, new faces, along with a few established bands who somehow just never made it big. The all-ages concerts were a massive success, despite a strict over-twenty-ones bar policy. Burning Stars branched out into a small indie label that was almost immediately recognised for its diverse range of both mainstream and more leftfield artists.
It was a phenomenon. The label had the golden touch. Bands that were mediocre at best before they signed were put into an intensive rehearsal program. Within months they were performing and writing music of a quality that no one would ever have thought them capable of. There was a lot of talk about recording studio trickery, but every one of the bands reproduced their performances live.
And then there was Lake. A fragile-looking twenty-year-old with a voice like crystal, she was whisked from four songs on MySpace to a three-year record contract overnight. She was the perfect musical product, blending elements of nu-folk and punk with massive electronic soundscapes. Some judicious soundtrack licences meant that most people had already heard her music before they ever knew her name.
I fell in love in an instant. Her first video, ‘Broken Town’, was a viral phenomenon. She walked through empty streets, past vacant buildings with broken windows while dark clouds rushed through the sky. Dark beats were overlaid with soaring electric violins and her voice. Her voice could rise from an icy whisper to a swelling ocean, a chorus from a single throat.
I watched that track a dozen times in one day and I wasn’t alone. The video got its first million hits in under a week and it just grew from there. She hit number one in the singles chart in online sales alone. I kept watching the videos. Through a haze of pixellation, I kept watching her face, pointed and too-sharp with enormous eyes that were such a dark blue as to be almost purple.
Her videos all had a certain emptiness to them, echoing the cold beauty of her voice, her eyes. For a while, she looked like the living embodiment of the age. The predicted economic bounce hadn’t happened and half the country was cold, broke and alone.
‘All Our Tomorrows’ was the track that really broke her into the mainstream. Bouncing guitar and violin harmonies and a soaring vocal slowly unwound and broke apart like a clock running down. In the video, the camera circled as she stood on a balcony watching the lights of a city go out, one by one.
The album launch soon followed. I was doing odd bits of crew and lighting work in between signing on and trying to hold my band together. I managed to swing a stage crew gig for the launch party. I couldn’t have been more excited if it were my own album being released. I kept going back and checking the gear, spent the rest of the time pacing across the floor.
She came in for sound check at around half past two. A pair of minders walked close behind her and escorted her to the stage, one at each shoulder. Burning Stars was protecting its investment. Lake looked even more frail in person. Her skin almost matched the pale white-blonde hair that framed her sharp face. It would be hard to call her beautiful by most standards but I found her compelling.
One of her minders helped her up on stage. She was carrying a violin case. She walked to every instrument and slid her fingers over each before moving to the mic and taking out her violin. I was expecting some modern marvel of carbon fibre. The instrument was actually a battered old acoustic violin with some high-end after-market electric pickups. It had, at one point, been painted iridescent red, but the paint was worn through, cracked and crazed in several places.
She plugged it in a played a few strains while the sound engineer made some rapid adjustments. Her band, session musicians recruited by the label for live duties, filed into position without saying a word. They might as well have been shadows compared to her. She stood stock still at the front of the stage, violin in her left hand and a bank of keyboards to her right. I could see her chest move as she breathed.
“Can we go now?” Her voice echoed through the microphone effects. The guitarist nodded. Lake faced front. “Faking Hope,” she said and began to play. The violin rose above the bass and tribal electronic drum beat, weaving around the guitar as it hammered out angry fifths. The instruments battled for over a minute before she put down the violin, its echoes still hanging, repeated, and turned to her synths. A wall of rushing sound rose and she started to sing.
In the flesh, there was something deeply, indefinably strange about her voice. It was as if it was coming across a great distance. Every word carried the weight of travel across light years and seemed to hang in the air long after its echo faded. She moved almost imperceptibly at first, slowly starting to shake and writhe as though the words were being torn out of her. One song merged into the next as the band moved through the set list like a pre-programmed sequence. And then they stopped.
“That’s fine.” Lake returned her violin to its case like a sacred object and stepped off stage with the case in her hand. Her minders immediately moved to her side, taking her elbows to escort her out as she looked back at the band. It wasn’t until after she left that I recognised one of the musicians.
Mark, who’d been behind the electronic drum kit, was a tall metalhead with purple plaits in his hair and beard. He was one of the best session drummers in the city, when he was sober. Back in the day, we’d been in an industrial project that never got off the ground. We’d stayed on good terms, but I hadn’t seen him in over a year. I waved to him as he headed off stage. He kept walking, trailing behind the blond androgyne guitarist and the lanky bassist with an emo fringe that covered his eyes.
Two more Burning Stars minders emerged from the shadows to follow the band backstage, along with a dark-haired woman carrying a brown bag. I’d just turned to follow when Mark caught my eye. There was something desperate in his expression, and in the words he mouthed: “Please. No.”
As the stage door closed behind them, I heard the dark-haired woman speak.
“All right: tests, everyone.” Her voice sounded like it came across the same interstellar distances as Lake’s did when she sang.
I was left feeling acutely disturbed. That’s probably why I spent the next couple of hours at the bar of the pub across the road, chasing pints of Amstel with vodka and Jägermeister . It didn’t help. I still felt too sober by half when I got back down for final checks.
It all felt a bit more normal once the audience, a combination of journalists from the music mags, bloggers and fans who’d entered the draw for tickets, got in there. The bar was doing fair business, although a good half of the drinks served were non-alcoholic: Burning Stars had begun imposing a per-customer limit on alcoholic drinks at its venues alongside its existing ID policy and high prices. The merch stand was doing fair trade, selling t-shirts with the Burning Stars logo and ghostly images of Lake’s pointed face.
There was no support – the showcase was all about Lake, and she was all anyone wanted to see. The DJ spun an eclectic mix of tracks: Levellers, Hawkwind, Orbital, but they all sounded like they were playing through ten feet of water. I checked the speaker connections backstage, found nothing wrong and then found myself wishing that I’d spent more of my career wearing earplugs. I put my plugs in then. They bottled me up inside my own skull but did little to eradicate the underwater music or a disturbing note of pink noise that I was beginning to perceive on the edge of hearing. Maybe I had drunk too much, but my hands were as steady as they’d ever been as I performed a final check on the monitors.
The stage manager marked time and we scattered when the music stopped. The house lights dropped to near-total blackness, only made deeper by the safety lights that glowed from the ceiling. A path of white LED patterns bloomed from the floor of the stage as the band moved into position almost noiselessly, wearing black that merged into the backdrop. The music started, a militaristic drumbeat that was soon wrapped in layers of drifting keyboards when Lake took her place, wearing white and lit from below. The light cast harsh shadows, making her sharp cheekbones and the sockets of her eyes look deeper and more hollow than ever. She raised the violin.
“Faking Hope,” she said, and began to play. It felt like a different song. The clamour of instruments at war was still there, building layers of sound over electronic beats, but something inside the music had changed. Odd patterns and arpeggios shifted from enraged fifths to falling, despairing minor sweeps. When it all broke down to let her voice soar, she still sounded like she was wrapping human vocal chords around crystalline tones from a million miles away, but again there was something profoundly changed in the song’s emotional charge.
If she had been brilliant before, I had now run out of ways to quantify the experience of Lake’s performance. I could only watch, mesmerised, from the side of the stage. The audience seemed as dumbstruck as I was, moving to the music like a tidal flow, no more able to control their motions than the sea in the face of the moon’s pull. Between songs, four hundred voices exploded into ecstatic screams, only to fall silent once again as the first note of each song rang out.
The band moved inexorably through the set: eight songs, each more lovely than the last, finishing with ‘Broken Town’. Lake hardly spoke a word between songs; just the names and the odd “thank you”. As ‘Broken Town’ faded into an echoing repeat of Lake’s last whispered vocal, the lights went out. The audience barely had a chance to begin chanting for more when Lake’s voice came from the darkness, a whisper that filled the room.
“This is ‘Ghosts’. It’s for Charlie, and everyone who’s ever gone away.”
It was beautiful and achingly tragic, but ‘Ghosts’ is more than just a dirge for the departed. Lake raked the bow across her violin strings as if trying to tear the instrument apart, for all the delicate accuracy of each pinpoint of a note, trembling against the pounding drums. When she raised her head to the microphone, Lake screamed, descending octaves that sounded out every atom of despair in the universe. It could have been a trick of the light, but it looked as if a heat haze was rising off her, a clear, clinging mist that swirled around the band as they played. Lake sobbed her way through the verses, her cracked and gasping voice growing softer with every repeated stanza. The music faded away unnoticed and all we were left with was the ghost of a song as Lake fell to her knees. I hadn’t realised that tears were pouring down my cheeks until the music stopped.
I was shell-shocked, but the audience’s applause was rapturous. Mark and the blond guitar player helped to get Lake off stage. It was only then that I noticed the lanky emo bassist had been replaced by a slight woman wearing lace and long black hair. He had left his instruments behind.
I didn’t get a chance to speak to Mark that night and the last I saw of Lake was her being led to a car by her minder and the woman with the brown case, who gripped Lake’s arm so tightly to the skin whitened around her fingers. Lake moved like a marionette with half its strings cut, shuffling where she was guided.
The venue manager had a word with me when he handed over the night’s meagre pay, said he wouldn’t be able to hire me again if I didn’t sort out my drinking. I thanked him and picked up a bottle of vodka on my way home.
No more work came my way from Burning Stars Productions, which meant precious little work at all. My band fell apart on me. Hester and Michael picked up Burning Stars contracts, while Istvan wanted more time to spend with his smack habit. I’d never been in the habit of drinking to oblivion before, but an increasing number of evenings seemed to end with vodka and barbiturates. Enough to keep me from dreaming, most nights at any rate.
But the dreams still came. I wouldn’t drink through the day, but I’d sometimes find myself blinking awake, staring into nothing and breathing far too fast. The first time, it happened on the tube and all I knew was that I’d missed three stations and couldn’t account for the lost time. As it happened more often, there’d be fragments of memory that seemed to fill in the gaps, but they didn’t make sense.
A momentary blackout on the bus left me with the vivid impression of driving past empty buildings, abandoned for decades, even when I knew that all I could have missed was a bustling high street. A sudden lapse of consciousness in a supermarket aisle led not only to concerned attention from its staff but also a fragmented memory of emaciated men and women fighting over a handful of loaves of mouldy bread. Needless to say, when I came to, the shelves were as well-laden as ever.
As the waking dreams grew more persistent, I became increasingly reclusive, unwilling to leave the studio flat I rented on the top floor of a converted house in Edmonton. The last time I’d been clubbing with friends, I’d spent the entire evening in a fugue state between sleep and wakefulness, dreaming of their abuse and exploitation and powerless to help them. It was only when I was shaken awake by the coming of dawn that I learned they had been evicted from the club without warning several hours before. Understandably, this did nothing to reassure me, particularly when I was unable to track either of them down in the days that followed.
So I sat in my room and quietly ran my fingers up and down the fretboard of my guitar, mouthing silent syllables of lyrics I didn’t dare enunciate. I no longer slept for any length of time. The barbiturates and alcohol had ceased to keep the dreams at bay. Amphetamines only increased the frequency of my waking nightmares, so I kept myself awake with a combination of caffeine, alcohol and the occasional shock to the system – I’d most recently taken to pushing sewing needles through my hands, but was unhappy with the results when the after-effects of the endorphin rush drove me to desire sleep.
I’d been awake for around five days when Jester knocked on my door. A partially employed cycle courier, he lived two floors below me and shared much of my taste in music. I knew he’d been keeping an eye on my deterioration but I hadn’t much cared for his attempts to engage me with the outside world. By now, his outside world was a very different place to mine.
Still, his visits provided a respite from the world inside my head, where he and anyone else I ever cared about were being raped and beaten just beyond my reach, so I always welcomed him. My friends hadn’t been able to do anything to fix my head, but at least they made me feel half-way human when they were with me.
Jester bounded through the door as soon as I opened it, holding a couple of scraps of paper in his gloved hand.
“Lake’s going to play at Absence of Light!” He was literally bouncing on the spot. “I got us tickets!” He thrust a piece of colourfully-printed paper under my nose. “You owe me fifteen quid, but just buy me a drink, okay?” I slowly took the printed fragment from his hand and read it.
Absence of Light was an alternative night that had appeared around eight months earlier. The first few had done a roaring trade, combining big name bands with the best DJs and a stunning venue in an old cinema. Still, alternative music fans are fickle and often broke, and rumour was that the last couple of months’ events had barely broken even on bar and venue hire. Lake’s appearance could be the coup that would save the club, although it was a step down in the world for her. I idly wondered what had motivated her involvement, until I recalled that Burning Stars artists didn’t get a say in where and when they played.
So I stored the ticket away safely for three weeks until Jester came to get me. I could tell by the way he looked at me that I was in a bad way. He shoved me into the shower and told me not to come out until I’d stopped smelling, found me some almost-clean clothes and cut two lines of speed on a mirror.
“We shouldn’t,” I said. “Burning Stars’ door policy…”
“Is just the same as everyone else’s,” said Jester. “No drugs, no outside booze or food, no one underage. And it’s just as easy to walk in as you would anywhere else, as long as you’re not actually wobbling, picking a fight with the street furniture or dribbling powder out of your nose.”
“Okay, fine. But my paranoia…”
“Grows worse every day, with or without the aid of stimulants. Anyway, I got you these.” He threw me a strip of Valium. “Take three along with your line and you’ll be fine. More than fine.”
So I snorted the line, and another and one more for the road. I swallowed the Valium and for once I felt almost normal. We stepped out on to the street; I saw cars and buses and people carrying shopping and drinking in pubs and it didn’t look even a little bit like the end of the world. Jester was still guiding me by the elbow, keeping an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t about to break. I turned to him.
“Thank you. Really. This actually feels okay.” And he smiled at me and took me clubbing.
They were already on stage when we got in. I rushed to the front of the balcony, shouldering my way through a jostling press of fans. Although the lower balcony offered the best view in the place, I found it hard to focus on the stage, which seemed wrapped in a writhing haze, a storm of static that curled around the musicians. Although the venue looked perfect in its red paint and gilt, there was a pervasive smell of damp and mould.
As before, Lake’s music filled the room, and as ever, the audience was enrapt. It may have been only I who felt the difference, who saw the odd stiffness of the musicians’ movements. Matt’s drums, although precise as ever, were oddly syncopated. The blond guitarist, now roughly shorn of his hair, and the black-haired bassist in lace stood very still. Last time, when she had so suddenly replaced their last bass player between the sound check and the performance, she had looked like a perfect gothic doll. Now the sleeves of her dress were torn and I caught glimpses of fresh scars and scabs beneath. As she played, she moved her arms only gingerly.
I was still finding it hard to make out details on stage through the clinging haze, but I’d have sworn there was an extra loop of wire running from each of them, bound around one leg like manacles. I blinked and shook my head. Ludicrous. Seconds had passed but I felt as if I had stepped outside of time. I was barely hearing the music, which seemed to wash around my ears like the sound of distant stars.
Lake stood front and centre of the stage, hunched up behind her wall of synths. She looked small and very frail. She clutched her violin in one hand, the bow set aside as she clung to the microphone stand with the other. The violin’s scuffed red body appeared to have been roughly patched, as if cracked open and then amateurishly repaired.
I recognised the words Lake sang but not the melody, and couldn’t place the song. If her instrument was cracked, at least her voice still sounded like snow drifts and Northern Lights: ice cold, brittle and perfect.
When she picked up the bow, I noticed that she moved her right hand with painstaking care. A bandage was wrapped around her hand, leaving only three fingers and a thumb free. As she guided the bow across the strings with delicate, painful motions, I saw a red bloom along the side of her bandaged hand.
As the song’s final melody faded away, Lake moved back to the mic.
“We’re all responsible for what happens to each other. It’s the unspoken social contract: if you hurt yourself, if you break the rules, it affects all of us. We bear responsibility for one another’s indiscretions.” Her voice trembled and her eyes darted from side to side. At the right of the stage, the blond guitarist wiped blood from his mouth and gave her a wan smile. “We’re your reflection and you made us everything we’ve been forced to become. We are…”
Lake paused and stepped away from the microphone for a moment. The clear, distorting haze around the stage seemed thicker than ever but I was sure she was crying.
“Ghosts. Goodbye.” Lake inclined her head in a small bow and picked up her violin. The drums pounded, their pulsing heartbeat picked up by the bass. The guitar and Lake’s violin joined in a crashing harmony, like waves breaking against a cliff face. The lyrics rose like a chant against the wind, the band’s voices weaving together in disjointed harmonies, filling in the places where Lake had lost the ability to sound out the words. My eyes closed and behind them I saw an infinite expanse of stone and ice, felt the absolute cold that awaits all things in the freezing heat death of the universe and knew that I was and would forever be absolutely alone.
My eyes blinked open as someone jostled my shoulder. For a moment, everything was normal. A cheering crowd, a brightly-lit stage, musicians stepping up to take a bow. And then the churning haze returned, sweeping across the auditorium like the hunger of forgotten gods. Lake had to help Mark out from behind the drum kit and I saw the reason for the odd syncopation of his beats. His left arm was bound to his chest, leaving only the swollen and black fingers of his hand exposed, while his right eye was covered by a seeping cotton pad. He staggered as Lake guided him to the front of the stage and had to be supported when the band took their final bow. They walked off stage slowly, trailing cables and leaving their instruments behind them. The curtains fell.
Absence of Light was supposed to run until 4am but they cut the music at half-past midnight, just an hour after the band had left the stage, claiming insufficient numbers to remain open. It looked busy enough to me. The curtain lifted as the house lights came on. The drum kit was still set up and the band’s instruments were still there, laid on top of their cases like flags on coffins.
I hung around by the stage entrance in the alley at the back of the club for over an hour. The ammonia smell of piss stung my nostrils as I smoked cigarette after cigarette in the hope of blotting it out. It started to rain and I drew back into a doorway to keep my limp roll-up from disintegrating completely.
I was about to leave when a black car with tinted windows drew up. The stage door opened and a dark-haired woman stepped out, carrying a brown doctor’s bag. She opened the rear door and slid inside. I caught a few words before she slammed the door shut behind her.
“It’s over.” Her voice came across a great distance, the words hanging in the air like shards of ice. The car pulled out of the alley, raindrops suspended in the glare of its headlights.
Later still, the venue lights were shut off as the last members of staff locked up and went home. I spent the rest of the night wandering up and down the canal bank. I returned home well past dawn, soaked to the skin and with grazes on my knees and the palms of my hands. I don’t remember why.
Lake never played again. A few days after the gig, her website returned a lookup failure and never came back. Mark vanished without a trace. I never spoke to Jester about the gig and he stopped coming round to see me.
I returned to my flat and tried not to leave. I don’t know if I see the world for what it really is, or if my presence twists everything I come into contact with until it warps to meet my own perception. It’s safer here, surrounded by unchanging walls, pictures of Lake and the smell of damp. I don’t drink any more, but it no longer makes any difference.
K.G. Orphanides is a writer and journalist currently based in London. Previous publication credits include fiction in Cthulhu Sex magazine as well as technology, music and science writing for numerous magazines and websites far too respectable to associate with this story. Fragments of old and ongoing projects may be found at www.1351.org.
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.