MAYBE IT'S the overcast skies and frequent drizzle. Britain, fundamentally a pleasant, comfortable place, has produced a new generation of brooding, gloomy young bands.
Some of these "goth-punkers" sound so withdrawn that it's hard to imagine them ever leaving the house, but the members of one such outfit have even stirred themselves out of their gray funk long enough to visit Washington. Naturally, they chose February.
THE FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM -- "Dawnrazor" (Beggar's Banquet 6599-1-H). Traditionalists who expect pop songs to be upbeat attention-grabbers won't know what to make of the Nephs, who'll appear Sunday at the 9:30 club. This London-based quintet bases both its ominous image and its growling sound on spaghetti-western flicks and dystopian sci-fi. After opening with a snippet of Ennio Morricone soundtrack music, the 10 songs on the band's debut flow in a continuous downbeat groove. "Preacher Man" is the British single, but none of these songs stand much apart from the darksome whole. Like a disturbing dream, though, this music stays with you: It's propulsive, intense and hypnotic.
THE SISTERS OF MERCY -- "Floodland" (Elektra 9 60762-1). Here's another case of two bands being worse than one. Sister superior Andrew Eldritch's former collaborators left to form The Mission U.K., taking with them the guitar punch Eldritch lacks and leaving behind the melodic invention they lack. In their absence, the deep-voiced singer has turned to America, enlisting ex-Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison and even the Prince of Bloat, Jim Steinman, to produce "This Corrosion," the album's first single. Steinman's heavy hand aside, this disc has its morose charms: Songs like "Driven Like the Snow" are as mesmerizing as the best of the older Sisters. Just don't ask what this Leeds trio (if you count the drum machine) thinks it's doing in "Mother Russia."
THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN -- "Darklands" (Sire 9 25656-1). Even without the jagged peals of feedback that characterize the band's earlier work, these stately latter-day girl-group tunes -- sort of the Ronettes go to Hell -- are bleakly beautiful. "Making love on the edge of a knife," sings Jim Reid in the dour but gorgeous "April Skies," which pretty well encapsulates the possibilities of the Chain's worldview. Without any manic rockers, this moody album doesn't have the sweep and variety of the band's brilliant debut, but songs like "Happy When It Rains" are coldly lilting.
BREATHLESS -- "Three Times and Waving" (6th International SILO 7). All these albums have lots of tension, but this is one of the few to offer any release. On songs like "Working for Space" and "Say September Sings," this young London quartet's guitars stop circling warily and suddenly lunge for freedom, creating a surging, soaring drone; even songs that never quite break loose, like "Walking on a Wire," develop beguiling textures. So far Breathless' work in not breathtakingly distinctive, but the sound is richly detailed and engaging.
BALAAM AND THE ANGEL -- "Live Free or Die" (Virgin America 4-90869). No longer fulltime gloom-meisters, these angels with dirty riffs have followed their mentors, the Cult (originally the Southern Death Cult), into the hard-rock arena. Some things don't change, though: These guys were plodders as goth-punks, and they still are. While the Cult's Led Zep ripoffs have a certain crass energy, Balaam ravers like "Live Free or Die" are merely serviceable retreads.