On Moaning and Noodling and Rediscovering The Bela Session

Bauhaus is protected wildlife in Zola Jesus's history.

Bare with me, but this review comes with some personal setup:

When I was 18 years old, I lived in a shitty student house on E Johnson Street in Madison, WI with my brother and a rotating cast of a third sub-letter roommate. At this time I was studying at university, working at a cafe (in which I was swiftly fired due to alienating the customers with my despondency and making shitty espresso), listening to music, going to shows, and generally stumbling through early adulthood with the awkwardness of any other freshly emancipated teen.

At this point, I was making music, but only casually. It was a period of experimentation and liberation… freely creating without much thought or care about what it meant or who would hear it (no one.) It was basically an exercise in understanding myself better, by using music to dig deeper into my subconscious and zone out. I would sit on my bed with one of those over-compensated consumer grade plastic Yamaha keyboards from Best Buy, and pound on the keys while howling into a void of glossolalia. Every now and then when I would begin to lose steam, I would look over to the Bauhaus poster I had scotch-taped to the wall next to me. I re-fueled from the focus on that image, and kept going, pounding away and screaming until the bros who lived upstairs would try to compete in sound with their beer pong, pre-game hollering. Then I would scream louder.

At that time in my life when I had discovered Bauhaus, it felt like a revelation. I was thoroughly into punk, but sometimes it never felt… cold enough? Nihilistic enough? Minimal enough? Pitch black enough? Finding Bauhaus was like finding the missing piece to what I was always searching for. Being so drawn to them was a key to understanding who I was becoming as a young adult.

For the record, it never occurred to me that they were “goth,” and to this day I refuse to consider them a “goth” band! Back then, I called them post-punk, along with Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four, etc. Post. Punk.

Anyway, now we can finally approach why we’re here. The Bela Session marks the 40th anniversary of the band through the re-issue of one of the best and most iconic songs “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as well as four other tracks that they recorded during that time.

This record is really hard to review, for aforementioned personal reasons. Bauhaus is a bit of protected wildlife in my history, so it’s hard to listen to anything they do completely objectively or critically. Even while listening to this session and hearing the breadth of styles they explored within their typical sound, I accept it all and find it hard to judge.

I will say, based on my own relationship with their music, I do prefer the sprawling, minimalist effort of the title track to the jangly, more concise “poppy” tracks on the b-side. But to me, it’s all Bauhaus, and in this session, all songs sound unmistakably Bauhaus. It’s fascinating to be able to hear some of the other ideas they were floating around in that session, and gives me a deeper understanding of what they have grown to be as a unit.

The second song “Some Faces” is legitimately catchy, and sounds like it could’ve made an appearance on Top of the Pops. And the fourth song “Harry” is basically a reggae track! Their experimentation with different structures and styles here makes you wonder where Bauhaus could’ve gone, were they to choose one of these other directions.

As a re-issue and compendium of previously unreleased material, I would assume that this record is for Bauhaus fans only. But because these songs explore such an array of styles, it’s surprisingly listenable. I say “surprising” because usually the songs left on cutting room floor tend to give fans a peek inside what was lost, even if it was better swept under the rug. But this release would be just as enjoyable for someone who previously wasn’t even a fan of Bauhaus, because some of the songs are so catchy and up-tempo. For instance, as I was listening to the record for the first time, my friend came into the room and said “this is Bauhaus? I thought they were way darker!” So, there you go.

Being able to hear these tracks brought me back to that time when I first discovered them, and how deeply they have since wormed their way into my DNA. Now Bauhaus is in my blood and bones. But listening to The Bela Session recordings from when they were still finding their voice as a band, it reminds me so much of those early days on my bed, moaning and noodling on a keyboard, staring at my Bauhaus poster, trying to find my own voice as a musician.

Nika Danilova records under the name Zola Jesus. You can follow her on Twitter here.