Strength Through Joy
Strength Through Joy was founded in Australia in 1991 by bassist Timothy Jenn and vocalist Richard Leviathan. Although Jenn had his roots in the gothic musical milieu of Ireland and Leviathan was a bullet-belt wearing black metal fan, the two men seemed to have a lot in common and soon struck up a friendship. Although Leviathan himself had no prior musical experience before meeting Jenn, he wrote some great lyrics and had a distinctive if not good singing voice. After cutting a short demo of dark folk material, the boys in the band wrote to Death In June leader Douglas Pearce to ask his permission to send a demo to him. Pearce responded affirmatively and then pointed out that he actually lived only a little more than 10 kilometers down the road from them.
Upon their meeting, Pearce agreed to produce Strength Through Joy's first album as he found himself genuinely impressed with the band's "originality." I'm not sure if that was originality he was hearing or if was hearing what Death In June had sounded like ten years earlier; even Leviathan admits "his (Pearce's) influence on the...style of music is obvious."* Either way, in 1994, Strength Through Joy released a single on vinyl called Dark Rose that featured three songs. Of note is the opener A Grave For Burning Wings on which Douglas Pearce actually sings and plays acoustic guitar, the style of the song presaging Death In June's 1996 album Rose Clouds Of Holocaust. Later that same year, Pearce produced Strength Through Joy's true first full-length album, the Force Of Truth And Lies (the title having been taken from a passage in Plato's famous dialoge the Apology of Socrates). With this album, Jenn and Leviathan develop an identity independent of Pearce while simultaneously not straying too far from the formula for apocalyptic folk music he almost single-handedly developed in the 1980s. As is always the case in this genre, the main basis of melody is the acoustic guitar, but Strength Through Joy for the most part eschewed other traditional neofolk instruments such as violins in favor of an increased role for the keyboard. With somewhat distant production and Leviathan's almost metallic voice, the Force Of Truth And Lies has a truly cold, mechanical feel to it. As I once wrote elsewhere, this album is what Kraftwerk would sound like if Rolf und Florian ever picked up guitars.
In 1995, Pearce again produced a Strength Through Joy album, this one being a two-CD set called Salute To Light. Although many people seem to regard this as the superior Strength Through Joy album (there are, after all, only two) I find it really rather uninvigorating compared to its predecessor. On Salute To Light, the band fully dives into the conventions of the genre and almost every song seems unnatural in some way; like each melody was derived because scientific testing has proven that this chord ought to come after that one. While the debut album was, shall we say, gracious in paying respect to its influences, Salute To Light rather seems to want to become the band's influences. In keeping in this vein, Strength Through Joy and Death In June sat down together in 1996 in the studio to collaborate on the KAPO album. The band is officially billed as "Death In June Presents" rather than some other combination of both, but I think it suits it well considering this is more or less a Douglas Pearce album. In the same year, Timothy Jenn moved to Germany and Leviathan moved to England. Surprisingly, the band did not break up: rather, it changed its name to Ostara and continues to this day.
I mentioned just now that Jenn's move to Germany was accompanied by a name change in the band. For those who aren't aware of it, Germany has very strict laws governing what one can and cannot say about certain events in history -- namely the Second World War, the National Socialist regime of Adolf Hitler, and of course the Holocaust. Now, what does this have to do with Strength Through Joy? "Strength Through Joy" is the English translation of a program called "Kraft durch Freude" that began in 1933 after Hitler's government came into power. Essentially and honestly, it began as a rather innocuous state-run travel and leisure service. One of Hitler's big themes was that the German worker ought to have a state-mandated period of vacation time. The Kraft durch Freude program handled travel arrangements abroad and was responsible for the planning and construction of spas and the like. Hitler also believed that every working German family ought to have an inexpensive car capable of carrying two adults and three children (i.e. the ideal German nuclear family at this time) and drew a sketch on the back of napkin based on what this car would look like. Although the Kraft durch Freude program had been tasked with making this car (indeed, it was called the KdF-Wagen), the realities of the war in 1939 put a stop to that. This design (or rather, one based on it by Ferdinand Porsche, Germany's top tank designer during the War) would eventually be used by the Volkswagen corporation and released as the Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually, though, Kraft durch Freude became one of the housing organizations for the T4 forced euthanasia program and by 1940 ceased to exist. The German government, therefore, objects to the use of the Kraft durch Freude name, even in English. To avoid trouble, the name was changed to Ostara.
Of course, that name has its own set of problems too. Ostara was the name of a theosophical journal published in Austria in the early 20th century that presented some, uh, unusual theories about world history. I won't really go into too many details, but Ostara was read widely in nationalist circles in the German-speaking world and one of its earliest devotees was a down-on-his-luck Viennese artist named Adolf Hitler. However, this isn't really about Ostara (which I consider a separate band), so I'll stick to Strength Through Joy.
You might be thinking to yourself "well, it's a neo-Nazi band." Although Strength Through Joy denied this connection, they admitted that there was of course a certain attraction to the fascist aesthetic and specifically the image of struggle. This is a frequently recurring theme in the neofolk genre (see also: Sol Invictus, Death In June, Blood Axis, Boyd Rice, Der Blutharsch, and so on) that bothers a lot of people for reasons it's not too hard to imagine. But I've got some news for you: Richard Leviathan's real name is Richard Levy. It's therefore a little inaccurate to call a Jewish man a Nazi despite his fixation on the totalitarian image. And if Timothy Jenn were a Nazi, it more or less goes without saying that he wouldn't be in a band with a Jew.
I'm only going to say a little bit about Ostara because (a) this isn't about that band and (b) I don't really like Ostara. Ostara is a more mainstream sounding version of Strength Through Joy; by all accounts, this is what Richard Leviathan was going for. Physical and personal distance between Jenn and Leviathan led to the former quitting the band altogether and the change in musical orientation is evidence of this. By his own account, Leviathan wrote most of the first Ostara album despite the fact that Jenn wrote most of the Strength Through Joy material. Frankly, the new material suffers from that because there's truly very little that separates Ostara from, say, the latest New Order album. (Then again, everyone acknowledges that neoflk was the bastard son of Joy Division and some folk-loving groupie chick.) But Ostara seems to do pretty well (despite the occasional protest and venue cancellation), so whatever.
Dark Rose, 1994 (Twilight Command)
- A Grave For Burning Wings
- Rosin Dubh (Flute Mix)
The Force Of Truth And Lies, 1995 (Twilight Command)
- The Forces Of Truth And Lies
- Master And Slave
- Rosin Dubh
- The Blond Beast
- The Bridge
- Absolute Power
- The Force Of Truth And Lies (Instrumental)
- A Grave For Burning Wings
- Life's Absurdity
Salute To Light, 1995 (Twilight Command)
- Salute To light
- A Cold November Crime
- Do We Need History?
- Garden Of Blood
- The Frozen March Of Victory
- The Song Of Amergin
- End Of Youth
- Do We Need History? (Reprise)
- Garden Of Predation
- The Northern March Of Victory
- Youth's Destiny
- A Cold November Hunt
- The Call Of Amergin
- The Rise And Fall Of History
- Sun Worship