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Goth music has always been anomalous in the greater context of rock ‘n’ roll, a firmly posited anti-rock form definitively stripped of its “roll” for purposes of dramatic effect. Even the guitar, that iconic rock symbol of instrumental versatility, hasn’t always given adequate voice to the creepier elements of rock’s dark side.

Rasputina’s music suggests that the guitar may actually be in diametric opposition to goth music, fundamentally out of place despite its prevalence in the genre. The instrument is too bright, too overtly charged with pop symbolism. Two generations of goth rockers, from Bauhaus and Psychic TV to Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, have taken pains to darken their sound by burying their guitars with layered effects, synthesizers, and drum machines. Rasputina, the self-described “Ladies’ Cello Society,” resolves the issue by removing the guitars completely. The effect on How We Quit the Forest is eerily, quintessentially goth—heavy chamber music for the mood-rock set, performed by classically trained vampiric women. It makes for some of the most original, most expressive, and most complex music in recent memory; goth fans won’t miss the guitars.

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The cellists’ expressive use of the instrument on How We Quit the Forest begins with a striking Black Sabbath riff at the introduction of “Leech Wife” and moves through to the plodding, bowed string arrangements on “Sign of the Zodiac.” The cellos are plucked, picked, bowed, banged, and electronically distorted to create sounds entirely foreign to both goth and chamber music. The discordant background percussion and stark subject matter of “Herb Girls of Birkenau” firmly roots the album in goth-rock tradition, but elsewhere the drums and programmed beats are largely unmemorable. Indeed, the band is at its finest when it leaves the drums out altogether, as on “Rose K.,” a drawn-out ballad concerning Rose Kennedy’s bout with Alzheimer’s disease. Free from drum-machine annoyance and stripped of all excess, this sparse song’s minimalist arrangement lets the cellists play against each other and against singer Melora Creager’s forced rhymes on lines like, “She knows that she forgot/That there’s a story and she/Can’t recall the plot/Of course her family fought/Over the furniture.” Elsewhere, the band members stretch out their musical chops on a playful cover of Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and play full-blown distortion rock on “Trench Mouth.”

The piqued, forced enunciation of Creager’s haunting voice and the delightfully twisted lyrics play along with the music elsewhere on the album to bend the songs into intriguing amorality tales of defiant fantasy, gloomy fairy tales populated by pariahs. There is an inspired madness at work beneath these songs, and it is most likely a byproduct of Creager’s own crafted alienation: On the title track, Creager sings, by way of explanation, “The scene wasn’t what it used to be/The scene is never what it used to be/So that’s How We Quit the Forest.”

This fairy-tale atmosphere also finds its way into the album art—longing for the lost art of the vinyl LP gatefold, Creager and company take the multimedia opportunity of a CD-ROM bonus to showcase an interactive “book” of Creager’s animated collage paintings and a black-and-white music video of the band. Creager’s storybook paintings are as imaginative and as self-consciously horrific as her lyrics: A sheep gets sawed in half; a transparent mouse with visible brains and innards blinks and changes colors; a cartoonish self-portrait of Creager emerges from a blossoming orchid. Rasputina’s multimedia presentation has the air of wiseacre abuse of a major-label record company’s excessive money and good faith, which in itself is beguiling.CP