Happy 35th Anniversary to Siouxsie and The Banshees’ sixth studio album Hyæna, originally released June 8, 1984.
If you heard wailing coming from my Binghamton University dorm room in, say, 2004, chances are I was belting “Dazzle” at the top of my lungs. I’m no Siouxsie Sioux—none of us are—but something about this song always inspired me to try. From the moment I heard it on Twice Upon a Time: The Singles (1992), I was always struck by how operatic it was, undercut with diamond-sharp strings against a liquid wall of sound from the band themselves. It was the song that solidified me as a life-long Banshees fan and Siouxsie devotee, and the addition of Hyæna (1984) to my collection was made without question.
Their sixth studio album, Hyæna deepens their lush, symphonic playland, alternately playful and atmospheric. We have not yet reached the tenderness of Superstition, but we’re a long way from the raw howl of The Scream. With the temporary addition of The Cure’s Robert Smith, the album takes on a decidedly more upbeat and accessible feel.
“Dazzle” was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra providing a rising swell of strings and a maddening array of percussion to cushion and lift her most powerful vocal track yet. Siouxsie has always had a rich and spacious contralto, able to fill a room even at the lowest volume, and “Dazzle” allows her to spill magic from the back of her throat. “Skating bullets on angel dust / in a dead sea of fluid mercury” is a painting brought to life in voice, abstract and odd and yet wholly visible to the inner eye if you just listen close enough.
The sunny wash of “Belladonna” and the Extremely Robert Smith guitar—crystalline and fully-present without being overwhelming—betrays it’s dark fairy tale origins; the haunting of the deep, a woman betrayed and scorned, slowed to a low, haunting whine in the final 30 seconds, a sensation of being pulled under, of drowning. Siouxsie is fully vulnerable here; she lets herself peek out from behind the mask on other tracks, including the sweetness of “Dear Prudence,” but never as naked as she is here.
Paired with “Swimming Horses,” Siouxsie enchants a pair of women’s tragedies—the latter was inspired by a documentary about a mother who poisoned her daughter to save her from stoning by fellow villagers who believed she was carrying an illegitimate child—without ever becoming sensationalist or heavy-handed. Budgie’s drums come forward here, forcing Siouxsie to sing louder and the rest of the band to step up. The result is like choking on glitter, overwhelmed with decadence.
But for as much as I love “Dazzle” and “Swimming Horses,” it’s “Bring Me the Head of the Preacher Man” that steals my heart on this album. Sun-baked and brutal, it starts at a crawl and ramps up to the chorus with a rattlesnake rattle, muting and softening the edges of her vocals ever-so-slightly, sinking them back into the mix at times, winding and spinning a frantic spell until her final frantic call for blood.
“Painting Bone” showcases Smith’s influence the strongest of any track on the album. It is 100 percent a Cure song even though it was written by bassist Steve Severin, but the driving, rain-slick guitars give it away; it could have been the B-side to “Charlotte Sometimes.” Siouxsie does the call-and-response vocals here, but a mix that included Smith on backing vocals might have made it more unique.
Smith joined in the composition and the recording of the album; he had played with the Banshees on tour in the 1979 and returned to the studio for Hyæna after John McGeoch was fired for his issues with alcohol. The cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” was his idea and proves that the band can breathe new life into a cover without ever sounding silly. They’d repeat this on 1987’s Through The Looking Glass with a luxurious cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”
“Blow The House Down” is the album’s weakest track. The gothy, expansive elements are all there, but it never quite comes together the way the other songs do. There’s just too much going on and it’s impossible to focus on one without losing the rest.
Even as an ex-goth—there comes a time when you just can’t deal with the makeup and the petticoats and black velvet in the summer—this era remains my favorite and in constant rotation. It’s easy to get lost and seduced by her velvety vocals, and Hyæna provides a perfect entry point for new listeners while also serving as a continuation of the band’s evolution. From Hyæna you can go forwards to Tinderbox (“Cities in Dust” is my second favorite Banshees song) or backwards to Kaleidoscope and neither will seem like a departure from an established sound, nor will they sound like something wholly out of character.