There’s a moment midway through Kali Dreamer’s moody new album, October Requiem: 1988, where the narrator swings from the gallows, nearing their inevitable death.
As the track progresses, Dreamer’s words grow increasingly breathless, a sharp wheeze punctuating each stanza as the narrator clings to life. It’s also, notably, the most romantic song on the record, complete with lines about “spring’s kiss” and “hearts … intertwined.”
“If destiny awaits, at least we have tonight,” Dreamer sighs, his voice swaddled in gently undulating instrumentation that runs counter to the violent scene unfolding within.
And so it goes on a record where the musician repeatedly finds beauty in desolation – “If the stars should fall, we’ll admire the void,” he offers on “Corpse Boyfriend” – turning out a gothic stunner that blurs the lines between hip-hop, industrial, emo and electronica. Dreamer approaches his vocals with similar malleability, swinging between a crisp, ping-ponging flow and a baritone croon he said was modeled in part on Andrew Eldritch of English goths the Sisters of Mercy.
Prior to traversing these darkened corridors, however, Dreamer takes a brief moment at the start of the record to cut ties with the past. “I had to kill what I was,” he recites on table-setting album opener “The Burning Saint.”
“Before, I was having fun with what I was doing, but it started to feel like a character,” Dreamer said on an overcast Halloween afternoon well-suited to the album’s mood. “I don’t know if I was just projecting this expectation on people, but I think there was [this idea] I was this colorful, hyper anime guy. … Kali started to feel like something almost bigger than me sometimes."
Both this larger-than-life Dreamer and the mortally aware one heard on October Requiem have roots in his experience growing up in the Pentacostal church, which exposed him to the concept of death from an early age. Dreamer recalled one of his earliest memories, peering into his great-grandmother’s casket at the age of 3, a scene that left him shaken as a youngster. In response, Dreamer said he used to “pray for immortality” while growing up, and he now views the persona he adopted onstage when he started making music as an attempt to bring this inner superhero to life.
Dreamer started to shed this accumulated armor in the solitary hours he spent alone early in the pandemic, a transformative process intensified by the death of two friends – one who passed suddenly and the other who died quickly after flirting with a return to health.
“It hit me way hard, and I have a lot of regrets about it, which happens when somebody dies, because you feel like you didn’t spend enough time with them, or you think about the moments you were a jerk,” Dreamer said. “It definitely shifted my perspective. Every moment, like even right now, is so important to me. Us having this conversation, maybe I won’t be here tomorrow, or you won’t be here tomorrow. And I want to be able to appreciate things like that. And I do now. I’m more aware.”
Under normal circumstances, Dreamer said he would have been shaken by these dual losses, but the relentless swirl of life might have propelled him forward through the grief. But owing to the pandemic, he had little choice but to sit with this hurt. “It was like burning the dead crops and just sitting there in the cinders,” he said. “And I was like, now what? And initially it was terrifying. I thought it was over for me, musically and otherwise.”
Rather than folding, Dreamer opted to lean into the sounds that have dominated his headphones in recent years – the Cure, Tears for Fears, the Sisters of Mercy – connecting with producer Derek Christopher of Wandering Stars to begin to chart a new musical course. “The way I used to play guitar, I wanted to prove to everyone I could play, and with this I was just trying to create a vibe or an atmosphere,” Dreamer said. “And then [Christopher] would step in and do a bunch of crazy stuff and be like, ‘You can stop me if I’m doing too much.’ And it was like, no, I want to see where this goes.”
Lyrically, there are still times on the new record when Dreamer feels the tug of the past, dropping multiple references to feeling as though he’s not of this Earth. More often than not, though, he presents himself as wholly flesh and blood, a fragile vessel intent on sussing out moments of wonder amid the brutality. So, while the record can be a dark affair – witness tracks like “Hellbender,” a darkly buzzing menacer, and the disarmingly bouncy “Manipulated Dead” – it’s far from a hopeless one.
“The whole goth thing can be about finding beauty in that darkness,” Dreamer said. “I’ve definitely taken more of a shine to things like flowers, where before I’d be like, it’s just gonna die. Now it’s like, no, it’s this beautiful thing you get to enjoy for this moment, and then it’s gone.”