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Wave Gotik Treffen 2008

WGT 2008 logoDay 1

Bands in order of appearance:
Kivimetsän Druidi
Diablo Swing Orchestra
Santa Hates You
Solar Fake
Portion Control
Bettina Köster
Kohlrabizirkus, Werk II, and Sweat Club, Leipzig
Friday May 9 2008


Stop me if I've mentioned this before, but we live in interesting cultural times.

Since the end of the eighties the UK music media has treated anything remotely goth-ish with a mixture of condescension and derision - that's if it acknowledged its existence in the first place, of course, which, mostly, it didn't. But now things are changing. The music biz, bless it, has finally come round to the view that bands with a little something of the night about them are actually rather cool, and can certainly add an enticing spark of after-dark glamour to an otherwise vanilla-flavoured indie scene. Under these circumstances, an event like the Wave Gotik Treffen suddenly starts to look like a one-stop shop for the zeitgeist.

But then, this is Germany, where goth never fell out of favour as it did in the UK. So maybe it's always been that way. At any rate, the WGT just keeps on going strong. 150-odd bands and 20,000 punters descend on Leipzig every year, for an event that encompasses everything from grand opera (the WGT features a production of La Traviata at Leipzig Opera House this year) to medieval Kivimetsan Druidifolk (an entire medieval village has been created in parkland out of town), from squalling punkers to the heaviest of metal, presented in all manner of venues from underground clubs to temples of rock 'n' roll. All this has been a key date on the German festival calendar for 17 years now. It's hard not to gaze in wonder at an event that simply couldn't happen in the UK - and even harder to resist the temptation to get out there and experience the multi-headed cultural monster that is the WGT. So, let's do just that.

Never mind the grand opera. We're in Leipzig for some of that rock 'n' roll - plus plenty of its offshoots, tangents and undercurrents. And here, round about lunch time in the echoing dome of the Kohlrabizirkus - once a vegetable market, now a vast entertainment space - it all kicks off, with a band from Finland I've never heard of before. Let's lend them an ear, and, indeed, an eye or two.

Kivimetsan Druidi describe themselves as 'Orc 'n' roll' on their MySpace page, and for that I can forgive them almost anything. Yep, you've guessed it: they're all dressed up as if they've just stepped out of Mirkwood, apart from the singer, who looks like she's playing the lead in a production of Alice In Wonderland. Her cheerful presence contrasts oddly with the grim-faced aggression of her colleagues, who make a sepulchral metal noise with as much furrowed-brow gusto as if they were playing the Mordor Enormodome. But all the costumes and the concepts and witty puns can't disguise the fact that Kivimetsan Druidi are a kind of mid-seventies folk metal band which has turned to the dark side, and that's not quite as much fun as you'd think.

Diabolo Swing OrchestraI had high hopes for Diabolo Swing Orchestra, if only because, based on the name, I rather assumed they'd be a real swing orchestra. Alas, this band does not quite do what it says on the tin. There's a cellist sawing away on stage, and a certain touch of cabaret decadence in the band's presentation, but these encouraging elements are subsumed by an all too familiar take on heavy metal sturm und drang. When the vocalist starts up an opera-house holler I realise that for all their attempts to mix it up a bit, Diabolo Swing Orchestra are, when it comes right down to it, just another operatic metal band.

It's at this point that it occurs to me that the Kohlrabizirkus has probably been given over to operatic metal all day today, so maybe it's wise to quit while we're ahead. Let's try another venue, and see what other noises are being made in Leipzig today.

Two trams and one baked potato later, we're in Werk II, the old fire extinguisher factory that is now one of Leipzig's principal arts and music venues. For the four days of the WGT, it's devoted to assorted Treffen-events, and today it hosts a range of (mostly) electronic noisemakers.

Santa Hates YouWith a name like Santa Hates You, I think we can safely say that Peter Spilles of Project Pitchfork is not being entirely serious with this, his side project band. And there's certainly something about the crash-and-bash beats and pell-mell yell of the vocal that suggests the principal idea here is simply to have a brash, knockabout, shouty-crackers good time. Peter Spilles hollers, bug eyed, up front in a manner that his Project Pichfork colleagues would surely never allow; the keyboard player, clad in the regulation fetishistic cyberwear which seems to go with this musical territory, shakes her booty behind a keyboard. And, although Santa Hates You are not exactly doing anything bold and new (let's face it, there are plenty of shouty-bashy electronic bands around these days), there's a certain element of gung-ho looniness which makes their show work. File under good fun.

Solar FakeThere's something familiar about the frontman of Solar Fake. It takes me a few songs to put my finger on it: this is Sven Friedrich of Zeraphine and the Dreadful Shadows, and this, apparently, is his electronic side project. I recall seeing Zeraphine some years ago and being distinctly underwhemed by the band's blandly anonymous alternorock. On this occasion, I find myself distinctly underwhelmed by Solar Fake's blandly anonymous electro. Well, at least I can give Sven Friedrich credit for consistency. But there's nothing much to latch on to in the competently characterless not-quite-EBM. the songs trundle by inoffensively enough, while Sven Friedrich throws high-emotion shapes as he sings in his curiously unemotional vocal. It's a bit like musical custard: it slips down easily enough, but leaves you hankering for something with some real taste. Still, the crowd seem to love Solar Fake (just as they loved Zeraphine, I recall) so maybe it's just me.


Portion ControlPortion Control have some history behind them – they were pioneers of this thing we call industrial back in the allegedly golden 80s. While the band's old-skool status instantly wins them the attention and respect of the WGT crowd, it has to be said that Portion Control aren't doing anything particularly new or groundbreaking in the here and now. One bloke lurks in the background, behind a laptop; another bloke prowls the stage like he's looking for trouble, barking out the lyrics in a belligerent tone. so far, so standard – this kind of thing might've been pretty radical back in the 80s, but these days – well, let's face it: there's a lot of it about. Still, for all that, Portion Control make a pretty good fist of their slot. In fact, coming directly after Solar Fake's forgettable blandness, the stompy belligerence of Portion Control gives the show a much-needed boot up the arse. If Solar fake are like musical custard, Portion Control are like being slapped upside the face with a side of beef.


Is it me, or are there a lot of side project bands around these days? Here comes yet another: 32Crash (that's not a typo, they really do run their name together like that) are a new star vehicle for Jean-Luc de Mayer, of Front 242. We're in the stompy/shouty zone again, and that should not come as a surprise. After all, Front 242 more or less wrote the book on stompy/shouty. Every industrial-electronic band that came after them has drawn heavily on the 242 blueprint. So, if Jean-Luc deMayer wants to draw upon his own legacy for this side project, he's got a better claim than most. 32Crash rumble and batter, the electronic pulse which underpins everything punctuated by the clatter of acoustic drums, played with manic energy by a flailing percussionist, a veritable windmill against the stage lighting.

Jean-Luc de Mayer himself is a looming presence in shades, an electro-gangster barking out the vocals. It's all effective stuff, and certainly the crowd mosh like good 'uns to the rampaging beats. But a nagging doubt creeps into my head: I can't quite work out why 32Crash need to exist. It's not as if they're blazing a sonic trail remarkably different to that carved out by Front 242 – the execution of the idea may be a little different (Front 242, as I recall, never featured acoustic drums), but musically the band sounds exactly as you'd expect a Front 242 side project to sound. File under: good stuff, but no surprises.

But now, here is a surprise. Suddenly, the musical direction of the show is unceremoniously wrenched through 180 degrees – from electronic-industrial territory to the post-punkish guitar zone. The audience almost completely changes in the space between the previous band and the next. Out go all the cyber-heads and industrialists, in come the deathrockers and new wavers. What's going on? In a word – Dragons.

I'm not sure why Dragons were slotted in at this precise point of the WGT, at the head of a day of bleepz 'n' beatz – surely a more appropriate slot at another venue could have been found for them? Nevertheless, here they are, a collection of downbeat blokes in monochrome, cranking up their post-Joy Division, quasi-Chameleons, borderline-Bunnymen rock. If that makes it sound like Dragons wear their influences on their sleeve – well, yes, I suppose they do. Dragons are a studied take on early eighties alternative rock – an era which is, of course, a source of inspiration to many bands these days, and speaking as a new wave head of a certain age myself, I'm happy to see a crop of contemporary artists taking those influences into the twenty-first century.

DragonsBut Dragons couldn't make it more obvious where they're coming from if they drew us a map. Their songs are epic constructions of equal parts angst and grandeur; equal parts Closer and Heaven up Here. You can imagine the manager's dressing room pep talk: 'Right lads - think visceral, think anthemic. Now let's go out there and do it!'

The band certainly have some fans among the assembled deathrockers, for whom this must be the nearest thing to seeing Echo And the Bunnymen in their 80s heyday. But I cannot join in the general hosannas. What Dragons do is all a bit too sum-of-its-parts for me. I see no maverick inspiration at work here - just plenty of diligent craftsmanship, and a self-conscious attempt at cranking up the angst-o-meter to just the right level.

At intervals, the singer makes a peculiar little head-shaking movement, as if momentarily afflicted by an epileptic spasm. Now, if this is indeed the outward manifestation of a genuine medical condition, then I would suggest that fronting a rock band is not, perhaps, the best option for his continued good health. On the other hand, if, as I suspect, these odd little twitches are nothing more than mere contrivance, deliberately faked in order to convey a certain Ian Curtis-style 'I'm pushing myself to the brink!' feel, then he needs to be told that the trick doesn't work. It just looks bloody annoying.

In the end, that's Dragons all over, I suppose: a band devoted to acting the part of angsty 80s rock stars, knowing that the zeitgeist is on their side, and there's an audience out there primed and ready to consume anything that hits the right influence-buttons. All they have to do is hope that nobody calls their bluff. Too bad, gentlemen. Consider it called.

Bettina KosterWerk II kicks out at the relatively early hour of 11pm, but assorted other WGT events continue into the early hours all over town. A madcap rattling dash on the number 11 tram gets us to one such event now. Tonight the WGT Queer Wave Party (a great name there) takes place at the Sweat Club (not, it must be said, such a great name). It's an opportunity for 'gay-lesbian-bisexual gothic girls, indie boys, sissy punks and trans rockers', to use the event's own description of their customer base, to get down to a supercool new wave DJ selection and generally live it up in a suitably angular fashion.

It's a curious fact that in spite of the 'Wave' part of the WGT's name, this club night is the only event in the entire festival schedule which really taps into the post-punk aesthetic, and plays a suitably new wave-ish selection of sounds. Oh, and you don't have to be gay. Sympathisers and fellow-conspirators are welcome, too, and certainly the post-punkers have piled in to the club in great quantities tonight. Plenty of people are keen to catch the featured live act: Bettina Köster.

With a CV that runs from Malaria in the 80s to Autonervous in the twenty-first century, Bettina Köster counts as one of the key figures of the new wave, and certainly one of the top female artists of the after-punk era. Perhaps unfairly, her name seems to be seldom mentioned in company with, say, Siouxsie, or Lene Lovich, or other female stars of the era, but her fans are certainly out in force tonight. The stage-front area is a crush of bodies as Bettina, armed only with a laptop, a saxophone, and a let's-get-this-party-started attitude, takes the night by the scruff of its neck and makes it dance. It's a bit more of a personal appearance rather than an actual gig, of course, but in this club setting that's OK, and Bettina's Sax-punctuated electroclash-ish workouts get the crowd moving as effectively as any band. It doesn't take long before we discover how the Sweat Club got its name.

Essential links:

Kivimetsän Druidi: Website | MySpace
Diablo Swing Orchestra: Website | MySpace
Santa Hates You: MySpace
Solar Fake: Website | MySpace
Portion Control: Website | MySpace
32Crash: Website | MySpace
Dragons: Website | MySpace
Bettina Köster: Website | MySpace

Wave Gotik Treffen: Website | MySpace

For photos from the WGT, find the bands by name here.

The Wave Gotik Treffen continues with Day Two, here.

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  Page credits: Revierw, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston, Red N version by Mark Rimmell.