Wave Gotik Treffen 2008
in order of appearance:
Yesterday I was speculating that acts such as Noblesse Oblige and the Dirty Weather Project would have done rather well as part of a cabaret-style show at a theatre venue such as the Schauspielhaus. A purely hypothetical idea, of course, since the WGT contains no such event - a curious omission, in a way, since it contains everything else.
Today, however, we're at that very venue. Here we are, a motley assortment of festival-goers trying to behave in a civilized fashion amid the polished floors and restrained elegance of the Schauspielhaus. We are not, as far as we know, going to get cabaret. But then, when Emilie Autumn is involved, anything is possible. Today she's due to give a 'reading'. That sounds interestingly cryptic, for nobody seems to know just what she'll be reading. The poetry of Goethe? The Communist Manifesto? The Haynes Workshop Manual for the Morris Marina? We'll find out just as soon as the curtain goes up.
Eventually, the curtain goes up - and we're looking in on another world. The stage is decorated with the extravagances of surrealist Victoriana that are Emilie Autumn's trademark, all carried out with fiendish attention to detail. Every last rat and teacup has been positioned with such care you'd think feng shui was involved. Emilie Autumn herself stands stage centre, glowering at us from within a straitjacket. There is a burst of applause, but she remains stony faced. A penny drops inside the collective head of the audience: this is not going to be the usual show of tea and dancing. No Crumpets, no charades. This time, Emilie Autumn is serious.
She begins reading from a weighty tome: 'The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls', a title which is familiar to anyone who's caught one of her high-concept musical theatre performances. But the premise that Emilie resides in an 1840s lunatic asylum, having overpowered the staff and taken control of the place along with the other inmates, is closer to reality than you'd think. Today, we're getting the back story behind the shows, and it's quickly apparent that it's only partly an alternative reality. The rest is autobiography, and who's to say where the line is drawn?
The audience becomes unnaturally still and attentive as Emilie, pacing the stage and only ever allowing herself a sardonic half-smile, unfolds the tale. It's as if clouds move in to cover the sun, and a strange tension builds in the air, for Emilie Autum's autobiography might well be subtitled 'Adventures In The American Mental Health System, And How I Got Out Of It (Mostly) Intact'.
She conjures a Kafkaesque world of menacing complexity, where bureaucratic procedures rule. Mention that you're suicidal, and watch the standard process click into place with the inexorability of a computer program - and what are human beings in this? The zeroes or the ones? She riffs on the name of Doctor Sharp, the name cropping up with almost rhythmic regularity, and it's hard not to think of him as a colleague of William Boroughs' gonzoid surgeon, Doctor Benway.
Emilie takes us on a journey through the Asylum corridors - the real ones and those in her head - where it always seems to be the cold, still, early hours of the morning. Doom grins up from the abyss, and the only thing to do is force a desperate grin right back. It's a performance that is part Naked Lunch, part Lydia Lunch, and a genuine surprise to anyone who only knew the other Emilie Autmn before today.
There is humour along the way, although it's as bleak as a cold day in Chicago. Emilie proves that it is statistically safer to walk down the middle of the street, rather than on the pavement - because then you're out of the way of insults and catcalls and grabbing hands, and fewer women are run over in the USA each year than are raped. The audience squirms, unsure how to react: the laughter that follows this revelation is distinctly uneasy.
And then, in the middle of the bleakness and the grim humour, Emilie breaks off, smiles a genuine smile (it's as if the sun has emerged from dark clouds) and passes cookies out into the audience, a moment of light relief that tangibly defuses the tension, and brings us all back from the dark places into which we've unwittingly been led. Emilie wraps it all up with a performance of 'Willow' - 'A song I said I would never sing' - and although she encourages the audience to sing along, I think we're all a bit too shell-shocked for that. This was a quietly astounding performance: a glimpse into the depths that, I suspect, few knew that Emilie Autumn had. Afterwards, outside the theatre, the sunshine of the spring day seems almost wrong.
It's a slight anticlimax (if something of a relief) to go from the forbidding corridors of the Asylum to the crazy old world of rock 'n' roll, but we're going to just that right now. We're off to the Agra, where Christian Death 1334 await us.
This band is not the actual Christian Death - although there are those who would insist it has the lion's share of the bona fides. It's a new take on the early Rozz Williams-era band, formed by old-skool Christian Death members to play the early material. Since Rozz Williams himself is, alas, currently unavailable for lead vocal duties, Eva O fronts the band.
The addition of '1334' (derived from the fact that Rozz always ate his lunch just after half past one in the afternoon - probably) establishes the difference between this project and the other Christian Death - the linear successor to the original band, now fronted by Rozz's former colleague and eventual bête noir, Valor.
If all this sounds picky and confusing, you ain't seen nothing yet. The wrangling between the opposing Christian Death factions is legendary, and seems to grow more heated every year. The Rozzites insist that the early band was the only true Christian Death, and Valor's latter-day version is a travesty put together by a shameless usurper. Meanwhile, the Valorists point out that Rozz left the band in the first place, so where's the beef?
Me, I'm staying neutral, although Eva O has no such qualms. 'We're Christian Death,' she announces. 'There, I said it!' Then it's away into a set of sepulchral, rumbling riffs and hammering midnight-black metal, the songs hauled bodily from Only Theatre Of Pain, the classic debut Christian Death album which some say kicked off that whole deathrock thing. CD1334 make a very good visceral rock band, although with Eva O's take-no-prisoners vocals dominating the sound it has to be said they don't really sound like any version of Christian Death. It all sounds...well, like Eva O, really. Her powerful and assertive metal diva voice eclipses any attempts to revive the vintage sound, while guitarist Rik Agnew rolls out the riffs like he personally invented heavy metal.
If I'm not mistaken, Rik Agnew is the only actual member of that first-album Christian Death line-up on stage (original bassist James McGearty was previously involved with the 1334 project, but now seems to have dropped out), and I dare say the Valorists would assert that the band's claim to the crown of the early group is therefore somewhat flimsy. I have no doubt that the Rozzites would counter-claim that as Valor's band does not contain any original Christian Death members, CD1334 has the high ground here. Such are the arguments that surround Christian Death, and I'm sure they'll run and run.
Here and now, the rampaging monster-rock of CD1334 rolls implacably forward, like a heavy metal armoured division on manouevres. Although there's an enthusiastic crowd of deathrockers cheering the band on, to me it all sounds like Eva O's brand of contemporary, slightly left-field metal - which, ironically, is not a million miles from the musical territory that Valor came to occupy, as he steered Christian Death towards the metal zone through the 1990s. Now there's an irony. Perhaps the opposing forces in the Christian Death wars aren't quite as far apart as they think.
Were we talking about metal? Yes, we were, and as if to show us how no-shit unadulterated metal should be done, here's Samsas Traum. A frenzy of freeform headbanging erupts on stage as the band launch into a bombastic musical bombing raid.
Now, I am no expert in the subltle nuances between the different strands and sub-genres of the metal world - most of it sounds like one big 'Huuuurrrggghh!' noise to me - so I can't tell you if Samsas Traum play Symphonic Black Metal, or Progressive Gothic Metal, or Thrash Speed Metal, even Dented Rusty Metal. Frankly, to me, it sounds like they play the bloody lot at once, so I think this would be a very good time to go to the bar.
London After Midnight have made fairly regular appearances on the European festival circuit over the years, but it's been a mighty long time since they set foot on that little piece of the Europe we call the UK, and thus a good many years since I've seen the band. Main man Sean Brennan doesn't seem to have changed a bit in all that time, although now he's got a new band around him and a long awaited new album in the bag - the harder, NIN-ish Violent Acts Of Beauty.
Some might say it's a little late to be taking on board 90s industrial influences (in fact I believe I said exactly this, in my album review last issue), but the programmed-to-the-max, cloistered studio sound of the album gives way on stage to the distinctly more in-your-face racket of a live band. To my ears this is a lot more convincing, and, paradoxically, perhaps, it sounds a lot more contemporary than the LAM studio incarnation.
Most of the set comes from the new album, and the songs work well in their full-on rock band identity, but the performance as a whole is a little hesitant and slow to really kick off. Sound problems seem to be holding things back - at one point Sean Brennan has to walk over to the monitor desk to sort things out with the engineer, and there's no way you can keep up the flow of a performance when that sort of interruption gets in the way. Ultimately I get the impression that it's Not Going Very Well up there on stage. Festival gremlins win this one, I think.
If London After Midnight's career has featured some lengthy gaps, it's nothing to the extended hiatus that Fields Of The Nephilim have gone through since their glory days as 1980s gothic rock heroes. Yes, I know what you're saying: there hasn't been a complete absence of Neph-stuff in all that time. The last decade or so has been punctuated by record label disputes, a doomcookie metal spin-off project complete with ghastly 'Huuurrrggghh!' vocals, sundry gigs and tours that were announced but never happened, and assorted gap-filler releases, usually accompanied by portentous 'statements' by Nephilim vocalist Carl McCoy to the general effect that It's Nuffin' To Do With Me, Guv'nor.
It's been a thin time for Nephilim fans, that's for sure - so it's just as well that I was never one myself. Personally, I've always regarded the Nephs as a frighful bunch of recationaries who invaded our cool post-punk goth scene and let the hippies in.
Now, it seems, McCoy has roused himself to some sort of action. There's a new Fields Of The Nephilim album (well, it was released in 2005, so it counts as new in the slow-moving world of the Neph) and a new band, in which Carl McCoy is joined by - I kid you not - a bunch of lookalikes. Presumably the musicians on stage are all hired hands; the familiar faces of the earlier line-ups are nowhere to be seen. And, also presumably, the fact that they're all dressed up like junior versions of McCoy himself is intentional, although the effect is almost funny - which probably wasn't intentional. Wit and humour have never played a big part in the Nephilim's world. Portentous seriousness is very much the order of the day.
The band create a convincing facsimilie of the 80s sound, and Carl McCoy creates a convincing facsimilie of his 80s self. He's got the hat, the shades, he does that thing with the microphone stand where he totes it like a canoe paddle - yes, it's all very authentic. And he's got his 80s voice back, or something very much like it. The old classics - 'Dawnrazor', 'Moonchild' - resonate just as they should, and even the appearance of 'Zoon' - a song from McCoy's doomcookie metal period - doesn't seem inappropriate. For Nephilim fans (and the Agra is positively stuffed with 'em tonight) this is heaven. For me, it looks more like a convincing pastiche. It's as if Carl McCoy has formed a tribute band to himself, and while it works, it still doesn't impress me.
Bunch of hippies. Hippies, I say!
For photos from the WGT, find the bands by name here.
The Wave Gotik Treffen continues with Day Four, here.