Wave Gotik Treffen 2009
in order of appearance:
It couldn't happen in the UK. Not even now, when our music media has belatedly decided that goth is A Good Thing After All.
Over the last year or so, mainstream music publications in the UK, from the NME to Artrocker, have been merrily slapping goth stuff all over their covers and content with every sign of approval (or at least without actually flinching). With the rise of twenty-first century post-punk, with many current bands drawing their influences from the sounds and styles of the early 80s, it was inevitable that goth would get a reapraisal. And, astonishingly, given that our music magazines never had a good word to say about goth for years (on the rare occasions they bothered to say anything at all), the new verdict seems to be that goth stuff is...hey, you know, kinda cool.
But for all that, you'd hardly get a four-day festival devoted to the various strands and sub-genres that lurk under the big black umbrella of goth taking place in Britain. The Wave Gotik Treffen, with 20,000 attendees gathering to catch around 150 bands playing in many different venues across a fair sized city, has been a fixture in the German festival calendar for the best part of 20 years now. This is something that could only happen in Germany, where goth was never consigned to the wilderness. It simply kept on going - and it kept on growing, too.
So, here we are in Leipzig, ready to sample what the schwarze szene has to offer. Right now we're in the Agra, a vast echo chamber of a steel-framed exhibition hall which for the duration of the festival becomes the WGT's main venue. Not an easy place for a band to play, I'd say - the acoustics are distinctly unhelpful and the functional East German grey paintwork hardly says 'Party!'
Nevertheless, Austrian outfit L'Ame Immortelle rise to the occasion, and somehow conjure up an opening set that does the business. They're a well-known band to the WGT crowd, and their fans have arrived in force. Vocalist Sonja Kraushofer, red of hair and affable of manner, like a teutonic Toyah, fronts the band's melodramatic rock-to-EBM workouts with an ever so slightly raised eyebrow, as if she's aware that getting bombastic in a big tin shed is something you can only approach with a touch of irony.
Maybe the band need more than a touch - when you notice that bespectacled co-vocalist Thomas Rainer looks bizarrely like Vic Reeves, it's game over for any British people in the crowd. L'Ame Immortelle are, I suppose, an example of a band that could only break big in the German market. Here in Leipzig, their stuff works well, and they go down a treat. But if they tried to conquer the UK I think they'd need to turn the bombast down - and put the irony into overdrive.
Combichrist have conquered the UK - or, at least, those bits of the UK that reckon slammin' industrial dance is the best thing ever. The Combichrist formula is simple: a big beat and lots of stomping and shouting, leavened with a little keyboard atmospherics, although not enough to actually provide something as conventional as a melody. Combichrist are like Killing Joke turned up to a hundred and eleven - and with anything that vaguely resembes a song ruthlessly removed. Two drummers flail mightily (one of them has an odd habit of resting a drumstick vertically on a drum - as if to say, 'Look, everyone, it's a drum!') while chief shouter Andy LaPeluga paces the stage in his best caged beast manner and vents a mighty distort-o-roar.
It's an effective rampage, although decidedly short on musical subtlety. Combichrist do one thing. They do it loud, and they do it well. But in the end I'm rather relieved when their set barrels to a close in a flurry of tipped-over drumkits. Aggressive blokes shouting over even more aggressive beats is something that only goes so far with me.
Shouty-crackers aggressive blokes don't get a look-in with our next band. A gothic supergroup from the UK, The Eden House are essentially a collective based around Adoration guitarist Stephen Carey and ex-Nephilim bassist Tony Pettit, and their album features contributions from such luminaries of the dark side as Julianne Reagan of All About Eve and Monica Richards of Faith And The Muse. The live incarnation of the band isn't quite the galaxy of stars we find on record, but twin vocalists Ammandine Ferrari and Evi Vine do a fine job of counjuring atmospheres out of the ether, as the band lays down a shifting, shimmering mist of ambiences behind them.
You might gather from all this that The Eden House don't exactly rock hard. Indeed, we're very much in the empyrean realm of gossamer harmonies, filigree and shadow, and all that stuff. The trouble with this kind of music is that it can become a bit coffee table after a while: an inoffensive background sound that doesn't really demand attention. It can all get too much like the gothic equivalent of switching on a soft adult contemporary radio station (that's what we're calling easy listening nowadays, apparently) while you're doing the ironing. The Eden House don't entirely escape this fate. Even the strange gesticulations with which Evi Vine illustrates each song - it seems she's invented her own slo-mo hand jive - can't quite give the band the focal point that the music itself lacks. It's nice, but it doesn't go much beyond nice for me.
In another sudden change of musical direction, Project Pitchfork arrive, covered in artfully contrived mess and debris, as if they'd just been pulled out of a collapsing building. A very late addition to the bill - Leipzig is festooned with posters advertising the band's presence at the festival, since they didn't feature much in the advance publicity - Project Pitchfork are the granddaddies of accessible industrial. Although they're hardly a bold choice as headliner for this opening night at the Agra, nobody can quibble with their right to be here.
The Pitchfork crew wallop out a set of their robust industrial-with-a-heart-of-gold anthems, their sound essentially a German take on that early 90s American industrial thing - think Wax Trax, Ministry - a throwback to the era when industrial was still primarily about songs, rather than Combichrist-style displays of agggression to a monster dancefloor beat. To that extent, Project Pitchfork sound distinctly old school, but they're easy to get into, and easy to like. Why, they even have tunes you can whistle...almost. Myk Jung of The Fair Sex guests on vocals and shameless rock 'n' roll shape-throwing, and while the show contains no surprises, it does at least confirm Project Pitchfork's reputation as Top Band in their field.
Leipzig is buzzing with club nights and after-parties, some of which seem to carry on seamlessly for the full four days of the festival. But that's it for the Agra tonight, so let's head for bed and venture out again tomorrow in search of more bands...
Continue to the Wave Gotik Treffen Day 2 here.
For more photos from the WGT, find the bands by name here.