/Memory of a Festival /039 /Cold Waves XI /Chicago /22-24 Sep 2023

Cold Waves XI was my fifth trip to Chicago, and over the course of the weekend, it was suggested to me more than once that I’m becoming an honorary Chicagoan, such is the frequency that I’ve made it over across the past decade.

/Memory of a Festival /039 /Cold Waves XI

/Dates /22-24 Sep 2023
/Venues /Metro /Smart Bar
/City /Chicago, IL
/Links /Cold Waves Online /Cold Waves Facebook
/Photos /Flickr /Bands
/History /CW III/2014 /CW IV/2015 /CW V/2016 /CW X/2022

I’ve recounted the story of how this festival came about on previous writeups, but suffice to say, the memory of Jamie Duffy still looms large (and indeed a large banner featuring him was available down in Smart Bar to sign and add memories to over the weekend (which I did): a lovely touch that was a surprisingly difficult thing for many of us to deal with (and I only met Jamie the once, on my first trip to North America, back in 2011).

But as well as those memories, the festival has also established itself as the festival to celebrate the past of the industrial scene in the USA, but also as a place to showcase some of the more interesting newer acts too, and indeed it should be noted that the lineups have begun to evolve with ever more newer bands playing. After all, if those new bands don’t get their chance to play to bigger audiences, our scene does nothing but stagnate.

With that in mind, this is my take on Cold Waves XI. As people who don’t know me and may read this have found time and again, I rarely hold my punches on festival reviews: after all, not everything will be my bag or yours, and mine and the reader’s opinions will differ.

After all, this is all a matter of opinion, and these are mine committed to the keyboard and screen.

With thanks to Jason, Kelly, and countless more for arranging press access and being the usual, genial hosts. All photos here are mine, and either taken on my Canon 7D, or on a Google Pixel 7 Pro (which proved to be surprisingly good where my SLR struggled). You can see the rest of the photos on the Flickr link in the info box.

/Cold Waves XI /Friday

/Metro /IAMX /Twin Tribes /Nuovo Testamento /Ash Code /Harsh Symmetry /Bloody Knives

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22 Sep 2023 / Bloody Knives

On a day that was mostly synthpop and/or darkwave/post-punk bands, Friday openers Bloody Knives didn’t half stand out. I’ve seen the band at Cold Waves before, so at least I knew what to expect – blisteringly loud shoegaze with industrial electronics that sounds like few other bands currently. Certainly, other newer shoegaze-influenced bands are using those textures, but rarely the intensity or density of sound on display here. A friend later in the weekend who’d seen mention of this band online by me noted a Curve influence, and he has a point. Even better, there’s a new album coming, and lead single New Moon is a charging beast of a track that sounded great live, too.

There’s been an awful lot of darkwave duos coming through in recent years, and Harsh Symmetry are another to add to the list. They were perfectly fine at what they do, but I’m afraid they didn’t do much for me that I hadn’t heard before.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22 Sep 2023 / Ash Code

Much more interesting were Italian trio Ash Code, who’ve perhaps been successful because they have widened their horizons somewhat beyond many of their peers. Their mostly darkwave songs take in industrial and goth elements, and they never let the sheer energy bursting out of their songs drop throughout the set. Of course, all of this would count for nothing if the songs weren’t great too. And we got what felt like a best-of here, as they ripped through the cool, dark thrills of Nite Rite, Claudia’s tour de force of vocals on Drama, not to mention the barbed Betrayal.

Somehow, up to this point, I’d never seen Ash Code live, and clearly, I should have been doing this ages ago. Won’t be missing them again, though!

The undisputed highlight on Friday night was Italian/US “supergroup” Nuovo Testamento, who’ve crashed dancefloors and playlists pretty much everywhere in recent times, first with early single Michelle Michelle, and this year with their storming album Love Lines, which distills everything that was great about 80s pop music into eight slick songs, mostly about the frustrations of love and relationships.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22 Sep 2023 / Nuovo Testamento

Their breathless live show here confirmed their midas touch with this sound. Described as Italo Disco, or synthpop, really they are just a brilliant pop band that have an unerring knack with hooks that can be seen and heard from space, not to mention such skill with production that they absolutely nail that 80s sound.

The centre of attention – much as on record – is very much on vocalist Chelsey Crowley, as she belts out song after song like she is destined to become a pop megastar (and it would be a travesty if she doesn’t, frankly). And while early singles Michelle Michelle and The Searcher crackled with energy, the star turns came from the new material, with Crowley’s vocals taking greater prominence. Get Closer‘s implored demands for greater intimacy was an impressive slower track, and the spiralling bridge (“Round and round and round we go…“) absolutely dazzled, while the heartbreak forseen in Love Lines is somehow turned into a spectacular, crowd-pleasing centrepiece that I’ve now had in my head for about a week.

I thought I was getting bored of synthpop harking back to the 80s – after all, haven’t we heard it all before? Nuovo Testamento made an emphatic rebuke to this in the best and most enjoyable live synthpop set I’ve seen in years.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22 Sep 2023 / IAMX

A need for a break after that – Cold Waves is always a tightly-timed festival, which occasionally means bands get missed simply to replenish the energy levels – meant that I inadvertently missed Twin Tribes, a band I’ve heard great things about, and indeed the reports from this show were very good, too.

As it turns out, I probably should have taken the break during IAMX. An on-time start was kiboshed by Chris Corner throwing his microphone down in frustration at some tech issue, and disappearing for the best part of half-an-hour, before finally returning to start the set.

It’s been a long time since I last saw IAMX – 2009 in Sheffield, according to my gig spreadsheet – and I must admit that I’ve barely listened to them since then. So while it was nice to hear oldie Sailor early on, it all felt a bit style-over-substance (the costumes and masks were quite something, I have to admit), and as my attention was wandering, I decuded enough was enough. In addition, the treatment of the tech that I witnessed from the photo pit left a decidedly bitter taste: do hard-working, regularly underpaid techs really deserve that kind of shit, especially in public?

/Cold Waves XI /Saturday

/Metro /Front Line Assembly /A Split-Second /16Volt /Acumen /KANGA /MVTANT

A heavier night than anticipated (I’m sure I’ve written that about Friday at Cold Waves every single time I’ve been here – will I ever learn? Answers on a postcard) meant at least in part, a more subdued day on Saturday, and certainly we needed the energy for an absolutely stacked Saturday line-up – the kind of day where I knew I was going to barely miss a minute of any set all evening, and so it proved.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 23 Sep 2023 / KANGA

The evening opened with MVTANT, a solo artist from Texas who describes themselves as “electronic body horror”, and the stabbing synths and slower tempos, combined with the steady strobing in multiple colours made for a pretty overwhelming and impressive set, not to mention making it an absolute bloody nightmare to photograph for those of us in the photo pit. Certainly a fascinating discovery, and I’m going to be enjoying an exploration of their recorded work in the coming days – in particular, go hunt out the fierce Mirrorshade.

/Setlist /KANGA

Preface / Home / Godless / Brother / Moscow / Violence / Going Red / Untie / Under Glass / Rehab

By chance, it was almost exactly seven years to the day since KANGA first took to the stage at Cold Waves, opening the Saturday line-up, and blowing us all away. KANGA has changed somewhat since then, with a distinct change to her musical style as she has evolved. That said, that’s no bad thing, and I would very much prefer an artist that continued to evolve rather than treading water.

To a point, we got a quick overview of her career here, even dipping back to that first album with a stomping take on Going Red. The really interesting stuff, though, came at the end, with two new tracks from upcoming album Under Glass. The dreamy synths of the title track don’t half remind of the Delerium mega-hit Silence when it gets to the chorus, mind, but even better is the dancefloor stomp of Rehab, the most direct and best track KANGA has released in ages.

/Setlist /Acumen

Chameleon Skin / F.W.M. / Day Care / Just a Bastard / Mr Sandman I Am / Candy Prowled / Gun Lover

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 23 Sep 2023 / Acumen

For the rest of the evening, it was very much back to the old school. Acumen took us on that journey first, as Jason Novak took the stage in a old-school Acumen shirt, and as they rolled out a punishing, very loud set, it became obvious that they were taking us back to 1995 or so. OK, so some of the songs were a bit newer than that – such as a rampaging, joyous take on Just A Bastard that unleashed a monstrous moshpit, but for the most part, they dug deep into their history with a few songs from their very early days too.

As well as that, though, there were the two songs that despite being at least twenty-five years old, remain staples of the set and oh-so relevant even today: the scorching F.W.M. that rips into white male privilege and violence, and things closed out, as ever, with the thundering Gun Lover. One day, these will be artefacts of a past era, but as long as gun violence remains the epidemic it is, and the far-right continue to gain prominence, these songs will be essential kick-backs against appalling people.

/Setlist /16Volt

Become Your None / Alkali / And I Go / Suffering You / Somebody To Hate / Breathing Water / Swarm / Machine Kit / If You Like It / The Cut Collector

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 23 Sep 2023 / 16Volt

Among the various reasons that I keep coming back to Cold Waves is that I get to see bands – new and legacy, if you will – that I would never otherwise have the chance to see. One of those is 16Volt, who to my knowledge have never toured Europe and indeed are unlikely to ever do so. So this was my second time seeing 16Volt, and this time it was a longer set, with a rather different setlist.

16Volt are vitally important to the subset of industrial known as machine rock: basically shit-kicking industrial rock, but where 16Volt stand apart is the humanity to their sound, with songs and meanings rooted in the human condition, and a ton of songs that remain dear to many listeners hearts.

Eric Powell (assisted here by John Servo on drums, Steve White on guitar and Jason Novak putting in a shift on bass, straight after his Acumen set!) was on great form, too, as he rattled through a bunch of old favourites, some deeper cuts and even a new song.

Let’s start with the latter: If You Like It (also on the Cold Waves XI Compilation available at the festival and shortly online at coldwaves.net is a fantastic return, underpinned by a unstoppable breakbeat rhythm and slashing guitars and chopped up by one of Powell’s trademark melodic breakdowns. It felt like a return to the awesome FullBlackHabit era, and I’m totally here for that.

I’ve noticed from other reports in the past that Powell often throws in unexpected songs that might not have been aired in a while, and I pretty much punched the air when that evening’s such song was And I Go. Long a favourite of mine from SuperCoolNothing, the military marching rhythm gets subsumed in thick layers of guitars and a huge chorus that amid the extreme volume, I could just about hear quite a few others in the crowd bellowing along.

The rest of the set was fantastic fun, too, especially as it became clear that there were an awful lot of 16Volt fans in the audience, and by the time The Cut Collector encouraged audience participation, it felt like a well-deserved victory lap.

A much-anticipated performance over the weekend came from A Split-Second, the Belgian EBM and New Beat pioneers. Their initial active period was between 1985 and about 1995, and during that period that released an impressive body of work that provided a different take on Body Music to their Belgian peers like Front 242.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22-24 Sep 2023 / A Split-Second

It has been suggested that one of the reasons that they aren’t as well known as they should be is likely down to the fact that much of their music has barely been available online, with Marc Ickx having finally remastered pretty much everything and put it on streaming services this year. This, and the fact that it had apparently been some considerable time since they made it to the US, meant that they had a big and enthusiastic crowd ready for them from the off.

This was a set peppered with EBM classics, that was for sure. The precise, strafing synth hook of Rigor Mortis – as I mused at the time, quite likely one of the greatest such synth hooks put to tape – was created with a roar, while the trippy grooves of Mambo Witch were great fun, too.

That said, the closing trio was absolutely pulverising. On Command got us started with that classic EBM sound, before the transformational Flesh (played fast, not the slowed down New Beat version!) got the entire room moving…and then they nearly levelled the entire room with a rampaging, thrilling take on Bend My Body Armour that frankly was the best live track I heard the entire weekend. An absolutely triumphant return.

I’ve long been a Front Line Assembly fan: my first exposure to them was back in about 1992, thanks to Mindphaser on MTV, and while it took me until 2006 to see them live, I’ve made up for time since (this was my eleventh time seeing them live, and a fourth time in North America).

/Setlist /Front Line Assembly

Vigilante / Neologic Spasm / Resist / Plasticity / Deadened / Rock Me Amadeus / Killing Grounds / Biomechanic / Millenium / Encore: Mindphaser

It’s actually been a while since last saw them, too, even with COVID happening in-between, as the last time was a distinctly underwhelming show in London in 2018, where their co-headliners Die Krupps blew them off the stage.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22-24 Sep 2023 / Front Line Assembly

Happily here in Chicago, a rejuvenated Front Line Assembly blew pretty much everyone else off the stage. Alongside Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber were Tim Skold on guitar, and Bradley Bills on drums, and between them, they delivered the kind of show I’ve always dreamed of seeing, and frankly I’ve never heard them sound better.

Everything about the sound mix was flawless – while very, very (very) loud, every element was audible as it should be in the mix, and with a guitarist of Skold’s calibre, and a drummer of Bills’ calibre, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this lean, hour-long set leaned heavily into the guitar-led and rhythm-led tracks from the nineties.

That is no problem to this fan: you could feel the buzz through the room as the familiar Michael Douglas samples from Falling Down heralded the mighty return of Vigilante as the opening live track, and the sheer power of it was something else. That sternum-cracking force was used repeatedly in the set, with both Resist and Plasticity bringing out all the drums to hit even harder.

It was notable, too, that little was aired from recent times – the mighty bass-led hits of Deadended and Killing Grounds (both from the quite brilliant Echogenetic) are regulars in the set these days, and so the only song released since that was aired was, perhaps surprisingly, their cover of Rock Me Amadeus from Wake Up The Coma, and absolutely nothing came from the recent Mechanical Soul.

But headlining a festival that is as much about reflection as it is looking forward to the future, FLA absolutely nailed their assignment here, and there were no complaints from those present about how brilliant they were.

/Cold Waves XI /Sunday

/Metro /Godflesh /Lead Into Gold /Sierra /Rabbit Junk /Lana del Rabies /Cel Genesis

After that heavy-duty, exhausting Saturday, perhaps unsurprisingly we passed on late-night pursuits downstairs at Smart Bar, instead taking time to relax before doing it all again on Sunday.

That said, we didn’t exactly get an easy start on Sunday.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 22-24 Sep 2023 / Cel Genesis

It all started with a warning by Cel Genesis before they got started that they were only going to be using strobe lighting for their set. Naturally there were a few people who appreciated the warning and left the room, and everyone else was subjected to a powerful and intense set from a young group (two vocalists, a drummer, triggered electronics and those strobes) who’ve clearly been listening to a whole lot of Digital Hardcore and rhythmic noise, and performed and moved like they were buzzing on energy drinks. Oh yes, this wasn’t for everyone, but fuck me it was fun.

They were also – thanks to the strobing that was triggered on MIDI, as far as I could tell (so changed frequency with the beats) – the single most difficult live act I’ve ever photographed.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 24 Sep 2023 / Lana Del Rabies

A very different kind of intensity came about watching the very impressive Lana Del Rabies. Sam An – for they are Lana Del Rabies – has a professed concept to “re-contextualized the more ominous aspects of modern pop music made by women”, and there is no doubt that this is managed brilliantly. The songs are full of vicious effects and samples, harsh sounds made difficult to listen to, forcing the listener to engage with uncomfortable truths, and Sam An is a mesmerising performer. The unexpected take on Cornflake Girl – yes, the classic Tori Amos single – refashioned it into a storm of static and noise while the lyrics were sung relatively straight. I need to see Lana Del Rabies again, it was that good.

Another band over the weekend that it was great to reacquaint with was Rabbit Junk. While they’ve made it over to the UK in the past decade, I’ve seen them more in North America, and to be honest, they have rather more of a fanbase there – as this show proved, with the crowd chanting for Rabbit Junk even as J.P. Anderson and Sum Grrrl were setting up. Indeed, this was my first Rabbit Junk show where Sum Grrrl didn’t have her place taken by someone else!

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 24 Sep 2023 / Rabbit Junk

As Rabbit Junk shows generally are, it was a lot of fun, too. The recent collaboration with Lazerpunk, was a electropunk stomper, and was that an old favourite from days of yore, February War, flashing past? The set ended, as every Rabbit Junk set should, with the giant stompalong of IDON’TGIVEAFUCK, and the result was a breathless, chaotic bit of band and fun coming together in utter joy and release.

I’d heard many enthusiastic reports about Sierra, but both album and live show left me rather cold. The recently released album A Story of Anger is a perfectly serviceable industrial/techno/synthwave crossover, but for me felt somewhat cold and distant, and I got a similar feel from the live show. Maybe it just wasn’t my bag: certainly many others there loved it.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 24 Sep 2023 / Lead Into Gold

Festival – and Chicago industrial – stalwart Paul Barker got a high billing this year with his Lead Into Gold project. Obviously a reactivated project in recent years – with the excellent new album The Eternal Present released earlier in the spring – Barker has continued his own experimentation with bass-led electronic music. The result is a sound quite unlike any of his peers, going for groove and atmosphere rather than any aggression, and live, it is a sound to get lost within.

Godflesh filled in nicely on the aggression front, mind. Returning to headline the festival for a second time, this time around they had more new material to air, and with the new album PURGE being very much a spiritual twin to the breakbeat-led PURE, this was a set that went all-in on that side of Godflesh, with spectacular results.

/Setlist /Godflesh

NERO / LAND LORD / I, Me, Mine / Ringer / Shut Me Down / Post Self / Dead Head / Streetcleaner / Weak Flesh / Like Rats / Spite

If you have seen Godflesh before, you’ll know that they are relatively minimal onstage: Justin Broadrick and B.C. Green at either side of the stage, with projected visuals taking centre-stage (and very little light otherwise, either). They are very much a band that like to let the music do the talking, and here, with a brutal volume and an equally brutal song selection, it was difficult to do anything other than be pinned to the spot by a band whose power seems to only grow.

Cold Waves XI / Chicago / 24 Sep 2023 / Godflesh

The new track LAND LORD – a dense attack of breakbeats, guitars like bulldozers and Broadrick’s roar – is a rare overt foray into politics of a sort, and bristles with the rage that the subject deserves, while one of the highlights of the night was the absolutely ferocious drum’n’bass/metal attack of I, Me, Mine, which had gut-punching levels of bass. The closing pair of Like Rats – burning rage in slow motion – and then the punishing hip-hop beats of Spite seemed to leave everyone reeling as the duo left the stage. There was no encore, but there didn’t need to be – that was seventy minutes of one of the most exhausting and thrilling live sets I’ve seen in a long, long time.

A few hours in the GMan next-door to wind down, taking in a few beers with new and old friends who I’d barely had the time to see over the weekend, was just what was needed in the end.

As my good friend Ilker at Regen Magazine put it earlier in the week, Cold Waves has become one big family. Where many people come a long way to hang out, to watch bands and to strengthen bonds and friendships that in many cases, are only otherwise online. We know that it’s for a good cause, and to honour the memory of fallen friends, but also, it’s how we take things forward. We make new discoveries, we tell our friends about the new music we hear, doubtless new musical partnerships are forged.

These festivals are so important to a scene like ours: long may they continue. With a bit of luck, I’ll be there next year, but that’s to make a decision about another day.

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