Memory of a Festival: 032: Black Celebration

Back in the mists of time, there used to be a steady stream of all-day “festival” events in the London goth/industrial scene. There was Gotham, there was Black Celebration, and probably a few more that I’ve rather forgotten about. They often had a good mix of bands, to appeal to the widest group possible, and could also result in seeing bands that might not otherwise make it to the UK.

So the return of Black Celebration after a good many years, when it was announced in the Spring, raised quite a few eyebrows. It was unexpected, to say the least, and also the timing of it on the same weekend as Whitby Goth Weekend – while there was an awful lot of turmoil going on there, too – was an interesting move. But as was noted, it didn’t technically clash with what was going on at Whitby. The festival itself – whoever is running it – at the Spa has always been bands on Friday and Saturday, and this of course was on the Sunday. Whether anyone made it to both across the weekend I’m not sure, but certainly I’m aware of one friend who was at Whitby, made it down to London on the Sunday for the NFL match at Wembley, and made it back to Whitby in time for the second half of the eighties night!

The line-up also raised eyebrows, too, as it was an awfully strong line-up, with effectively four headliners and four support acts, and amazingly only one band that I’d not personally seen live before. So, I hauled ass down there early, to ensure I managed to see all the bands – which, I should add, was some feat after attending an epic Dresden Dolls warm-up show and a boozy Hallowe’en party until the early hours the night before…

So things opened early. Like 1400 on a Sunday afternoon kinda early, which meant that Machine Rox took to the stage in front of a pretty sparse audience – but there were people there to see them. Which is a good thing, as they were better than any time I’ve seen them before. New vocalist Ariel has a hell of a brassy, soulful voice which certainly adds a striking counterpoint to the guitar-industrial-rock backing. In addition, they pulled out the stops with striking, silver and glittery outfits and even two appropriately mermaidy dancers for a crushing Seawitch, and they also did justice to a bruising cover of I Wanna Be Your Dog.

Following them was possibly the one artist of the day whose music really doesn’t do it for me on record, and live it does similarly. DKAG are a duo, formed of Slimelight DJs Emmerick and Steve Weeks, and they play thumping industrial dance music, of the kind I’ve been hearing at Slimes for years. The thing is, for me, it doesn’t really go anywhere, or really give me any hooks to keep me interested. Sure, there were a number of people down the front going nuts for them, but this just isn’t my bag any more.

The first of a couple of long-time-coming returns to London across the day came from Sulpher, the London-based industrial rock band that might quite the splash back in 2001, with their debut album Spray. Commitments from the core band members with a whole host of other bands – and, if I recall correctly, a stated intent to self-fund their second album – rather delayed any chance of a follow-up, and six years on from a handful of gigs in 2012 (Into the Pit: 131 and Into the Pit: 147 refer), which saw new material played at last, the new album No One Will Ever Know finally dropped this summer.

Sulpher setlist

One of Us
Follow You Down
Take A Long Hard Look

So I was perhaps a little surprised to find that the set here was broadly based around the old material – with three songs, and the best ones at that, from the new album. The band hit hard, too, from start-to-finish, with even the longer tracks sounding lean, mean and savage. The sonic maelstrom had one problem, though, with Rob’s sung vocals buried in the mix somewhat – but the choruses, where his vocals are normally more forceful, were no issue at all.

This set also proved one other thing – that the brutal Take A Long Hard Look is by far the best of the new songs, and frankly is the best song Ministry could have released in the past two decades. The ripping Scarred – a masterclass in dynamics as it goes from near silence to jet-engine blast volumes in literally seconds – helped close out things appropriately, too. The general feeling is that it is great to have them back.

One group who’ve had an ever-more prominent presence of late are Empathy Test. Since first appearing on our respective radars, what, three or four years ago, they’ve enjoyed a comparatively meteroic rise in our “scene”, even having the confidence to release twin debut albums last year (and both were excellent).

Empathy Test setlist

Last Night on Earth
Seeing Stars
Holy Rivers
Bare My Soul
Incubation Song
By My Side

This set, then, only seemed to cement their excellence, as the now three-piece band confidently swept through seven songs, including two new songs from their newly released EP that confirmed that the band are still nowhere close to exhausting the well of smartly-executed, hummable emotional synthpop.

What was interesting, though, was that one of the songs seems to showcase some experimentation with their sound. Incubation Song had an intriguing, sparse sound to it, with clear nods (to my ears) to experimental electronic music well beyond the usual reaches of the scene. But critically, it didn’t lose the crowd at all.

Unusually for a London scene show, too, things ran rigidly to time, and sadly the only band who had significant technical delays before their set was Empathy Test, who then found themselves running out of time before they could complete their set with their breakthrough song Losing Touch – instead, a clearly frustrated Isaac had to accept that By My Side was the closer, and speaking to him afterward, he was still pretty annoyed. But them’s the breaks, I guess, on a tightly scheduled day, but it certainly ended up selling this still-great band a little short.

I couldn’t help but feel that Suicide Commando felt like an out-of-time booking on this bill – and also perhaps a little surprising to find them down the bill as the “fourth” headliner (with three bands after them). But maybe that’s because the kind of music Johan Van Roy releases isn’t really quite as “fashionable” as it used to be.

Suicide Commando setlist

The Gates of Oblivion
My New Christ
The Pain That You Like
God Is in the Rain
Cause of Death: Suicide
The Devil
Bind, Torture, Kill
Love Breeds Suicide
We Are Transitory
Die Motherfucker Die

Indeed, a lot has changed since I saw SC play to a rabid, sold-out crowd in Montreal over seven years ago (Memory of a Festival: 011.5). I still rather think that part of the change in attitudes comes down to the following year and the We Deserve Better incident, which was really one of the first times where the nastiness, misogyny and implied violence in our scene was genuinely questioned – and if it didn’t make an impact immediately, in retrospect it seemed to start a sea change of styles that pushed aggrotech from top billing in the scene pretty quickly.

But also, perhaps, the scene had also already headed down a creative cul-de-sac. As this set perhaps suggested, how many songs about killing people do we really need? The one, even vaguely positive song in the set was castigating those who want to take their own life (and was by far the best song in the set, hello, Cause of Death: Suicide), and there was another, even more surprising old song on a similiar subject in the form of Love Breeds Suicide (which, sadly, appeared to go almost entirely unrecognised by much of the by-now much bigger crowd).

The other thing I noted down at the time was the surprising number of women enthusiastically enjoying the set, despite many of the lyrics utterly demeaning them, such as in Bind, Torture, Kill, which the more I think about it is a deeply unpleasant song that appears to hold up serial killers in an uncritical light.

The biggest crime here, though, was one of tedium. I’m pretty sure SC used to be more interesting than this? Even that oldie Love Breeds Suicide felt, if you’ll excuse the pun, rather lifeless, and the hour-long set felt rather longer by the time that we were done.

I’ve seen an awful lot of Mesh in the past few years – indeed three times in the past eighteen months. But that’s not to say I’m bored of them, far from it – each time has been remarkably different because of their intent to dig into different aspects of their now-lengthy career each time.

Mesh setlist

State of Mind
The Fixer
I Fall Over
My Protector
The Trouble We’re In
Leave You Nothing
The Last One Standing
Born To Lie
Taken For Granted

I’d not actually noticed previously, but it turned out that this year’s shows were part of a retrospective called Involved, and so now I think about it, it makes perfect sense that the band were digging deep into their past – with some of these songs not played in years and years.

The first two songs aired were songs nearly twenty years old, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them live before – although in front of a festival crowd that may not know their deeper cuts, perhaps the muted crowd reaction could be understood. Which was a shame, as it was lovely to hear State of Mind in particular. On the flipside, their more recent material has been better than ever, and songs like the anthemic, pummelling The Fixer got a better reaction than som eof the old favourites.

For me, though, the best moments here were now established, old favourites. Leave You Nothing has an emotional force that shocks me every time, while Taken For Granted is now perhaps the perfect closer, as the crowd sing out the refrain without any real prompting from the band. Indeed, I’d state a case for it being the ultimate culmination of what Mesh do. Dealing with heartbreak, love and hope in equal measures, with songs that connect and are enormously enjoyable to sing along to.

Sure, not everyone loves them, but I do – and this was another great show from them.

They, though, and every single other band on the bill were left in the shade by the return to London of The Young Gods. It’s been five long years since I saw them last (indeed I saw them in three different countries across a year on their first album retrospective tour – in Prague, then London and Antwerp), and while they’ve played sporadic shows since, I’d begun to give up hope on either more UK dates or a new album.

The Young Gods setlist

Gasoline Man
L’eau Rouge
The Night Dance
Kissing The Sun
Dame Chance

But just recently, the band confirmed that a new album is done and due in February 2019, and this show was announced – and by the time they took to the stage, it was noticeable that it was considerably busier than it had been all day, as if they and not D.A.F. were the real draw of the day.

They made us work for it, though, with two lengthy new songs to open the set, with Franz Triechler even playing guitar on these industrial-tinged, proggy epics. For those new to the Young Gods, they were always traditionally a three-piece band of drummer, sampler and vocalist – guitars have occasionally featured on more recent material, but not like this. They were certainly intriguing new songs – as was the seemingly even-longer track that closed out the set – and I’ll be looking forward to that new album.

In between those bookends, though, The Young Gods absolutely torched the stage and crowd with a forty-minute blast through eight of their greatest songs, leaving most of the audiences jaws on the floor in doing so.

When Franz put the guitar down, the lights changed and Jimmy was unleashed, it felt like a symbolic change, as if we were suddenly transported back a couple of decades, but things really got nuts when the industrial-meets-twelve-bar-blues of Gasoline Man ignited the crowd. Who knew it was such a popular, catchy song? London crowds often have a deserved reputation for standoffishness, but within seconds of the hook kicking in, all inhibitions were gone and arms were in the air – and they stayed there for the iconic Skinflowers, too.

Frankly I could run down every single song, it was that good, but for me the soaring drama of The Night Dance (an often overlooked song from TV Sky that is probably my favourite TYG song of all) and the ambient-meets-industrial-thrash of Kissing The Sun that followed were by a nose the highlights of the set.

By the time they left the stage to roars from the crowd – partly in disappointment that we could only have an hour, frankly most of the crowd looked like they would have settled for another hour from them – it was obvious that this was the band of the day, and indeed one of the best live sets I’ve seen in the past two or three years. Visceral, otherworldly, The Young Gods are simply unlike any other band, and if you’ve never seen their live show, I can’t explain how much you are missing out.

After that breathless show, I rather felt sorry for Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft [DAF]. The crowd noticably thinned once The Young Gods had finished – many perhaps taking the view that they were never going to be topped – but I’d never seen DAF, and I rather wanted to do so. But sadly, the energy had been sucked out of me, and I only lasted three songs before having to call it a night. Robert Görl’s forceful drumming was impressive, but the electronics weren’t particularly audible, which rather tore the heart out of the songs – with the exception of the evergreen, sneering Der Mussolini, which still had the fire of old. Hopefully I’ll have another chance to do DAF full justice.

This was, overall, an enjoyable day, in a venue I’ve always liked for live music. It was perhaps a bit too big for the crowd that made it down, but at least that meant we weren’t crammed in uncomfortably, and there weren’t massive queues at the bar either. A note for the logistics, too, with set-times clearly shared beforehand, and everything running to time for most of the day (with the obvious exception of what happened to Empathy Test). If it’s running next year, it will certainly be considered again by me, particularly if the line-up is as strong as this again.

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