see all photos from this concert here

Terra Gotha Festival:
Faith And The Muse
The Breath Of Life
The Wounded
Cold Pop Culture
Arsenal Theatre, Vlissingen, The Netherlands
October 25, 2003
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Vlissingen. A picturesque harbour town in the south of Holland. Not, perhaps, the first name which springs to mind when one contemplates the European goth-tour circuit. And yet, this pin-neat little town is rapidly becoming one of the principal stop-offs for touring bands. Vlissingen may not be a major city, but its trump card is its location. It's ideally placed to trawl in an audience not only from the home country, but also from neighbouring Belgium, with France and Germany also within easy travelling distance. This means any gig in Vlissingen has an extremely wide catchment area, and thus potentially an audience easily the equal of a big-city show. The advantages of the Vlissingen's location were noted by photographer turned promoter Wim de Nooyer, who since 2001 has been running an increasingly successful series of gigs and festivals in the town, under the name Terra Gotha.

This particular event is the sixth Terra Gotha so far; a one-day festival that's big enough to count as a special event, yet small enough to feel relaxed and informal. Or perhaps that's just the Dutch way of doing things - everything in Holland seems relaxed and informal, especially when you've just flown in from the uptight chaos of London. The venue is the Arsenal Theatre, a splendidly maintained harbourside building which, it seems, is the focal point for all sorts of arts and entertainment events in Vlissingen. In the front, there's a friendly bar and restaurant, where the staff regard the sudden influx of black-clad weirdos with easy-going good humour. At the back, there's a bona-fide theatre auditorium, complete with red velvet drapes and glittering chandeliers. The traditional tip-up seats have been winched out of the way by means of a curious mechanical device which literally folds up the entire array of seats, plus the tiered floor onto which they're fixed. This reveals a flat dancefloor - all that's necessary now is to wheel in a PA, and the Arsenal Theatre becomes an appropriately glamourous gig venue. Terra Gotha is ready to rock.

As the crowd filters in, I'm struck by the wide range of ages represented. Everyone from teenage spookykids to fortysomething veterans of the old school are here today. It seems that Terra Gotha events are everyone's opportunity to meet and mingle on equal terms. If you fancy a drink, a bizarre system applies whereby you buy blue plastic tokens like oversized tiddleywinks at a booth, and then exchange these for drinks at the bar. Presumably this is to exert some sort of control over under-age drinking, although there's nothing to stop the old-skoolers from buying drinks for their younger counterparts. At any rate, one tiddleywink gets you a plastic glass of unspecified capacity, which is filled to a random level by a barman standing at a Heineken pump. It all seems bizarrely vague from a UK perspective - exactly how much booze we get for our money is sternly regulated by law, and woe betide the barman who doesn't fill our regulation pint glasses up to the required level! Here in the Netherlands, the precise level of beer in your glass seems to depend on nothing more scientific than whether the bar staff like your face. Still, a few tiddleywinks and a few Heinekens later, it's time to face the front and take in the show. The traditional red velvet curtain, which screens off the stage whenever the bands aren't playing, is pulled aside to reveal the first band of the festival: Cold Pop Culture.

Cold Pop Culture are local-ish hereoes. According to their website (which is all in Dutch, so don't shoot me if I've got this wrong) they're from Goes, a town just up the road from Vlissingen, and perhaps this is the reason why, even though they're at the bottom of the bill, they seem to have a fanbase which wouldn't disgrace a headline act. An enthusiastic crowd clusters towards the stage; a marked contrast to the usual fate of an opening band, who traditionally have to play to a handful of curious souls and a large expanse of empty floor. Interestingly enough, it seems to be the younger crowd - the spookykid element - who are most interested in the band, so I'm all geared up for a cartoonish horror-metal experience, complete with 'Huuurrrgh!' vocals. And I'm proved entirely wrong, which just shows how foolish it is to make assumptions. Cold Pop Culture aren't like that at all.

Perhaps the name of the band should have dropped a clue: they're Cold *Pop* Culture, not Cold Metal Culture, or even Cold Rock Culture. Yep, they're a pop group first and foremost. Imagine the robust guitar-driven sound of Suede filtered through 80s chart-pop, and lyrics which, from what I can make out, stick pretty closely to the tried and tested territory of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-has-angst-attack-over-girl. Their performance is almost entirely carried by the lead vocalist, and here we have Cold Pop Culture's unique - or, at least, slightly odd - selling point, because there's a bizarre disconnection between the frontman and the rest of the band. Most of Cold Pop Culture favour neat, anonymous haircuts and plain black T-shirts. They stand circumspectly in their designated positions, little more than silhouettes amid the lights, allowing the vocalist - who, in his PVC waistcoat and extensive tattoos, is the only one to have a distinctive image - to cut loose and do his thing. And indeed he does cut loose, throwing expansive rock 'n' roll shapes like he's fronting a frothing bunch of glam-punk reprobates. He straps on a bass, and fires it at us like a machine gun. It's a bravura performance of gung-ho rock star moves, but it sits rather uneasily with the neat, polite, pop persona of the band as a whole. There's a distinct mismatch between the rock-god singer and the pop-kid band. This doesn't seem to bother the fans at the front, who cheer every move the singer makes, but for me it doesn't quite work. The overall effect is rather like watching Stiv Bators fronting Haircut 100. Interesting - entertaining, even - but in the end I'm left with the odd impression that Cold Pop Culture haven't quite sorted out what kind of band they want to be.

The curtain closes; the roadies thump and clang; the curtain opens again. And here are The Wounded, arranged around the stage in a slightly odd configuration which sees the bassist occupying the centre-forward position, while the lead vocalist, a burly bloke clutching a guitar inscribed 'I Am Your God', is tucked away, downstage, at one side. If he really is our god, he's being very discreet about it. There's a keyboard player at the back, a guitarist with a Flying V and a vintage 1973 hairstyle stage-left, and, flanking the bassist and noticeably further forward than the lead singer, a statuesque female backing vocalist in what looks, to my admittedly un-fashion-conscious eye, to be a brown leather A-line skirt and big brown boots of a style which I never thought I'd see outside of a Stevie Nicks video. The message I'm getting from The Wounded's image hints rather worryingly at mid-seventies AOR. Hmm. Before they've even played a note, alarm bells are ringing in my head.

But does the band's music match their image? Well, inasmuch as they make entirely straightforward, conventional rock, yes, it does. It's all performed with impressive assurance - if it's musicianship you want, The Wounded have a veritable navy of it. The lead vocalist has a strong, deep voice, the guitars mesh and roar and chime, and the backing vocalist lets rip in a manner which makes me wonder if she's practiced by singing along to the female vocals on Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. (Not a bad guess on my part, as it turns out: a glance at The Wounded's website reveals that the band themselves make reference to 'The experimental parts of old Pink Floyd mixed with the atmosphere of Anathema and Paradise Lost' to describe their music). It's all very competent and professional; there's no doubt that we're in the presence of Real Musicians here. But...wait a minute. AOR? Conventional rock? Pink Floyd, for heaven's sake? Whatever happened to goth as a post-punk aesthetic? How did we get from that crazed, arty, glammy scene, all cheekbones, tension, and taut, vital music, to....brown A-line skirts and AOR? Sure, I know that such bands as The Mission and The Cult brought 70s rock influences (chiefly Led Zeppelin, in their case) into their music some years back, but The Wounded seem to have taken the process further. They've eschewed all vestiges of goth's post-punk origins in favour of a vaguely 'dark' mainstream rock style which, aesthetically, places them somewhere between the Nephilim and Nickelback. And that, frankly, is a place I don't want to go.

The Wounded crank it up a bit here and there - some of their songs are fairly chunky rockers - but they never quite go into the metal zone, a fact which, paradoxically, I find myself regretting. I'm no metal fan, but a bit of balls-out metallic thrashing would have injected a much-needed dose of excitement into what is a fairly pedestrian and conventional rock show. As it is, the only real point of note in The Wounded's set is a cover of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', which they play in a slo-mo, downbeat style which effectively removes the manic, grandstanding feel of the original - the slowed-down arrangement makes the band sound like a drivetime version of Type O Negative. The entire set is greeted with much enthusiasm from the crowd; the audience clearly loves the band, but they just don't connect with me. I mean, did we fight the Punk Wars just so The Wounded could appear on stage wearing comforting earth tones, and playing acceptable AOR? I respectfully submit that we bloody well did not!

Malaise have driven a marathon journey from Sweden to be here today, crossing three countries just to play a one-off show. That's just the kind of gloriously illogical escapade which makes the rock 'n' roll world go round, of course, and Malaise have that essential gung-ho spirit of adventure. Invite them to a party, and you can be sure that they'll be there, even if it is three countries away from home. They troop out on stage and hit the crowd with their gothic rock master blaster, and all of a sudden Terra Gotha slams into a higher gear.

There are a few bands around (Funhouse being one good example) who do the Gothic Rock thing with such gung-ho spirit that I find myself caught up in the goth 'n' roll madness of the music in spite of my better judgement. Or maybe I never had any better judgement to start with - you decide! At any rate, Malaise are masters of this particular arcane art. Their style is heavily based around that ol' Sisters/Mission thing, with maybe a side order of Misery Loves Co -style hollow-eyed rock, but the enthusiasm of their performance transcends the perhaps rather prosaic foundation of the music. The vocalist lunges forward at the audience, fixing them with a bug-eyed stare, while the goofy guitarist (Malaise have two guitarists: the goofy one and the serious one) prowls around the stage in his 'Cheer Up Goth!' T-shirt. He throws comedy shapes and makes funny faces at the audience and the other members of the band, but he never stops bashing out the riffs. The serious guitarist and the bassist hang back, maintaining their cool, an effective foil for the antics of their colleagues. There seems to be a contingent of the Malaise Barmy Army down the front, because song announcements are greeted with much cheering, and there's a definite spirit of goodwill in the air. It's as if the audience appreciates Malaise's effort in travelling so far for this gig, and they're determined to show the band a good time - or, at least, a good mosh. Throughout the set, the vocalist gesticulates for more oomph (technical term) from the monitors, but it seems no more oomph is forthcoming. How about that, you drive all the way from Sweden and then you find you can't hear the monitors. But Malaise don't use this as an excuse to have a rock star stress attack. They just keep going, the singer bending down to listen closely to his monitor in the intervals between his vocal lines - he's making his point, but he's making a stunt out of it too; it all becomes part of the show. There's a big climax in which red roses are flung out to the audience, who leap and seethe like carp at feeding time in their efforts to grab them...and then it's over. A good old rumbustious set, and just what we needed to wake things up and get things moving.

It's a pity, then, that Zeraphine come on and slow it all down again. I station myself at the front and prepare to pay attention, because I've never heard of Zeraphine before, a fact for which I hope I can be forgiven. They're a relatively new band, and (unless I've missed something) they haven't particularly pushed the publicity boat out in the direction of the UK. Their position on the bill here at Terra Gotha is surprisingly high for a new-ish outfit, but I suspect the fact that some of the band are ex-Dreadful Shadows has boosted them up the rankings somewhat. As I watch the band take up their positions on stage, the nagging doubts which assailed me about The Wounded come back for an encore in my head - certain members of Zeraphine also favour a conservative, 'dressed-down' conventional-rock-band image. The guitarist at stage-left looks like Nigel Tufnel out of Spinal Tap, for heaven's sake, with his mid-70s centre-parting and designer jeans. Meanwhile, the bassist, who bizarrely resembles Warren Zevon's little brother, is wearing brown flares. Yep, brown flares - and I'm very much afraid he's not even being ironic. He's wearing those brown flares like he *means* it! Does this mean we're in the AOR zone again? Well, here comes the singer, wearing a voluminous floor-length skirt. He looks like Queen Victoria, if she'd been asked to do a guest spot with the Virgin Prunes. The signals I'm getting from Zeraphine's visual identity are somewhat confused: this could go either way. It's all down to the music now.

And here comes the music. At first, it sounds encouraging. Zeraphine have a strong, assertive sound, with the basslines popping and fizzing between the two guitars, and the vocalist hollering out his lyrics over the top. He sweeps back and forth, upstage and down, looking like a rock 'n' roll Dalek in his floor-length skirt. The audience greets every song with storms of applause - clearly, Zeraphine are hitting the spot. And yet, and yet. A few songs in, and it dawns on me that, yes, we're ploughing that conventional rock furrow again. Zeraphine aren't in the business of pushing any envelopes or upsetting any applecarts, that much is clear. The lead singer's dress is a red herring: it hints at a quirky individuality which the band as a whole don't have. When all's said and done, Zeraphine are a bunch of regular rock guys playing regular rock. And they do it very well, I have no quibble with that. There's plenty of technical expertise on show here, but after a few songs it all seems to blur together into one long conventional rock workout. I hang on, hoping that the band will pull a surprise out of their musical bag, but they never do. In the end, I head for the bar to spend a few more blue tiddleywinks, leaving Zeraphine plugging away on stage. It's not often that I'll walk away from a band in mid-set, but I fear Zeraphine were just a bit too...regular.

Here's a disconcerting thought: the last time I saw The Breath Of Life, it was 1999 and they were doing the London/Whitby double, as was something of a tradition for bands at that time. The London gig, as it happens, was one of mine, and I recall the band played an astonishingly good set. (I knew they would. That's why I booked 'em!) But their Whitby performance was even better - they really had the audience wrapped around their fingers. I remember being accosted by a full-on techno fan while the band were in full flow on stage. He stopped his freaky dancing just long enough to fix me with a bug-eyed stare, blue dreadlocks all a-quiver, and assure me: 'I go to techno clubs every week - but I've never peaked this high!'  In a weird way, I sometimes think that must've been the best compliment ever paid to The Breath Of Life. It's not every band that can tear the techno-heads away from the ruthless tyranny of the beat. I can't see any bug-eyed techno enthusiasts here tonight, but there's a definite air of anticipation as the band gets ready to start. The Breath Of Life have built up quite a following on the Euro-circuit, partly by the simple method of plugging away with gigs and releases for as long as it takes to get somewhere. But there's more to it than that, of course. It helps that this is a band which *does* have a certain quirky individuality. It's there in the music, which sounds like it's  spilling through a rip in the fabric of reality from a party in the world next door, where they're playing the Cocteau Twins and the Pixies at the same time on the living room stereo. And it's also there in the band's apperarance: Isabelle, The Breath Of Life's vocalist, has an on-stage persona which creates the impression that her head's at that party in the other world. You'd never be in any danger of losing The Breath Of Life amid the workaday AOR crowd, that's for sure.

So, here they are, on stage in a shimmering multicoloured mist, the keyboard player stationed behind his equipment like Jean-Luc Picard at the controls of the Enterprise. The bass throbs and gurgles through a tower of Trace Eliot power. There's a new guitarist in the band these days; he pours out strata of sound like he's putting down a multi-layer floor screed. It's a dense, powerful, wall of noise. The Breath Of Life, in their live incarnation, are a significantly more fearsome proposition than their recorded works would have you believe. And there's Isabelle herself, bobbing and weaving around the stage as if dodging invisible spirits, and letting rip with *that* voice, an operatic wail from the spaces between the worlds. It's a captivating experience, which grabs the audience's attention and nails it to the stage. The off-kilter classics like 'Fly' and 'Falling Drops' come rolling out of the PA like psychedelic fog. Ah, this is the stuff, a heady musical brew in which the rhythms crack and shudder, and the guitar, keyboards and violin sweep and range around and around. I'd expected something good, obviously, but this is beyond good. I'd forgotten just what a preternaturally brilliant live band The Breath Of Life are. Now, *this* makes up for all that brown-flares music we've had to endure beforehand!

And so we come to headline-time. The curtain blanks off the stage. From behind, we hear the sounds of a hasty Faith And The Muse soundcheck. It seems the band arrived too late for a normal pre-show soundcheck after a mad trans-Belgium drive from their previous date in Germany, so it's a case of taking a few minutes before the set to strum a few chords, bash a few drums, utter a swift prayer to the god of gigs, and then wing it. I could name a few bands who'd use this sort of situation to throw all manner of rock star hissy fits, but Faith And The Muse seem to take it all in their stride. At any rate, when the curtain pulls back to reveal the band deployed in the firing position - a genuinely dramatic moment, notwithstanding the fact that we've heard them getting ready, and therefore *know* that they're there - they look as cool and collected as if they'd just strolled in from the green room. They kick straight in to 'Bait & Switch', and we are instantly in the presence of class. Faith And The Muse are cooking with gas this time round. There's a good old gung-ho dynamic at work in this incarnation of the live band, and the tightened-up set they're playing on this tour really hits the spot.

Having said that, it's noticeable that Faith And The Muse are doing slightly quieter business at this gig than a week ago in London. The drums have a softer sound; they don't thwack as hard as they did before. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that it's a different kit - in London, the band borrowed Killing Miranda's drum kit, which is precision-tuned for glam-rock thunder. Here, using different gear (and not just the drums: the bass and guitar backline have been borrowed from The Breath Of Life and Malaise respectively), it shouldn't come as a surprise to find that the overall sound of the band has subtly mutated. Monica's vocal seems subtly mutated, too - I get the impression that she's pacing things, holding back a little, riding with the instrumental pack instead of leading from the front. As it turns out, she's recovering from some sort of grisly on-tour illness which has knocked the edge off her voice, and although she's now on the mend, this particular performance doesn't have quite such a heavy stomp on the accelerator as might otherwise be the case. Still, Faith And the Muse, even in cruising mode, are still a clear lap or two ahead of the competition. You can hear it in that snap and crackle quality of the songs, and see it in the sharp-dressed glam of the band's on-stage image. I'm willing to bet that Faith And The Muse would put lighted matches under their fingernails before they'd mosey on stage in brown flares and play workaday AOR. This is the difference between those of us who're coming from that post-punk aesthetic, and those of us who never quite got beyond Fleetwood Mac. Faith And the Muse certainly know how to apply the lessons and inspirations of that particular socio-cultural upheaval. And, of course, in 'Relic Song', they've written a pithy commentary on just this subject - and made it sound like Metal Urbain! Ah, you can't fail to love 'em, can you?

The highlight of this particular set, though, has to be 'The Burning Season', that slice-up of pulses and atmospheres and gloriously illogical towering choruses, like Kraftwerk remade in Cinemascope. Live, the song clatters along like a train, stopping briefly at a series of stations called 'Ignite'. It's a small masterclass in dynamics and control all by itself, but then, that's the stuff which Faith and The Muse do so well.  On stage tonight, notwithstanding Monica's illness and perhaps a certain amount of on-the-road fatigue all round (this is the 21st date and 10th country of the tour - and there's still more to come) Faith And The Muse manage to remind us all over again just what makes them special.

And then, it's over. Or, at least, the live music element of Terra Gotha draws to a close. For those who've got the stamina, the party continues: the DJs take over for another few hours. It's been an enlightening event in all sorts of ways. Terra Gotha demonstrates that it's not necessary to have a big city location to run a successful festival, or to attract touring bands to make a stop-off. A strategic location and good communications are the essential factors on the European live music circuit, and all the rest follows naturally. Plus, of course, the friendly informality of Terra Gotha is something of an attraction all by itself - I'd guess for the bands as much as the audience.

The event also illustrates an element of the Eurogoth scene which, perhaps, has gone unremarked until now: the rise of a brand of conventional rock - AOR, even - which has nothing much to distinguish it from mainstream music. This, I guess, was the reason The Gathering managed to hold a large goth festival audience spellbound with their blandly smooth coffee-table rock at the WGT earlier this year; it's also the reason why The Wounded and Zeraphine got such a favourable reaction from the Terra Gotha crowd. Conventional, straightforward, decidedly un-alternative rock is a genuine sub-sector of the European goth scene these days. Personally, I rather wish it wasn't, but that's just my view as a foot soldier in the Punk Wars. The phenomenon does seem to be genuine, and clearly a lot of people rather like it. This is the flip side of the deathrock coin, I suppose - for every band of punky chancers like Bloody Dead And Sexy, with their thrashy riffs and their distressed fishnet, there'll be a band of hidebound AOR-musos playing meticulously constructed guitar figures while wearing non-ironic brown flares - and enjoying great success at it, too. The fact that both these opposing aesthetics can be accommodated within the European goth scene demonstrates, I suppose, the great strength and extent of the scene. There's enough room - and, indeed, enough of an audience - for everyone. But in the end, I know which way I'm going to jump.

see all photos from this concert here

Faith And The Muse:
The Breath Of Life:
The Wounded:
Cold Pop Culture:

The Terra Gotha website: (Video clips, photos, and much general information here).

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: