|see all photos from this concert here
Terra Gotha Festival:
Faith And The Muse
The Breath Of Life
Cold Pop Culture
Arsenal Theatre, Vlissingen, The Netherlands
October 25, 2003
~review and photos by Uncle
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
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
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,
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: http://www.mercyground.com
The Breath Of Life: http://www.the-breath-of-life.com
The Wounded: http://www.the-wounded.nl
Cold Pop Culture: http://www.coldpopculture.com
The Terra Gotha website: http://www.terra-gotha.com
(Video clips, photos, and much general information here).
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to