see all photos from this concert here

Wave Gotik Treffen 
Leipzig, Germany
Friday May 28 - Monday May 31 2004
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Part three: Sonntag
(Bands in order of appearance)
The House Of Usher
Skeletal Family
The Cruxshadows
Sex Gang Children

Today we’re going to play band-roulette up at the Agra, where the bill includes several famous names and a smattering of artists who fall into the ‘never heard of ‘em’ bracket - at least, for me. But, given that the Agra is the WGT’s largest venue, even the bands on the lower reaches of the bill must have some sort of recognition factor across Germany as a whole, not to mention a fanbase, the ability to pull in a crowd. There’s a big tin shed to fill, which means that every band has to count for something. For the bands, I suppose it’s a compliment to be asked to play this venue. It means that you’re really getting somewhere in Germany; you’ve got presence and clout. But it’s a backhanded compliment in a way, for the Agra is a harsh, unforgiving space. It’s stark, functional, entirely free of atmosphere, and has the acoustics of...well, a big tin shed. The sightlines, which have never been great, are worse than usual this year because a video crew has commandeered a large expanse of space immediately in front of the stage This means there’s a gap of about three metres between the front row of the crowd and the stage, which itself is lined with a Berlin wall of monitor wedges cunningly arranged to block off the bands. Any artist who can overcome these drawbacks, successfully project their personality and their music over these barriers, and whip up any kind of atmosphere, must be skilled indeed. To play the Agra is a compliment. It’s also the harshest test a band is likely to face anywhere on the live circuit.

But before we pluck up courage to enter the tin shed of doom, let’s take a walk around the grounds. The Agra is set in parkland, which during the WGT is given over to the campsite (for those who want to capture the traditional festival vibe under ripstop nylon) and an endearingly haphazard encampment of food stalls and open-air bars. There’s even an ice cream van selling wine, a sight which is worth the price of the WGT ticket by itself.  The access road alongside the venue - a broad strip of tarmac which usually sees nothing more exciting than delivery vans - becomes the WGT’s equivalent to the boulevard at Cannes for the duration of the festival: a constant promenade of goths in all their ever-varying finery, from Louis Quatorze frills and flounces to the distressed fishnet of the deathrockers, all followed by a hundred swivelling camera lenses. If you come upon any photos of WGT attendees anywhere on the web, the chances are this is where they were taken.

Meanwhile, inside the musty twilight of the Agra, The House Of Usher are doggedly taking on a ghastly sound mix. Unfortunately, the ghastly sound mix is winning. The bass booms like the crack of doom, while every other element of the sound is thin and underpowered by comparison. I suppose that’s the way it goes if you’re unlucky enough to go on stage early: your entire set becomes a soundcheck for the PA crew. The problem is compounded for The House Of Usher in that they play a no-surprises brand of gothic rock which doesn’t really have much in the way of individual, quirky, attention-grabbing elements that might help the band’s performance rise above the sonic murk. Frankly, they sound like a goth band that’s been designed by a committee, and while I’m loath to throw criticism at a band which is clearly stymied by unfortunate circumstances, the fact remains that there’s not much here that makes me want to push my way to the front and hang over the barrier, drinking it all in. Instead, I think I’ll go to the bar at the back and drink something else in. From a safe distance, I watch the band make the best of a tough assignment, and in truth they don’t do too badly. But as they walk off the stage at the end, I see the singer shaking his head to himself in a despairing gesture. This show certainly won’t go down in the history of The House Of Usher as a classic, that’s for sure.

Skeletal Family pull me to the front again. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe this is the first gig the ‘new’ Skeletal Family have played in Germany - I assume they must’ve played here some years back in one or other of their past line-ups. From the way the crowd suddenly gathers and surges forward, it seems there’s certainly a healthy amount of interest in the band, even if, going by the bemused expressions I see around me as Claire appears centre-stage, quite a few people aren’t entirely sure who the lead singer is. I’m momentarily bemused myself to see that the Skels have Van Morrison guesting on keyboards for this show. Nope, wait a minute, it’s Karlheinz in enigmatic shades and hat. The sound miraculously improves - well, slightly - and the band hit their stride in such a confident manner you’d almost believe they played large-scale festival dates every week.  They’ve clearly decided on a full-speed-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes approach for this gig, and it works. The riffs come tumbling over the barrier into the audience, while Claire prowls the stage like she owns it.  It’s misleading to think of Skeletal Family in terms of old-skool goth, because in this incarnation they’re really a punchy, contemporary, rock band which just happens to have a catalogue that goes back further than most. We get plenty of selections from that catalogue - ‘She Cries Alone’ gets the crowd moving all the way to the back - and also a new song, ‘All My Best Friends’ which, encouragingly, gets a reaction as enthusiastic as the old stuff. I confess I was a little worried about how Skeletal Family would go down at the WGT. Taking on the Agra in a relatively early slot was never going to be easy, and after seeing The House Of Usher struggle with the sound I feared the worst. But they came out with all guns blazing, and they got a result.

One of the more baffling traits of the WGT is the tendency to scatter random metal bands of various styles around the bills, regardless of whether they fit in with the overall musical slant of the day. One such random metal band appears before us now. Deathstars, I’m told by my metal consultant (Natasha of Meltdown, who knows about this sort of thing), comprise a bunch of ex-death metal musicians who apparently experienced a road to Damascus moment and gave themselves a spooky-glammy make-over, resulting in the band we see before us today: an unholy cross between Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue. Their music is a roaring, squealing mass of metal noise, testosterone splattering all over the place, and yet, curiously, the music almost plays second fiddle to the band’s visual image.  They’re a shameless bunch of showbiz hams, striking extravagant rock-god poses and offering themselves up for worship by the audience, most of which, I regret to note, are quite willing to go along with this foolishness. I would find it all a touch more palatable if I could discern a scrap of irony amongst all the posturing, some small hint of wit or humour or just plain self-awareness; an acknowledgement that the band realise that it’s all a bit silly. Alas, I fear they’re deadly serious about every foot-on-the-monitor pose, every smear of ‘horror’ make-up, every rock god strut and preen. This kind of OTT show does have one advantage, of course - it bridges the great divide between band and audience very effectively. The security pit and the video crew might just as well not exist for Deathstars, as they hurl their cartoonish monsters-of-metal imagery at the crowd. So, I’ll give ‘em that. They’re showmen all right, even if the show is a fairly gormless collection of hoary old rock star moves. I’m sure P. T. Barnum would approve. But what was that old Phineas said about never underestimating the intelligence of the audience...?

I note that the next band on the bill call themselves Untoten - Undead, for English speakers. Purely on the strength of that name, I was all geared up for a full-on vampire-rock experience. I should’ve learned a lesson from my similar assumption with The Count. Untoten do indeed draw upon the familiar territory of vampire imagery for their songs - every number in their repertoire seems to be about children of the night, lovers from beyond the grave, castles in the Carpathians, all that stuff. But their music is something entirely different, to the point of being quite incongruous. It’s bouncy, cheery, upbeat Europop, each song bopping merrily along like it’s disco night at Castle Dracula. Most of what we hear is coming from a backing track of some sort, for Untoten are only a two-piece. They comprise an amiable lad on guitar, and a bona fide sexxxy deth chyk on vocals, who pirouettes and gesticulates her way through every song to the great appreciation of the male half of the audience. It seems that Untoten are aware that two humans and a backing track aren’t really enough to fill the large Agra stage, so they’ve brought along some props. Two massive banners create a backdrop, and - inexplicably - a bundle of what looks like brushwood is tied to the mic stand, possibly in an effort to create a spooky forest at midnight effect. Although, if this is the band’s intention, I have to say that making the mic stand look like Hagrid’s partially unravelled wig doesn’t quite do it for me. There are also two random goth chyx jigging happily away in the background, in such a haphazard manner that at first I assume that they’re two random fans who’ve managed to scramble on stage. But, as the set unfolds and they keep on jumping and twirling and waving their arms around, I realise that they’re supposed to be there. They are, apparently, Untoten’s official backing dancers. Trouble is, their ‘dancing’ is utterly random and unstructured, and hardly relates in any way to the music, so I think I may be forgiven for assuming they were just a couple of fans who slipped past security. At one point, Countess Untoten grabs one of the dancers, catching the poor girl in mid-flail, and pretends to bite her neck - ha, that’ll teach her to cut dance class. Then she turns back to the crowd with fake blood running down her face and cheerfully carries on singing. It’s all as cheesy as a pot of fromage frais and as poppy as a can of Tizer, and I can’t quite believe that the audience is talking it all at face value, but then so many aspects of the German goth scene seem so baffling to outsiders I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Untoten are entertaining enough, in a suspend-your-disbelief manner, but at the end of their set I’m not sure whether I’ve seen the goth version of Roxette, or Transylvania’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

We’re getting towards the superstar end of the bill now, and here come The Cruxshadows, who stride on to the big Agra stage as if they were born to the task. A hefty cheer goes up. This is one band the audience has been waiting to see: genuine stars of the show. But the Cruxshadows are by no means an overnight success story. They’ve achieved their present status by a lengthy campaign of relentless touring, while at the same time deliberately honing their music into an accessible, danceable, touch-all-bases scene-soundtrack. They know what the goth scene wants to hear, and they point their songwriting, arrangements and production directly at the target. If this means that The Cruxshadows’ music sometimes veers dangerously close to bland, conventionally-structured EBM with a slightly self-conscious overlay of ‘gothic’ elements (the choppy guitar, the violin, the mystical lyrics) - well, nobody in Leipzig seems to be complaining. When it comes to the music, The Cruxshadows are in no danger of gaining a reputation as maverick innovators. They’re slap in the middle of the goth-scene mainstream, a position which they’ve deliberately selected for themselves, and it’s certainly paid off. But when it comes to the business of putting on a show - ah, well. This is the area where the band can convincingly claim to be unique. Nobody else does it like this.

The Cruxshadows are introducing a revised line-up tonight. They have a new guitarist, although he’s little more than a vague shape in the smoke at the back of the stage. One of the band’s two dancers is also new, and, in a further tweak, the dancers now sport headset mics to contribute backing vocals, a task they perform with professional ease, even when they’re called upon to sing in the middle of complex choreographed moves. And yes, *these* dancers are the real thing. Not for The Cruxshadows the random jigging and flailing of Untoten’s amateurish background-boppers. The band has obviously put a great deal of time and trouble into working out bespoke routines for every song, and relentlessly rehearsing until every dance-move is locked to the beat. It’s impressive, but the dancers are not just an optional extra. They have a genuine function in that they help to hold the stage while Rogue, the band’s frontman, vocalist, and acrobat, is elsewhere. For Rogue, the stage is something upon which you occasionally set foot en route to somewhere more exciting. Calmly singing all the while, he climbs over the security barrier and plunges into the crowd, which miraculously parts to let him in, then closes up afterwards as if claiming him for its own. But he emerges, unscathed and still singing, and scrambles back (briefly) to the stage, before climbing to the top of the lighting rig, where he gesticulates grandly from on high. I can’t help wondering whether the WGT organisers insisted on an ‘at your own risk’ clause in The Cruxshadows’ contract - one slip, and the band would have an unexpected vacancy for a new vocalist. Meanwhile, the band’s violinist steps forward. Playing with a glammed-up extravagance - all swoops and sweeps and swirling purple hair - she’s a star in her own right. But all eyes are on Rogue, as he parades along the security barrier, reaching out to the crowd as they reach out to him. Suddenly I notice that he’s pulling his rubber bangles off his arms, and handing them to girls in the audience as he’s singing.  It’s an endearing gesture - or, at least, that’s how it appears at first.  But I suspect nothing The Cruxshadows do is really as spontaneous as it looks. From the choreography to Rogue’s seemingly random plunges into the crowd, it’s all been carefully worked out, it’s all calculated to create an effect, and help build The Cruxshadows’ legend. When Rogue hands out his bangles, that’s not because he’s been seized with a spontaneous urge to connect with the fans. It’s more like a customer loyalty bonus. I’m sure he’s planned the gimmick so meticulously he knows exactly how many bangles he can give away before the chorus comes round, and he has to move on to the next stunt. The Cruxshadows are, in short, a theatrical experience rather than a burst of gloriously random rock ‘n’ roll, and while their show is spectacular, there are moments when I wish they’d ease up on the stunts and gimmicks, and just concentrate on putting some excitement back into the music.

The Sex Gang Children could also be said to be a theatrical experience, although in a somewhat different way. Not for this band the circus-style physicality of The Cruxshadows. They’re more in the way of an after-hours torch song performance, where emotions and art concepts are pulled out of the ether and strapped to the careering gurney of glammed-up rock ‘n’ roll.  It is, of course, difficult to create such an atmosphere in a big tin shed with an acoustic that makes every guitar chord sound like a sack of spanners falling down a flight of stairs, but the Sex Gang Children give it their best shot, and get a hugely enthusiastic reaction from a crowd that clearly holds the band in great respect. The focus of everything, of course, is Andi Sex Gang himself, striking dramatic attitudes at the mic as he declaims his lyrics with a kind of last-man-standing intensity, as if he’s the one remaining survivor of the post-punk wars. ‘Barbarossa’ is a great surge of sound; ‘Circus Days’ sees the lighting flick to candy-striped red and white, as if the band are playing inside a virtual big top. Andi asks the crowd if they’re familiar with the Poison Girls, but from the mystified silence it seems that particular band’s fame did not travel to Germany. That doesn’t stop the Sex Gang Children delivering their rendition of the Poison Girls’ ‘I’ve Done It All Before’, a valedictory anthem that fits very neatly with the band’s own material. There are shouts for ‘Sebastiane’, but, teasingly, it does not appear.

Alas, as the Sex Gang set progresses, the Agra’s ugly sound raises its monstrous head again. Out front, the bass-heavy rumble is in full effect, but the big problem seems to be with the monitor mix on stage. The set progresses in fits and starts, as Andi calls a halt to the proceedings and takes time out to berate the monitor engineer, but the trouble never quite gets sorted. The audience doesn’t seem to mind, for Andi is obviously a real hero to much of tonight’s crowd. They cheer every song and every move, but it’s clear he’s not having a good time on stage. At one point, mid-song, he turns to the monitor man and exclaims, ‘Stick around - you’re a dead man after the show!’ Now, is that a piece of theatre, or is that a real threat? If I were the monitor engineer, I don’t think I’d hang around to find out! But it’s still a good show, even though the band may be having a hard time.  There’s something about the collective persona of the Sex Gang Children - something at once grand, extravagant, wistful and elegantly doomed - that works brilliantly, and even the inauspicious surroundings of the Agra can’t snuff it out.

The night does not end here. Anne Clark has the final hour, but I find her ‘poetry’ (if that’s what it is) descends into melodramatic cliches and one-dimensional school marm-ish hectoring too frequently for comfort. So, a discreet exit is called for, even as yet more eager punters crowd into the venue. Anne Clark’s star status in Germany is another of those baffling, inexplicable facts that remind us that while we may not have traveled too far in plain old geographic terms, in other respects we’re a long, long way from home.

...continue to Part 4