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:Concert Review: WTII Minifest 2

WTII Minifest 2
June 9, 2011 – June 12, 2011
Chicago, Illinois, United States @ The Abbey Pub

Review By: Eric Gottesman

So in the Summer of 1999, I went to work for 21st Circuitry Records. I had just finished my freshman year of college, and a friend gave me the company’s email address, so I wrote and asked if they could use a volunteer. It turned out that the label was in the process of shutting down, and shipping what remained of their stock to Metropolis- a difficult and depressing task. I came in for a week or two to assist, and Don Blanchard, the label’s owner, gave me one copy of every disc he had, in lieu of payment. Meanwhile, I was busy being an angst-ridden teenager, pursuing some ridiculous Goth girl who had no interest in me and bemoaning my wretched, solitary fate while plowing through this huge new collection of music I’d suddenly come upon.

Much of that music went on to define not only this late period of my youth, but also my musical trajectory for the next decade. Bands like Hate Dept. and Steril are still on my playlist every week. One band, however, stood out as defining music of that summer and the year that followed, perfectly expressing all of my anger and frustration and feelings of futility about that Goth girl and my parents complaining about my hair and my piercings and whatever other crap seemed important at the time. That band was Unit:187. “Loaded” got me through that summer. I probably would have jumped plummeted off a bridge by September without it. So at the beginning of this June, just after six weeks on the road with my own band, when I re-read the WTII Minifest lineup that last time, trying to decide whether I could really justify flying back across the country with a week’s notice, Unit:187 was the band that pushed me over. I’d waited 12 years to see them. It was time.

Of course Unit:187 were far from the only thing pulling me out there- I’d been fanatical about Die Warzau since high school and it was to be their final show, plus Christ Analogue, Stromkern, and a whole host of friends’ bands and up-and-coming acts I had to check out. In the end I missed a few great bands I’d really wanted to see, and the festival definitely had some rocky moments, but there were some truly unforgettable performances that made it well worth the trip.

Before I start describing the actual event in any more depth, a disclaimer- due to the collegial nature of the genre and whatnot, I’m not going to say too much about the bands I didn’t enjoy. Plus Steve Archer is such a nice guy that I’d feel pretty bad spending this whole article ragging on Ego Likeness (ZING!) I also did miss a number of bands due to scheduling, lateness, and rampant drunkenness, so don’t make too much out of any omissions.

ON TO THE CONTENT.

The first day was a little unusual—the last band for Thursday night, DEFCON (my illustrious labelmates on Bit Riot Records) were certainly the least established of the festival’s headliners. That and the mid-week timing certainly impacted the audience some, but the fest’s healthy cluster of die-hard fans and out-of-towners like myself made a good showing.

Photo: Randy Redetzke

I was pretty upset to enter the venue and learn that I’d missed Trigger10d, an old WTII favorite that I’d really wanted to see, and heard that they’d put on a great show. Dead On TV were a highlight of the evening—frontman Dan Evans put on an incredible high energy performance reminiscent of Iggy and the Stooges (and not just because he was a skinny white guy with no shirt,) with a very punk-rock set and effective but only sparing electronics. Project .44 was a mixed bag—their performance seemed more appropriate for a much larger audience and was simultaneously rehearsed and unpolished. A few very Wax Trax!-inspired songs stood out, however, and invoked a classic feel without coming off as overly dated. DEFCON were clearly the powerhouse of the night. They’ve gradually gone further and further toward Metal, stylistically, which doesn’t appeal to me as much as their more electronic work, and the show certainly reflected that. There was a lot of headbanging and long hair. Nevertheless, the solid songs, sound and performance definitely came through and worked perfectly with the evening despite the stylistic contrast.

On Friday, Mindfluxfuneral (also on Bit Riot!) struggled with some serious sound issues early in the set but pulled it together for a groove-oriented set with a classic Electro-Industrial feel. Like most of the festival’s bands, MFF had a full drum kit with a solid drummer, and I love seeing stuff like this with live drums. This was the second time I’ve seen Stiff Valentine, and this show was even stronger than the first.  The new material is awesome, the vocals are just as powerful live as they are on record, and each member’s unique presence meshes in to a unique and solid show with prominent elements of classic American Coldwave and modern electronic rock. As you may have heard, the band suffered a catastrophic van break-in and theft mere days before the festival and lost a substantial amount of gear as a result, but they remained solid in performance and sound.

Of course Unit:187 were a huge highlight for me. Original members John Morgan and Tod Law were joined by Stiff Valentine’s Galen Waling on drums, Decree’s Ross Redhead on guitar, and Decree/FLA mastermind Chris Peterson on synths.  The band put on a show that was every bit as angry as it was when I first heard them—which was exactly what I wanted out of them. They leaned fairly heavily on material from their newest album, Out for Blood, on Vendetta Records, but played a healthy number of classics—a high point was “Nobody,” my all-time favorite Unit:187 track, from Loaded. They’ve posted a video of that to the band Facebook account. Unfortunately they were traveling with Stiff Valentine when the break-in occurred and also lost a lot of gear, including a key sampler, and at times it was clear that there were some things missing.

Closing out the night were one of my all-time favorite Coldwave bands, Christ Analogue. I learned only a few days before the festival that it would be CA’s final show, and they began their set by throwing a very large and clearly well-used keyboard in to the audience, demanding that we “smash the shit out of it.” The audience complied. A lot. And this thing was huge, so I was actually pretty concerned it was going to do some serious damage, either to the venue’s floor, or to me. Fortunately most of us lived. The band was joined by Industrial bass powerhouse Charles Levi, who lent his trademark groove to passionate and somewhat sparser-than-normal renditions of songs spanning the band’s career, culminating in an aggressive climax with 1997’s “Cold Magnetic Sun.”

After the show a bunch of us trekked over to Exit, one of Chicago’s primary club venues for alternative music, for the Pandemic 2 Year Anniversary and festival afterparty. It was… Well it was pretty great from what I remember, but I doubt anybody who went remembers much more than I do because by the end of the night we were all so drunk we barely knew where we were. It was a Kinetik-level party, and if you’ve been to Kinetik, you know that means business. Great music, a great crowd, great venue and a great end to the night. The following morning… It no longer seemed so great. But still.

On Saturday I once again missed a band I’d really wanted to see, Null Device, this time because my host (Pandemic’s DJ Pathogen) and myself were too hung over to even be hung over properly. We arrived in time to see The Drowning Season, who were an odd choice for the festival, but I thoroughly enjoyed them. They were a two-piece Goth Rock band in the vein of ‘90s Cleopatra acts like Children On Stun and Big Electric Cat. I get pretty nostalgic for that sort of thing—frequently—and they put on a decent show, but the audience didn’t seem particularly receptive, by and large. The vocalist noted at one point that they were perhaps an odd man out at the festival, but that they were always happy to work with Dave Schock, the fest’s promoter and one of the heads of WTII. The Ludovico Technique were a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting much because I don’t generally care for Terror EBM and their stage schtick is very Psyclon Nine-esque, which of course seems more than a little passé to me. The show was excellent, however, their vocalist took a forceful command of the stage, the instrument setup was unique but practical, the drummer and keyboardist complimented each other perfectly, they sounded great, and the whole thing really came together. I’m anxious to see these guys again now that I’ve adjusted my expectations.

The Gothsicles followed Ludovico, and of course I’ve seen them over 9000 times (and had the high honor of doing guest vocals on “BAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLSSSS” at our two shows with them on the recent EGC tour,) but they never fail to amaze and astound. The Gothsicles video projections are customized for almost every show they play, and are always a blast, but difficulties with the projector knocked it out for Saturday night. I knew darkNES had prepared some special stuff for the event, and I was disappointed to miss it, but their performance was so strong that seeing it without the video for once really gave them an opportunity to shine in a different way. It wound up being one of the best Gothsicles shows I’ve seen, which is really saying something. Ego Likeness followed with a new-to-me lineup of four people, including two standing drummers- one on electronics and one on acoustics. That change added a surprising amount of depth to the show, and their new material is some of their best. Jim Semonik of Rein[forced] joined them on stage for one particularly strong song (although I think it’s from an album I don’t have, I didn’t know the title,) as he did with numerous bands throughout the fest.  (More on Jim later.)

Closing out Saturday was Stromkern. I’m a fan—a big fan, honestly—having seen Stromkern at least once in every phase of their career dating back as far as 1999.  With very little new material, they hadn’t been a selling point on getting me to the festival, and I wasn’t expecting a different experience than I’d had previously. I also hadn’t listened to them much since Light It Up wore itself out on me years ago, so I barely had my favorite songs in mind. All this turned out to be a massive misjudgment on my part, as they put on what was probably the best and most memorable performance of the entire fest. Ned Kirby and longtime drummer Matt Berger were joined by Dan Clark of the Dark Clan on guitar and Iris’ Andrew Sega on keys and all were in top form in terms of playing. One of the drawbacks of watching a standard Industrial (and really almost any electronic music) performance is that you so rarely see shining examples of musicianship, but musicianship was booming in the Stromkern set from every member. They played a well-chosen selection of tracks mostly from Light It Up and Armageddon, with highlights including the title track of the latter, “Delete” from the former, and of course the big singles from each, “Stand Up” and “Night Riders.” Also, Dan Clark had his hair down and has a massive beard and he looked like Alan Moore. It was transfixing.

Sunday started for us on a surprisingly high point by way of Aimonia. I’d met Aimonia’s Josh Fleck in Ohio during the EGC tour after knowing him (vaguely) online for many years, and I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to check them out. For some reason had it in my head that they were Terror EBM, and lo, they were not! The Aimonia performance was a well-crafted Industrial Rock set, with songwriting that was at times reminiscent of more rock-oriented ‘90s acts like Stabbing Westward or Machines of Loving Grace, but a clear grounding in modern production and stylistic tropes. The Dark Clan followed, with an extremely odd and eclectic set that bounced through everything from Synthpop to Prog-Rock to Goth. I somehow missed hearing what was apparently a totally amazing cover of Daft Punk’s “Derezzed.”

After seeing Jim from Rein[forced] doing guest vocals in at least six bands at the fest before actually seeing him perform his own material, Rein[forced]’s high energy and emotional set might almost have felt anticlimactic had Ego Likeness’ Donna Lynch not arranged for just about every musician whose set Jim had recently gotten all up in (including myself- Jim sang guest vocals with EGC when we played in Pittsburgh in May) to storm the stage at the end of his set and do the biggest and most unnecessary “guest appearance” we possibly could. I wish we’d been able to find more sunglasses for that, but it was still pretty damn funny. Comasoft were up next, and they started with an amazing slightly rock-y rendition of some of the music from Metroid. Somehow I caught this before darkNES did, which is just weird. The rest of their set was a bit too pop rock for my tastes, but it was an energetic set with great production values and a great video.

The festival’s penultimate band was local favorite i:Scintilla. I first saw them on tour with Ayria and the Cruxshadows supporting the album Optics, and while I loved the album I was only lukewarm toward the show. Structurally, they did exactly what I would have wanted, and they had a lineup of skilled musicians playing good songs, but for whatever reason the show just didn’t come together for me… Which is perhaps the primary reason I was so thrilled to see how much they’d grown as performers during the interim. Their Minifest performance was one of the best of the weekend, and they commanded the audience with such skill that it was hard to believe I was watching the same band I’d been so nonplussed by in ’08. The mix of rock and electronic elements of their live show—while still leaning more toward rock than their albums—has settled in to a solid and powerful mesh that played out perfectly.

Finally, the festival came to a close with the final performance of one of Chicago’s most important and influential Industrial bands, Die Warzau. With a live lineup comprised of younger musicians and Convenience (the last real album they put out) being substantially softer and more mature than their earlier work, I approached the show with a bit of trepidation, but my concerns proved groundless. Dan Evans of Dead on TV alternated between guitar and keyboards, and he and vocalist Jim Marcus were joined by a drummer on a full acoustic kit and another on a stand-up rig with a healthy amount of trademark Die Warzau ethnic percussion. They played a classic set that hit most of the singles (notably missing “Funkopolis” and “Welcome To America”) with drastically altered arrangements—some tracks were similar to their Vinyl ’88 versions, like “All Cut Up” from my favorite album, Bigelectricmetalbassface, while others, like the later single “Liberated,” were closer to the originals. The most unique aspects of the band—the Funk and tribal elements, especially—remained prominent and powerful. Marcus took the stage barefoot, which suited his almost animalistic stage presence perfectly. The band closed out the festival and their 20+ year career with “Strike To the Body,” one of their earliest singles. In lieu of an encore, Marcus delivered a short speech thanking the fans for their support and whatnot, and the festival ended.

The WTII Minifest was a great time, with some great bands, but did have some problems—while we all agreed that the venue was comfortable, correctly sized, and generally good for the festival, sound issues dogged every night. The earlier acts especially frequently suffered from “rock sound guy syndrome,” in which an engineer with mostly rock music experience buries the electronics to a point of inaudibility. This is bad enough when listening to a band with a full drum kit, but for a band like am.psych, it meant a wall of guitar and improperly processed vocals with only a faint hint of their actual music buried deep in the background. The contrast in sound quality when Christ Analogue’s Wade Alin took over the board for Stromkern was more than a little pronounced. Chicago is full of fantastic, pro-level live sound personnel with deep roots in the Industrial scene, so I hope to see that talent tapped for future events. I also think the event could have benefited from a more prominently advertised schedule, and a printed program with the schedule and other details for festival-goers. I know I’m not the only one who missed bands due to confusion about timing.

I think, especially given the dates’ proximity, that there is some temptation to try to make qualitative comparisons between the WTII Minfest and Kinetik. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, however—the Minifest was clearly geared more toward a regional and old-school audience, with classic headliners and newer, less traveled bands in prominent positions. It was a perfect event for somebody like myself, with a strong affection for those older acts and a deep knowledge of even some of the more obscure openers, but it didn’t draw out the big crowd of international travelers that an event like Kinetik does each year, nor was it intended to. Of course this also meant that the crowd in Chicago was much more focused on the music, whereas Kinetik is sometimes more like a giant party that happens to have great bands. Each event is a distinct sort of experience, valuable in its own way.

I had a fabulous time, and I hope to see the WTII Minifest and more events like it continue over the years, but with two of my favorite acts capping their careers with the 2011 event, this year will remain a powerful memory for me. My immense gratitude goes out to Dave Schock and all the bands, DJs, and random yahoos that made it possible.

-Eric Gottesman is a troll who lives under a bridge in San Francisco and passes out unicycles to schoolchildren. He also plays 3rd bassoon in VNV Nation when they tour Greenland.

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