Cold Waves XI - Chicago IL, September 2023
When you consider that Metro has been tucked away in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood since 1927, albeit for varying purposes over the years, maybe it's not entirely fair to say that I've been going there "forever". But as a life-long patron of the Chicago music scene, I'm no stranger to its elegant, stonework facade and intricately carved wood stage, either.
Back in the early 80's, Chicago was home to some of the most revered names in the industrial scene, including Thrill Kill Kult, Stabbing Westward, and Ministry (to name just a few). Ministry promoted their new music with tapes at the newly opened Smart Bar, a dance club on the fourth floor of the building. While Smart Bar has since relocated and the space converted into offices for Metro staff, Metro remains a staple for the industrial and punk scenes (and their respective subgenres, which we can all gleefully argue about another time).
With all that in mind, if one had to choose where to host a three-day festival headlined by IAMX, Front Line Assembly, and Godflesh, hosted by and for the dark alt community in Chicago, the choice is obvious. Where better than one of our community's first places to call home? And so it is here that the annual Cold Waves festival happens. For a weekend (and the cost of tickets), fans can discover newer artists and foundations alike in the same space.
Attendees can choose from a three-day pass, or pick days a la carte with single-day passes. While the three-day is by far the best deal, they sell out quite quickly; I was unable to secure one this year, and had to get two single-day passes. The three-day buys you access to the Metro stage, as well as Smart Bar, where additional artists perform Friday and Saturday, and Gman Tavern for two more artists and a closing party on Sunday. Younger prospective attendees for Cold Waves XII should be aware, however, that Smart Bar and Gman Tavern are 21+ only, so if you're underage at the time of the event, some of those three days will be inaccessible to you.
Out-of-towners should be forewarned that there is no parking lot on site, and paid on-street parking is very limited, especially if there's a Cubs game on the same day. I have a feeling the cross-over between die-hard Cubs fans and Cold Waves attendees is somewhat small, but Wrigley Field is the next block over, for those so inclined. If you're staying nearby, the area is highly walkable, again assuming that it's not a Cubs game day. I don't know why, but Cubs fans have this penchant for drunkenly clumping up on sidewalks and just standing there. If you're coming from farther away, rideshare or public transit are the way to go. Metro is close to both the Addison and Sheridan Red Line stops (I'd personally recommend Addison, but you do you).
Sound quality at Metro is unparalleled. You can be in the balcony, the main floor, even back in the bar area and hear everything clearly. If you're looking for a quiet area to have a brief conversation, the stairways are a good spot, just have some spacial and situational awareness and make room for people trying to get somewhere.
The venue itself is easy to navigate. Smart Bar and Gman Tavern each have their own exterior entrances. Metro has three floors accessible to the public; the first holds the lobby, men's restroom, and the merch room. Second floor is the main auditorium floor, with two bars and the main stage. Third leads up to the balcony, another bar, and the women's restroom. I can't quite wrap my head around why the restrooms are set up like that; it'd make more sense to just have two all-gender restrooms instead of making our femme friends walk up three flights just to pee. The two primary bars at the back of the main floor and center of the balcony offer standard non-alcoholic options (mineral water, soda, and juice) for those of us who prefer a sober festival experience. I'd love to see more venues getting into the "mocktail" game, but all in good time, right? Metro does not serve food, but there were three food trucks available for Cold Waves attendees. The whole interior is well-ventilated; even with people dancing and partying, you're not going to roast.
The kick-off party hosted by Sleeping Village over in the Avondale neighborhood was excellent. Male Tears made their Chicago debut, alongside LA's Riki and Chicago's own Club Drugs (catch my review of Club Drugs after the Hallows show at Livewire Lounge this coming week!). Welcoming us all to day two of Cold Waves XI, San Antonio's MVTANT got the crowd warmed up with a minimalist setup and Purification Rites, a three and a half minute experience off MVTANT's 2021 release, Gore + Mirrorshades. He brought energy and used the whole of the stage well to engage the audience. Within a few minutes, heads were bobbing and bodies were moving to the industrial noise and danceable beats MVTANT was offering up.
Something that thoroughly impressed me was how quickly equipment moved; with only ten minutes between sets, it was beyond impressive seeing Kanga kick off exactly on time. Once she started, she did not let up (a technical difficulty that interrupted her third song aside). Every track transitioned seamlessly to the next, showing off her ability to weave her music into a non-stop, high octane, industrial pop dance party. Moscow, from 2021's You and I Will Never Die, was a complete sensory experience of lasers, lights, and bass that got even the stoic arms-crossed-standing-still types breaking form to dance along. Fans of NYXX and Eva X, or those who remember Chicago's own Sister Soleil, may also enjoy Kanga. Catch her next album, Under Glass, dropping October 6th!
"I know Acumen, isn't that-" if you're not thinking of the prog rock band, then yes, same band as Acumen Nation. Naming rights issue, you can Google that on your own time. After 35 years, these guys retain the old school vibe audibly and visually; with a full live band, they used the entire stage, engaging the crowd from all sides. Their backing visuals, made largely of black and white medical film footage, texts, and imagery, gave their entire performance a "polished DIY" feel in all the right ways. This show could just as easily have been in an abandoned warehouse or a sold-out stadium. Closing with a tribute to Jamie Duffy, Acumen Nation guitarist and Chicago musician who passed in 2012, was a beautiful cap to their performance. While Acumen Nation's sound will likely appeal more to OG industrial fans, they're easily accessible for newer listeners, as well.
Not only did the equipment transition smoothly on Saturday, so did the vibes; 16volt was no exception, following Acumen Nation with another heavy-hitting blast of old school industrial rock. Also thirty five years in the running, 16volt brought crisp vocals and the second pit of the night with Suffering You, off 2007's FullBlackHabit. The live experience was impossibly powerful, there were clearly a ton of superfans in the crowd screaming along with every track, and the energy only climbed higher when they unleashed Machine Kit. "That one's a crowd favorite", said frontman Eric Powell, and if anything about their performance could be called "understated", that would be it. Aside from one minor mic issue that came with the obligatory sound guy booty crack, it was flawless. They shared their as-yet unreleased If You Like It, off next year's new album, with enthusiastic reception.
Continuing Saturday's apparent theme of old school dark alt, I remain unconvinced that Belgium's A Split Second was not popped out of a time capsule immediately before their set. Aesthetically and musically, this band drips the 80's. Widely regarded as pioneers of the EBM genre, A Split Second brought compelling visuals, easily danceable beats, and gravelly, distorted vocals. Marc Heyndrickx has a unique stage presence, commanding while charismatic; if he started a cult, I'd probably join it, can't lie. All the same, someone yelled "I love you, Dan Aykroyd!" during their set... I'd be lying if I said I didn't see it.
Saturday's headliner, Front Line Assembly, finished off the night with everything I've come to expect from these industrial legends. Backed by compelling Giger-esque dystopian visuals and nearly four decades of experience, FLA were striking, powerful, and animated. Launching right into 1994's Vigilante, FLA were an absolute force all the way to their encore. Seeing them perform confirms and justifies why they are to this day so deeply influential in everything industrial from their sound to their aesthetic. Speaking of which, the huge, splattery font "Chicago" decal that Skold had on his guitar was a nice touch.
Kicking off Sunday was experimental electronic project Cel Genesis. To get right into it, "experimental" is not my jam at live shows; if I'm going to take in something that's not danceable, I'd rather do it at home with headphones. Maybe that's where I went wrong with Cel Genesis, or maybe it's that the entire set leaned heavily on intense strobing lights and I have photosensitive chronic migraines, but I wasn't feeling it. That said, I wanted to give them a fair shake, so I popped my headphones on when I got home and gave them a second shot. While the experience didn't land for me in person, their album Shallow Dream was worth the listen, even if it's not my thing. I can't understand a single word with all the vocal distortion and screaming, and it felt a little same-y after a bit, but it goes hard and it's obvious there's a ton of passion for what they're doing. If you're looking for something very different, and you don't have photosensitivity issues, catch Cel Genesis sometime.
Lana Del Rabies carried the performance art vibe forward with her deep, echoing vocals and intense backing visuals. Between the backing video with up-close shots of snakes and silhouetted women in varying poses, and the chains Sam An held up to the crowd before whipping them against the stage, it felt like watching a generations-old mythological tale being told in a language you can't quite understand. While her performance was undeniably dramatic and her intensity and love for what she does as an artist cannot be ignored, much like Cel Genesis, it simply did not land for me. I prefer something that I can move to, and "swayable" just is not "danceable".
When I was considering making it to Cold Waves, I was admittedly on the fence... until I saw Rabbit Junk. This was the highlight of the entire weekend for me. Rabbit Junk brings a much needed energy to the dark alt scene with quality production and lyrics that speak to all walks of life and the things that unite us; struggling with mental health, being the weird kid, being hurt by someone... Being human. Throughout their set, they were joking with the crowd ("oh my god, I get to sing Metro at the Metro?!"), sharing how excited they were to be there, fist-bumping the front row. The man drips rock star, and people felt it- long into the night; I overheard so many attendees speaking emphatically about how much they enjoyed Rabbit Junk. Seems that the only complaint was these two didn't have nearly enough time on stage.
Afterwards, JP was kind enough to let me bend his ear for a bit, and I was able to ask a follow-up question from his April video interview with Eryk. I can say he's just as wonderful and charming off-stage as he is on, this man genuinely loves his fans. I'll have the transcript and audio ready for all you fine folks later this week!
After a comrade saw her at Cold Waves NY, I was advised to make sure to catch Sierra. I went into her set completely blind, I had never heard any of her work (frankly, I'd never heard of her at all). Stepping onto the stage in a simple black suit with a glittering silver pauldron on one shoulder, Sierra told us exactly what we were in for: uncompromising, perfectly refined, and not here for shenanigans. Empowering lyrics layered on top of boot-stomping beats, Sierra makes music to drag yourself out of the dark spaces to. Six light bars added a hypnotic visual element that perfectly complemented her performance and energy.
I was busy chatting with JP during Lead Into Gold, so I apologize for all the LIG fans, but we'll have to skip ahead to Godflesh. While I'm at it, I apologize in advance to all the Godflesh fans, you're welcome to tell me how wrong I am if it's really that important to you.
While metal and industrial are undoubtedly cousins, and more than a few metal albums grace my shelves, the UK's Godflesh was an unimpressive finale. The backing visuals, standard issue Christian and post-apocalyptic, may have been shocking and transgressive when Godflesh launched in 1982, but in 2023, they're flatter than my $5 bottle of mineral water was at that point in the night; neither one is sparkling anymore, let's go for something new. I can forgive stale visuals if the sound and energy can make up for it, but I have most assuredly been served food that had more energy than Godflesh was serving last night. To quote Chris, an equally stone-faced attendee, "Godflesh is... well... Godflesh." There was, however, a bright point in an otherwise dry performance: to the person with the red T-shirt, khaki shorts, and white Adidas sneakers, you were the last person I expected to be going that hard at a Godflesh show, but your enthusiasm was palpable and it was genuinely a joy watching you party your whole heart out. I hope every day brings you that much delight, you deserve every second of it.
Monday has rolled around, and even with a few hitches, I'm grateful for the experience. I'm tired, running on caffeine and good energy, and I'll be recovering until Thursday (just in time to cover another show). I thoroughly enjoyed myself, met some amazing new friends, and I'm hyped up for more shows, more people, and more music.
Always and forever for more music.
Love to Eric from Fargo, Carmen and Chris from Connecticut, JP of Rabbit Junk, Jim Semonik of Distortion Productions, my fabulous partner Matthew, and all the other beautiful attendees who made this weekend so special and let me be a part of their festival experience. I hope to see you all again very, very soon.
NOTE: Original publication mistakenly referred to 16volt's release FullBlackHabit as releasing in 2016, not 2007. The error has been corrected thanks to a keen-eyed reader!