I live in Kent and to get to Bradford is a good five hour journey. I'd booked the Friday afternoon off work to catch a train from Kings Cross, London and had booked it weeks in advance. This meant that to benefit from a cheap ticket I had to return on a specific train on the Sunday. This ruled out catching the three bands playing that evening and that's the reason they don't appear in this review. They were Spahn Ranch, Inertia and Narcissus Pool. But I'd seen Narcissus Pool only a couple of months ago and Spahn Ranch and Inertia only the week before. So it could have been a lot worse. Until 'Invocation' in September, Infest was the only real 'alternative' festival that bothered to concentrate on industrial, goth and electronic music. For three days each year Bradford becomes the centre of the universe for Britain's alternative crowd. Without knowing the actual figures, I reckon the attendance was up this year - there certainly seemed to be more people dressed in black milling around the university campus over the weekend. In addition to the bands you get DJs doing their thing, and an array of merchandise stalls selling everything from leather underpants to the latest CD releases, all supported by Bradford University's excellent student facilities - around the main hall where the event took place this included several bars, a hot food counter and a games room. The five bands on Saturday were due to start about 6pm and finish around 2am, but technical difficulties delayed the appearance of the first act, man(i)kin, by about half an hour.
Apart from headliners Apoptygma Berzerk, man(i)kin were the band I wanted to see most. After a blinding debut at Infest '98 and subsequent support slots in the intervening year, I was somewhat surprised to find them still bottom of the billing. However, when I found out that they had a fulsome 45-minute slot I was more than content. I had only managed to catch man(i)kin once since their previous Infest appearance (at the Underworld in February) when the vocals were still the only real weakness live. Since then, I understood from singer Seth that he had adapted his approach and that I could expect better things - so my anticipation was high. As always, the band looked great - the singer flanked by two live drummers with the keyboard player at the back - high up on a pedestal. The symmetry reminded me of Laibach's live performances. The music is industrial dance/darkwave and the Front Line Assembly comparisons are still appropriate but the general direction has evolved slightly. I used Sheep on Drugs as a point of reference previously but this no longer seems valid. There's a more mature and refined approach to the dance elements. This band have quickly got up to professional speed. After a slightly shaky first song, the vocals had noticeably improved. If one thinks of the difference between the vocals of Ronan Harris from VNV Nation on CD and live, then man(i)kin have little to worry about now on that front.
The song writing is remarkably assured. Tracks trick you by using conventional industrial ideas then bring in some weird techno sound, an unpredictable percussive break or the odd Kraftwerk-inspired lead synth sound, taking tracks into an unexpected and new direction. Also remarkable is the following this band have so quickly picked up after just 12 months on the scene. A good 2/3 of the attendees were on the dance floor for the band's entire set - many of whom were sporting man(i)kin T-Shirts - more than any other act playing that weekend. And their reaction was amazing. The applause, whistles and cheers when every song finished was very loud. I'm not exaggerating when I say that a 'roar' of approval filled the gap between evey song. That was until the fifth song. Half-way through the piece the fire alarm went off and everyone had to abandon the building! Whilst I'm sure the band found the interruption a nightmare, the audience seemed quite pleased to get the opportunity to get some fresh air and cool off in the shade for ten minutes - although everyone was also pleased when the band were able to return to the stage to continue.
Unfortunately, due to the already late start and the fire alarm, the band had to drop two songs from the set. They managed to squeeze in two of their more driving tracks and finished on the strong "Deity". With their excellent debut album now available, man(i)kin are set to cause a storm in the international industrial scene. Once the CD is overseas, gets some press coverage and the band get some bookings in Europe, they'll be no stopping them. man(i)kin are the strongest UK industrial act since VNV Nation, so don't be at all surprised if they achieve a similar success. It's one they'd fully deserve and one you'd be well advised to contribute to. Miss them at your peril.
Sneaky Bat Machine
Sneaky Bat Machine also played Infest last year and whilst my travelling companion enjoyed their lighthearted approach to digital goth, I have to confess I've never found 'humorous' music worth wasting any time on. Still, if one takes SBM as an 'entertainment package' and not a 'serious musical project' (I'm still not sure if they are joking - they seem to get so into it!) then I guess I can think of worse ways to spend 40 minutes. Dead or Alive meets Sigue Sigue Sputnik isn't far wrong from describing both their music and their dress sense. Colourful hair extension and goggles were much in evidence. Songs ranged from being about jelly and ice cream (I kid you not), to goths who take themselves too seriously on the explicitly titled "Just How Gothic Can You Be?". Sneaky Bat Machine use two synths, a sampler and backing tape live - no guitars - and this explains the bleeping techno side to their sound, although nothing can explain their cover version of "California Dreaming".
On the Saturday morning I'd picked up a copy of the Nightbreed mail order catalogue. Having read a description of Killing Miranda (who were totally unknown to me at that point) I was looking forward to their set. "Gothic for the next millennium" it said. Shit rock goth is how I'd sum it up. After the first song the singer said (and this is a direct quote) "I like the people down the front... they make me horny baby", and he wasn't joking - he was serious. I quickly retired to the bar until the end of their miserable set.
I've seen Faithful Dawn a few times and picked up their first album after first seeing them live. Unfortunately, they were much better live than on CD. Stylistically Faithful Dawn are example of the digital goth that has become so prominent in recent years. The live set up here was extremely minimal. Singer and a keyboard player who occasionally stepped out to play guitar too. Everything else was on backing. Despite the spartan stage appearance this duo really do manage to create a live show worth hearing. My first impression was that they are not as traditionally 'goth' as they used to be. The track "I Am Nothing" now sounds like Georgio Moroder has remixed it and others have also mutated into more dance-inspired goth. In contrast, the new song they had only recently finished writing (the title of which I missed) was far more laid back.
Sarah-Jane, the singer and focal point for the band's live performances, was wearing a skimpy pink dress and confessed to wearing no knickers as she danced around the stage. Her rapport with the audience, down-to-earth attitude and continual smiles are a welcome light relief in a genre so obsessed with seriousness and doom. Their particular brand of digital electro power goth sometimes segues into Egyptian-influences or melodic pop and the few rock elements of earlier days are now something of a distant hum. About half the songs in the set still end with a gradual fade out - while this is fine on CD, live it often sounds awkward and some slight rearrangment to bring the songs to a stronger conclusion would help. As their slot came to an end, the fan-favourite "Neverwhere" appeared in a significantly adapted form. (I've always found the original too cheesy - but this version [with less vocals?] was fine.) Keeping up the cover song front, Faithful Dawn concluded with a respectable rendition of Garbage's "You Look So Fine". The audience seemed pleased and cheered for more but there was no encore.
Norway's industrial dancesters Apoptygma Berzerk (or 'APB' for short) were the perfect headline band. Their brand of in-your-face, dance-orientated, industrial techno sound was always gonna have the dance floor packed and bouncing with bodies. I have to admit to flagging slightly around 12.00am and wondered if I'd have the energy to stand up for APB let alone dance to the stuff! But as soon as they appeared it was clear they intended to have a good time and woe betide the audience if they refused to join in. If you like Covenant you''ll appreciate the APB sound. But whereas Covenant also stimulate the mind as well as the feet, APB are happy just keeping your body moving. And that's fine by me.
There is a distinct Depeche Mode air to APB and this is carried over to their live approach. It could be the (good) singer's silver shirts, it could be the guitarist's nonchalant (almost Martin Gore-cool) approach to playing live guitar and as for the synth player - his bounding up and down and arm waving puts even Andy Fletcher in the shade. With non-stop strobe lights driving them on, APB served up a relentless wall of bleeping sequencer patterns, thumping bass drums, snappy percussion breaks and fills, useful guitar backing and nifty vocals lines. Their songs are largely simple dance tunes at heart but a few have more distinctive touches. The new single, "Eclipse" (yeah, very fashionable) blends a neat answerphone message into a pumping beat and adopts an almost VNV Nation-like vocal line to a convincing effect. The Depeche Mode influences came to a head with APB's cover of "Enjoy The Silence". Another band with a dynamic stage presence and great live sound. We like Apoptygma Berzerk.
APB's set wound up about 2am. I lasted about another 15 minutes, listening to the DJs doing their thang but eventually had to admit defeat and retire to bed - ears ringing and a contented smile. As with last year, Infest had served up some terrific music and performances, some laughs, plenty of beer, some enjoyable socialising, some much-desired CD purchases and the odd stinker of a band. For sixteen quid a ticket (for all three days) I'd say that was money very well spent. So if you're still an Infest virgin, I suggest you take the plunge next year and travel to Bradford. It could be a long journey for you too, but once you arrive you'll discover that for three lovely days Bradford is indeed the centre of the universe.