After a stonkingly good 10th Anniversary festival last year, organisers Terminal Productions had their work cut out in trying to top Infest 2007. Finally bagging bonafide legends Front 242 was a simple solution to a thorny problem. Not that I imagine booking them was straightforward (or cheap for that matter!) - but this is just what the event needed. Moreover, the timing was perfect as the Belgian pioneers have ditched the turgid techno remix versions of their classics they've been touring with over the past 10 years, in favour of a more sympathetic updating of everything from their debut single Body to Body right through to the last (groundbreaking) studio album Pulse.
So with that to look forward to as headliners on the third and final day of Infest 08 there was a risk that the remainder was merely also ran fodder. But another key booking, Aussie anti-capitalist electronic nutters Snog and a bevvy of the usual UK debuts and difficult to pronounce band names ensured there was variety, entertainment, risk-taking and some guaranteed dead certs across all three days of the August Bank Holiday weekend.
Apart from classifying the acts into three main categories: Punishing The Machines, Embrace The Melodies and Breaking The Boundaries, this year's unwritten concept seemed to be the more theatrical the stage presence the better. And Coreline who kicked off the event on Friday evening set the entertainment bar impossibly high with their brilliantly bonkers combination of cardboard robot choreography and blinding noise soundtrack. A genuine find and a style of delivery rarely seen outside of obscure European performance arts festivals let alone electronic music gigs.
Middle on the bill (unjustly in my view) were masters of all things subversive - David Thrussell's Snog project. Snog are the only act to receive a 10/10 rating on this website (to date) for their superb 2007 DVD Adventures in Capitalism, and never having had the chance to see them live before, my sense of anticipation was rather high. I first discovered Snog via the second Machinery label (RIP) compilation album, How To Use Machinery II, in 1993 and I've not stopped buying their music with a message since.
To my unfettered delight, Snog delivered one hundred percent, in spite of technical glitches meaning we weren't fortunate enough to get the full Snog live treatment as the subversive projections failed to materialise. Still, little matter. It didn't detract from what was a blinding performance and a superb set. Main man Thrussell literally threw himself into his performance. Looking like an unhinged Zeppelin era Robert Plant, the Aussie was captivating throughout; whether it was the 140 BPM's of old electro greats like Cliche, or the slow spoken warnings of Bomb. Even those who are only interested in dancing and not having an overtly political message (no matter how entertainingly) forced down their throats took to this bunch. A total success. I'm already counting the days until I'm lifted out of the consumer daydream again.
Headline on Day 1 was given over to Grendel. Sitting firmly in the harsh electro area, I've never quite seen what warrants placing Grendel in the upper quartile of acts in this often expressively limited field. Competent undoubtedly, and delivering on all the fronts the keen crowd would have expected from them, they did little for me to raise them above passing interest only.
A decent enough night's sleep (in the student halls of the University again this year) a full English breakfast for, ahem, lunch, and an early screening of Hellboy II under my belt, I was all set for Saturday. This is the first full day of the festival, and when Infest really come into its own with the traders market at full strength and a packed programme with the first act on stage at 4pm. A sizable contingent also (unwisely) choose to miss the first evening and only appear on Saturday afternoon, so the attendance is also up to capacity. Like last year, 2008 sold out in advance so anyone turning up hoping to get tickets on the door would have been turned away disappointed.
SkinjoB began Saturday's proceedings. Taking their name from Blade Runner (as did Daniel Myer for his Haujobb project), the music wasn't groundbreaking but despite the singer's limited dance moves (if you must do something then simply holding your fist up during every song needs some work) this English act do show promise. One man act 100blumen followed. Described in the programme as "lo-fi industrial and electronics meets the roughness of punk" is about as helpfully vague as descriptions get. And, actually, I couldn't really understand it. This was classic noise - complete with severely limited stage presence: a bloke, some effects boxes, yadda, yadda, yadda. This is a bigger sub-genre in places like Germany than it is in the UK and although there are quality exponents operating in the field (Tarmvred from Infest 2003 remain a standout), too much of this just blurs into indistinguishable walls of... err... noise overlaying loud percussion. Although I was well open to the proposition, 100Blumen quickly fell into the 'file and don't revisit' category despite the ant-zen label pedigree.
Santa Hates You sounds like a rivethead act from the USA circa 1993, but is really a side project of Project Pitchfork's Peter Spilles. The names suggest frivolity or at least humour. I didn't see much of that but Spilles clearly relishes this opportunity to explore areas beyond his more famous and popular act. In spite of PP's significant following they're one of those bands I just haven't kept up with. A quick glance at the Project Pitchfork review page here on DSO reveals I wasn't exactly enamoured with Spilles' vocals back in the mid 90s. None of that review applies here and now. Sporting a distinctive 'Heath Ledger as The Joker meets The Crow' look tonight, it wasn't just the make up that was cool. Proving few on this scene do it as well as the Germans, Spilles was joined on stage by a fetishtic femme whose incessant erotic gyrating threatened to hypnotise the weak-willed. Thankfully, the focus was on the music that delivered a multi-layered and tunefully dark set. Polished, distinctive and for me (expecting some sort of spoof-act given the name) the pleasant surprise of the entire festival.
Not one for this dressing up malarkey, the promise that Heimataedre would be performing their 'vampiric darkwave' in full Knights Templar outfits did, if anything, place me on Early Cheese Warning DefCon-1. Built around a single character, DJ Ash, this German made his objective clear: "Welcome to my world" he ominously growled. Yes, everyone on stage was wrapped in authentic looking 12th century Templar garb. Yes, there were grumbling vocals, and yes he drank 'blood' from a chalice. (If like me you're new to Heimataedre) I know what you're probably thinking - but you've really got to check these crusaders out. Not only did they transform the stage into defensive battlements complete with spiked wooden horse traps, flags, banners, and so forth, but the slo-mo projections of Knights Templar's going about their business were genuinely evocative and created exactly the atmosphere Ash was probably hoping to achieve. The potentially incongruent juxtaposition of period costumes and punishing machine music shouldn't work. But it does - big time.
5F-X produce robotic-tribal-industrial music - the soundtrack to an alien invasion whose exponents are towering xenomorphs who utilise their otherwordly technology to force unwitting humans to dance to their beats. By now, I was beginning to see a pattern to Infest 08; acts which on paper sounded like car crashes waiting to happen turned out to be not only credible but some of the most memorable. None more so than 5F-X. This was totally bonkers, hilarious presentation and captivating music all at once. The stage was given over to machines like the 'Crowdscanner 5000'. Not entirely sure what it was supposed to do but it certainly looked good, especially when controlled by an enormous Flump marshmallow monster.
Not once during the set did those alien appendages touch any piece of equipment that could have produced any audible sound. Absolutely nothing was played live. But so what? Instead, like some French performance art troupe the 'aliens' acted out their arrival on Earth and subsequent brainwashing of its inhabitants by noisy, technoid music. This was one of the best live performance acts I've ever seen. This took Coreline's cardboard robots to another surreal level altogether. The backing track was just that - the audio backdrop to the story of alien invasion that unfolded on the stage. It was like being caught up in some fucked up episode of Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who. Equipment on stage came to life, lit up, and moved. This was just SO weird! But I loved every minute of the drum n bass noise pumping out and could have listened to it for hours. The only time I've ever seen a band play absolutely nothing at all on stage. I thought it was insanely brilliant.
Christ! Where to go from here? Sensibly, the organisers had placed total contrast self-styled 'bodypop' act And One at the top of tonight's bill. The German three-piece's professional delivery of more traditional pop song structures proved (yet again) to be a guilty pleasure. Since 1989, the band have gradually morphed through the variants of the electro genre and an And One set these days has a lot of back catalogue to draw on, resulting in a collection of melody focused songs falling into EBM, industrial and synthpop categories (hence the compound bodypop label); and as such, there's a lot of broad appeal in what they do. I suspect few in the audience would ever champion And One as either their favourite band or even the most creative they know, but what they do they do with such conviction and showmanship that they always pull it off and deliver. Never ones to shy away from their influences, tonight's set included a cover of the Pet Shop Boys' It's A Sin and a cracking bodypop take on superb Depeche Mode b-side Fools that served as a reminder of just how good that band used to be. Own club classics like my personal EBM-era fave Body Nerve still deliver today. And One remain at the top of their game and their infectious form of enthusiastic delivery should see them continue to headline wherever they go for as long as they wish.
Feeling really pumped up, I entered into Day 3 of the festival with way more energy than usual, and was ready for the final push through from 3pm to past midnight. Deviant UK opened the Sunday session. Driving force Jay Smith's 2006 debut album Barbed Wire Star went down well on the European dark alternative club scene and has earned the British newcomer a growing following. This was amply demonstrated when it was announced that Deviant UK were the most-requested act in the history of the festival. Tough billing to live up to and sadly the three bald-headed members couldn't. Smith never took himself too seriously which helped, and with an almost perpetually startled (vaguely 'Gary Glitter in his prime') look on his face, he's certainly got the front man image nailed. But I found it was when Smith let the artifice slip a little that it all sounded better, but I could never get past the Gary Numan-doing-a-Dalek impression (no, really!) vocals. The delivery was just too close to parody for comfort.
In a welcome change from bald, muscular German men, Greek female two-piece Marsheaux were one of the line-up's most promising acts this year. I can't tell how satisfying it is to say not only did they match expectations, they surpassed them with ease and style to spare. Marsheaux are everything I expected Client to be when they appeared on the scene some years back (co-incidentally both are on the increasingly impressive Out Of Line label in Europe). This is less about taking inspiration from genre pioneers like early Human League or Kraftwerk and more about smartly extending their legacy, style and philosophy and applying an unmistakably contemporary twist to the construction. Anyone with a penchant for Karl Bartos' solo work shouldn't hesitate to indulge themselves in Marsheaux's fine electronic pop.
And it is resolutely electronic and not electro pop. There is an important difference and it's one of intent. This is serious, albeit infectiously melodic, electronic music that utilizes and applies pop song conventions. Dream of A Disco is pure Flock of Seagulls but just when you think it might get too twee, along comes What A Lovely Surprise. Then, as if to finally nail any doubts as to where their passion comes from, a great cover of the seminal Empire State Human may have lacked Phil Oakey's voice but the musical homage was as good as they come. The superb retro computer graphic projections throughout were the icing on the cake. Marsheaux are the second discovery of the year for me. (See here for the first.)
Moving into the evening slots, Tyske Ludder (another German act) may have been around since the early 90s as part of the EBM/dark electro scene but they were yet another act new to me. Clearly a band with something to say rather than only being interested in making people dance, previous releases have examined the ethnic war that split the former Yugoslavia and the pattern of pro-active military interventionist policy of the American administration around the globe. We all like a good bop, but we need acts prepared to be political or at least controversial and on that front Tyske Ludder succeed.
Their new single SCIENTific technOLOGY goads a popular target, namely the religion founded by SF author Ron L. Hubbard: Scientology. Making their position clear, the set began with the leaked "Leaders of Scientology: this is acceptable..." footage of Tom Cruise. "Fucking Tom Cruise!" yelled their very angry singer as they embarked on their old school inspired militaristic deployment of serious EBM industrial. Familiar style vocals aside, their set was marked out by a strong sense of rhythm and copious application of the F-Word. My favourite being his thanks between songs more than once with: "Thank you fucking much!".
Having popped outside for a quick fish and chips dinner in a nearby Wetherspoons (passable only - in case you were wondering), I came back just as Noisuf-X's impressive take on J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor kicked off. By now, the main dancefloor was getting close to full and the heat, literally and metaphorically, was building. A parallel project to the reverse entitled X-Fusion, their club thumping beats, triggering percussion and whomping bass lines had most everyone up on their toes. After the inspired start, I found myself getting wrapped up in their essentially instrumental club sound, but its grip slowly but inexorably loosened as it warped more into faceless dance influenced territory.
It may have taken eleven years to get here, but finally Front 242 made their first appearance at Infest. There's always a risk that acts who have created so much exceptional music and influenced so many over decades (as these Belgian pioneers undoubtedly have) will rest on their past success and laurels and, honestly, Front 242 have been doing that in my view ever since 1998's Re:Boot Tour. For more than a decade we've had to settle for significantly sub-standard live versions of classic tracks which, almost without exception, had forsaken the distinguishing characteristics of the original compositions in favour of one-dimensional techno. I was so close to giving up all hope of ever seeing Front 242 do live what we know they always could. So much so, that when I heard they were headlining this year's Infest, I was little more than indifferent. That suddenly all changed when some internet research revealed the band had embarked on what they themselves had termed the Retro Tour. Essentially, doing the songs the service they demanded and deserved but in a contemporary live setup. 242 are the very definition of pushing the boundaries. Hell, they've created whole new ones in their time. This could be seriously, and I mean seriously, good.
The retro label is a touch misleading but the take home message is everything that made those countless original songs timeless classics remains firmly intact. If the 'techno years' was 242 having undergone excessive and disturbing plastic surgery, this new approach is more like the original beast pumped up on steroids: instantly recognisable but more in-your-face, powerful, even experimental interpretations. Tonight provided all the evidence anyone could need to see why Front 242 have earned their legendary status. Now at the top of their game - there are in a league of one. No-one can touch them for their sophistication, intelligence, artfulness and impact; and no-one does music that operates on an intellectual and emotional level at once like they can. 242 don't need to shout to make their point.
Not only was the music as near to perfection as one could reasonably expect, but the intricate, and at times psychedelic time-synched projections and lightshow turned the entire performance into a completely immersive experience. This wasn't like those early years (seeing them in the late 80s at the Astoria in London still ranks as one of the best gigs of my life), but it was the perfect updating. This was everything all those superb songs deserve and had been crying out for during those too long wilderness years. Many past indiscretions were put right this evening. Justice had been done. The Masterhit makers are back to all their glory.
If I'm to scrabble around for criticism's of Infest 08 (the alternating stodgy/dried out, if cheap, catering aside) then the one-guy-with-his-boxes acts need to be very carefully chosen so as to present something that stands out in the noise genre. Why not those pushing the noise envelope a bit more in future? Some more straight electronic/electronica acts would, personally speaking, take the festival to another level and fully justify the "The UK's Alternative Electronic Music Festival" tagline. Marsheaux delivered on that front perfectly this year. But they were an island in the sea of other genres. How about a bit of hardcore chip tunes for 2009? They could deliver two differing strands of acts simultaneously (like Dark Jubilee did for the scene back in 2002) by having more than one stage operating at a time, though again that would probably require a shift to a larger venue.
I understand the bookings need to match the target demographic, yet the organisers deftly dropped the sub-standard goth acts over the years with only positive results. It's important to take some more programming risks if the event is to develop further. But that depends on if the organisers want to appeal beyond the core industrial/dark music scene or not. And if they did they'd probably have to find a new home as they are at capacity now with the current venue. Who knows, if they did, then maybe they will finally persuade Ladytron that next year really is their year.
Having been to eight of the eleven festivals over the years, and seeing the event progress year on year, I'm at risk of running out of adequate superlatives. Each year the organisers rise to the challenge they set for themselves. A large part of the success of the 2008 line up falls to Front 242 for delivering the unmatched performance and show that they've promised for so long. That, combined with Snog's spot-on delivery on the opening night, delivered on the money in just two acts. A brilliant event that stands head a shoulders above all would-be competition in the UK. In a word: essential. 9/10