Wave-Gotik-Treffen 2024

Door Xavier Kruth

23 mei 2024
A dark festival with a unique offer

The Wave Gotik Treffen (WGT) in Leipzig, Germany is a real phenomenon. It is the largest gothic festival in the world and features a unique concept involving concerts at various locations in the city, as well as exhibitions, lectures and a lot of side activities. It is good for a total experience of four days, during which the city literally turns black and is taken over by goths.

As usual, and like many international visitors, we travel to Leipzig on Thursday, the day before the start of the festival. Worn out by the long journey, which is of course accompanied by delays and other cancellations at the Deutsche Bahn, I decide to go to bed early that evening, even though there is plenty to do already on Thursday evening. I hear afterwards that, for example, the French industrial metal band HORSKH did very well at the WGT EBM Warm-Up, which traditionally takes place on the day before the festival.

Friday May 17

All this has the advantage that I can start the festival fresh and cheerful. Excellent, because there is a lot on the agenda. Well, the concerts at WGT usually don't start until around 5 p.m., but that is not the case in the Heathen Village, which receives people from noon onwards. There are performances, usually by medieval folk groups, but today also by Bella Donna / Artwork. And you have a huge medieval market with clothes, food, jewelry, beer, mead, chain mail and swords. It's really very impressive.

The first group we see at work in the Heathen Village is Gossenpoeten. They represent the kind of cheerful folk with a medieval touch that is popular here. They play funny songs and are of course dressed in medieval costumes. Isn't this too cheerful for WGT? Well, in the middle of their set they also say they have a sad song. It is the tragic story of a man whose glass is empty. And it gets even worse, because later the barrel also turns out to be empty. The music, on the other hand, is still cheerful, and it is actually funny to see extravagantly dressed and painted goths jumping and dancing to this music.

We mainly came here for ‘Bella Donna / Artwork’. These are two projects of Jochen Schobert, who in the 1990s was the owner of the Etage disco in Bayreuth, where goth parties took place, and the Etage studio, where big names as Goethes Erben recorded their albums. Artwork was Schobert’s first project, and made quiet electronic music with various guest singers from the 1990s onwards. Bella Donna later took a turn towards neoclassical music. Schobert is surrounded by various singers, and among them we recognize Mariska von Waldstetten, the former singer of The Beautiful Disease, who has been living as a woman since 2019. The arrangements range up to four-part singing. Seeing this group live is an experience, because they rarely play and yet they are great.

We then move to the Volkpalast, which is offering a top bill of neofolk tonight. As I said before, there are several locations throughout the city where concerts take place. The different stages are divided somewhat by music genre, so every day you can choose between death rock, electro, neoclassical, industrial, dark wave and other subgenres of the gothic scene. But the disadvantage is that those stages are sometimes far apart. With your festival bracelet, you do get free public transport, but I often prefer the bike because I have the feeling that it is faster. In addition, Leipzig has a bicycle sharing system, NextBike, with which you can easily borrow a bicycle at various places in the city via an app.

Ostara is legendary because frontman Christian Leviathan collaborated with Douglas Pearce of Death In June, still the most important neofolk project ever. Of course, Richard Leviathan was also accused of fascist sympathies, but I believe there is as much truth in it as with Pearce. (Perhaps a short mea culpa is appropriate here, because I also wrote an article a long time ago in which I insinuated that Death In June was extreme right-wing, an idea from which I now distance myself.) Richard Leviathan plays pure – almost clichéd – neofolk, in which his guitar and vocals are accompanied by violin and percussion. To the delight of the audience, he also plays songs from his previous band Strength Through Joy – the name is a reference to the fascist organization Kraft durch Freude'– and even from ‘KAPO’, his collaboration with Death In June. And of course the lyrics are full of references to history, with great emphasis on the decline of the West.

We once saw Death In Rome perform in the Canteen of the Volkspalast, a group that makes neofolk covers of all kinds of hits and kitch songs. Now we see TourdeForce doing the opposite. They perform a kind of synth-pop covers of Death In June songs. They also play their own songs throughout the covers, because this Italian group around Christian Ryder has already released eight albums since 2004, only the last of which consists of neofolk covers. It’s fun for a while, but we weren’t blown away.

The main reason for coming here tonight was Backworld. This American band is also a neofolk classic, because they collaborated with members of Current 93, Coil and Swans. They were also on the cult label World Serpent, which released all the neofolk classics for a long time, until an angry Douglas Pearce forced them into bankruptcy after reports of fraud. Backworld goes far beyond the clichés of the genre. No references to authoritarian regimes or questionable philosophers here, but truly pure christian music. Moreover, it is composed much more melodically, with extensive arrangements for strings, winds and other instruments. Singer and guitarist Joseph Budenholzer is accompanied by keyboards and violin tonight. That makes it less varied than on CD, although it is an advantage that everything is actually live.

Argine is an Italian band that – like more bands – has evolved from post-punk to neofolk. The group has my full attention from the first piano notes, and they are soon supplemented with acoustic guitar, bass and drum rolls. The vocals alternate between the male singer-guitarist and the female singer. I don't understand any of the lyrics in Italian, but the music and the singer’s intonation suggest that they are profound philosophical reflections on life. This is material for dark romantic souls, and that always appeals to me.

It may be my fault that I still regarded Dernière Volonté as a synthpop band, and therefore wondered why this group was so popular in neofolk circles. After experiencing a few minutes of their performance, I realize that the band is much more than that. Although there was a synthpop period, after a period of dark ambient, bombastic synths are now combined with echoing timpani and percussion. Add to that some declamations in French, with the occasional obligatory reference to fascism, and you have the decadent atmosphere that neofolk are so fond of. I absolutely needed this performance to realize that Dernière Volonté now has a very original sound of his own, and can rightly close the bill here tonight.

Saturday May 18

Today is a special day for me, because I get to perform myself. Not with music, but with a lecture. Since 2019, we have been trying to provide a range of English-language lectures with the WGT under the coordination of Jen Hoffert-Karas, the ‘Gothic Identity Lectures’. There have already been three editions, and each time I have told something about my area of interest: alternative music in the Eastern Bloc. Alexander Pehlemann has also delved into this, and has even published five books on the subject. He can kick off with a lecture on GDR Magnetizdat. He gives an overview of punk and post-punk in communist East Germany, and talks in particular about the illegal cassette scene that existed at the time and in which very interesting music was released by bands such as Rosa Extra, Ornament & Verbrechen, Zwitchermachine, AG Geige ...

Then it’s my turn with the story of the Czech Underground, the illegal rock scene that existed in Czechoslovakia under communism. That scene arose after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact – the ‘defense alliance’ of the communist countries that attacked their own members – which put an end to the liberalizations and the experiment of ‘socialism with a human face’ under the Prague Spring. During the period of ‘normalization’ that followed the invasion, tough action was sometimes taken against musicians. Many fled abroad, and in particular there was a controversial trial against the group Plastic People of the Universe. Four musicians were sentenced to months in prison simply for having their own music and lifestyle. It led to the founding of the human rights movement Charter 77. When communism fell in 1989, it was the friends of the Plastic People of the Universe – among them Václav Havel – who came to power.

If you think that such things no longer happen today, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. Contrary to my habits, I do not continue to follow the entire program of lectures, but return to the Heathen Village for a performance of Irdorath. This band from Belarus has just come out of prison, where they spent two years. Their crime? When President Lukashenko – nicknamed ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – won the 2020 elections through massive fraud, a broad protest movement emerged. Tens of thousands took to the streets, and Irdorath supported the demonstrations with their bagpipes. In the meantime, the uprising was brutally suppressed, and the prosecution of those who protested is still ongoing. Nadzeja and Uladzimir Kalach, the couple who lead Irdorath, were both sentenced to two years in prison. Three other musicians also received long sentences.

In the meantime, Nadzeja and Ulazimir have been released and moved to Germany, where they have been looking for new musicians. A week ago they held their first indoor performance, and the WGT is now their first festival performance. They belong well in the Heathen Village. They wear clothing that suits nature-loving hippies, and play music with didgeridoo, hurdy-gurdy, various flutes, throat singing, bagpipes and all kinds of percussion. The group does not perform as martyrs at all, but emphasizes that the performance should simply be fun. That works out rather well, because after a few songs the audience is dancing and clapping their hands en masse. Only towards the end of the performance does Nadzeja tell the tragic story of the group, and she issues a political statement: 'There are still more than 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus. As long as they are not free, we will not be free.'

This does not alter the fact that I also enjoy listening to deathrock and gothic rock, and so I head towards the Täubchenthal afterwards. Not only is it a fun place because of the music, but this is also the place where you can observe beautiful deathhawks and other highly decorated hairstyles in all categories. When I enter, The Bellwether Syndicate is finishing up a pretty lame set. Dark Entries colleague Kurt Ingels tries to convince me that I would have liked the performance if I had listened to the CD beforehand, but I don't know what to think.

And I don't know what to think of the next band either. Ausgang is a British band that only existed for four years in the 1980s. No one I talk to knows what their music sounds like, but everyone knows that they had impressively high hair. It was to be expected that we would not see those haircuts today, since the musicians should be around retirement age. But what about the music? Well, that's actually damned good. Ausgang plays pure early post-punk or even gothic in the style of Sex Gang Children, Skeletal Family or Theater Of Hate. Sharp guitars, a melodic bass, mean vocals, and especially tribal drums. By the way, you should know that it was originally that tribal drumming style that gave rise to the word ‘gothic’, and that it was actually a reference to the Germanic ‘Goths’, rather than to Gothic architecture or literature.

The evening continues with Tragic Black as a representative of American deathrock. They started with screaming music in the style of Marilyn Manson, but later evolved towards pure deathrock, and that is especially appreciated here. Tragic Black still plays songs from the past, but it no longer sounds so loud and shouty. The singer has replaced his deathawk with long hair in a ponytail, but the bassist still wears his hawk sky-high, and the guitarist has a sidecut. Combined with their drum machine, they get the dancers on their side, especially when they play ‘Skeleton Kiss’ by Christian Death and ‘Play For Today’ by The Cure at the end of their performance.

The icing on the cake is of course the performance of Sex Gang Children, a band that was a real sensation in the early 1980s with its experimental punk music, and which subsequently released quite a few beautiful albums. In 2018, singer Andi Sex Gang was able to tour again with the original musicians, guitarist Terry McLeay and the extraordinary drummer Rob Stroud. Unfortunately, this formation has not survived the test of time, and Andi is now touring with new musicians. That won't spoil the fun, because I've never seen a bad performance from Sex Gang Children. The set focuses on the group’s early work from 1982 and ’83. You get almost everything from the legendary debut ‘Song and Legend’, as well as a lot of work from the singles and EPs that were released at that time. The second half of the performance also features three songs from 2021’s ‘Oligarch’, but this is aside. The only downside is that I have the feeling that the new band is not yet fully attuned to each other, and that especially the drums – which were brilliant in the early days – are now limited to more banal rhythms. Still, it remains a pleasure to see the band at work.

Sunday May 19

We went to bed early again yesterday, because under no circumstances did we want to miss the Camerata Mediolanense performance today. Actually they already played on Saturday evening at the same time as Sex Gang Children, but the fact that they played again on Sunday afternoon in the Kirchenruine Wachau meant that I could easily solve this dilemma. It is a relatively long ride by public transport to get there, but the location is very beautiful, literally in the ruins of a church, in the open air, even though rain was forecast. We like to take a risk. But tell me: at what festival can you see a performance by an excellent neoclassical group in such a place?

Camerata Mediolanense started making music in the 90s with heavenly singing, bombastic organs and lots of percussion, and quickly became an established name in the neofolk scene. But I'm especially a fan of the work released in the new millennium, after mastermind Elena Previdi obtained a PhD in musicology. That work is based, among other things, on the work of the classical Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. Today Camerata Mediolanense presents a new work: ‘Atalanta Fugiens’, which is based on the book of the same name by Michael Mayer on alchemy from 1617. The concert largely consists of that record, which is performed by three singers and four percussionists, who occasionally also sing along or add keys or accordion. Elena Previdi accompanies the whole on keyboards, harpsichord and piano. There is a brief buzz when the rain starts and many umbrellas open, but luckily the rain subsides quickly and you can continue to enjoy a magical performance. At the end, some older songs are also played, such as the classic ‘L’Homme Armé’, which sinks into heaps of percussion.

When I get back to the city, I decide to rest in the hotel. I promptly fall asleep, and thus miss my friend Alexander Nym’s lecture on gothic horror literature. Afterwards the man assured me that the room was packed and that I was certainly not missed. I wake up just in time to go to the Moritzbastei before the performances start there. The Moritzbastei is all that remains of the medieval ramparts of Leipzig. In the casemates of the fortress you will find a cultural center with drinks and food, and especially with concert and party rooms. I don't have to tell you that this is a favorite location for goths who like to party the night away. The Moritzbastei is offering a program of electronic darkwave tonight, and I don't actually know any group that is coming to play here. Because that is also what the WGT is: a place to discover new things.

The kick-off is Death Loves Veronica. I've already heard some positive things about this project. Singer Veronica initially sang in the deathrock group called Veronica's Veil, but then went solo and electronic with Death Loves Veronica. She comes from Texas and is accompagnied here by a man behind a computer and buttons. She sings and dances very expressively to her extremely dark music and lyrics. The music is breathtaking and drags you into a world full of nightmares and interpersonal relationships that have gone wrong. The rhythms are slow, with percussion that hits hard and cold, and the music focuses on deep bass tones. This is by far the darkest performance I have seen on this edition of WGT, and that is saying something.

Neila Invo consists of three girls, and they look impressive. They appear with a veil over their heads, which is taken off after one song. We immediately recognize Ash Code’s keyboardist. The bassist has put her long blonde hair with a fringe up, and the singer has short hair with shaved sides and a tattoo on her throat. However, the music suffers from what our minimal friends probably adore, but I like much less: it is decidedly simple and repetitive, with always the same rhythms. It is mainly the singing that brings some variation to this. It's not really my thing, but I do hear very enthusiastic reactions from other people, so it must be a matter of taste.

The fact that the industrial group Massiv In Mensch is popular was immediately noticeable during the announcement of the band. None other than singer M.A.Peel from Welle:Erdball takes the floor to introduce the group. And oh yes, Mark Benecke, the immensely popular forensic biologist in the German goth scene, is also participating. But that's not enough: Honey from Welle:Erdball will also introduce the group. Massiv In Mensch has been making music since the late 90s, and I actually find the term ‘industrial’, under which they are announced, a bit reductive. They themselves say that they make electronic music across its entire spectrum. I mainly hear danceable electro with a touch of future pop, but they do not shy away from including choir singing in their music, opera singing by their special singer, or even carnival music and even references to ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka. The group is therefore versatile, and that is certainly appreciated by the audience.

Rosa Anschütz learned to play the piano and flute as a child, but later turned towards experimental electronics with frequent loops. She whispers, sings, recites, with a great emphasis on the lyrics, and the whole thing is permeated with melancholy and existential doubts. Rosa Anschütz actually does not come from the goth scene, but from the alternative electronic scene. There is some discussion about whether the WGT has invited too many artists from outside the scene this year. Let me put it this way: Rosa Anschütz fits in with the gothic sense of life, and so I have no problem with it. I would even encourage this kind of cross-pollination, even though the groups from the gothic scene should be given every opportunity to play here.

Let me end my report from Sunday with a band I didn't see, but of which several people told me that their performance was phenomenally good: This Morn’ Omina. You may know that mastermind Mika Goedrijk had parted ways with his band members some time ago. Well, he has gathered new people around him, and if I can believe the rumors, the tribal industrial techno of This Morn’ Omina has risen from the ashes.

Monday May 20

It's the last day of WGT, and today the performances don't start until around 5 p.m. I decide to take advantage of another WGT offer: free museums. Because with your WGT wristband you can also visit many museums in Leipzig for free. I had set my sights on the immense Museum der bildende Künste, which has a large collection of works of art from different periods, but I had overlooked the fact that the museum, like many museums, is closed on Mondays. Then I go to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum not far away, which is not included in the program because it is always free.

The Zeitgeschichtliges Forum is a history museum about the GDR. As a history buff, I had visited the museum several times, but that was years ago, and I suspected that the exhibition had been renewed in the meantime. That was indeed the case. It was a completely new exhibition, where the part about the GDR has become a little more concise, but more attention was paid to the reunification of Germany and its consequences, which is also very interesting. I am absolutely delighted with the temporary exhibition ‘Hits & Hymnen’, which focuses on music in East and West Germany, and paid particular attention to musicians who fell victim to repression in the GDR: singer-songwriters such as Wolf Biermann and Bettina Wegner, rock groups like Klaus Renft Combo and of course also punk groups like Wutanfall and L'Attentat.

Then I go to the place of the festival for high culture: the Schauspielhaus, the base of the neoclassical bands at WGT, where as far as I know only good performances take place. Tonight Corde Oblique, the project of Italian guitarist Riccardo Prencipe, is playing there. I've already seen a few Corde Oblique performances, and I always thought it was heavenly. I was initially a bit disappointed that this time there were only two people on stage: Prencipe himself and the beautiful singer Rita Saviano in a long black dress. Prencipe tries to compensate for the lack of musicians by playing his guitar with loops, effects and E-bow. But many songs also feature pre-recorded piano, strings and percussion. That may sound a bit cheap, but the result actually remained magical.

I cycle to the Volkspalast, where a very nice selection of more experimental groups is programmed. Immediately upon arrival I am told I should feel guilty to have missed Aska, a project from Iceland that calls its music ‘angst pop’. I realize better than anyone that you have to make choices at the WGT and that you cannot see everything. I don’t regret my choices so far, and I can always delve into the groups I missed later, which I certainly will do with Aska.

I’m in time for Use Knife though. It's a bit ironic that I have to go to Leipzig to see a Belgian band at work. Use Knife was originally founded by members of Kiss The Anus Of A Black Cat, Stef ‘Irritant’ Heeren and Kwinten Mordijck, to celebrate their fascination with analogue synths. However, the group took a different turn when the Iraqi Saif Al-Qaissy joined the group with Arabic percussion and vocals in 2022. The combination of mesmerizing electronic music and Arabic elements works extremely well and is also very original. The performance is also beautiful thanks to the work of Youniss Ahamad, who had three transparent curtains placed on the stage, one per musician, on which he projects slogans in English and Arabic. This was a top performance.

I know Kollaps from the past as a lot of noise. I also play in a group – Winterstille, which makes a kind of orchestral folk – and we once had the pleasure of playing as the support act for Kollaps. Now you should know that the musicians of Winterstille – except for the two leaders: Gerry Croon and I – have nothing to do with the gothic scene, let alone with this kind of post-industrial noise. When the group started its set full of feedback and metal percussion, the musicians of Winterstille simply thought it was hilarious to have performed for this. I must say that, compared to the performance in Brussels at the time, this set is still quite musical, and I can detect musical structures and even songs. Naturally, Kollaps will expertly destroy its ‘instruments’ – consisting of metal objects and other scrap – at the end of his set, although I have no doubt that all of this will be recycled for the next performance.

And so we come to the last performance of the festival. I’m a little sad that it’s almost over, but I will of course enjoy this apotheosis even more. I remember the performance of the Yugoslavian/Czech industrial group AutopsiA in 2012, which was the first performance in 25 years. That was an exclusivity of the WGT, which actually took place inside the Völkerschlachtdenkmal. Behind heavy curtains, the man behind AutopsiA – who anxiously wishes to remain anonymous – played his soundscapes that vary between neoclassical, ritual percussion, industrial and experimental electronics. Even today, the group remains anonymous, and four people in white protective clothing with hoods and face masks take their place on stage. Apocalyptic messages are projected on the screen in different languages. It's a setup that gets a bit boring after a while, because the performance lasts an hour and a half without much movement on stage, but it's already better than staring at a curtain.

All I can say about the music is that it is extremely ingenious, and that the term ‘industrial’ no longer really applies. This is very complex music with dissonant tones and arrhythmic parts, music that could easily be used as the soundtrack for a horror film. I suspect that it is mostly recent work that is being played, because since 2019 AutopsiA has released no fewer than nine works, usually in collaboration with the mysterious Dämmerung Orchestra, an orchestra about which I can find no further information on the internet. It certainly explains the very orchestral sound of many compositions. I also hear that the recording of this performance will be released later on bandcamp. Although the performance was a bit too long to count on our permanent full attention, I think it was great, and I will also delve further into AutopsiA’s recent work.

Some afterthoughts

You should have understood by now that the Wave-Gotik-Treffen offers a wide range of music and other cultural activities. That range is much larger than at any other gothic festival, but we could still hear that there were fewer visitors this year than usual. This could be due to various things. On the one hand, we are all undeniably getting older. The WGT sometimes resembles a gathering of people who, at the age of 16, decided to go through life in black and with special hairstyles and clothes, and who obstinately adhere to this later in life. That is certainly not a reproach, because I am one of them. But people are dropping out and no longer find it worthwhile to go to festivals. Fortunately, there are still plenty of goths who persist in visiting events and festivals.

A second reason is the increasingly expensive price of hotels. Older goths no longer like camping, but since corona the prices for hotels have risen enormously. That is of course an element that the organizers of the WGT themselves have no control over, and it is compensated by the fact that the price of the tickets is still ridiculously cheap for a four-day festival with so many bands. Anyway, if you want to make the trip to Leipzig, especially from abroad, you need to have some capital. Many goths now have an established place in society and good work, and can afford it, but there are certainly some people who do not have the means to travel and visit the WGT.

A final element is the annual whining that the program is disappointing. I honestly cannot understand that. This year again, the WGT offers you an offer of around two hundred groups to choose from. Indeed, this does not necessarily include the biggest names, because that is the philosophy of the festival. If you only want to see the big names, you will find what you are looking for at Amphi or M'era Luna. There's nothing wrong with that, we support all festivals in the scene. But anyone who also wants to see the smaller groups, and especially those who want to make discoveries, better come to Leipzig, because this offer is unsurpassed. Moreover, there are numerous side activities such as museums, lectures, exhibitions and real exclusivities that you will not find anywhere else. It will not surprise you that I will be attending again next year, because this festival is completely unique.

Delen op

Over Xavier Kruth

Xavier Kruth bekeerde zich al op jonge leeftijd tot het gothicdom. Toen hij begon te puberen, moest hij lang zagen om een zwarte broek te mogen hebben. Toen hij tegenover zijn moeder argumenteerde dat hij gewoon om een zwarte broek vroeg, niet om zijn haar omhoog te doen in alle richtingen, repliceerde ze dat als hij nu een zwarte broek zou krijgen, hij daarna toch zijn haar torenhoog omhoog zou doen. Xavier was versteld over de telepathische vermogens van zijn moeder. Hij leerde destijds ook gitaar spelen, en sinds 2006 speelt hij in donkere kroegen met zijn melancholische kleinkunstliedjes in verschillende talen. In 2011 vervoegde Xavier het team van Dark Entries. In Dark Entries las hij ook dat The Marchesa Casati (gothic rock) een gitarist zocht, en zo kon hij een paar keer met de groep optreden. Later speelde hij bij Kinderen van Moeder Aarde (sjamanische folk) en werkte samen met Gert (kleinpunk). En het belangrijkste van al: in 2020 bracht hij samen met Dark Entries-collega Gerry Croon de plaat ‘Puin van dromen’ uit onder de naam Winterstille.

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