Darker Waves Festival
Huntington City Beach, Huntington Beach
November 18, 2023
I know what you’re thinking: Hey, this is SF Sonic. You guys are supposed to be focusing on Bay Area-based events. And you’re right, usually that is our modus operandi. But there are some things that will take us out of our usual comfort zone, and one of those things is a new wave and goth-based festival just a handful of hours down the coast in Huntington Beach. So it was with the announcement of the inaugural Darker Waves Festival that I knew I would have to make the trip there and give my two cents.
There were three stages for bands to play on: the Darker Stage, the Waves Stage, and the Tiki Stage. The Tiki Stage seemed to focus primarily on deathrock and more goth-based bands both new and old, while the Darker and Waves Stages were pretty evenly focused on recent goth and synth-based acts as well as legacy new wave and post-punk bands. I had to make some tough decisions with the scheduling, as unfortunately the Darker and Waves Stages were pretty far from each other. I decided to start out on the Darker Stage.
Playing first was the San Diego duo Glass Spells. Consisting of Tania Costello on vocals and Anthony Ramirez on keyboards and synthesizers, their live set was enhanced by the inclusion of a live drummer. Their music would fit perfectly in a dark club, and admittedly it was a bit jarring hearing their synth-drenched melodies while the sun was blaring down. Tania is a fantastic front-woman (or as she referred to herself at the end of the set, a “spellcaster”), and, despite the sun, their set was a perfect opening for the festival’s stage.
Next up was Mareux, the solo project of Los Angeles musician Aryan Ashtiani. He was joined by a live guitarist/keyboardist and drummer, which perfectly backed his deadpan vocals. In the modern world of goth and post-punk music, many male vocalists have a tendency to just do a straight imitation of Ian Curtis, the late singer of Joy Divion, but Ashtiani’s voice has more expression than the Curtis knock-offs. During the second half of his set, the guitars came off and the keyboards became the primary backing instrument, the music going from a more straight-ahead post-punk first half to a solid darkwave-infused second half. Mareux gained online popularity for his cover of The Cure’s “The Perfect Girl,” and it was the perfect song to end the set with (no pun intended).
Following them was Cold Cave, a band that I’ve covered through this outlet a couple of times already. While their set wasn’t particularly different from any other one of theirs that I’ve seen, save its shortened run time, the four-piece were on fire as they ran through an all-too-short six-song set that focused primarily on the sophomore album Cherish The Light Years and the most recent album, Fate In Seven Lessons. The band wisely focused on more immediate material like “A Little Death To Laugh” and “Underworld USA,” songs that walk the line between industrial and synth pop.
I decided to walk to the Tiki Stage to see 45 Grave‘s set. The classic Los Angeles deathrockers were at the forefront of the scene, and since they rarely step out of Southern California nowadays, I figured that this might be my one shot of ever seeing them live. The band was up to task, playing mostly songs from their hallmark debut album Sleep In Safety. Unfortunately singer Dinah Cancer just sounded off, which was a shame given how integral her voice is to the sound of the band. I do still hold out hope that I’ll one day be able to see a headlining set by the band.
I ventured back to the Darker Stage to see Clan Of Xymox, A band that I hadn’t seen since I played with them in 2019. A Belgian darkwave band that was an early signer to the British label 4AD in the mid-1980s, the current live iteration of the band doesn’t rest on the laurels of the past. Their five-song set drew from five different albums by the band, running the length of their 1985 self-titled debut through 2020’s Spider On The Wall. Their trademark pseudo-electronic sound had the mostly black-dressed crowd dancing on their feet, and even though their set did sound pretty same-y, there’s no denying that the audience had a great time as they played.
A true Los Angeles legend played next: X. The early punk band, formed in 1977, recently reunited with all four original members, and they performed at Darker Waves with the energy and intensity of one of their early shows at venues like The Whiskey A Go-Go. Vocalist Exene Cervenka and vocalist & bassist John Doe commanded the crowd from the opening moments of “Water & Wine” up through their timeless rendition of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” While it’s a shame that, given his age and health, guitarist Billy Zoom remained seated throughout the entire set, but John Doe roamed around the stage throughout the band’s entire set with the energy of two people.
The next band up was Belarusian sensations Molchat Doma. After their second album, 2018’s Etazhi, seemingly went viral on YouTube in 2019, the one-obscure trio has been launched into the stratosphere of the coldwave genre, and they have become the poster-boys of Eastern European post-punk. With the exception of new song “Son,” their set drew heavily from their second album, the entire thing coming to a head with the performance of their biggest song, “Sudno (Boris Ryzhyi),” a song that had everyone in the audience, young and old, dancing their spooky hearts out.
I then ran over to the Waves Stage to see one of the two bands that made me decide to attend Darker Waves to begin with, and that was DEVO. Without a doubt one of the most underrated bands of all time, the band that has been preaching the proof of de-evolution to any spuds who will listen were wrapping up their 50th anniversary tour. Despite being the oldest band on the entire festival lineup, DEVO played with the energy and vigor of any of the younger acts, occasionally outdoing them. “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” is a fantastic mood-setting opener, “Uncontrollable Urge” was just as spastic as ever, and “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” (my favorite song of theirs) showed any unbelievers in the crowd just how unpredictable and intense their music can be. The time came for them to finish their set, but the band went over their set time by closing with “Gates Of Steel.” And if there’s one band that should be allowed to go over their set time, it’s them.
I made my way back to the Darker Stage to catch the seminal English duo Soft Cell. Despite the band touring last year, Dave Ball (one half of the band) wasn’t able to do the tour due to health issues, making Darker Waves the first Soft Cell show in North America with him onstage since 2002. Singer Marc Almond’s voice isn’t what it once was, but songs like “Seedy Films” and “Heat” still had the same edge to them as when they came out forty years ago. While the band could have closed with their classic cover of “Tainted Love,” they decided to treat the audience to one of their seediest songs, “Sex Dwarf,” my personal favorite. Anyone who could have been lukewarm to the band’s performance was definitely won over as Marc Almond invited everyone to scream along to the song.
Up next was The Psychedelic Furs, another band that I had never seen before. Unfortunately the audience was kept waiting for twenty-five minutes past when they were supposed to start until the band finally came onstage. I will say that if you’re going to delay your set by nearly half an hour, you had better bring your A-game. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It isn’t that the band was bad: every musician onstage was absolutely killing it. The downfall of the band’s set came in singer Ricard Butler’s voice: he simply sounded like his vocal chords were blown out, his voice practically making gargling noises as he tried to hit or sustain certain notes. I’ve had friends tell me that The Psychedelic Furs put on great shows, so I’m hoping that this was just an off night for Butler.
Following them was the second band that was the deciding factor for me to go to Darker Waves was The B-52s. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, the band did their farewell tour last year, a tour that I sadly missed. But I wasn’t going to miss them a second time. The call-and-response of singers Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson are just as entertaining and dynamic now as when their first single, “Rock Lobster,” was released forty-five years ago. I have to be completely honest here: the most emotional moment that I had during the entire day was when the band played “Give Me Back My Man,” a song that I would put up there as one of the best songs ever written. Yeah, you read that right. Ending the set with their biggest hits, “Love Shack” and the aforementioned “Rock Lobster,” was a sure-fire way for the band to prove to the crowd why they’re known as “The World’s Greatest Party Band.”
The first headliner of the evening was the legendary Manchester band New Order. Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, and the rest of the band got the memo and catered their set to show off the biggest hits of the band’s career. There were a couple of recent songs thrown in (the 2020 single “Be A Rebel” and “Plastic” from 2015’s Music Complete), but the band seemingly knew that they would get the biggest reactions from the crowd by playing their tried and true classics like “Blue Monday,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and “Temptation.” Paired with an intricate light show, the band’s display was the most exciting of the evening. They also showed just how much they embrace the past by closing the now-immortal song recorded when they were still Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Closing out Darker Waves was Tears For Fears, who recently got back together and released their first album in nearly two decades, The Tipping Point, last year. I have a lot of respect for a legacy band when they release a new album and want to focus primarily on their new material when playing live, but nearly the entire first half of the band’s set was nothing but material from their latest album. The songs definitely sounded great (the band may have been the best-sounding of the entire day), but the biggest reaction came when, halfway through their set, Curt Smith began singing “Mad World.” Following that, the band leaned almost entirely on their most well-known songs, even throwing in “Memories Fade” from their debut album The Hurting for the first time since 2019. The band closed their triumphant set with “Shout,” and the new wave juggernaut was the perfect closing song for the day’s festivities.
After all was said and done and I made it back to my rental car, I had a moment to reflect upon the day. And even now, a couple of days later, thinking back on it, of course I remember the band and the songs. But what really sticks out in my mind was the crowd. From the group of kids that was singing along with me to “Private Idaho” by The B-52s or the scores of people walking by me shouting the words to “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears, the true beauty of the festival was that it created a sense of community out of groups of people that have been ostracized for the last forty years: the goths, the punks, the new-wavers, the nerds, the ravers. At one point during Cold Cave’s set, front-man Wes Eisold said, “Only in this music can you start a project in your bedroom and end up here… Beautiful.” I couldn’t agree more, and it’s beautiful that those bands made us feel seen in ways that we hadn’t before. The waves may have been dark, but I came out of it with a smile on my face. And I wasn’t the only one.