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Substance Festival At The Belasco, Friday November 26th 2021

Substance festival
Chelsea Wolfe at Substance Festival 2021

Substance festival kicked off at the beautiful Belasco Theatre on Friday and there certainly was a lot to see: three stages located on third levels inside the theater, and the only inconvenience was that people had to go up and down stairs all night long. The festival, which debuted in 2019 with Gary Numan among other headliners, is certainly an event focusing on a very precise aesthetic: post-punk, darkwave, techno-industrial, EBM, a collection of genres and subgenres all united under the same gothic roof for three consecutive nights.

Friday was a big one for women: Chelsea Wolfe was headlining and Kristina Esfandiari aka King Woman played on the same stage a few hours earlier. Unfortunately, Emma Ruth Rundle canceled her appearance for unknown reasons which may or may not be COVID-related. Narrow Head replaced her, and I am not sure why they were chosen except that they played a very aggressive rocking and grungy set.

Still, the two priestesses of doom dominated the main stage with two remarkable performances and a sound matching the lighting of the theater: consistently dark but going from a menacing, bloody red to an icy cold blue. Actually, if King Woman was grand hellfire, Chelsea Wolfe’s doom soundscapes were as glacial as usual, the evidence that doom-metal-inspired music is more than a one-trick pony. Still, for both women darkness was the point, wrapping each one of the heavy riffs, and barely letting white light filter through the incendiary red that was bathing King Woman’s set or through the dense fog enveloping Chelsea Wolfe and her band. Esfandiari spent a large amount of her set on the edge of the stage or standing on the rail above the crowd while her dramatic vocals rose into aggressive laments and cathartic shifts. I recognize plenty of cuts from “Celestial Blues,” her last album which explores suffering using Biblical and satanic allegories while the music married the sacred with the macabre, doom metal with an oriental bliss.

Between Kristina and Chelsea, there was plenty to see. On the main stage, Earth, led by Dylan Carlson – Kurt Cobain’s old friend who purchased this infamous gun – played a set of minimalist doom metal, with long and repetitive drone-like riffs letting melodies slowly escape.

Ceremony played a modern take on UK synth-punk, as their sound seems to have quite evolved since their brutal hardcore power violence debut. Do they now appear like a heavier version of the Drums? They definitively sound like an ‘80s band with matching dance moves. Back in 2012, their album “Zoo” managed to marry aggressivity with hooky melodies, but their set was quite different on Friday night. Synth-heavy, it was an energetic dancefloor animated by frontman Ross Farrar’s dynamic dance steps and a high-energy band, while there was even a number involving a female vocalist. Ceremony’s sound is more in the sonic realms of Joy Division/New Order these days, although Farrar, with his shaved head and plain white t-shirt revealing a muscular figure, still looks more like Henry Rollins than Ian Curtis.

If I didn’t have time to visit the basement stage much, upstairs was quite an eclectic show with Pixel Grip and an energetic synth darkwave dancefloor, or NIIS, and a demonic chaos-inducing distorted noise. NIIS, definitively more hardcore than postpunk, has a Riot Grrl envy as everything is about frontwoman Mimi SanDoe. With her red mane and dominatrix look, she owned the stage and went where few men have been.

Aurat was a complete surprise, a Pakistani twist on post-punk, darkwave, electronic music, and even industrial punk, performed in traditional outfits. They showed a large variety of genres during their set, from spacey, psychedelic atmospheres to infectious rhythms, to Siouxsie-Esque fiery vocals by frontwoman Azeka, who was wearing punk leather spike bracelets with her bright saree.

Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds was another eclectic number with a moniker almost too colorful for a festival focusing on the dark. They definitively escaped any genre and they could have found a niche everywhere, so why not in a post-punk event? They went from a sort of unique take on ‘50s rock to Chicano garage rock to a psychedelic scene or a sound that even reminded me of LCD Soundsystem. No surprise there, frontman Kid Congo Powers, a true entertainer, has a long music resume as he was a member of The Gun Club, the Cramps, and the Bad Seeds among other bands… he actually left Nick Cave’s band in 1989 to concentrate on the Gun Club with Jeffery Lee Pierce.

Plague Vendor is always one of my favorites and despite the somewhat more-polite-than-usual festival audience, frontman Brandon Blaine, with his blood-thirsty screams and gyrating hips, managed to start mayhem with the help of slippery wet floor and the rest was just the most punk show of the night. Blaine is a born entertainer, a gimme-danger inspiration, who never ceases to impress by his frenetic stage antics. He was restless and the music (mostly from their last release, “By Night,” and their previous album “Bloodsweat”) was as exhilarating as their execution. Once again, Plague Vendor was everything rock & roll should be: exciting, catchy, sexy, and dangerous.

Loyal to her reputation, headliner Chelsea Wolfe simply knew how to build a dramatic show with sludgy riffs and a pure gothic folk approach. A very elusive performer, you could barely see her face during the entire time, as the stage became a cinematic fog-and-shadows playground for her ravaged and creepy soundscapes. With cuts from her albums “Abyss,” “Birth of Violence,” “Hiss Spun,” “Pain is Beauty,” she affirmed herself as a gothic queen. Besides a few acoustic numbers that allowed us to better appreciate her melodious and rapturous vocals, the set was as eerie as hypnotic with a fascinating wail of guitars, definitively ending the night on a sinister note… but wasn’t it the point of Substance Festival?


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