Infest 2006: Front Line Assembly/Rotersand/Lab 4/Stromkern/Reaper/Frozen Plasma/Destroid/Architect/S.K.E.T./Wai Pi Wai/Unter Null/Schmoof/Autoclav 1.1/O.V.N.I

Bradford University, Bradford - 25-27 August 2006

"This was the gig I'd waited a lifetime for. It was worth the wait."

[Infest 2006 flyer]The annual trip to Infest in the heart of England isn't ideal given that travel revolves around the second largest annual public holiday (after Christmas) in England. This means every stage of the journey is packed, busy and noisy. Having dumped my baggage in the (impressive) student halls of Bradford University, where the festival has been held since its inception in 1998, I strolled the short distance up Great Horton Street hill to the venue, only be accosted en route by a very wasted-looking junkie woman and a disheveled guy asking for £5. Not exactly the sort of welcome one hopes to receive. But once inside the familiar environs of the festival itself I immediately felt at home. It's as if this stuff is in your bones and you simply can't help yourself.

Schmoof were known from their appearance at Elektrofest last year and were an ideal, light-hearted way to kick of this year's proceedings. Infest has never been pretentious and its good that they can find space in the line-up for outfits like these two. Schmoof don't take themselves seriously and know how to have, and generate, a sense of fun whilst performing. Their projected Spectrum computer graphics and repeat tuning of analogue synths, took me back to my well-spent youth. Schmoof are like a brother and sister (they're not) playing at being pop stars in their brightly-coloured 80s bedroom. Disposable to some extent they may be but they're decidedly entertaining nonetheless - a guilty pleasure. Meatier tracks like Back Seat Driver demonstrating they can write tracks with more strength and longevity if they want to.

[Destroid: Myer on da mike]Next up were Destroid, about which I knew very little, but the fact that Daniel Myer was a key component was all I needed to know that this was essential viewing. And, boy, was this great! Even as a big fan of most of Myer's numerous projects, even I wasn't prepared for this. Destroid produce brilliant, hard electronics. Myer's (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) announcement before one track that this was "...our tribute to VNV Nation" with its futurepop styling was accurate but too conventional in comparison with most of their material. For me, Myer is the epitome of a natural talent. Whatever genre he turns his hand to, and with Destroid the genres bend a fair bit, he comes up tops just about every time. Destroid are the perfect Infest act, and Myer seemed delighted that this UK debut was going down so well. "It's good to see some people who actually like the music" he said between songs at one point, "We've just been on a US tour and everyone hated it!" he explained. And it didn't sound like he was just playing to the local audience either. As it was going down so well, the band were allowed to overrun slightly and deliver an encore. This was a new song with a provisional title of Client (I think it was), and was very reminiscent of Cleen - terrific. Nobody does hard and melodic like Myer. The guy is a genius. Another purchase clearly required here.

[Lab 4 - Hard, Dance]Hard dance duo Lab 4 were awarded their slot based upon feedback from last year's post-event questionnaire (which asks for the audience's live wish lists among other things). Lab 4's name was at the top of those artists voted for and demonstrates just one reason why Infest remains at the top of the annual festival circuit - giving the fans exactly what they want. And it's easy to hear why they were so popular. Though not quite my thing, their technoesque beats and very hard house piano melodies were seriously OTT. Even their equipment frame looked scary! Lab 4 could eat The Prodigy for breakfast and shit them out just as fast. It had been a great opening evening to the weekend.

Saturday 26th

O.V.N.I. (French for U.F.O.) features Sandrine, Steven and Rosie from Seize but with a bit of role reversal going on. Sandrine on keyboards and Steven fronting on the vocals. The switch is inconsequential as the results were unfortunately underwhelming. Despite five of them on stage (a welcome change) this was very lacklustre stuff. For me, the combination of darker elements and breakbeats never really gelled into a cohesive package.

O.V.N.I. were followed by another acronym act: S.K.E.T. (showcasing two guys and their boxes). The second UK debut on the bill, S.K.E.T. is a Hands label rhythmic noise project from Germany and of its kind very good. This wasn't just relentless noise; there was a rewarding build and tangible progression to all the pieces. But that's not to say this was in any way wimpy. Oh no. Listening to S.K.E.T. was a bit like being on the receiving end of a nightmarish, fascistic, LOUD public broadcast. Punish your machine indeed. Inside the dark venue, listening to this, you'd never have guessed it was a beautiful summer day outside! In terms of presentation it would have benefited from some huge video clips.

[Reaper: Don't fear the reaper]Reaper on the other hand knew exactly how to put on a show. Although only a synth-based three piece, the two synth players, true to the band name, were shrouded in monk/reaper-like habits with even their faces covered, and singer Vasi Vallis also wearing a face mask. Then there was the great rave lightshow and projections of forests that combined with the stage smoke being pumped into every corner creating a very effective atmosphere. And that was before they even played a note! Sadly, it appears that all this effort may have been to distract the crowd from the music itself which wasn't as impressive as the performance. There were times when the clubby gothic chanting, pumping beats and melodic synths converged well but the songs began to blur into one another after a while. But for most Reaper seemed to deliver.

[Unter Null: Erica Dunham]The first Saturday evening act Unter Null, I'd met briefly in the bar the evening before. Unter Null is the alter ego output of American Erica Dunham and this was her first live appearance in the UK. Having released an EP called Sick Fuck it was pretty obvious this wasn't going to be light entertainment. Looking like a female Fad Gadget - being covered head to toe in (I hope) fake blood - Dunham didn't sound anywhere near as harsh as I expected. Her powerful and effective vocals demonstrating more melody than the harsh EBM style of her music might have implied. It was satisfying to see a woman hold her own on the hard and alternative scene. She's a gig photographer's dream subject too (see left).

As master of ceremonies Tails warned, Architect were going to start slow and then crank it up. Another of Daniel Myer's projects, Architect, like Destroid on Friday, were performing in the UK for the first time. Spanning drum 'n' bass beats and ambient soundscapes this began in genuine (and refreshing) left-field territory with Myer saying "Let me introduce you to Charles Bukowski..." before drifting off into a typically slow drawl long sample of the writer speaking. Perhaps not one of Myer's most easily accessible projects but, as ever, there were the Myer trademarks: sublime beats, rich sounds, and unique noises much in evidence. On the strength of this performance, not one of Myers best facets, but then he is one to indulge his desires. Often the results hit you squarely in the face, other times, like this, it kind of shoots past your ears. True to the opening promise, as the set progressed the BPMs were raised with deep, deep beats and a white noise over layer. There was plenty of Myer live filtering too. It was all over the place, in an appealing way; unpredictable and constantly catching you off guard, dense and complex. Just don't expect to keep your feet in time with the beat. He moved up to a hardcore motherfucker tip, of which Ultraviolence's Johnny Violent would probably have approved, and closed with a track that sounded vaguely like a power noise interpretation of the Doctor Who theme. [Trade secret: and what does a guy who's just played a set like that eat afterwards you wonder? A giant, bloody steak perhaps? No, a nice plate of salad. I kid you not.]

[Rotersand: a triumph!]So, to the second headline act of the year, Rotersand. The floor was packed with a crowd anticipating one of the scenes new best-sellers. They bring melody firmly back into play and although they've been going for around a decade, in the last couple of years they've really made an impression on an international level; and rightly so. Their uncommon collection of slow gentle acoustic ballads and heavier dance driven melodic electronics is both varied and impressive - whichever is to the fore. The Last Ship is typical of the weightier futurepop angle and had the audience dancing from the front to the back of the main hall. They boast a charismatic front man in the form of Rasc who not only has a great voice but knows how to carry and audience with him. Rotersand have all the key components to be one of the leading lights of the electro scene and manage to raise the standard up a notch or two compared with most of the competition. Having transferred to the Dependent label the year before last, which previously took Covenant and VNV Nation to the masses, there could be BIG things ahead for this band.

Due to the uniform strength of their songwriting down tempo songs like One Level Down are as impressive as club hits like the standout single Exterminate Annihilate Destroy which will probably be the only time you'll hear Daleks (screaming its title during its infectious chorus) and classical piano in the same five seconds. Like other bands in their prime, their set sounds like a stream of greatest hits. There's not a weak track amongst them. It may have been an overnight sensation ten years in the making, but Rotersand are now firmly on the map. Breakthrough single Emerging Oceans provided a popular encore. They'd been allowed to drift some 20 minutes over their allotted time but nobody was going to pull the plug on this lot before they were done. A triumph!

Sunday 27th

Tony Young's one-man band Autoclav 1.1 got Sunday afternoon off and running with an unusual blend of hardened breakbeat percussion overlaid with slow string melodies and drifting vocals. This was quite crunchy but it's the loud, robust synth lines that set this apart from other noisy outfits. At risk of not engaging the extremes of Whitehouse followers, this could have quite a wide appeal given the right marketing boost. There's more apparent humanity in this than most resulting in a more empathic experience than most other distorted acts.

Former NamNamBulu member Vasi Vallis who appeared as part of Reaper yesterday was back on stage as part of Frozen Plasma. In stark contrast to the grimness of Reaper (sorry, couldn't resist that!) this is front and centre German melodic pop. Backing vocalist for Diorama, Felix Marc's voice is typical of the genre and provides a high quality (if occasionally slightly over-emotive) gloss on it all. It took two or three songs before they got into their stride but it was Crossroads with its trance styling and higher BPMs that was more in sync with this audience and created more movement on the dancefloor.

[Stromkern: Stand Up - outstanding]The increasingly impressive Stromkern were one of the main draws for this year's festival and they didn't disappoint. Here they were acting in their capacity as official support act on the European leg of festival headliners Front Line Assembly. In some senses they've a lot in common with Rotersand in that they've been at it for the best part of 10 years, but only in recent times has their name spread more widely following a signing to Dependent. The similarities don't stop their either. Although the final sound is quite different, Stromkern also cast their influence net widely and this means we get a unique fusion of hip-hop vocals, classical training and a fondness for industrial sounds with striking melodies.

Stand Up from last year's standout Light It Up album sent a collective chill down the spines of most everyone here, and does indeed make the hairs on the back of your neck 'stand up'. Not only do their write great songs, they can boast one of the most energetic deliveries too. Unlike their promotional photos, there were no suits and ties in use. Instead we had skate kid sneakers and attitude with jumping and leaping all over the shop. Unexpectedly, the hip-hop style of some of the lyrical delivery actually comes across better live than on recordings and the effect is ingenious. J. Ned Kirby's voice is every bit as gifted as its recorded counterpart - a rarity. There was an irrepressible energy and natural enthusiasm that exuded from the band and the Infest crowd soaked up every last drop. A genuinely original combination and a highlight of the live diary this year. Outstanding.

[Wai Pai Wai - analogue pleasures]I thought it was pronounced Why Pie Why (as in the mathematic symbol), but the opening squeaky female sample helpfully told us it was Why Pee Why which didn't sound quite as cool to me, but however you choose to pronounce Wai Pi Wai there's no doubt about what they're achieving. A side project of Herman Klapholz (of Ah Cama-Sotz fame) and Jerome Soudan (known for Mimetic and Von Magnet) that brings together electronica, techno and experimental noise into a convincing new hybrid package. Hard and harsh some of it maybe, however, there are some tunes in there too. Pleasure Analogique with its opening children's choir was particularly effective (if no less brutal). Although this was another knob-twiddling act, Klapholz (who looks a lot like an older version of my friend Tim) was like a chimp on a bungee. His constant bobbing up and down, arms thrown into the air, somehow made the beats seem less fierce.

Doomy, heavy and tribal with some fantastic analogue synth tones and a serious gut wobbling sub woofer bass, the less harsh side could almost work on the hard dance/techno circuit that Friday night act Lab 4 are know for. Highlight was third track from the end of the set, Cargo, with its lovely driving analogue sounds blended with tumbling beats. For the first time this year I found myself truly letting go. Eyes closed I entered the Infest trance. Just the sort of experimental music that the world needs to save it from mediocrity and predictability.

Finally, three full days after starting, Infest 2006 reached its pinnacle. Headliners Front Line Assembly (on their Artificial Soldier 2006 Tour) have been one of the great let-downs of my gig going life. I can't quite remember when I first saw them but it was years ago at the Astoria in London and I was thoroughly unimpressed and bitterly disappointed. One follow-up gig since then was better but still far from the landmark experience their back catalogue tells you it should have been. Current album Artificial Soldier isn't the return to form that its predecessor Civilisation was, meaning my expectations were modest. So it was anyone's guess as to how this, and ultimately, Infest 2006, would pan out. Could it really be that this was their first UK gig in 10 years?! Apparently so. Perhaps that goes some way to explain tonight's performance. For this was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best Front Line Assembly gig I've ever been to. This was more like it!

[Front Line Assembly - Bill Leeb - worth the wait]Bill Leeb was in playful mood tonight too, sailing dangerously close to mocking his audience at times like his gag about the fact that so many in the audience were wearing black "Yeah, black - Grrr!" he jokingly growled. But given the quality of this performance he could have ripped the piss out of the assembled masses and they wouldn't have given a damn. For the first time in my experience Front Line Assembly truly delivered. Big time. "We'll be playing some old songs... if there are any old fans out there?" Teased Leeb. As if they'd dare do anything else after being away for so long.

Every aspect of the live performance was great. The new guitarist may have been young enough to have been Leeb's son, but boy could he play. The drumming was fantastic with a crystal clear sound that was sharp and rock hard, never flabby or muddy. "This is our love song" Leeb said before launching into Prophecy (from 1999's Implode). Then the encore: a formidably brutal version of Gun that saw Leeb carrying out a drum duel at the front of the stage. This was so much tougher than the original on Tactical Neural Implant and frankly all the better for it. Knowing what many fans wanted to hear, but said as if he was genuinely reluctant to play it (for God knows how many times he's played this over the years), "All right, let's do this fucker" he said before they launched into Mindphaser - complete with clips from the video (itself featuring clips from Japanese giant robot movie Gunhed) projected on the screen behind them. It sounded great, they looked great and if Leeb wasn't keen to play it you'd never has guessed from his performance. This was the FLA gig I'd waited a lifetime for. It was worth the wait.

With more than half the acts UK debuts, the Infest crew fully deserve every praise for the strenuous effort that clearly goes into ensuring that they continually build on the festival's reputation for not only being the leading alternative electronic music event in the UK but for repeatedly bringing new acts to ever expanding audiences. Something that is essential for the underground scene to thrive. A special mention too for Tails, the Infest compere since 1999, whose themed costume changes to tie in with the bands and witty banter when introducing the acts has become a distinctive part of the festival. This was terrific and proof that the organisers, somehow, still continue to raise the bar - remarkable.

Rob Dyer

See also:

Infest 2003 (Festival)
Infest 2001 (Festival)
InFest 2000 (Festival)
InFest '99 (Festival)
InFest '98 (Festival)