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By ANDY LARA
Substance returned to Los Angeles last weekend, and besides its usual panoply of post-punk and electronic/industrial dance music — from veteran acts to up-and-coming bands — another dimension illustrated how promoters have their finger on the pulse of cool: the venue.
The 91-year-old Los Angeles Theatre, with its French Baroque architecture, sprawling roofs, flowing staircases, ornamental chandeliers, protruding columns, grand hallways and cinematic restrooms, provided a unique setting to match the unique attendees. It was a lavish, celebratory weekend for fashionable yet gloomy kids who love to dance.
The musical stars were many, from higher-billed acts such as the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Chameleons and Schwefelgelb, to local heroes such as Newboy and Sextile, to European acts such as Absolute Body Control. Portland’s Puerta Negra, Chicago’s Pixel Grip and Florida’s Glove did not disappoint, either.
Substance proved a challenge for one person to document, but here’s what was witnessed.
One of the first exciting bands at Substance was Brooklyn’s Model/Actriz, who played noisy, flamboyant, artsy post-punk on the Ballroom stage. Some of their songs were reminiscent of Bauhaus, such as “Amaranth,” which set the tone for the festival as noisy, dark and angular. The band’s bass-heavy, rhythmic songs with pummeling drums and theatrical singing carried the set. The band’s enigmatic singer Cole Haden at one point jumped into the crowd and danced with audience members, singing directly into the eyes of some listeners, an act which Pixel Grip singer Rita Lukea would also perform later in the evening. Interestingly, Haden would namecheck the Jesus and Mary Chain in a song, pointing towards the evening’s headliners and tipping his hat to his predecessors as cool, hip noisemakers.
Puerta Negra played the middle stage, which allowed for interested parties to get as close as possible to the band without obstruction. And they are a band to see up close. Singer Maria Aguirre and multi-instrumentalist Mark Arciaga delivered a harsh, dancey set reminiscent of High Functioning-Flesh (whose singer Susan Subtract actually produced PN’s LP), Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire. While performing a song titled “Quemar Bandera” (translation: burn the flag), the band’s political stance was on display as Aguirre introduced an American flag to her rear end and threw it on the floor, proceeding to spend the rest of her set dancing upon it, a provocative move — which, coupled with song lyrics sung in Spanish (one of the couple artists on the Substance lineup to do so), presented the band as one of the most radical bands on the lineup. On a lineup of subversives, that’s quite a statement.
Manufactured in Los Angeles, Kumo 99 delivered an interesting dose of experimental techno that had elements of jungle/drum-and-bass. They were a breath of fresh air at a festival that only allowed exits to the confined smoking area.
Spike Hellis were exciting to watch (even though you couldn’t see them due to fog). They provided harsh electronics similar to Youth Code and Puerta Negra.
The Chameleons’ dark, moody existentialism matched the venue’s tone perfectly. They sounded huge on the main stage’s sound system, and their anthemic choruses featuring lyrics like “Draining away / here today” matched the sentiment of many clad-in-black attendees. The Chameleons were one of the first bands of the evening to use lasers to their advantage. Singer Mark Burgess sounded fantastic and in one song gave nods to fellow British icons Joy Division and The Beatles.
Patriarchy, on the ballroom stage, provided a bizarre, challenging half-hour of sounds and at one point brought out a “gimp” on a leash, which shows they are an act more concerned with shock value than much else.
The Jesus and Mary Chain played a career-spanning set that included deep cuts like “9 Million Rainy Days,” which was satisfying for devoted fans and curious audience members who wondered whether singer Jim Reid still sounds like he does on their records. (He does.) While not as impactful as the Chameleons, who preceded them, it was clear why so many bands on the lineup are indebted to them. “Just Like Honey” kicked off the encore, “Reverence” finished it. Appropriate.
One of the most electrifying bands at the festival was Chicago’s Pixel Grip, who acknowledged at one point that Substance was “their biggest show ever.” The ballroom stage was crowded, and everybody in that room was moving along intensely to their unique, EBM-inspired sounds. The band is exciting to watch, with singer Rita Lukea giving and feeding off the crowd’s energy. Thrilling to watch and listen to, Pixel Grip should not be missed whenever there’s a chance to see them again.
Newboy, which consists of Gregory Vand (of High Functioning-Flesh) and Robert Lane (of Rubycon Records), provided an upbeat, synthy and funky set for early attendees on the middle stage (the dark, warm room that actually lacked a stage). Their set had the audience roaring and wooing, and Vand performed his sensual (yet robotic) dance songs with a smile on his face for the entire set. At some point, Lane poured the ever-present Liquid Death water onto his head and onto the audience. No electronics were harmed by said H2O. The bodies kept dancing, till they were sweaty and indistinguishable, just a giant mass of people moving, and before long, the fun was over. Newboy kicked off day two on a positive note for what was to be the long night ahead.
Glove was an interesting new band that played upbeat, angular post-punk with an electronic and noisy tinge, reminiscent of the Horrors or Toy. While their sound was somewhat garage-y, the band was finely dressed and funereal. This young, goth-adjacent band from Tampa, Fla., has a bright future ahead of them. The band undertook that rare practice of switching instrument duties on certain songs, allowing the band of co-ed keyboard players and guitarists to take turns on lead vocals, which created a sense of novelty and diversified their sonic assault. Some songs were electronic and pulsating, not dissimilar from fellow Substance performers Sextile; others were dark, lush and romantic, bringing to mind a modern Cure or Chameleons. Like their name, Glove fit in perfectly with the rest of the bands on the lineup, and with tours supporting Spoon and Foals coming up, they are likely to pick up new fans all over the country.
Highly anticipated Kontravoid left audience members wanting more (which could be a good or bad thing). Cameron Findlay’s set suffered from bad mixing, which resulted in poor audio throughout the main room. Although he, like everyone else, had excellent lighting and though he does put on an intriguing performance– donning his famous mask and cowboy hat and moving slow and rhythmically– his decision to mix his performance himself (as opposed to delegating that duty to the house engineers like everyone else) resulted in the audience not being presented with the loudest, nor the most impactful sonic experience. Later same-stage artists like Absolute Body Control and Youth Code did maximize use of the venue’s impressive sound system, which resulted in more memorable (and audio-friendly) sets.
Los Angeles’s own Sextile delivered a celebratory set that energized the audience in ways other bands at Substance did not: They may have been the only band that inspired a true mosh pit. When singer Brady Keehn announced they would be playing a new song (one of two), the crowd went wild. The party atmosphere did not stop until their last note. After the first song, Keehn requested “more lasers, more fog,” and the stage technicians did just that, producing a visually stimulating performance, ensuring that even the ghosts in the building were dancing. The duo of Keehn and Melissa Scaduto were a tag-team of hype-building, energy-wielding wizards. Keehn was cool and collected, wearing a leather trench coat, sunglasses and a Lou Reed “Street Hassle”-era haircut. Scaduto was happy and frenetic the entire time. At Substance, they humbly acknowledged their duty as sultans of synth, and their forthcoming new material (which finds them taking new sonic turns) is guaranteed to propel them further up.
Absolute Body Control from Belgium provided the weekend’s best-sounding set. Their bass notes pounded in listeners’ chests with masterful mixing, and their laser show was synched to their musical phrases. Here was a band who took full advantage of the resources available to them at the festival. The two band members dominated the stage with a cool, calm collection, knowing full well that every person in that room was mesmerized and would be talking about them for weeks to come. Their iconic dance music can be traced back to the origins of EBM and industrial music and their influence is unshakeable, since every band at Substance is indebted to them knowingly or not.
Berlin’s Schwefelgelb similarly provided a non-stop dance set that kept the crowd in motion until the last synth rang out. The iconic duo delivered a relentless set of dance music that was unparalleled the entire weekend. Even Pixel Grip took pauses between songs, but Schwefelgelb, on the contrary, did not give the audience a breather. Like a spell, the audience was under their dominion for an entire hour, and their only decree was to dance to techno. The audience happily obliged.
Andy Lara is a SoCal-based freelance writer.