I’m headed to the Cruel World festival this weekend in Los Angeles. If you see me, please say hello.
Cruel World is a big celebration of ’80s music that includes goth and New Wave legends, as well as modern bands they’ve influenced. The lineup includes Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs, The Church, Berlin, Public Image Ltd., and a whole bunch of other big names from the ’80s.
While I’m looking forward to seeing those legendary bands, I’m most excited about the undercard. A handful of modern synthpop and darkwave artists are supporting the classic acts with sets earlier in the day. Here’s a look at some of the newer artists performing at Cruel World.
TR/ST (pronounced “trust”) is a dark synthpop project from Canada comprised of musician Robert Alfons, though his fiery live shows include a keyboard player and live drummer. He’s known for his distinctive nasally voice, which might be best described as an extraterrestrial vampire sent to drain your emotions. In 2019, TR/ST released a two-part album called The Destroyer that I named the best synthpop album of the year. Part 1 includes the single “Gone,” my favorite synthpop song of the year.
American musician Wesley Eisold is the primary creative force behind darkwave project Cold Cave, though he collaborates with several people, including his wife Amy Lee. Earlier tracks like “Confetti” and “A Little Death to Laugh” are pitch black, though his music has lightened up in recent years now that Wes is a family man—2021 single “Night Light” is essentially a love letter to his son, Rainer. Which is not to say he’s gone soft—last year’s Fate in Seven Lessons straddles the line between dark and light, while showcasing Cold Cave’s ’80s influences, particularly New Order and Sisters of Mercy.
LA-based duo Drab Majesty is one of the leading artists in the modern darkwave scene, beloved for their androgynous, alien personas and genre-bending sound that includes some elements of shoegaze. Their most recent release, 2019’s Modern Mirror, is a hazy, mesmerizing collection of songs examining love and narcissism. Its standout track, “The Other Side” has the album’s catchiest hook—“Why should I just walk away for you to come around another day?”—while “Ellipsis” is a fascinating essay about staring at the ellipsis on your phone while waiting for someone to finish writing a message.
I’m new to Sextile, an electronic duo from Los Angeles, but I’m really digging their throbbing synth-meets-punk sound. In fact, I included one of their latest tracks, “Contortion” on my list of the best songs of March. It’s one-half of a pair of new songs that also includes “Modern Weekend,” and together they form a daytime vs. nightlife composition. “Contortion” is the pulsating nightlife half that features wild sound effects—Sextile bends bass noises like rubberbands.
Black Marble, the coldwave project of multi-instrumentalist Chris Stewart, belongs to a sorta subgenre of synthpop that is wistful and nostaglic. Stewart sings with a monotone baritone that wallows in gauzy synths, and he’s best known for “A Great Design” from his 2012 album, A Different Arrangement. In 2021, Black Marble released his fourth album, Fast Idol, which some reviewers compared to OMD. Opener “Somewhere” is the album’s best track.
Blaqk Audio is one of the best known modern bands playing Cruel World festival. For those unaware, they are a side-project of alternative rock band AFI, created by musicians Davey Havok and Jade Puget to showcase their electronic side, which takes influence from bands like New Order and Depeche Mode. Blaqk Audio’s best known song is “Stiff Kittens,” which I’ve frequently compared to a grimy Thrill Kill Kult track. Their most recent release is the 2020 album, Beneath the Black Palms.
British duo The KVB, which consists of married couple Kat Day and Nicholas Wood, opens Cruel World festival with a 12:05 PM timeslot. They’ve been steadily building an audience in the darkwave scene since releasing their debut album, Always Then, in 2012. The KVB’s shoegazy synthpop has long drawn comparisons to Jesus and Mary Chain, which you’ll likely detect on their most recent release, Unity.