Catharsis & clove cigarettes at Cruel World 2023

Goldenvoice delivered another dose of poetic depth and darkwave to the apathetically inclined, in the form of the second annual Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, California. From near and far, New Wave-lovers, old-school punks, and all-out goths got together to celebrate the best synthy hits the 80s had to offer.

Walking into the Rose Bowl, you were immediately hit with pleasurable voyeurism.

Everyone was dressed in black, color blocks, lace, and leather. It was a scene out of a Tim Burton movie… borderline Rocky Horror. But, fabulous all the same. The sunny Saturday kicked off with Aurat, Riki, Gvllow, and Urban Heat — the latter being a precursor to the actual heat building by midday. Hot, sweaty, yet solidly invested, the crowd’s size was amply impressive by the time Animotion, Glass Spells, and Ela Minus took the stage. Introduced by Los Angeles alternative radio station legend, Animotion consisted of the same members as yesteryear, only with one of their sons on guitar and another on bass. It’s as ‘core’ of the original members as you can get! Across the way on the vast Outsiders Stage, Glass Spells — a phenomenal band out of San Diego — was enrapturing to watch. I wish I could’ve witnessed more, but Berlin (being snuck into the lineup last minute to replace The Motels) was about to pop off. And Terri Nunn is never to be missed!

Appearing in fringe and full glory, with Cruella-meets-Harley-Quinn hair, Nunn was all smiles from start to finish.

Berlin went through “No More Words”, “The Metro”, and a cover of The Cult before I wandered back over to the far Outsiders Stage (making sure to stop and smell the black roses erected in one of the grounds’ sandpits as I went) for a few songs with Twin Tribes. Before I knew it, I was watching the duality of The Vapors: two younger members wilding out all over the stage, with two stationary (presumably) founding members holding down the mics. I couldn’t stay long, however, as I had a date with Modern English to “melt the world”. Arriving a little later in their set, I asked around to see if they “played the song yet”, to which I got a negative reply… moments later, Modern English lead singer Robbie Grey announced “okay, we’ll play the song now” to raucous cheers. I wonder how often they get badgered about their ‘one song’… but I guess that’s what comes with the territory when creating one of the biggest 80s bangers!

Back at the Lost Boys Stage, The Soft Moon was wrapping up to make way for Gang of Four who served up some HEAT; lead singer Jon King was riling and thrashing around the stage like he’s still a hellbent teenager. Hey, you’re only as old as you think you are! Picking my jaw back up off the festival floor, I made my way over to Molchat Doma — the rising darkwave ministers out of Minske. Without a clue as to what they were saying in their native language, their energy was incredible and their attitudes hypnotic.

Hopefully, the world will be seeing much more of Molchat Doma.

At the smaller Lost Boys Stage, the world welcomed ABC — a special poppy break amid the more punky vibes. That lasted all of two seconds before I ran the length of the grounds to catch the one, the only, the king of all things dark and dreary — Mr. Gary Numan. As it was my first time seeing Numan live, I went into this performance blind. Numan owns his stage unlike any other (not to mention people of his age!!!!). I was spellbound as he kicked, twisted, contorted, and clamored. Numan CRUSHES. I’m anbsolutely obsessed. I had to sit down and take a moment before I could squeeze in a moment to see Squeeze — another last-minute addition to replace Adam Ant. Adam will be making up for his Cruel World absence in 2024, according to the festival’s Instagram. But these things happen… visa paperwork gets messed up, etcetera, etcetera, as was the case of Echo and the Bunnymen finally performing the fest after cancelling from last year’s! Was it just me or did the temperature dip a bit when they played “The Killing Moon”??

For fans of synthwave, Boy Harsher was getting everyone to dance with more upbeat jams — the perfect segue to Love and Rockets at sunset. Before we knew it, it was Billy Idol‘s time to shine, semi-shirtless, as always. With a “Rebel Yell”, we cried “more, more, more” all the way to The Human League closing down the adjacent Lost Boys Stage. With keytars and sequins, The Human League created quite the spectacle, illuminated with geometric grids and neon lights. On the other end of the grounds, the Godfather of Punk himself — Iggy Pop — took off at lightning speed (pun very much intended). For those who haven’t heard, Cruel World had an abrupt ending. It was right around the second number when Iggy’s sound was cut — we’re talking a full 20 to 30 seconds of silence in the middle of the song. Recuperating without missing a beat, Iggy Pop went into song number three, “The Passenger”. This got the people going… that is, until the sound got completely cut again. This dance between the soundboard and attendees’ earholes lasted another minute or so until it was announced over loudspeaker that the festival was “evacuating due to extreme weather”. This was not a test.

Apparently, a bolt or two of lightning and the Pasadena Fire Department freaks out.

As we all filed to our cars in one mass human blob, one could overhear the many grievances of disappointed attendees: Iggy and The Human League were cut short while headliner Siouxsie Sioux was a no-go altogether?! Without a drop of rain or lightning, some even joked that it was all a ploy for Siouxsie to skip town to go see The Cure in San Diego! To be honest, we were warned that this is a Cruel World, so I don’t understand those who didn’t get the concept. Despite everything, I had a genuinely spectacular time! And, to make up for the premature departure, Goldenvoice announced a special Sunday night exclusive, ONLY for ticket-holders, with Iggy Pop and Siouxsie Sioux both playing extended sets, as well as an encore performance from Gary Numan. Although a nice gesture, it was kind of a bummer that The Human League couldn’t join, as I heard from more than a few people that they were absolutely CRUSHING IT when the evacuation bells rang. Here’s to hoping they are considered for next year!

And on that note — what nostalgic artists could 2024 bring??

Being such a niche genre and the fest now two years deep, speculation is high for what the future may hold. Could it be Depeche Mode or New Order closing it all down next May? Or DAVID BYRNE!!? You can’t even spell the word ‘CRUEL’ without ‘C, U, R, E’! Headliners aside, will it be Tears for Fears supporting? The B-52s? Flock of Seagulls? Duran Duran? More hopefuls might be INXS, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, The Go-Gos… god, wouldn’t it be great if Danny Elfman signed on?!! With original Oingo Boingo members in tow??? Talk about a one-of-a-kind, gotta-be-there experience… And, lest we forget about the one (or two)-hit-wonders that made the 1980s so memorable, like Simple Minds, OMD, Naked Eyes, Talk Talk, Soft Cell, The Fixx, A-ha, and soooo many others. Cheers to next year! 🖤🥀

Photography by Kristy Rose

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