Cold Waves has slowly but surely gained momentum since its founding in 2012 in honor of late Chicago musician Jamie Duffy. What started as a single day festival has become a multi-day, multi-market series with outposts in New York City and Los Angeles in addition to Chicago. Industrial music is the central unifying theme tying together most artists on the bills throughout the years, though genres like glitch, cold wave, EBM, goth and more have found their way into the various lineups over the years. This year the festival is highlighted by artists like OGHR, Lead into Gold, Ruby, Meat Beat Manifesto, Author & Punisher, Frontline Assembly, The Black Queen, Die Krupps and more.
The Chicago and New York City stops of the festival happened earlier this month and now it is Los Angeles’ turn to experience the harsh experimental electronic music that Cold Waves is all about. The opening night on Wednesday was Southern California’s official kick-off party. Like the Chicago and New York City festivals, headlining the kick-off party was Ruby, the criminally-underrated duo of Lesley Rankine and Mark Walk (though it appears the LA performance was the only Cold Waves set with both members and not just Rankine). Also performing was Canadian musician Rhys Fulber, known for his contributions to Front Line Assembly and Delerium, Jason Novak performing as Acucrack (during the ’00s his bandmate was Jamie Duffy, for whom the festival was founded) and glitch-y electronic noise artist Physical Wash.
Starting things off was Acucrack, who performed alone on stage with a laptop set-up. His sound was dark and dissonant, delivering drum ‘n bass behind a harsh filter of industrial grit. While much of the set was uptempo electronic music, he achieved great effect when slowing down the mix, highlighting the various elements of the compositions. A short set, Acucrack was the perfect way to usher in the kick-off party of Cold Waves IV Los Angeles.
The next artist to perform was a little-known industrial act from Los Angeles called Physical Wash—although sole member Susan Subtract spent time in well-regarded EBM duo High Functioning Flesh for several years. The music has a classic industrial sound with loads of synthesizers and electronic noise, machine-like beats and dance-inducing bass. Layered over the top of this musical foundation was Subtract’s agonized shouts and screams given a glitch-y effect that made the band by far the most abrasive of the night. Listening to the band’s recorded output, it’s obvious that in a live setting Subtract truly highlights the songs’ most abrasive qualities while downplaying the more melodic or hooky elements. Despite the blood-curdling screams from the vocalist and sole member, the songs did have an innate melodicism that makes them worthy of repeat listens—even to casual fans of EBM and industrial dance music.
Then came Rhys Fulber who, like the previous performers that night, took to the stage alone for his performance. Fulber is a bit of a legend in the industrial world, having been a member of Front Line Assembly (who headlines Sunday night) with former Skinny Puppy contributor Bill Leeb as well as working with Leeb on Delerium, the trance group that took over the world with their smash hit “Silence” with Sarah McLachlan. His set was much like Acucrack’s, a single DJ alone on stage creating a massive cacophony of sounds (in a good way).
Surprisingly, Fulber was the first musician of the night to prominently display visuals behind him. As he dropped his dystopian-fueled tunes, the imagery behind him lined up masterfully. Banal everyday scenes of life flashed behind him: commuters on the way to work. Lyrically, dystopic themes were mentioned throughout the performance, likely because much of the set was culled from his 2018 release Your Dystopia, My Utopia. Certainly one of the highlights of the set was near the end of his performance when he played “My Church” from that album.
The headlining set and clearly the reason most of the audience was in attendance last night was the eclectic, electronic dream pop band Ruby. Back in the ’90s when they released their debut album Salt Peter, they experienced quite a bit of success as they were swept up and lumped in with the trip-hop movement that was so popular during that decade. While they were something much more than a simple trip-hop group, they really weren’t able to recapture the kind of commercial success they saw with that album and its singles “Paraffin,” “Tiny Meat” and “Hoops.”
Ruby were the first performers of the night to use more than one member, packing the stage with two whole bodies. While Rankine stood at the front of the stage and provided all of the band’s commentary, her bandmate Walk sat behind a drum kit, adding a bit of analog instrumentation into what was otherwise a fully electronic performance. Rankine played an interesting instrument—a synthesizer that could be held in her hand like a large tablet, with several large light-up buttons. From this little synth, the majority of the band’s incredibly filled-out, intricate sound was produced, with the drums adding a percussive punctuation on their sound.
The band started off with one of their best-known songs, “Paraffin.” It begins with a steady, mid-paced beat that is pretty much synonymous with the trip-hop sound (with this single, it makes sense that they were associated with the genre). Despite the years, Rankine’s voice sounded as captivating as ever. After concluding the song, Rankine engaged with the audience as she would throughout the night, declaring that now they’ve got the fast song out of the way, it was “time for the ballads!” Of course, anyone familiar with the band’s discography knows that there aren’t a lot of ballads in their repertoire, most every song highlighted by their vocalist’s distinctly Scottish vocals.
Later, Ruby performed a very intriguing cover of Dolly Parton’s iconic song “Jolene” (which admittedly, would qualify as a ballad). Unsurprisingly the song took on a very different quality in the care of Rankine and Walk, stripped of its country elements and becoming electronic dream-pop, with Rankine passionately begging the younger Jolene not to take her man “just because you can.” After the cover, Ruby played a new song, which Rankine joked was “gonna be on the next album when it comes in 10 years.” Other than Salt Peter, the duo only has two other LPs (2001’s Short Staffed at the Gene Pool and 2014’s Waiting for Light), an EP and a couple of remix albums, so the idea that another new album would take a decade isn’t that far-fetched (though judging from their momentum and the quality of last night’s performance, Ruby should get that album out as soon as possible).
The band followed up their new song with what is likely their most popular song, “Tiny Meat”—a performance described by Rankine as a “new version of an old version of an old one.” The song is like a time machine to the mid ’90s, when this funky strain of dance music and rock music mixed together and had a real moment in the mainstream. Listening to the two musicians perform this mostly-forgotten hit from a time bygone, it’s no surprise that it became such a popular song—the guitars have the perfect amount of distortion, the bass is just funky enough, Rankine’s vocals and attitude are just snotty enough. All in all, it makes for one of the better songs to come out of the ’90s and to come out of the trip-hop era.
Next up was an “old version of an old version of an old one.” In other words, the third single to be released from Salt Peter, “Hoops.” Next up was a song, “Fireweed,” that Rankine said was written for her son. It’s full of sage advice, one line of which has become a mantra of sorts for Ruby: “don’t fear the weird.” The phrase was printed on the t-shirts the band was selling at their merch table; it is also featured prominently on their website and is even the URL of their site.
Overall, it was a great way to kick off the LA version of one of the most idiosyncratic festivals in the country. Representatives from electronic, industrial, trip-hop, noise rock and pop were represented in the four eclectic acts that took the stage at The Echo. On to 1720 in that nebulous, industrial part of Central Los Angeles that’s neither in the freeway loop nor in a real proper neighborhood for the three days of Cold Waves IV Los Angeles, with performances from The Black Queen, OHGR, Lead Into Gold and Frontline Assembly in the coming days.