Festival Review: Darker Waves Festival 2023 in Huntington Beach, CA

Words by Mat Weir, Photos by Alan Snodgrass

If there’s one thing goths hate, it’s the sun. The yellow day star is their kryptonite, melting makeup, absorbing in their all-black attire, and brightly burning their pupils which have adapted to the dark over the years. 

If there’s a second thing they hate, it’s sand. Just ask Anakin Skywalker. 

However, neither one of those factors stopped thousands (I’ve heard estimates of 30,000 but being in the sea of people felt more like another 10 or 20 thousand more) from descending upon Huntington State Beach last Saturday for the first (most likely annual) Darker Waves Fest. And who could blame them when the line-up looked like a mix of a soundtrack to a John Hughes film and new age darkwave which has gained in popularity over the last two decades. 

Thirty-three bands from over four decades of new wave, post-punk, dark wave, and synthpop graced the festival’s three stages set on the sand. Pillars like New Order, The Human League, The Psychedelic Furs, X, The B-52’s and more played alongside more recent club and social media favorites like Cold Cave, Twin Tribes, Urban Heat, and Molchat Doma. 

The festival itself had an overall feeling of 1980’s nostalgia and not just because of the bands.  From the multi-colored archway attendees passed under as they entered to a Delorean displayed on the sand surrounded by mock hoverboards, the organizers made sure to keep the theme “like, totally radical.” What other festival has an arcade tent stocked with the decade’s staples like Galaga, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Burger Time, Pac-Man, and more? 

Like every music festival, the stacked line-up meant a lot of overlap, which can only be handled one of three ways: either make a short list of who you want to see, try to bounce between stages and catch a little bit of as many bands as possible, or a mix of the two. Since we had to walk on the sand a majority of the time, my friend and I opted for the third. 

I arrived at the scene early, fearing the parking lots would fill up quickly, and so I could try to sell my extra ticket before the first band went on. That early in the day, there was no line for security or entrance despite my fellow thousand early birds. 

The first act I made sure to see was the openers, Urban Heat. The three-piece darkwave synth band from Austin, Texas popped on my radar last May at Cruel World and have become a fixture in my playlist rotation. Formed in only 2019, they’re relative newbies to the scene, and there’s a reason why they’ve already made a name for themselves. 

They’re just that good. 

Lead singer and founder Jonathan Horstmann has a kind of focused chaos energy. He starts off slow, becoming more intense with each song so that by the end of their set he’s running from side to side, jumping and squeezing the blood out of each note with ease. Watching him perform feels like he’s channeling the ghost of Freddy Mercury but with a deeper, brooding voice. Songs like “A Simple Love Song,” “City Lights” and their biggest hit “Have You Ever?” will make even the non-dancers at least sway side-to-side. Then there’s “That Gun In Your Hand,” a track that calls out America’s obsession with guns and mass shootings, ending in a call for peace. 

Personally, part of the fun of giant festivals is discovering new music. Why be boring and stick with only familiar bands when your next favorite band could be playing two stages down? 

For me, there were two. The first was Cold Cave, the post-punk inspired darkwave project from singer Wesley Eisold (formerly of hardcore acts American Nightmare–n.e. Give Up The Ghost and Some Girls). They’re a band people have suggested over the years and one I’ve stocked countless times at the record store I also work. However, for one reason or another, I never checked them out. 

Well, lesson learned. 

Eisold collaborates with an array of rotating musicians, making Cold Cave more of a mutating force of nature than a solo project. The band he brought to Darker Waves delivered an electrifying performance, and I was particularly fond of their track “A Little Death to Laugh” of the 2014 album Full Cold Moon. 

The other happy discovery was She Wants Revenge, which was more like an admittance of defeat in my case. When their self-titled debut dropped in 2005, it was everywhere which meant my strictly-punk-elitist-21-year-old self hated it. But last Saturday changed all that. 

Formed in the San Fernando Valley, She Wants Revenge consists of singer/guitarist Justin Warfield and instrumentalist Adam Bravin. Their brand of darkwave is closer to dark disco with upbeat melodies driving under melancholy lyrics. Along with their formative songs like “These Things,” “Out of Control,” and “Tear You Apart” they also blessed the crowd with a killer cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound.” 

Then there were some of my already favorite acts like Hungtington’s own sons, T.S.O.L. These Southern California punk legends have railed against the mainstream since 1978 and continue to rile up mosh pits wherever they go. It was my fourth time seeing them this year alone, and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen them in the last three decades, but I can’t recall ever seeing a bad show. 

For their hometown, they delivered a blistering set that opened with “Sounds of Laughter” and closed on–what else–”Code Blue.”

Two of the biggest highlights for the day didn’t happen until the evening. 

As throngs of people waited for Echo & the Bunnymen to play–a band that is notorious for being late, sometimes canceling and, when they do play, there’s a 50/50 chance singer Ian McCulloch might not be fucked up–the stage went dark. When the band’s logo flashed on the screen McCulloch came out only followed by a white haired man with a guitar that clearly wasn’t in the band.

The two then started into a duet version of arguably The Doors’ hardest song, “Roadhouse Blues.” After an unfortunate moment when the sound was caught in a ringing feedback loop that–rightly so–pissed off McCulloch, they went into Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Blues” and brought it full-circle back to “Roadhouse Blues.” Fans of 1960’s rock like myself and a few people around us loved it, while many of the other conversations swirling around ranged from questioning what was happening (and where was the band?) to shouts of “play your songs!” 

After the impromptu jam, McCulloch simply said, “Robby Krieger, Thank you” and the founding member of the The Doors and writer of songs like “Break on Through (To The Other Side)” “Five To One,” “The End” and the one just played, walked off the stage with a wave. Later he came back and joined the band for a cover of “People Are Strange” to the delight of 1980’s babies and goths alike because of its use in the vampire cult classic, The Lost Boys

Two and a half hours later, New Order closed on something I never thought I would ever get to see live: Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Not even gonna front, it was almost a spiritual experience. As post punk fans know, only a very lucky group of people living in Manchester ever got to see Joy Division live. When they became New Order after Ian Curtis’ death, they stopped playing their old songs for decades, so to have them bless the fest with that was truly a special moment. 

As the festival wound down, the last bit of magic happened when final act, Tears for Fears, played their global, chart-topping, number-one hit, “Everybody Wants to Rule The World,” a track that is just as catchy as it is ubiquitous and that wasn’t more evident when what seemed like the entire festival sang along to every word with Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal. 

Tired from the day, my friend and I stood off to the side and watched groups of people sing from punks and goths to old rockers and their kids and grandkids. My personal favorite was the middle-aged, metal fan with a shaved head, long, gray goatee, and Slayer shirt hitting every word and note with unabashed passion. 

Yes, festivals are not for everyone. They are expensive, crowded, and there’s no possible way to see every band. The ones you are lucky enough to catch have shorter-than-usual sets, and half the time it’s hard to see them at all. On the other hand, with a different mindset, there’s also a lot of beauty, however fleeting. 

Or, as one man said to me during New Order’s set, “Isn’ this a beautiful thing? All these people coming together peacefully to enjoy a shared love of music. And tomorrow, they’ll all go back to being assholes.” 

New Order

The Human League

The Psychedelic Furs

Crosses

Soft Cell

The Cardigans

Violent Femmes

London After Midnight

T.S.O.L.

Death in Vegas

45 Grave

Christian Death

Drab Majesty

Mareux

Glass Spells

Urban Heat

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