Sanctuary Festival Milwaukee Was Three Days of Close Encounters of the Musical Kind

Over the first weekend in June, in a small bar called Club Anything in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sanctuary Festival played host to a staggering number of bands, artists, clothiers, and a jovial gathering of goths of all stripes.

Club Anything, also known as the Local, has two rooms and a back patio, two bars, and a small intimate stage. At first glance it seems limiting, especially considering the sheer volume of bands that were set to work their way through over the course of the weekend, but somehow it all managed to work. There was a VIP area where you could watch the show away from the crowd with ample bar service, a side room filled with band merchandise, snacks, a second bar, beautiful artwork for sale, and handmade clothes that fit the needs of even the most discerning goth. There was a sense of camaraderie among the attendees, and many gathered, introduced themselves, and made new friends and contacts. The performers were seen out among the crowd enjoying the music of their fellow artists and chatting with the attendees. The festival managed to make that small bar feel like the most amazing live venue one could experience just by working to make it friendly and inclusive.

Band members of Cyanotic on stage

Cyanotic at Sanctuary Festival Milwaukee. Photos by Vanessa Feilan

The list of bands was, as mentioned, quite extensive, and late in the game there were a series of changes to the lineup for a number of reasons. They managed to make substitutions that added to the appeal of the festival even if there was a twinge of sadness at not getting to see a particular band. Thursday was a pregame night with Cyanotic and Programmable Animal from Chicago, Relic from Cincinnati, and local Milwaukee band am.psych taking the stage and easing us all into the weekend to come with lots of fun synths, industrial drives, and (in the words of Glitch Mode Recordings) “Angry Robot Noises.” Those of us at the preshow gathered together and drank, laughed, danced, and enjoyed the company and the music together. Many of us made great friends that night as we talked about our love of the bands, where we hailed from—I think the Canadian won for furthest distance traveled to see the show, but there was also an Irish transplant to Wisconsin—what we do, and why we love this music and scene. Many numbers and Internet handles were exchanged, and several of us kept in touch after the festival to keep the conversation going. There was merch to be bought and fabulous clothes and accessories to buy from Crisiswear out of Illinois. It was the perfect start to the weekend and set the tone for the days ahead.

Johan Van Roy on stage

Suicide Commando. Photos by Vanessa Feilan

However, the main draw to Sanctuary Festival was the headliner, Suicide Commando, on Friday night. Suicide Commando has only come to the United States a handful of times with limited dates, and they hadn’t hit the Midwest before this. I managed to catch them on their first US tour in 2012 in Austin, Texas, and had been completely blown away by their stage show. I was not going to miss an opportunity to see them closer to home, especially when you consider they may not come back for a while. Their set was amazing, and Johan Van Roy dominated the stage—plus, considering the size of the venue and size of the stage, I don’t think anyone could have gotten a more intimate stage show if they tried. It was phenomenal even with one minor technical difficulty.

What made Friday truly exceptional was that despite the draw of the headliner, the other bands on the docket were just as driven and amazing as Suicide Commando. Every single group was larger than life, and it was an unending spectacle of incredible music and stage presence that I personally have never witnessed before. Conformco (Chicago) had great industrial electronica and visuals. Panic Priest (Chicago) stood more on the line of darkwave synthpop, as did FIRES (Nashville) and Null Device (Madison), who all brought some amazing synths and energy. The Gothsicles (Boston) had the entire audience dancing, laughing, and singing along to “Konami Code” and “Straight Up Otter Time.” Brian Graupner’s parents were in the audience, and they had just as much fun the rest of the attendees did—his father even does a great acoustic version of “Straight Up Otter Time.” Later Graupner was joined by Matt Fanale from Caustic (Madison); together with monk robes on they became the Causticles, and the night just couldn’t take it anymore. It was all just too good.

Brian Graupner of The Gothsicles with NES controller belt buckle and PowerGlove

The Gothsicles. Photos by Vanessa Feilan

Saturday night was the sendoff, and Sanctuary Fest did it in extreme style. Go Fight (Chicago) came to the stage with some synths, EBM, and a hint of dubstep. Sir.Vixx (Chicago) was full of aggressive tech, samples, noise, and old-school high-BPM oontz. Minneapolis favorites Absynthe of Faith brought their brand of guitar-laden synth and an excellent Bowie cover, “Space Oddity,” which prompted an obligatory singalong. Curse Mackey (Texas) is well known from his work in Pigface, Evil Mothers, and occasional bouts with My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult; his solo work does justice to such an industrial pedigree, and he knew exactly how to get the room moving. Skatenigs (Texas) did not disappoint either, which is to be expected after 30 years of commanding industrial audiences. Chant (Texas), led by Bradley Bills (who has also worked with the previous musicians for years), came to the stage to continue the industrial onslaught.

By this point the front of the stage was a near-constant mosh pit, and this became a torrent when New York City’s BILE hit the stage. I must freely admit that this was almost as exciting for me as seeing Suicide Commando again, as BILE was part of my soundtrack through high school, and hearing them play “In League” absolutely made my weekend.

The festival concluded with an All Star Jam featuring members of Skatenigs, Go Fight, Chant, Cyanotic, the Gothsicles, Curse Mackey, and BILE. It was completely insane. It KO’d the weekend, taking everything that had been building and lighting the match. Saturday night was one of the most intense shows I have ever been to in my life, and it was absolutely worth every possible dollar spent, minute driven, and hours not slept.

Jarvis of AoF plays guitar on stage

Absynthe of Faith. Photos by Vanessa Feilan

A spokesperson for Sanctuary Festival said they are excited to do it all again next year. They are set on repeating the “small club, big acts, done for the love of the music” setup and are working hard to bring as much excitement, energy, and amazement in 2019 as they did this year. They pulled off a hat trick, and I would bet anything they can do it again.

Not only did Sanctuary Festival bring in amazing bands, upbeat stage shows, wonderful artists, and handmade clothing, but they also had a certain heart, I suppose, that brought together people from all over to meet and make new friends. Keep an eye on them on social media, and be prepared to check out this small club and huge festival next June. If it’s anything like this year’s, you will find your way to Milwaukee and prepare to get your mind blown.

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  1. By Matt

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