This Saturday marks the 2017 installment of Industrafest, a special show at Numbers featuring a selection of industrial and experimental artists from around the world, headlined by the legendary Front 242. It's the Belgian group’s first Houston performance since 2015, a memorable performance that was their first in the city since 1993, a landmark get at the time that was clearly successful since they’ve returned much quicker this time.
This time they’ll be backed by an equally impressive bill, including Australian electronic group Severed Heads and Leather Strip, the musical project of Danish artists Claus Larsen, who has been active in the noise/industrial scene since the late ’80s. There’s even a local angle, with Underground Netwerk Intelligence rounding out the bill. For a subset of industrial fans, the billing is a major flashback and a rare opportunity to catch these bands.
Hosted by Past Present Productions and The New Beat Productions, this year’s Industrafest is tremendously compelling, a one-night return to the heyday of Houston in the early ’90s when Numbers was at its prime. In a time when the closest way to recapture that sound is through tribute nights, having the real deal back in town, even for one night, is exciting. For Robert Ehlinger, a founding member of both New Beat and Past Present, it’s another step in keeping alive the city’s deep roots in the fertile goth and industrial scenes that helped stake Numbers’ reputation.
Ehlinger began New Beat as a monthly event in Etro Lounge in 2009, where he would spin synth-pop classics and built up a healthy following. From there, he booked his first show in April of 2010, bringing the electronic band Anything Box to Houston. From there, as Ehlinger puts it, “the rest, as they say, is history.”
Working with John Housman, the two of them spent nearly five years trying to book Front 242 when the stars aligned in 2015. “It took a while because we were still fresh in the business and we didn’t have as many people to reach out and work with around the United States like we do now,” Ehlinger spoke of the time spent to try and book the band. Along with David Spade (not the actor), the three of them make up Past Present Productions.
Now, the three of them work with the management for Cold Waves, a massive industrial festival that takes place in Chicago every year, to help bring those bands down to Houston as well. Working with that team, they decided to make Industrafest an annual event for Houston, given the city’s importance as a key stop for those bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“Houston has a long history of hosting huge concerts in the '80s/'90s genres throughout,” Ehlinger says. “It’s always been a hot spot for most touring acts. However, we have been able to do shows here that we could only do in Houston. We hosted the first CCCP ["American Soviets"] USA show since 1990 back in 2013. They came to perform for one of our 6400 Reunion events. Couldn’t have done [that] anywhere else.”
Ehlinger’s passion for this type of music goes back more than 20 years, when he used to go to shows at his old “stomping ground” of Numbers, which he considers like a home. Apart from the recent shows he’s had a hand in putting together, his most fond memories include Gary Numan in 1996 and Erasure in 2003, which he described as the most packed-out show in Numbers he’d ever seen.
Looking at Numbers’ exhaustive show history, which goes back to the ’70s, this weekend does feel like a flashback to a bigger time for the scene, when Severed Heads, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry all played within three months of each other in early 1990, a trend that might seem familiar to those keeping up with current concert listings. As exciting as those bigger shows will be, returning to Numbers is a kind of full-circle milestone that carries more history to it than at newer spots in town.
For Ehlinger and his team, they’re hoping that they can keep Industrafest continuing as long as the audience supports it. “This actually keeps the chain of events touring through the USA every year so hopefully it keeps happening for a long time,” he says. In fact, this year they’ve expanded to Dallas, hosting a second night of Industrafest at the Granada Theater.
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With music festivals on the rise throughout the state, the glut can feel overwhelming, and lineups can tend to feel repetitive. When the city hosts an event like Industrafest, or Bad Ass Weekend, or any festival that focuses on a niche, recognizing the deep history of a genre and bringing the rare chance for Houston audiences to see legendary artists, it feels special compared to the latest mix of mid-level indie bands supported by breweries at Discovery Green.
While the industrial scene may not be in its prime compared to where it was 30 years ago, a night out last week at the Drab Majesty concert with local openers Spit Mask showed that there's still an audience for this type of music in Houston, especially when it's good. By bringing this truly exciting bill of Front 242, Severed Heads and Leather Strip, Ehlinger and his team are helping recognize the city's legacy and keeping it alive. Seven years ago, Front 242 were on their wishlist, and now the "Headhunter" group has made the city a regular stop. Perhaps this weekend is just another beginning.
IndustraFest 2017, featuring Front 242, Severed Heads, Leather Strip and Underground Network Intelligence, takes over Numbers (300 Westheimer) on Saturday, September 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. (VIP) and 9 p.m. (GA). $40 to $300.