Thursday, May 11, 2017

ChameleonsVox / Frank the Baptist - Live 2017.05.10 Bi Nuu, Berlin, Germany

No more secrets: I'm in the process of relocating to Berlin. While I've been mostly focused on finding a job at present, this was a concert I couldn't pass up. I was also amused that the venue is named after the third album from Ideal, the classic Berlin-based Neue Deutsche Welle band. It's conveniently but unexpectedly located underneath the above-ground subway station Schlesisches Tor, although there is hardly any signage to alert passersby of its presence.

Artist: ChameleonsVox
Venue: Bi Nuu
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 10 May 2017
Opening Act: Frank the Baptist

01. Swamp Thing
02. A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere These Days
03. Monkeyland
04. Dali's Picture
05. Looking Inwardly
06. Thursday's Child
07. Caution
08. Soul in Isolation [including teases of The Doors' "The End", David Bowie's "Be My Wife", and The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"]
09. In Answer →
10. I'll Remember
11. Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In) [including teases of The Clash's "White Riot", Joy Division's "Transmission", and something else I couldn't quite discern]
12. Denims and Curls

First encore:
13. Second Skin
14. Nostalgia

Second encore:
15. In Shreds [including a tease of The Beatles' "Please Please Me"]
16. Don't Fall [with guest vocalist]

Opening band Frank the Baptist has been based in Berlin for a decade despite their roots in San Diego. I was curious to about what they might offer, but was quickly disappointed by their fairly generic hard rock sound and weird carnival sideshow aesthetic. Some songs started out with a promising atmosphere, but inevitably were quickly quashed by heavy aggro guitars. There were occasional hints of gothic rock that in their best moments reminded me of second-rate Sisters of Mercy, but those moments were rare. Frank sang with strength, but he only had one tone, and his words were hard to understand. I was amazed they were allowed to play for a full hour.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with ChameleonsVox. Since original Chameleons drummer John Lever died earlier this year, and guitarists Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding have seemed unwilling to participate in further reunions, this project only features bassist/vocalist Mark Burgess from the original band. When he formed ChameleonsVox in 2009, Lever was on drums and regular collaborator Yves Altana joined on guitar. Their obvious intention was to resurrect old Chameleons songs, although in 2013, they released the M + D = 1(8) EP, featuring three new compositions along with a cover of "Across the Universe". Lever had left around that time and is not credited on the EP.

The current lineup features Altana on drums, Chris Oliver (who also played on the previous EP) on guitar, and Neil Dwerryhouse on guitar. This lineup has just recorded and released a new EP, Where in the World, continuing the Chameleons tradition of reissuing and repackaging the same songs in a million different versions and collections by featuring re-recordings of four of the more obscure original-era Chameleons songs. (Oddly, "Ever After" isn't on the physical 12" vinyl, but is included with the digital download.) The press release claims the original versions were demos, which is a bit hard to believe since all of them except "Dali's Picture" were never described as such until now.

"Denims and Curls" and "Free for All" are new versions of tracks from the amazing Tony Fletcher Walked on Water EP, originally recorded in 1987 while the band was breaking up and finally released in 1990. This same EP was included in the Dreams in Celluloid compilation released in 2013. That compilation also included "Dali's Picture", a demo from circa 1981, first released on a compilation of the same name in 1993. "Ever After" was originally a bonus track on some editions of Strange Times (1986). As one would hope, the production values of the new recordings are markedly superior. Mark's voice is as strong as ever and the musicianship is just as solid. The admittedly dated-sounding drums from the Tony Fletcher EP are gone, but so are most of the keyboards. The new arrangements are mostly very similar, although "Denims and Curls" and "Ever After" feature extended outros. The EP makes for a great listen, although "Dali's Picture" sticks out a bit for being older and less ethereal than the others, and one can't help but wonder how necessary this project was.

Upon consideration of the new EP, the live show largely followed suit. The setlist exclusively featured songs from the original era of the Chameleons with nothing from their early 2000s reunion nor the previous M + D = 1(8) EP. That being said, they do a terrific job keeping the old songs alive. Since the beginning, Burgess has always including improvised segments in some of the songs, which he usually uses for teasing lyrics of other songs, often to reinforce the intended political sentiments. "Soul in Isolation", for example, included lines such as, "Lost in a Facebook wilderness of pain / And all our leaders are insane". Most of the arrangements haven't changed much since the beginning, except that "Denims and Curls" featured the same extended outro as the version on the EP, and several songs, such as "Nostalgia", featured more wordless vocal parts during instrumental sections.

Although I wouldn't complain if they played some newer songs, they played almost all of my personal favorites (except "Tears"). They balanced their spacey side with their rawer edge. The irony of playing their first b-side "Nostalgia" was not at all lost on me. We were even graced with a second encore featuring two of their punkier songs, which really got the crowd going and closed the evening on a strong, energized note. The closing number, "Don't Fall", featured a guest vocalist whose name I didn't catch. He mostly sang in unison with Burgess, so he didn't particularly add much, but it was still cool to see the two vocalists play off each other.

The band played the songs tightly outside of a few minor flubs. I don't know if it is a testament to the skill of Burgess and his bandmates that they can summon the familiar sounds so effortlessly or if that implies that the original band is simpler to replicate than I'd expected. Certainly the sounds they made in the 80s were innovative for their time, but I imagine the wealth of effects pedals available today make reproduction easier than ever. Whatever the case may be, their transcendent, astral splendor still captivates me as much as it did the first time I heard the original recordings over a decade ago. It also makes me wonder if they were a precursor to shoegazing bands like Ride and Slowdive.

[ChameleonsVox with guest singer.]

Frank the Baptist: D+
ChameleonsVox: A-
Where in the World EP: B+

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