Monday, June 25, 2018

Golden Dawn Arkestra - Live 2018.06.24 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany

I have seen this band six times before, and it was bands like this that made leaving Austin a less than easy decision. However, I'm clearly not their only fan, and their stature is such that this wasn't even their first European tour. They also just released their second full-length album, Children of the Sun.

Artist: Golden Dawn Arkestra
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 24 June 2018

01. Children of the Sun
02. Osaka
03. Wings of Ra
04. Cosmic Dancer
05. Afropocalypse
06. Spacewaves
07. The Wolf
08. Dimensions
09. Promised Land →
10. Disko
11. Stargazer
12. Sama Chaka
13. Masakayli

14. Percussion solo →
15. Saharan Knights
16. Clouds

The band started the night in their standard fashion with a march through the crowd with incense and whatever instruments lent themselves to mobile performance. The venue was too small for the experience to be as grand as it could be, but it's always a good way to start the show. "Children of the Sun", the title track of the new album, served as a fitting opener. They proceeded with a balanced mix of songs from their catalog, ultimately playing more songs from their first album (Stargazer, 2016) than from the new one. They avoided most of the slower and softer songs of Children of the Sun and focused on their more intense and dance-friendly material.

However, they did perform "Promised Land" in the extended version that closes the new album, with a long, low-key, spaced out instrumental section. Naturally, this segued directly into another powerful groover, "Disko". The other big change was that at the start of their encore, initially only the three primary percussionists came out. They played with the audience and tried out some varying rhythms until the rest of the band slowly came on stage and joined in for "Saharan Nights" from their debut EP. Other highlights were "The Wolf", which they described as their "fight song" for love and light, and "Masakayli", which they transformed into an even more extended jam than it normally is. At the conclusion of "Clouds", the members gradually started jumping into and dancing with the crowd.

Compared with past shows, this set was as solid as ever. The new songs they played fit right in, which is hardly surprising considering that at least three of them have already been played live for at least a year or two. However, on this occasion there were only ten members on stage. (Only ten! I know!) Musically, they were only lacking another horn player or a second guitarist. The biggest difference was the lack of dancers. Only one member focused mostly on dancing, although she also provided backing vocals and percussion. I also recognized an eleventh member of the band at the forefront of the audience, and although he danced energetically throughout the show, he was not in costume.

There's not much else that I could write about this band to say that I haven't written before. They've never disappointed me yet. I was curious how the rigors of international touring would affect the band, but if I hadn't have paid close attention, I barely would have noticed anything different from an average Austin show. Musically, excepting a few barely missed cues, they were perfectly on point. The grooves were strong, the mix was good, and their appearance was as bizarre and impressive as ever.

Score: A

P.S. Do not be deceived: this show was not in the infamous Berghain club. It was around the corner in a much smaller venue. However, I did get to walk past the long and ridiculous line of clubbers waiting to get in the main attraction.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Novo Concertante Manila / Zielinski Singers - Live 2018.06.16 Filharmonia, Szczecin, Poland

Artists: Novo Concertante Manila / Zielinski Singers
Venue: Filharmonia
Location: Szczecin, Poland
Date: 16 June 2018
Event: XI Międzynarodowy Festiwal Chóralny (XI International Choir Festival)

I ended up at this concert on something of a whim. My partner and I were in Szczecin for the weekend, and a friend of a friend suggested the concert when we got into town. It seemed like a chance worth taking, but when we arrived at the venue, the box office was already closed. Our companion asked an usher if there were still tickets. He disappeared and came back a minute later with free tickets for us. The advertised price was cheap, but nothing beats free!

The Filharmonia moved into a new building in 2014, a modernist building with subtle exterior lighting, a bright white foyer, and a gold-plated concert hall. The venue was host to the annual Choir Festival, which on this night featured the Novo Concertante Manila from the Philippines, conducted by Arwin Tan, and the Zielinski Singers from the USA, conducted by Richard Zielinski.

The twenty vocalists of the Novo Concertante Manila sang in mostly traditional styles, but they covered a variety of material in multiple languages. Their execution was well-honed and captivating. The diversity of the voices and the perfection of their harmony was incredible. Just when their set started to get slow, they performed a song that involved a loud click of the tongue by the men in the choir, which immediately restored my focus. They managed to earn an encore from the audience, for which they offered a traditional Polish piece that received a very warm welcome from the crowd.

The conductor of the Zielinski Singers, Richard Zielinski, is the director of choral studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, but he apparently worked in Szczecin in the past. The choir started with a couple haunting, modern, experimental pieces. I was immediately taken in. After this initial strong start, they gradually transitioned to traditional American folk tunes, hymns, and ultimately, gospel. The vocal performances were strong, but the material was less adventurous and the lyrics were uninteresting. To close the night, they invited the Novo Concertante Manila back to the stage. Together, they all sang a traditional Polish song for which the entire crowd reverentially stood up and sang along. The final number was a rousing gospel song with a country-inflected solo part.

I had never witnessed unaccompanied choirs of such skill before. I was thoroughly impressed, even if the songs themselves didn't always speak to me. I appreciated that the two choirs were rather different and that a diverse array of works were presented. Ending the show with two collaborative songs seems like an obvious choice in retrospect, but in the moment, it was a delightful and successful surprise.

P.S. Thanks to Ola and Alyssa!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Militürk" / "Kebabträume": A Brief History

Back in 2007, I bought Fehlfarben's debut album, Monarchie und Alltag (1980), and enjoyed it so much that it was one of the first albums I ever reviewed on this blog. The review might be just a bit naïve, but thankfully some commenters with better knowledge of the era and environment provided some deeper insight. One song on the album always stood out to me: "Militürk", a song with not many lyrics and a cauldron of bizarre and paranoid imagery. In the spirit of my review of "Blaue Augen" by Neonbabies and Ideal, I'd like to go into the details of this song a bit deeper, mostly with links to better-informed bloggers. A word of warning, though: all of the links are in German, just like the song.

An important detail that I didn't mention in the review was that Fehlfarben weren't the first band to perform and record the song. They weren't even the second. As mutanten melodien explains, the song was first recorded by Mittagspause, with lyrics by Gabi Delgado-Lopez while he was still a member, before he co-founded D.A.F. (Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft). The music was supposedly originally inherited from a song by Charley's Girls, whose members Franz Bielmeier and Peter Hein took the tune with them when they formed Mittagspause. Hein brought the song to Fehlfarben just after Delgado-Lopez brought it to D.A.F. under the title "Kebabträume" ("Kebab Dreams"). The blog also mentions several other later versions, including a remake by D.A.F. (inferior to the first version), a spoof by Xao Seffcheque & Die Pest titled "Fortschrittsträume" ("Dreams of Progress") that turns the song into a joke about the contemporaneous German indie/punk music scene, and another spoof by O.R.A.V. (actually Xao Seffcheque and Peter Hein) in a mock-singer-songwriter style. Countless other cover versions abound. (Check out mutanten melodien to hear all of the above versions and more.)

I went into what I took to be the meaning of the song in my Monarchie und Alltag review, but I'd like to expand on that with the assistance of some more intelligent perspectives. I translated some of the lyrics myself, but for a complete version (side by side with the original), see here. In interviews, Delgado-Lopez dodges questions and claims that the song speaks for itself. Since the song may appear racist or anti-immigrant at first glance, that's a dangerous decision. However, he also does not hesitate to speak out on issues of social and economic justice.

In an interview with from 2010, Delgado-Lopez explains that the song was written during a trip to West-Berlin in 1979 to play at a punk festival at SO36 in Kreuzberg, but he says little else about the song itself. Instead, he speaks out about the exploitation of the Third World by western nations and espouses a decidedly pro-refugee stance. When the interviewer asks why Delgado-Lopez usually leaves out two of the lines when he sings the song now, he responds that he prefers to write about larger connections, not just day-to-day politics, without explaining what made the two lines in question any different than the rest.

In an undated interview with Dearly Demented, Delgado-Lopez sidesteps a question about provocation and shows little concern about his songs being misinterpreted. He does mention that fascist skinheads would occasionally turn up at D.A.F. concerts, particularly in England, leading to arguments and the composition of blatantly homoerotic songs like "Der Räuber und der Prinz" ("The Thief and the Prince") to troll them. He again mentions the backstory of when the song was written, and adds that he was never upset or jealous about Fehlfarben's version. While there was no specific agreement or understanding about it, he also says that wasn't necessary, and the copyright situation was handled correctly and fairly. He again speaks about immigration, declares it inevitable, and notes that as one group integrates and assimilates, the reactionary fears shift to the next new group to arrive.

In "Protestsongs von Punk bis HipHop" from fluter, Ulrich Gutmair writes that the song was a skillful satire of pre-existing stereotypes and fears. The humor lies within the confusion and combination of resentment towards Turkish immigrants and paranoia about communism and the Eastern Bloc. Gutmair also claims that the song was one of the first punk songs to be sung in German. That isn't entirely true, but it was still early enough to be a novelty. The article also discusses Advanced Chemistry's 1992 single "Fremd im eigenen Land" ("Foreign in One's Own Country") and compares the two songs.

By far the most detailed exploration of the song was undertaken by Barbara Hornberger for the Songlexikon in 2016. She goes into great detail about the first D.A.F. version of the song, picking apart every detail of the music and lyrics. She notes that the manner in which Delgado-Lopez delivers the song is staccato, militaristic, unusually emphasized, and rather androgynous. The lyrics are fragmentary and describe an atmosphere rather than a specific event. She also points out that Turkish immigrants were rare in East Germany at that time, so the juxtaposition of the DDR, the Soviet Union, and Turkish immigrants "behind barbed wire" creates irrational vision of terror and confusion. It simultaneously also speaks to the ghettoization of Turks in West Germany, both in the sense of their marginalization due to their migrant background as well as the physical situation of the sizable community in Kreuzberg. The titular "kebab dreams" are presumably the dreams of prosperity hoped for by the immigrants.

The crux is in the final line: "Wir sind die Türken von morgen" ("we are the Turks of tomorrow"). On one hand, it pairs with the preceding line, "Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei" ("Germany, Germany, it's all over") to form an exaggerated picture of conservative fear of losing national identity. On the other hand, Hornberger posits that the final line can be seen as a commentary of or antithesis to the rest of the text. It may represent a shift in the authorial perspective. Or is it implying that the "we" (West Germans, presumably) will soon be infiltrating and spying into other countries? [Edit 2019.11.07: Or is it that the next target of marginalization and irrational fear will be the punks performing the song?]

I'm hard-pressed to say whether the Fehlfarben version or the original 1980 D.A.F. version is my favorite. Both have a richness and complexity that are lacking in the rough, punky Mittagspause version or the later, more direct and simplified 1982 D.A.F. remake. Fehlfarben managed to push the punkiness to its borders with a groovy bassline, funky guitar, and squawks of saxophone. D.A.F., in their original five-piece formation, emphasized the electronics and made an unsettling soundscape. Both of these versions express an alienation and eeriness that match the lyrics.

Thanks to Jochen for the mutanten melodien link and the Czech for introducing me to the music in the first place.

P.S. And for something completely different, Stereogum has a great article about the unusual #1 single by the Singing Nun from Belgium in 1963. Be sure to check out the awesome/ridiculous synthpop remake from 1982!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Thom Yorke / Oliver Coates - Live 2018.06.01 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany

Having been a long-time fan of Radiohead, it might go without saying that I have also tracked Thom Yorke's solo career. Although his various side projects have never quite matched his work with Radiohead, he has always been an interesting figure to follow.

Artist: Thom Yorke
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 1 June 2018
Opening Act: Oliver Coates

01. Interference
02. A Brain in a Bottle
03. Impossible Knots
04. Black Swan
05. I Am a Very Rude Person
06. The Clock
07. Two Feet Off the Ground
08. Amok [Atoms for Peace song]
09. Not the News
10. Truth Ray
11. Traffic
12. Twist → Saturdays
13. Pink Section
14. Nose Grows Some
15. Cymbal Rush

First Encore:
16. The Axe
17. Atoms for Peace
18. Default [Atoms for Peace song]

Second Encore:
19. Spectre [Radiohead song]

Oliver Coates is the principle cello with the London Contemporary Orchestra and thus performed a key role on Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). He opened his solo set with a beautiful traditional piece apparently specifically requested by Thom Yorke. Thereafter, however, he stuck to his own material, which can, in various forms, be described as cello with electronic beats, cello with sorrowful synth, and cello with guitar effects. The latter was the most successful: in the best moments, Coates worked with tones reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. The downbeat synth tracks were respectable, but perhaps too subdued and restrained. The beats did nothing for me.

Thom Yorke came out with his regular collaborator Nigel Godrich and visual artist Tarik Barri. Godrich has produced Radiohead and Yorke since 1995 and is/was a member of Atoms for Peace. Barri has been collaborating with Yorke for several years now, including on the "City Rats" installation for the ISM Hexadome.

It is unclear exactly what material this tour was intended to focus on; Yorke's last album was Tomorrow's Modern Boxes in 2014. However, since 2015, he's been slowly introducing new songs into his sets, leading some to suspect that a new album is in the works. At this show, he played seven or eight unreleased songs (depending on whether you count "Saturdays" as a unique song) but only five of Boxes' eight tracks. In addition to two songs from Amok (2013, with Atoms for Peace) and four from The Eraser (2006), the biggest surprise was "Spectre", Radiohead's rejected James Bond song.

The show opened on a high note with Yorke sitting at a keyboard for the gradual lead-in to "Interference". After that, he mostly stuck to guitar, bass, and electronics. Godrich mostly stuck to his spot behind a laptop and a stack of electronics, but he also picked up the bass on occasion and sometimes walked over to Yorke's set-up to manipulate something while he was elsewhere. I also caught Godrich adding some heavily processed backing vocals.

The new songs largely followed in the mold of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: dark, murky electronics with Yorke's wispy, sporadic, manipulated vocals. Any hints of guitar or bass are blended into the mix such as to make the provenance of the sound difficult to determine with certainty. Yorke's beats tend to be unusually punctuated and subtly complex. The sound is primarily electronic, and the rhythm is important, but it's not strictly dance-oriented. There's something vague and obscure about his music that makes it difficult to put your finger on or label conveniently.

The older songs ended up being the predictable highlights simply by virtue of being more deliberate, melodic, and clear. Yorke's politics have always been fairly easy to read if you take the time to listen, but he made that easier in the songs on The Eraser, where the songs have more traditional verse-chorus structures and the lyrics are (relatively) easier to follow and understand. His more recent material tends to be less explicit and more free-flowingly structured.

Barri's visuals ran the gamut of forms and patterns that one could imagine accompanying modern electronic music. It's a good strategy for someone as low-key and reserved as Yorke to have such a strong and varied visual component, because it certainly helps make the scene more interesting. However, Radiohead have always had a great stage and lighting set even when they could get away without it, so Yorke is presumably no stranger to these sorts of considerations. This is why I was a bit disappointed by the "City Rats" installation: I had expected more, and thankfully the visuals at this concert were quite a bit better. The style was substantially different and much more active. Barri didn't seem to follow the rhythms too closely, but the energy with which the visuals moved and developed matched the varying intensity of the music.

While I appreciated Yorke's sense of adventure in trying out so much new material, I didn't find it particularly engaging. His music is enjoyable, but hard for me to focus on. I often found myself drifting and distracted despite my best intentions and legitimate interest. At times I found myself more focused on the visuals than on the sound. Some people tried to dance, but the unusual heat and the humidity of a rainstorm dampened and exasperated the mood of the audience. Yorke's solo work doesn't provide much to hold on to, and the show felt wilted and formless as a result. "Spectre" was quite another matter, but without any accompaniment to the piano and vocals, it too felt robbed of its power.

Oliver Coates: C-
Thom Yorke: C+
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: C-
Amok (Atoms for Peace): C+
The Eraser: B-