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-

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