Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark / Tiny Magnetic Pets - Live 2019.12.02 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany

I had no idea that OMD was still popular enough that they could sell out a night in Berlin at a large venue and then offer a second night that was also quite packed. The crowd was markedly different (and skewed older) than I’m used to, but I had the same experience with The Human League last year.

Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 2 December 2019
Opening Act: Tiny Magnetic Pets

01. Stanlow
02. Isotype
03. Messages
04. Tesla Girls
05. History of Modern (Part 1)
06. (Forever) Live and Die
07. Souvenir
08. Joan of Arc
09. Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)
10. Statues
11. Almost
12. Don’t Go
13. So in Love
14. Dreaming
15. The Punishment of Luxury
16. Locomotion
17. Sailing on the Seven Seas
18. Enola Gay

19. If You Leave
20. Pandora’s Box
21. Electricity

Opening act Tiny Magnetic Pets claimed to be the only electronic band in Ireland, which I don’t believe in the slightest. Their music was mostly bright, upbeat, and danceable, but rather static. They managed to get a decent atmosphere going in a few songs, but they didn’t quite take off from there. I liked that they had experimented with their electronic setup, but their choices didn’t exactly work out in their favor. Their stage presence was sapped of much of its potential energy by using monotonous drum pads and pre-programming most of their instrumental parts. As a result, the keyboardist was left to merely play chords underneath the more interesting bits. Their singer had a strong voice, but the only nuance came from some occasional interplay with the much quieter keyboardist’s backing vocals.

I was worried that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark might suffer a similar fate. Plenty of OMD’s songs are cheesy and lightweight, and their post-reunion albums have as many weak points as good parts. Thankfully, they’ve maintained plenty of artistic integrity and they made a strategic decision to build a set that balanced their deliberate pop singles with their earlier, more experimental songs. They went as far as opening the show with “Stanlow”, a long and brooding song about a power plant from their understated but superb second album, Organisation (1980).

I appreciate that the band still embrace their early songs in all their idiosyncratic glory. They chose to play both of their songs about “Joan of Arc” – one right after the other. They closed their main set with “Enola Gay”, infamously written about dropping the atomic bomb. The show ended with their first single, “Electricity”, a great song that really is earnestly about electricity (and the environment). Their breezy mid-period single “So in Love” is in fact bitterly the opposite of what one might expect (“It’s hard to believe / I was so in love with you”). Even their new songs maintain their wit, most notably with the consumerist critique of “The Punishment of Luxury”. A taped interlude before “Statues” featured a medley of spoken bits from Dazzle Ships (1983) and other albums, including the hilarious line, “The future you anticipated has been canceled”.

While I was disappointed at the lack of anything else from the exceptional Dazzle Ships, they did play several of my favorites, including all three singles from Architecture and Morality (1981). For “Statues” and “Almost”, the band came forward to the front of the stage to play in the traditional synthpop row setup à la Kraftwerk. Keyboardist Paul Humphreys was given his moments to shine with two songs featuring his lead vocals (“(Forever) Live and Die” and “Souvenir”), and vocalist Andy McCluskey played bass on about half the tracks, particularly the older songs. Even when he had the bass, he had a hyperactive energy and ran, jumped, and danced all around the stage. Keyboardist Martin Cooper also picked up a saxophone for a couple solos, and Stuart Kershaw wisely chose to play live drums.

All of this movement and variation did a lot to keep the show interesting. They managed to play a number of dancey newer songs that were reasonably good while still playing a huge number of hits. Their blend of styles and sounds was an excellent choice, and I presume that both sides of their divided audience were pleased.

The quality of the performance was also quite good. McCluskey’s voice is about as good as ever, and while Humphreys’ was never quite at the same level, it was and still is almost as good. When the two sang harmony together, it was excellent. Those moments were some of the best of the night, even when they were part of their more generic pop songs. The only unfortunate bit was that McCluskey’s bass was mixed far too low, although my mediocre seat might not have helped with that. Otherwise, the instrumentation was great, and I barely noticed the occasional sampled part. OMD have been at this for a while, and it seems like they’ve got it pretty well figured out.

[Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.]

Tiny Magnetic Pets: C-
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: B+

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Synästhesie 2019 Day 2

After an incredible first day, I was quite excited for another day, although to be honest, there weren't any particular big draws for me. That wasn't going to stop me from making the most if it and taking some chances, though!

Event: Synästhesie 2019 Day 2
Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 17 November 2019

The first event of the day was a conversation with Alan McGee (of Creation Records) and Anton Newcombe (of Brian Jonestown Massacre), but I arrived just barely too late to catch any of it. I went to the Kesselhaus to see Saba Lou, the teenage daughter of King Khan who started recording with her dad at age 6. Her band had an old-school garage sound blended with soul. There was some groove and a bit of fuzz, but most of the songs were fairly easygoing. She had some charm and had a fun vibe, though. She brought her sister Bella up for one song.

[Saba Lou.]

I went over to the smaller 8mm Stage to see Hello Pity, another Berlin band. From their studio recordings, I was expecting a mix of styles, in particular post-punk and psych. Instead, they stuck to a really heavy, doomy, dark sort of punk or rock. I liked the heavy rhythm, the dark energy of their noise, and that the guitarists and bassist traded vocals, but none of them were particularly gifted singers, and the music was too aggressive and indistinct for my taste.

[Hello Pity.]

I left early and went to the Maschinenhaus to catch the last 20 minutes or so of 10000 Russos from Portugal. Coincidentally, they were also playing a swampy haze of darkness and sludge. The drummer handled vocals but I again wasn't impressed. I couldn't discern much complexity in the sound, just a dense morass. That was fine, but I was hoping for some of the shoegaze I heard from their recordings.

[10000 Russos.]

Next door in the Kesselhaus, The Black Lips had already gotten underway. They were playing something like garage rock, old-school bubblegum pop, or psychobilly, a bit like The Shivas. I liked their playful party vibe and their high energy, but they were dampened by a weak mix that rendered their vocals indecipherable. The lo-fi sound suited their aesthetic, but it didn't make for the best listening experience. They didn't seem to care; they were having too much fun.

[The Black Lips.]

I went back to the Maschinenhaus to see Holygram, a darkwave band from Köln, but after almost a half-hour of waiting around, they still hadn't finished soundchecking, so I gave up on them. It's too bad; I think I would've liked them. Next up in the Kesselhaus was Deerhunter, who I've seen before but still haven't quite gotten into. However, this may have been the best set I've seen them play yet.


Bradford Cox seemed in a better mood than when I'd seen them before, which probably had a significant impact. He seemed to be enjoying himself and spoke exclusively in what he claimed was a Midlands accent (despite being from Georgia). In fact, he sounded oddly like Genesis P-Orridge, which is a fitting touchstone for the band. They maintained their off-kilter indie rock with psychedelic edges and added several nice sonic explorations. Guitarist Lockett Pundt again sang lead on one song. The highlight was the appearance of Emilio China on violin for several songs at the end. China was announced as the band's stage manager, although I recognized him as the excellent bassist and violinist from several of Peter Murphy's tours!

Here's the setlist, with some help from here:
01. Death in Midsummer
02. No One's Sleeping
03. Revival
04. Desire Lines
05. Sailing
06. Take Care
07. Futurism
08. Plains
09. Coronado
10. Nocturne

11. Agoraphobia
12. Cover Me (Slowly)
13. He Would Have Laughed

[Deerhunter with Emilio China.]

Once Deerhunter was over, I again went back to the Maschinenhaus to see what was up with Flamingods. However, they still hadn't started playing, and ended up being 25 minutes late. They were playing hypnotic and groovy psychedelia that had some promise, but it was so crowded that I had to bail. I once again returned to the Kesselhaus to see the final act of the night, A Place to Bury Strangers. Their sound was dark, aggressive, and very heavy. I like some noise rock, but something about APTBS was just too much for me. The guitarist and bassist kept throwing their instruments around and just thrashing about, and I just wasn't feeling that sort of energy. I left before the end.

Final Thoughts: I ended up having something of a disappointing second day, especially in contrast to the first. I liked everything I saw on the first day, but on this day, only Deerhunter really impressed me, although Saba Lou was good, too. The rest was all just too heavy for me. (This is a surprise even for me; I used to be all about Nine Inch Nails and The Sisters of Mercy.) Part of the problem was that the sound quality just wasn't great. It was fine for most of the first day (although I did complain about it during Stereolab's set), but almost nothing sounded optimal on this day. Particularly in the Kesselhaus, the sound was boomy, and in every room, vocals were always hard to discern. Perhaps related, it was also quite annoying that the schedule in the Maschinenhaus was running so late that I missed one band entirely and most of another.

Despite those complaints, I feel ridiculously lucky to live so near to a festival dedicated to Kosmische Musik and psychedelia. How in the world did that work out!? Even if it wasn't all perfect, I'm still quite impressed with the robust lineup. The choice of venue was also quite cool. I'm not sure how I missed out on this festival in past years, but I'll be paying attention next year!

Saba Lou: B-
Hello Pity: C
10000 Russos: C-
The Black Lips: C+
Deerhunter: B+
A Place to Bury Strangers: C

Synästhesie 2019 Day 1

The moment I heard about a festival put on by the people of taste at the 8mm Bar (where I've seen Love'n'Joy and The Shivas) taking place at a venue ten minutes' walking distance from my apartment and featuring Stereolab and Michael Rother, I was sold. I bought a ticket the day they announced it.

Event: Synästhesie 2019 Day 1
Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 November 2019

I started off my evening with Steppenkind at the Baby Satan Stage. The Berlin-based band played a D.A.F.-like version of darkwave based on sequencers, synthesizers, live drums, and spoken word vocals. The vocalist also played some heavily effected guitar parts. Musically, I liked the heavy beats and the electronic soundscape. The vocals were an unusual choice, somewhere between rap and spoken poetry, but the words weren't enough to draw me in. I admire the risk, though.

I left early to head to the main stage in the Kesselhaus to see Laura Carbone. She first crossed my radar by playing at SXSW in 2016 and 2017, but in both cases, I somehow missed seeing her. This time I made it a priority. Her songs were rooted in folk and blues, but she draped everything in gothy psychedelic rock. Half of the songs featured fuzz bass, and there were moments when she manipulated her guitar with delay and subtle whammy bar usage to get the classic My Bloody Valentine sound. Most of her set was slow and smoky, but that was interspersed with just enough higher-energy rock to keep it engaging. Her lead guitarist was exquisitely suited to the style and was well-honed on playing just the right thing at the right time. The drummer provided a number of nice harmonies, and occasionally even the lead guitarist and bassist pitched in, too. Carbone's voice was strong and risked melodramatic oversinging, but she restrained herself such that when she did go big, it caught your attention. I was impressed that even with a voice like that, she paid careful attention to the atmosphere she created.

[Laura Carbone.]

As soon as Carbone's set ended, I went up into the Maschinenhaus to see Perilymph, another Berlin-based band. I came late and they were busy producing a big, warm, chilled-out psychedelic soundbed. Featuring two guitarist/synthesists, a bassist/percussionist, and a drummer, most of their music focused on exploratory instrumentals. One song did have vocals, but they seemed secondary. Their rhythms were steady and motorik-inspired. Several songs featured webs of interconnected instrumental parts, including several sections with really nice harmonizations. Their songs were pleasant and simple at first glance, but exploratory and full when you focused in. I wish I'd seen their full set.


Back in the Kesselhaus, Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar from Niger had already started. I've seen a few different Tuareg "desert guitar" groups now, and I haven't been disappointed yet. Mdou's recordings are known for his experimentation with effects and electronic elements, but on stage, he focused on the rhythm and his blazing guitar. He did end up using some guitar effects for bonus pysch points, but it was just the standard array of distortion, overdrive, and phasing. He sang some, but I couldn't understand the words, so they came across as just a vehicle for the music. The rest of the band consisted of a rhythm guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and another person who literally just clapped along to the beat. Most of the set was energetic and upbeat, but they played around significantly with tempo changes. There were only a few brief pauses and slower, sparser sections, but several occasions where the band suddenly started charging ahead and playing at incredibly fast tempos.

[Mdou Moctar.]

Instead of rushing around to catch a bit of another set, I just waited patiently in the Kesselhaus for Michael Rother of Neu! and Harmonia to take the stage. He suffered a false start, but once he got going, he was on. He played guitar but sat behind a table full of electronics. Rother was joined by Franz Bargmann on rhythm guitar and Hans Lampe on drums. Lampe was originally the engineer on Neu! 2 (1973) but graduated to play drums on the second side of Neu! 75 and then became a full member of La Düsseldorf (notably the band started by Klaus Dinger after Neu! split). Rother even introduced him as "Mr. Motorik", and sure enough, he spent the whole set pounding away on the classic beat, albeit frequently with the aid of a drum machine. In fact, I was a bit surprised that backing tracks were used for the bass parts as well, although considering how simple and repetitive they were, I don't blame them.

Rother's set mixed up a number of classic Neu! songs along with songs from Harmonia and his solo career. All of them were reworked to sound fresh and vibrant. In some cases it was enough for the original electronic drums to be replaced or augmented by the live energy of Lampe, and in others it was simply that Rother played beautiful lead parts in his trademark shimmering fuzz that in many cases outshone the parts on the original records. Bargmann's guitar was mostly relegated to the background, but the balance of Lampe and Rother was excellent, and the music was transcendent and thoroughly delightful. I was surprised by how quickly the time went by and disappointed that it was over so soon, despite that he played even longer than the advertised 70 minutes. Here's the setlist:

01. Katzenmusik 5
02. Neuschnee [Neu! song]
03. Veteranissimo [Harmonia song]
04. Seeland [Neu! song]
05. Gitarrero
06. Stromlinien
07. Deluxe (Immer wieder) [Harmonia song]
08. Zyklodrom
09. Hallogallo [Neu! song]
10. Negativland [Neu! song]
11. Dino [Harmonia song]
12. E-Musik [Neu! song]

[Michael Rother.]

I wasn't about to give up my spot at that point, so I stayed put and waited for the big headliner of the night, the newly reformed Stereolab. My first real interaction with the band came from seeing frontwoman Lætitia Sadier open for Beirut back in 2011. Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly impressed. In the meantime, I eventually got with the program and have since become a huge fan.

Stereolab today is quite similar to the group it was when they split in 2009. The founding members Tim Gane on guitar and Sadier on vocals/keyboards/guitar were joined by longtime drummer Andy Ramsay, keyboardist Joe Watson from their last few albums, and new member Xavier Muñoz Guimera on bass and backing vocals. They played a set that covered most of their career, but left out everything before Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993) and their last pair of albums, Chemical Chords (2008) and Not Music (2010). As if they were aiming for some sort of bell curve, the only album they played more than two songs from was Dots and Loops (1997), which was tellingly the album that saw the band move explicitly into a more experimental post-rock phase. Here's the setlist:

01. Anamorphose
02. Brakhage
03. French Disko
04. Baby Lulu
05. Infinity Girl
06. Fluorescences
07. Miss Modular
08. Need to Be
09. Metronomic Underground
10. The Extension Trip
11. Ping Pong
12. Percolator
13. Crest
14. Lo Boob Oscillator [extended]

15. Rainbo Conversation
16. Blue Milk → Contronatura

I appreciated the varied setlist, but it leaned particularly heavy on the jazzier, academic, somewhat stiffer side of their catalog. Stereolab never forgot how to groove, and they wrote clever and exciting songs throughout their entire career, but I still prefer their looser early years when they wore their heavy influences from The Velvet Underground and Neu! on their sleeves. We still got a few of the rockers like "French Disko"and "Ping Pong", though, and the whimsical "Lo Boob Oscillator" was another highlight for me. They extended the second half of the song into an almost 15-minute jam with several intense uptempo sections separated by a long abstract interlude. It was a delight to see them cut loose and improvise, and they never wandered into territory that lost my attention.

However, there was one notable problem: the mix was not great, particularly in the vocals. I could barely understand Sadier even when she spoke between songs. Even worse were the backing vocals from Muñoz. It probably isn't possible to replace the loss of Mary Hansen, but I appreciate that he tried. However, his vocals were mixed so low so as to be almost unrecognizable. When I could discern him, he seemed to be hitting the notes, but the cheerful interplay from the records didn't quite come alive.

This was a pretty incredible set of bands to see all in one night. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, which is a rare occurrence for me!

Steppenkind: B-
Laura Carbone: B
Perilymph: A-
Mdou Moctar: B+
Michael Rother: A
Stereolab: B

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fehlfarben / Zerfall - Live 2019.11.06 Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

November 9th marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. To celebrate, the city of Berlin has put on a series of events around the city under the name 30 Jahre friedliche Revolution ("30 Years of Peaceful Revolution"), including video projections in important places as well as concerts. I failed to find tickets for either of the Patti Smith shows that were announced, but this concert was free and open to the public. It took place in the southern part of Alexanderplatz, probably the busiest square in Berlin. The fact that it was cold and rainy didn't stop a sizable audience from showing up. Meanwhile, footage from the era was projected onto the buildings surrounding the square.

Artist: Fehlfarben
Venue: Alexanderplatz
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 6 November 2019
Opening Act: Zerfall

Setlist (Monarchie und Alltag):
01. Hier und Jetzt
02. Grauschleier
03. Das sind Geschichten
04. All That Heaven Allows
05. Gottseidank nicht in England
06. Militürk
07. Apokalypse
08. Ein Jahr (Es geht voran)
09. Angst
10. Das war vor Jahren
11. Paul ist tot

12. Platz da
13. WWW

Zerfall are an original East Berlin hardcore punk band from the mid-80s. They only managed to persist despite constant state intervention by playing in churches, which were one of the only havens for anti-authoritarian activity at the time. They reformed in 2008 with the original singer and drummer, although by now only the singer remains. Their only recording from the 80s is a live show at the Galiläakirche, but after reforming they recorded an album of their old material (25 Jahre, 2009) and then even put together an album of new songs (Ostkreuz in Flammen, 2013).

Musically, the band was a straightforward hardcore punk crew. There was no subtlety and no complexity. The messages were direct and political, as evidenced by the song titles and oft-repeated choruses: "Shop", "Geld regiert die Welt" ("Money Rules the World"), "Geld muß her" ("Need Money"), "Berlin Scheiß Stadt" ("Berlin Shitty City"), and so on. I got a bit tired of the repetition, but near the end, one song featured something akin to a bass solo, and another appeared to be a cover of Abwärts' "Computerstaat" with a longer drum and bass intro and even a sort of lead guitar part. They finished the song by quoting "Wir sind die Türken von morgen" ("We are the Turks of tomorrow") from Fehlfarben's "Militürk". The final song was "Blaue Möwen Lied" ("Blue Seagull Song"), for which the band brought up a bunch of their friends to help them sing it.

Zerfall played for more like 40 minutes instead of the prescribed 30, so Fehlfarben started about 15 minutes late. (I wouldn't have minded except for the rain!) They opened with "Hier und jetzt" and followed it with the rest of Monarchie und Alltag (1980), the same album they played in full when I saw them last year (and when they played Berlin the year before as well). I love that album (I reviewed it twelve years ago and more recently went into greater detail about the song "Militürk"), but the repetition irked me. The two songs they played for the encore were also played at the last show.


There's not much more to say about the performance than what I wrote last time. It was again a rather conflicted performance. The album is great and still largely relevant, and the current lineup is still able to bring it on stage effectively, but it felt too easy, and the newer songs again didn't quite match the standard of the old ones. However, Peter Hein was a bit more focused and consistent, and against all odds, the mix was actually clearer. (Maybe it helped that I was much closer to the stage.) They again extended "Militürk", but "Ein Jahr" and "Paul ist tot" were played closer to their original studio versions, which may have actually been an improvement.

I'm still amazed that the government put on this concert for free. Both bands were anti-authoritarian and highly critical of the sociopolitical status quo of their times, and it's amusing that the government is now directly sponsoring them. Neither has much of a direct connection to the fall of the Wall, but then again, even the bands that supposedly do (Pink Floyd, David Hasselhoff, David Bowie) merely earned the distinction by playing a concert in front of it. This worked just as well: I appreciated the selection of a politically relevant band from each side of the wall. Hein even commemorated his role with the letters "BRD" taped on his shirt.

[Note the "BRD" shirt.]

Zerfall: C
Fehlfarben: B-

P.S. Coincidentally, I was in Berlin ten years ago for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and also saw some of the festivities and displays for that celebration. That was one of the trips that inspired me to move here.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Tangerine Dream - Live 2019.10.25 Passionskirche, Berlin, Germany (early show)

The current incarnation of Tangerine Dream features none of the original members, let alone anyone who played with the band in the 20th century or was even born when they made it big in the mid-70s. And yet they still sold out this concert and added a second late show. How do they do it?

Artist: Tangerine Dream
Venue: Passionskirche
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 25 October 2019 (early show)

Tangerine Dream today are synthesists/producers Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss along with violinist and "Ableton Push controller" Hoshiko Yamane. Notably absent is Edgar Froese, the cofounder and only consistent member of the band until his death in 2015. Other notable members such as Christopher Franke, Peter Baumann, Johannes Schmoelling, and Edgar's son Jerome Froese have all gone their own way. However, Quaeschning has been with the band since 2005, Schnauss is an acclaimed artist in his own right, and supposedly Edgar's wishes were for the current formation to carry on and expand the tradition, so they have some clout.

Quaeschning stood surrounded by a wall of keyboards and patch bays, and he appeared to be driving the show from his corner. Schnauss stood off in the opposite corner, mostly attending to his laptop, but he also occasionally manipulated a keyboard, a single rack-mounted unit, and assorted other knob-filled boards. Yamane was front and center but performed as if she was unaware of the crowd. She played violin on about half the songs, although her instrument was not always audible or easily identifiable. She also spent substantial time using her laptop and a few boards.

Interestingly, at this show, an unannounced fourth performer also appeared: Paul Frick. As far as I can tell, he isn't an official member or even a regular touring member, but his contributions to this performance were substantial. He played synthetic percussion and central keyboard parts on every song, and he even had something akin to a piano solo near the end.

The band played works from across most of their extensive oeuvre, overlooking their earliest experimental and kosmische albums (as expected) and focusing on their trademark sequencer-driven sound from the mid-70s and onward. A few pieces were distinctly more upbeat and bright, presumably from Quantum Key (2015) or other recent albums, and several were darker and more sinister, likely from their soundtrack work. I distinctly recognized "Stratosfear" near the end of their set, which grabbed the audience's attention and served as a highlight of the night.

I was particularly impressed by their willingness to develop and explore their work, including even their canonical classics. They may work with familiar structures and recognizable motifs, but they used them as a framework to expand upon. I'd normally wonder how much of their performance was pre-programmed, but my impression was that most of it was live. The musicians appeared to build off the work of each other, and they occasionally looked to each other for cues. I also wonder what they sound like without Frick, as he added quite a bit to the performance.

Tangerine Dream learned early that as an instrumental band that was mostly stuck behind their massive racks of equipment, a visual element was critical for a convincing performance. Not only that, but they sought out a venue beloved by classical performers and known for its acoustics and intimate vibes. It's hard to say how much the venue really contributed to the sound quality, but the show sounded fantastic. Well, with one exception: I started out the night in the gallery, but I struggled to get a good view and the low end seemed to be oddly absent. Down on the floor, the sound was much better balanced, although the bass was occasionally too loud and the speakers had some trouble producing the intended sound.

In any case, the space was certainly taken advantage of for the light show. It seems likely that the lighting engineer had some time to practice or program specifically for the venue, as the lights frequently lit up parts of the hall and choir in especially dramatic fashions. The projection screen was used mostly for spatial themes and geometric patterns, which was fine, but the lighting was on another level.

This might be the first time I've seen a band where none of the original or influential "core" members are involved anymore. It seems weird, but the existing members did everything in their power to make it thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. The music was as solid as ever, the variety of moods and atmospheres was well balanced, the choice of venue was perfect, and the light show was a great match. They won me over.

Score: A-

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. / Sunn Trio - Live 2019.10.19 Urban Spree, Berlin, Germany

This was a busy day for me. I was late to this show because I spent the afternoon at the Arena Finale. I even skipped the final band of that to make it to this. However, one of the opening bands, Sturle Dagsland, had to cancel due to missing luggage, and I arrived just after Stereocilia left the stage. (Too bad, because they seemed cool.)

Artist: Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.
Venue: Urban Spree
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 19 October 2019
Opening Acts: Sunn Trio, Stereocilia

Sunn Trio is a disarmingly literal name: they are a trio from Phoenix, Arizona, one of the sunniest places on the planet. Their riff-laden, metal-adjacent desert/surf rock was entirely instrumental. The drummer laid down forceful rhythms, the bassist threw heavy riffs around that, and the guitarist played winding leads on top. The thick reverb, reverse swell, and other effects on the guitar gave it a psychedelic tinge. Their set was intense and they barely paused for breath, which made it an entrancing affair. The bass tone was rendered a bit dull, but otherwise they sounded great.

[Sunn Trio.]

I went outside to fetch a beer and went back inside just in time to catch Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. start their set early. The ever-evolving, always shifting lineup consisted of five members at this show. Band leader and guitarist Kawabata Makoto played some mellow riffs but spent most of the night playing incendiary solos. Jyonson Tsu started out on bouzouki and switched to guitar for most of the show. He was nominally the lead singer, but largely focused on instrumental parts. Drummer Satoshima Nani and bassist S/T (aka Wolf) generally kept quite busy between dishing out uptempo motorik rhythms and holding down freeform jams. Higashi Hiroshi's synthesizer was like a shimmering sprinkle on top; he mostly created high-pitch whirring and bubbling flourishes that decorated whatever else was going on.

They started with a strong, rhythmic jolt that blasted off into a wild guitar solo and followed that up with one of the only quieter segments of the night. Most of the set leaned more towards lengthy songs with a few relatively traditionally structured parts intermixed with extended solos and kosmische jams. The boundaries between one song and the next weren't always clear, and most seemed to stretch on for at least ten minutes.

The music was great, but the one thing holding it back was a mediocre mix. The bass was again muddy and dulled, the vocals were almost completely overwhelmed except for the infrequent mellow moments, and even Tsu's guitar was often lost somewhere in the shadows. The delicacy of Hiroshi's synth bits led me to believe they'd spent some time fine-tuning that aspect, but something was missing from the rest.

Much like Sunn Trio before them, Acid Mothers Temple played with gleeful abandon and relentless energy. Their intensity was such that when they stopped after about 75 minutes, I was thrilled but ready for a break. Unfortunately, they didn't come back for an encore, despite that according to the schedule they still had a half-hour before "curfew". I would've gladly gone on another trip with them.

[Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.]

Sunn Trio: A-
Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.: B+

P.S. Thanks to Laurent!

Arena Finale 2019.10.19

Event: Arena Finale
Venue: Arena Lautsprecherskulptur (in front of Pallasstraße 5)
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 19 October 2019

This has to be one of the strangest, only-in-Berlin events I've been to, and best of all, it was completely free and open to the public. In fact, it took place on a nondescript square between a WWII-era bunker, a huge apartment complex, and a busy intersection. The focus of the event was the Arena, a sculpture by Benoît Maubrey consisting of old speakers, some of which were still functional and wired together. Apparently the general public is welcome to use it, and on this occasion, a sound tech was present with a proper rig for the day's performers.

Unsurprisingly, due to technical problems, the event was running way behind schedule. I arrived to see Cabuwazi, some sort of circus troupe, juggling and playing with kids while a local radio personality played excerpts from StreetUniverCity about respect and civil courage. Eventually, moderator Martin Clausen handed over the stage to Doc Schoko, who started his set with an extended instrumental piece featuring an ebow on his guitar. He then switched to more traditionally-structured songs with a punk edge. Clausen joined him on sax for several songs.

[Doc Schoko with Martin Clausen. Note Henning Sedlmeier in the background.]

Henning Sedlmeier briefly took the stage with Carsten Lisecki to perform an ironic song about the future. Carsten played maracas and injected some vocal parts (mostly "Zukunft!", meaning "future") while Henning mostly stood still and sang in disaffected tone along with a backing track. This was apparently an introduction of sorts to a discussion round about art in public spaces and the commercialization and capitalization of art. The central figure was Bazon Brock, an elder artist/critic/theorist/professor, but Henning and Carsten also took part in addition to Beatrice Schuett Moumdjian and Ina Weber in their roles as artists and performers. The setup was particularly odd in that the guest speakers sat inside a nearby neighborhood management office and projected images on the window, but the sound came from the speaker sculpture outside.

Sedlmeier concluded the discussion with another ironically disaffected song about consumer culture (the key word being "Dinge", meaning "things"), and then Michael Schmacke came forward for his set. Schmacke also played to a backing track and in fact let it do most of the auditory work. While it played mutated electronic beats, he put on a psychedelic paisley outfit and moved about while pulling props (like a small globe and a doll) out of a bag. He only occasionally sang sparse lines such as, "Read between the stones", after which he bent down and pointed at the spaces between the tiled pavement. For one piece, he threatened to eat a grasshopper, but thankfully didn't actually follow through. He concluded his bizarre set by climbing up the Arena sculpture and gazing into the distance.

[Michael Schmacke.]

Next came poet and singer/songwriter Lutz Steinbrück, who performed five songs with solo electric guitar. Darkness had fallen and he was suffering from the cold and wind, but persevered nonetheless. His focus was on shifting rhythms and contemplative lyrics, and he continued the prevailing themes of the day with a song about the ills of capitalism. As I was running late for another concert, I had to leave after his set and I missed the final act of the night, Flirren.

[Lutz Steinbrück.]

I remain continually impressed when I encounter events like this that are sponsored by various segments of the government. I cannot imagine a similar event – combining public art, children's activities, musical performers, and a roundtable discussion of art – taking place in the USA, funded by government money. It was weird but intriguing, and all I had to do was show up. The only downside (other than the delays) was that someone thought it would be cool to detonate loud fireworks nearby. In was unclear whether this was protest or pure prankery. Despite the obvious illegality, though, everyone just shook their heads and moved on. Naturally, police where nowhere to be found and no one was concerned enough to summon them.

P.S. Thanks to Lutz!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Noctorum - The Afterdeath EP (2019)

Artist: Noctorum
Album: The Afterdeath EP
Release Date: 2 August 2019
Label: Schoolkids Records
Producer: Noctorum

01. Dancing with Death
02. The Mermaid
03. I Can't Escape Myself [The Sound cover]
04. Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing [Buffalo Springfield cover]

What happens when a band crowdsources the funds to produce an album, only to have the company that hosted their campaign run away with the money? In this case, the fans get an opportunity to hear a few extra tracks that might've otherwise remained on the shelf. To be clear: everybody should be upset with PledgeMusic. Countless bands have been affected by their sudden bankruptcy. However, it's encouraging that under these circumstances, Noctorum didn't slow down and instead pushed forward with a new release.

Noctorum is a collaboration between Marty Willson-Piper, best known as one of the glorious guitarists of The Church for most of their career, and Dare Mason, an experienced engineer and producer. Despite the PledgeMusic fiasco, they still managed to release their album The Afterlife as intended earlier this year. The album is a solid affair with hints of classic Church sounds, but taken in a more immediate, alternative direction.

The Afterdeath EP, though, shows the duo at their extremes. It features two songs from the same sessions as well as two covers. "Dancing with Death" is a pumping rocker with a shimmering edge. Marty's vocals are strong and the layered guitar parts are great. The lyrics are a well-written critique of organized religion. The song is so good that I wonder why it wasn't on the album. "The Mermaid" is airy and jazzy, but it too keeps it moving. It's not nearly as convincing, though, and neither the vocals nor the music excel.

The covers are entirely different. Both are excellent choices, although neither is altered too substantially from the original. "I Can't Escape Myself" (originally by the underrated The Sound) is considerably amped up and given an electronic edge. After the second verse, a winding sax and noisy guitar solo fill out the song's sense of unease. Some of the subtlety of the original is lost, but the aggressive take still makes it work. "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" (originally by Buffalo Springfield, written by a very young Neil Young) was originally released in 2006 on the Five Way Street tribute album. It retains the folk feel of the original, but extends it with a bunch more guitars, bells, and assorted keyboards. It feels like a logical update, even if it is a fairly straight rendition.

Considering the situation, I'm happy to have this EP on my hard drive. "Dancing with Death" alone is better than most of The Afterlife, and the rest is plenty enjoyable as well. The Afterdeath EP is available via a GoFundMe campaign started to recoup the funds they lost from PledgeMusic. It's pay-what-you-want and only available until the end of October.

Score: B

Sunday, October 13, 2019

David J - Live 2019.10.11 Chausseestraße 131, Berlin, Germany

Artist: David J
Venue: Chausseestraße 131
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 11 October 2019

01. Not Long for This World [a capella]
02. The Auteur
03. Clandestine Valentine
04. Blue Eyes in the Green Room
05. Copper Level 7
06. Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh
07. Feel Like Robert Johnson at the Three Forks Saloon
08. Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure
09. Shelf Life [originally performed by Love & Rockets]

10. The Dog-End of a Day Gone By [originally performed by Love & Rockets]

This was a weird show for many reasons. First of all, David was originally scheduled to perform the following day at Bi Nuu (where I saw ChameleonsVox two years ago), but that show was canceled for unspecified reasons. However, I subsequently caught wind of this show at a much smaller venue. There was no mention of tickets or a price anywhere, just a claim that David would play at 10pm followed by a bunch of DJs. I arrived early and the place was fairly empty, without anyone at the door. David arrived, did a soundcheck, and then just hung out. 10pm came and went. Finally, at least 45 minutes late, the show began.

The venue was small and lacking any sort of stage. There was a DJ booth in the back but not much else. The space was dark and sickly smoky. Getting the sound in a decent state was clearly a challenge, although in the end it was fine. The crowd was sparse and an odd lot. Most seemed like dedicated fans, and yet several kept talking or coming and going during the set.

David didn't seem to mind, though, and he started his set with a dramatic flair by singing "Not Long for This World" from the 2011 album of the same name a capella. The rest of his set was just him and his acoustic guitar in the typical folky singer-songwriter style. I was hoping for some accompaniment, but David's songwriting and performing skills are strong enough such that even when unadorned, his songs are clever and varied enough to keep things interesting.

Half of the set came from David's new album, Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure, officially released on October 18, but already available at his concerts. A highlight of the album (and the concert) is a new version of "The Auteur", originally a b-side of "The Guitar Man" from 2002. Where the original is country-inflected and pleasantly lilting, the new version is sinister and foreboding. The subtlety of the original may have been easily overlooked at the time, but this version, particularly with Rose McGowan's vocals, is an even clearer damnation of predatory Hollywood figures.

In plenty of other regards as well, the new album hearkens back to Estranged, David's superb album from 2003 (one of the first albums I ever reviewed on this blog!). In much the same way, Missives is rather accessible and yet full of surprises. It's folk-oriented, but features rich, lush instrumentation. It makes for a beautiful listen even if you don't focus in on it. The only downside is that many of the lyrics continue David's tiring trend of treating women only as sexual muses. Many of the songs are nonetheless clever, humorous, or earnestly thoughtful, like "(I Don't Want to Destroy) Our Beautiful Thing", "Pre-Existing Condition", and "(I Walked Away from) The Girl in Yellow". But others are less subtle and lack that level of depth. Unfortunately, those are the ones that David focused on at the concert. I wish I could've instead seen the meticulously crafted soundscape of "Mosaic" live, but recreating that level of complexity was probably infeasible.

The rest of the show came from across David's substantial back catalog, including his classic "Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh" (always a pleasure) and two Love & Rockets songs: "Shelf Life", a personal favorite from the latter-day Sweet F.A. (1996), and "The Dog-End of a Day Gone By", originally a pummeling rocker from Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven (1985). Naturally, these were highlights, even if neither was perfectly performed.

The context of this concert makes judgment difficult. The circumstances were obviously far from ideal, and if I take all of that into account, it was disappointing in comparison to what I was hoping to see at the originally scheduled show at Bi Nuu. However, I appreciate that David adhered to the notion that the show must go on, and although it was a short set, he put on a good show for those 45 minutes. He clearly wanted to make the most of it, regardless of the limited financial gain to be had from such an intimate show. With a strong new album in tow, and considering past experience, my bet is that the rest of his tour will be even better.

The performance itself: B-
The entire experience: D
The album (Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure): B+

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Wilco / Spiral Stairs - Live 2019.09.12 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany

My third time seeing Wilco after great shows at Austin City Limits Festival and Stubb's in Austin. Their new album, Ode to Joy, is due out on October 4th, so all the new songs were unfamiliar to me except for the early single "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)".

Artist: Wilco
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 September 2019
Opening Act: Spiral Stairs

Setlist (thanks to for the new songs' titles):
01. Bright Leaves
02. Before Us
03. Company in My Back
04. War on War
05. One and a Half Stars
06. If I Ever Was a Child
07. Handshake Drugs
08. Hummingbird
09. At Least That's What You Said
10. White Wooden Cross
11. Via Chicago
12. Bull Black Nova
13. Reservations
14. Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
15. Impossible Germany
16. Box Full of Letters
17. Everyone Hides
18. Jesus, Etc.
19. Theologians
20. I'm the Man Who Loves You
21. An Empty Corner
22. Misunderstood

23. Hold Me Anyway
24. Random Name Generator
25. California Stars
26. True Love Will Find You in the End [Daniel Johnston cover]
27. The Late Greats

Opening band Spiral Stairs is actually the solo project of former Pavement member Scott Kannberg. Despite his length indie rock credentials, he appeared with an acoustic guitar, accompanied only by Tim Regan on lead guitar. Kannberg twice made jokes about them being Christian neurosurgeons. No explanation was provided, but who knows, in an alternative universe, maybe it could've been. At any rate, without a rhythm section, the songs fell a little flat. Regan did a great job filling out the songs with melodic riffs and tasteful solos, but Kannberg's voice wasn't too sharp, and it felt like he was trying to sing the songs as if they were intended to be bigger than they were. The political lyrics were good, though. I felt a little bad when he said he was going to play a Pavement song ("Two States") and hardly anyone responded when he asked if anyone remembered the band.

[Spiral Stairs.]

Wilco started their set with two new songs, both of which were low-key and relatively unadorned. I was concerned that they might again be pulling the full-album trick as they did last time I saw them, but thankfully they broke the pattern with the delightfully oddball "Company in My Back" and the shimmering, tuneful "War on War". The band scattered new songs throughout the whole set, and although I wasn't initially impressed, they seemed to improve as the night went on. The new material seems to fit in with much of Star Wars (2015) and Schmilco (2016) in particular, in that a lot of the songs sound downcast, subtly and loosely arranged, and oriented around Jeff Tweedy's obscure but idiosyncratically humorous perspective.

The rest of set bounced all around Wilco's career, collecting exactly one song from almost every album they've released, plus an abundance of songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and especially A Ghost Is Born (2004). Those are great albums, so I wasn't upset about it, but the bias was extreme, and I was surprised by the lack of material from their recent albums. I liked the front half of Star Wars quite well, and I never saw Wilco tour Schmilco. Somehow, "If I Ever Was a Child" is already something of a classic, and I was surprised to hear some of the audience singing along.

Highlights were the triple-guitar attack of "Handshake Drugs" and the clearly beloved "Impossible Germany", the wild cacophonous dynamics of "Via Chicago", the plaintively beautiful "Reservations", the awesome bells-and-guitar solo of "Bull Black Nova", and the perennial classics "Jesus, Etc." and "California Stars". The biggest surprise was "True Love Will Find You in the End", presumably played in honor of Daniel Johnston's passing the day before.

Even if not all the new material blew me away, I still liked the way Wilco were able to blend the songs into their long setlist. They never lost steam and balanced the softer and quieter numbers with plenty of high-energy rockers. Many of their songs appear in most of their setlists, but their songs are varied and plentiful enough that they can play endless variations and it never gets old. I didn't find this show to be especially different than the core of the last time I saw them, but it was different enough to still be compelling, and I've thoroughly enjoyed them every time I've seen them. All six members remain strong performers, and I like that each gets their moments to shine.


Spiral Stairs: C+
Wilco: A-