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+