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.