Sunday, October 30, 2022

Michael Rother / Chicks on Speed - Live 2022.10.26 Betonhalle, Silent Green, Berlin, Germany

I saw Michael Rother shortly before the pandemic at Synästhesie and thoroughly enjoyed his set, so I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket to this show, especially since it was billed as “Michael Rother & Friends Celebrate 50 Years Of NEU!”, and it took place in a relatively new venue I’d been curious about since it opened. Silent Green is a cultural space in a former crematorium, one of the first to be opened in former Prussia. Well, it turns out the show was actually in the Betonhalle, which is a new construction next to the crematorium. Still, for being a concrete hall (that’s the translation, and it’s literal), the space was fairly cool.

I’d been busy and hadn’t paid close attention to who the guests might be until the day of the show. I only really knew Stephen Morris (of Joy Division and New Order) but I was intrigued by the rest and looking forward to some interesting collaborations. Well, my first surprise was that Chicks on Speed appeared as the opening act. Well, actually, the real first surprise was that they had a member of their entourage, Jeremiah Day, come out and instruct the audience on some qigong and contact improvisation to help us rid ourselves of anxieties. He said normally he did these exercises with the band to get them in the right mood, but they asked him to do it for the crowd. That was actually kind of fun.

And then Chicks on Speed came out. These days they are nominally Melissa Logan and Alex Murray-Leslie, but another person I read as a woman stood behind a laptop and some other gadgets, and Jeremiah also came out to add vocals on one song. Melissa and Alex sang and spoke their way through several songs in fairly fast succession, and the breaks weren’t always so clear. Their music seemed almost entirely pre-recorded, although it was unclear to me what the third person may have contributed. At first I found their vibe chaotic and bizarre. Then I suddenly found myself entranced by their politics, wit, and unconventional grooves. They were loose, but they were incredibly fun to behold. They played two then-unreleased songs, including one titled “Two Songs” to support the release of Julian Assange from prison, which was released two days after the show. I thoroughly enjoyed their a capella version of Delta 5’s classic “Mind Your Own Business”, with words humorously adapted for the contemporary era. Their final number was a version of their biggest “hit”, “We Don’t Play Guitars”, which included Alex playing a high heel shoe outfitted with guitar strings to create a mess of noise.

[Chicks on Speed. Note the high-heel “guitar” by the amp on the left.]

Michael Rother got right down to business and had little to say, preferring as usual to let the music convey his messages. He was again accompanied by Franz Bargmann on rhythm guitar and Hans Lampe on drums, and they kicked off a setlist that seemed rather familiar to what I’d seen three years ago. The mix was a bit muddy, though, and the crowd got very pushy. Nonetheless, the music was stellar. Rother’s signature shimmering guitar blaze and the insistent motorik beats kept me floating. The first real highlight was Yann Tiersen coming out to play synth on “Sonderangebot” and “Weissensee”, which were medleyed just like on Neu! (1972). Tiersen’s contributions were great; he added tasteful touches that added flavor and detail but didn’t obscure the core vibe. I was disappointed to see him leave.

The next surprise was Vittoria Maccabruni coming out to sing on “Negativland”, a song that I’ve only ever heard performed in instrumental arrangements. Unfortunately, she was practically inaudible. I liked the idea, and it sounded like it would’ve worked, but I just could not hear her! I caught just a few words here and there and that was it. I could barely even catch the melody. She stayed out after that and switched to synthesizer for three songs, but again, I could barely hear her contributions! I don’t know what the deal was, especially since Tierson hadn’t had any problems. I could just barely make out some bits of her synth, but they were incoherent. The songs in question were a bit too monotonous and static, so without her parts, I found myself mildly bored and increasingly distracted by the pushy crowd. I wondered if they would play something from their collaborative album, As Long as the Light (2022), but it didn't seem that they did. Besides, most of the album is minimal downbeat techno, with Rother’s parts relegated to texture and soundscape rather than showcasing his signature sound like the live set did.

And that was about it. I never actually saw Stephen Morris until I checked the website again and saw he was listed as a DJ! Sure enough, he was still over at the turntables. Admittedly I had been enjoying the house music more than I usually do, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing with Rother on stage. I also found it odd that Chicks on Speed had vocally expressed a desire to perform with Rother, but they did not come back out. That would’ve been awesome, although I have no idea what they would’ve done together.

I came away feeling rather disappointed. I’d enjoyed most of Rother’s set, and yet my expectations had been set high, both by the last show I saw and by the marketing as a Neu! tribute. He did a slightly higher concentration of Neu! songs than last time, but it was overall quite similar, and he again didn’t play any of the songs that more obviously bear the mark of his erstwhile bandmate Klaus Dinger. I mean, he recently appeared on stage with Iggy Pop to do a truly inspired take on “Hero”, and I would’ve loved to see something like that. Alas. I’m surprised to report that I think I enjoyed the Chicks on Speed set more than Rother’s. I think my experience was all about expectations: I was hyped up by the marketing, and I don’t think I quite got what I was sold. Meanwhile, I didn’t even know Chicks on Speed would be performing, and their set was entrancing and jubilant.

[Michael Rother with Vittoria Maccabruni.]

Michael Rother’s setlist (approximate):
01. Neuschnee
02. Isi
03. Seeland
04. Veteranissimo [Harmonia song]
05. Deluxe (Immer wieder) [Harmonia song]
06. Sonderangebot → Weissensee [with Yann Tiersen on synth]
07. Zyklodrom
08. Hallogallo
09. Negativland [with Vittoria Maccabruni on vocals]
10. Groove 139 [with Vittoria on synth]
11. Dino [Harmonia song, with Vittoria on synth]
12. E-Musik [with Vittoria on synth]
13. Im Glück

Note that I might’ve mixed up a few things, and the trio near the end with Vittoria on synth kind of blurred together, so I might’ve gotten them wrong. I also didn’t label the Neu! songs since most of them were!

Chicks on Speed’s setlist (incomplete):
1. Shooting from the Hip
2. Two Songs
3. Mind Your Own Business [Delta 5 cover]
4. Utopia
5. We Don’t Play Guitars

Michael Rother: B-
Chicks on Speed: A-

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Tashi Dorji - Live 2022.09.28 Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany

When Godspeed first scheduled this show for February, I passed on it. I wasn’t feeling safe enough to go. But then they rescheduled it, and with not much else on my concert calendar, I decided to give it a go. Thankfully it wasn’t sold out, but it was quite full.

I was a big fan of their latest album, G_d’s Pee at State’s End! (2021) as well as the one before it, Luciferian Towers (2017). I mean, they really don’t have a bad album (or EP), and somehow they just keep coming. The last time I saw them was in 2015 (in Austin) when they were touring for Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, although they played most of what would become Luciferian Towers as well. They don’t seem to have continued the trend anymore of previewing new work in concert years before it appears on record, but that’s okay. No one’s gonna complain with anything from their back catalog!

First, though, the opener: Tashi Dorji. He appeared alone with just his electric guitar. He played one extended piece (a little over a half-hour) that sounded mostly improvised, although it may have contained elements or motifs from more solidified works. At first, I thought he might move in a metal-leaning, riff-heavy direction, but he got increasingly experimental and unconventional as he progressed. His sound and style were familiar to me from the noise scene that I was once interested in and loosely involved with in St. Louis. I heard and saw bits of Sonic Youth in the prepared instrument manipulations and unusual techniques. A few sections used loops to build a soundbed or occasionally a hint of rhythm over which Tashi continued to improvise. Rarely was there something approaching melodic content, and when there was, it seemed to appear almost as if by accident. It was a rather dissonant performance, which made it more than a bit challenging. It certainly wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t entirely captivating, either. It felt a bit aimless or directionless despite the dynamics, and I have no idea what, if anything, was intended to be conveyed.

Thankfully Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn’t make us wait too long before they emerged, although at first it was just Thierry Amar on double bass and Sophie Trudeau on violin, playing a rather minimal piece. The projectionist (presumably either Karl Lemieux or Philippe Leonard, but I’m not sure which) started the scratchy imagery that occasionally yielded the word “Hope”, cluing us in that this was an iteration of their apparently now standard introductory “Hope Drone”. The rest of the band slowly shuffled out and picked up instruments. They kept it fairly restrained and didn’t quite let it build like most of their larger works.

As the drone wound down, they slid into the opening guitar riff of “Job’s Lament / First of the Last Glaciers” from their latest album. They played it fairly faithfully to the album, as they also did with “Cliffs Gaze”. Both nonetheless sounded huge and especially dramatic in the live rendition. The projections for both showed scenes of winter snow in the city (presumably Montreal?). The scenes were sparse and quiet without much human activity. During “Glaciers”, the imagery gradually shifted to springtime and more shots of nature, but in “Cliffs Gaze”, the imagery concentrated around the juxtaposition of graves and shots of of piles from a crumbling pier. Both seemed to presage environmental catastrophe.

The rest of the songs were scattered from their back catalog, and they played with the textures more and allowed them to deviate from the recorded versions. “Anthem for No State” (from Luciferian Towers) is already a classic, and its political urgency felt stronger than ever. It was accompanied by imagery of stock exchanges and buildings, which I believe had been used to accompany the other major piece from its album, “Bosses Hang”, when I saw them perform it in 2015.

“World Police and Friendly Fire” (from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, 2000) and “The Sad Mafioso” (from their debut, F♯ A♯ ∞, 1997) were both powerful and perhaps even further expanded and more adventurous than their studio versions. The latter’s video accompaniment included updated international protest footage, including Black Lives Matter protestors as well as shots with banners in German. As it drew to a close, the band seemed to seque into “Drugs in Tokyo” (which also followed it on the 1998 CD reissue). After the band slowly left the stage one by one, they left behind them a series of looped drones. (Even the projectionist left a slide loop running.) After a while, bassist Mauro Pezzente and drummer/percussionist/glockspielist Timothy Herzog came back out and manipulated the various amplifiers and pedal boards for a while. They slowly turned off each board and amp as they moved around, eventually reducing the layers down to silence. As per usual, there was no encore in the traditional sense, unless you count the loop manipulation.

This show was great. Unlike the last time I saw them, the mix was superb. I could usually distinctly hear all eight instrumentalists, although it was easy to let their sounds intermingle into an awesome whole. The ups and downs and subtle curves of their songs carried me along and conveyed the heaviness of their concerns. I was surprised to realize how much of the melody was carried by Trudeau’s violin, and also that she occasionally used guitar effects on her instrument, such as light phasing on “Anthem for No State”. Efrim Menuck’s bulldozer guitar may introduce and lead several songs, but it’s the interplay with the other guitarists (Mike Moya and David Bryant) that make it cohere and blossom. Similarly, the dynamics between the two bassists (Amar and Pezzente) and the two drummer/percussionists (Aidan Girt and Herzog) yielded a harmonic and rhythmic complexity that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance, but unfolds with careful listening (and a good sound system). I suppose that’s the appeal of the band: they sound huge and epic, but the subtlety and finesse in their compositions is what keeps me listening again and again.

1. Hope Drone
2. Job’s Lament → First of the Last Glaciers
3. Anthem for No State
4. Cliffs Gaze
5. World Police and Friendly Fire
6. The Sad Mafioso → Drugs in Tokyo

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: A
Tashi Dorji: C

[The best shot I could get with their anti-theatrical lighting and my old phone.]