Monday, November 21, 2022

Synästhesie 2022 Day 2

Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 19 November 2022

Unlike the first day, on Saturday I came right on time. I wanted to catch The Asteroid #4, who were announced as a surprise guest shortly before the festival. They’d just played a show at Urban Spree four days before that I skipped due to my already-busy concert schedule, so I was happy to get a second chance. I was a big fan of their 2020 album Northern Songs and their latest, Tones of the Sparrow (2022), is just about as good. The Kesselhaus stage wasn’t quite ready on time, and the band ended up starting a half-hour late for unclear reasons, but the wait was worth it. Their set was energetic and a warm mesh of psychedelic guitar effects. I was entranced by the drummer, who had more complicated rhythms than I expected. The vocals were mixed too low, but I could still hear the lovely harmonies.

I then tried to see Avishag Cohen Rodrigues at the Local Stage, which turned out to be a rather cramped bar, PANDA platforma, accessible via an inner courtyard. It was full and they were monitoring capacity, so I had to wait in the snow to get in, but thankfully not for long. I couldn’t see anything on the stage, but it sounded like the sort of bedroom electro-industrial music that Merchandise used to make. I was just beginning to make sense of it all when they left the stage.

I returned to the Kesselhaus to see Tess Parks. Her dusky voice and the haunted grooves of her band reminded me of Low and Mazzy Star. I again struggled to understand the vocals and I wasn’t quite able to get into the mood, but I enjoyed it anyway. The music was just a bit too languid and mellow. Normally I’d expect that to work for me, but I found it hard to find a good spot in the crowd and I ended up fairly distracted.

After her set, I tried to go up to the Maschinenhaus to see The Vacant Lots, but I literally could not get in the door. Apparently, no one was monitoring capacity at that time, but they had been at other times and should’ve been then. It was unbelievably packed. Once I realized I couldn’t get in, I tried to turn around, but got stuck against the rest of the crowd still trying to squeeze in. That was deeply uncomfortable. I eventually made it out and again settled in the Kesselhaus to wait for Tempers. I’ve enjoyed the darkwave synthpop of their recordings, but they couldn’t replicate the same energy on stage. They appeared as just a vocalist and a guitarist playing over multiple layers of backing tracks. For a moment I thought they might go in a more early Beach House direction, but they had none of the grace or melody, and they relied too much on their tapes. The sound was good, but they had no energy on stage and didn’t really engage with the audience.

I eventually admitted to myself that I was disappointed and bored, so I left and attempted to see Roomer at the Local Stage. It was again full, and there was a large crowd that wasn’t exactly forming a neat queue, so I didn’t stick around. Instead I went to the Maschinenhaus to see Roller Derby. They played a rather straightforward form of new wave pop. Compared to their recordings, the synth seemed downplayed while the two guitars came to the fore and set the mood. The lyrics and music were a bit too light and soft for my tastes, but they sounded good and they were generally upbeat, which helped me feel better after the series of frustrations I’d been running into.

Then there was Slowdive. Finally! They opened with “Slowdive” from their debut release, the Slowdive EP, and followed with “Avalyn”, the second (and third) track from the same EP. I wondered if this was going to be a gimmick, but they branched out from there. (I wouldn’t’ve minded if they’d played their early EPs straight through!) Their setlists haven’t seemed to vary too much since they reunited in 2014; they didn’t play a single song they hadn’t played when I last saw them in 2017, and there’s quite a bit of overlap with the strange show I saw at Levitation in 2016. But as before, I can’t really complain. Every single one of the songs was great, and the sound was huge and enveloping. The interplay of the shimmering guitars was beautiful, even if it’s quite a challenge to distinguish which performer was actually producing which sound. But that doesn’t bother me: it’s the sum total that matters, and when they reached full swing in “Souvlaki Space Station” and “When the Sun Hits”, it was pure bliss. “Catch the Breeze” was once again far superior on stage than the originally recorded version, and “Golden Hair” was extended as usual into a massive, soaring jam. I had my strongest earbuds in and it was right on the line of being uncomfortably loud, which made for a pleasant full-body experience, but I pitied anyone without hearing protection. The only weak links were again a few times when the drums seemed to stumble and the fact that the vocals, especially Rachel Goswell’s, were too low. I’m aware that that’s rather standard for a shoegaze band, but it does lessen the experience.

Slowdive’s setlist:
01. Slowdive
02. Avalyn
03. Catch the Breeze
04. Crazy for You
05. Souvlaki Space Station
06. Star Roving
07. Blue Skied an’ Clear
08. Sugar for the Pill
09. Alison
10. When the Sun Hits
11. 40 Days
12. Golden Hair [Syd Barrett/James Joyce cover]

Final Thoughts: I’m glad Synästhesie survived the pandemic, that they’re still going strong, and that they pull in a good mix of psychedelic bands from across the spectrum. I think it’s great to stretch their bounds and bring in a somewhat wider range of artists. That said, it’s hard for me to compare my experience this year with the loaded lineup I saw in 2019. There were also four stages that year compared to three this year. Of course personal taste and prioritization make a difference, but even that year, I complained that the second day didn’t live up to the first. This year I had more problems around overcrowding and simply not being able to get into the smaller stages. I might simply be more sensitive than I was three years ago, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Even taking all that into consideration, I was less impressed than I wish I was. I was bored by too many bands relying too much on backing tracks and not really using the stage to its full effect. And again, the mixing could’ve been better, especially with the vocals. That’s a common complaint for me, especially at festivals, but it really makes a difference for me. I had a good time, but it really could’ve been better for the money.

Asteroid #4: A-
Tess Parks: B-
Tempers: C-
Roller Derby: B
Slowdive: A

P.S. Thanks to Luisa!

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Synästhesie 2022 Day 1

Venue: Kulturbrauerei
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 18 November 2022

Synästhesie was the first (and so far, only) large-scale music festival I’ve attended in Germany, and despite the flaws, I had a great time and intended to return. It didn’t happen in 2020, and I ended up returning my ticket in 2021 (due to covid anxiety, not a refusal to get vaccinated!). This time, despite some continued but milder covid anxiety as well as social anxiety and stress, I decided to push myself and give it a try.

I showed up a bit later than intended and found a long line waiting to get their wristbands. Lesson learned: always show up early on the first day when there’s a one-time check-in. And then I had to contend with the coat check being by the Maschinenhaus and Kesselhaus, but half the bands I wanted to see being in Frannz. All the venues are in the Kulturbrauerei complex, but it’s about a five-minute walk between the two main areas, and in temperatures below zero, that was not a fun journey to make four times, especially with the roving hordes of drunken revelers taking advantage of the half-prepared booths for the impending Christmas market that takes place in the same space.

I missed the first act I wanted to see, Emerson Snowe, by a longshot, but was still able to catch Gloria de Oliveira at Frannz. She sang, played keyboards, and triggered the samples, while her rather timid-seeming band played steady bass, minimalist drums, and ethereal guitar. I was reminded of the softer, lighter moments of The Cocteau Twins, particularly in Oliveira’s strong and idiosyncratic voice. I was enjoying the set until they played a couple songs that were so slow and sparse that the crowd got bored and started talking over the music. Admittedly, they were losing my attention as well. They seemed to leave the stage early after apparently misunderstanding the festival staff telling them to play their last song.

I trekked back to the main venue and tried to find a spot in the Kesselhaus to see Tricky. He took his time getting on stage and was accompanied by a highly rhythmic guitarist, a very funky and active drummer, and a vocalist that he let take more parts than he sang himself. In fact, it might’ve been a full ten minutes before he sang or said anything. I loved their grooves but found the set confusing. When Tricky sang, I could barely make out a single word, and he spent so much time simply moving around without apparently doing anything that I felt like I was missing something. On top of that, he seemed not to be having the best night. He cut one song off after just about a minute, and not long later demanded the stage lights to be turned off, leaving him and the band to play in near darkness. It was a weird vibe. I’ve never quite been able to get into Massive Attack or any other trip-hop band, and this didn’t help me get any closer.

I left early and went back to Frannz to see Sonic Boom, AKA Peter Kember, onetime member of Spacemen 3. Despite having just released an album with Panda Bear of Animal Collective, he said he would be playing his 2020 album All Things Being Equal straight through with no encore. I thought he might be joking, but as he started into the third song, I realized he wasn’t. He appeared with just his electronics and a laser light show, so there wasn’t exactly much happening, and I hadn’t found the album particularly captivating, anyway. It was rather crowded and I was bored, so I bailed.

I took a chance and went up to the Maschinenhaus to see Suns of Thyme. It was also quite crowded, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the music. The band have been on hiatus for six years and this was their first show back together. By no means would that have been apparent from the performance: they were tight and full of energy. They played psychedelic hard rock with great driving grooves. Each of the instrumentalists played solidly and the balance among them was good. I was impressed.

When they finished, I came back downstairs to the Kesselhaus to see Die Nerven. I’d expected them to already be well into their set, but they were at least 20 minutes late. They eventually appeared while Beethoven’s “Ode an die Freude” played over the PA. They launched into “Europa” from their recent self-titled album, and appeared to be playing the album straight through. They were loud, forceful, and taut, which I intially found intimidating. I found myself enjoying the instrumental work more than I’d expected, and the heavy and dark energy about them made more sense when I realized their lyrics were all piercing socio-political critiques. The songs rocked hard and I let myself get into it. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a noise punk band like that!

The band cajoled the audience for being tame and sleepy, but I quickly realized that I was also quite tired, perhaps in part from seeing Stereolab the night before. The intensity took a toll on me, too. So I left early.

Gloria de Oliveira: B-
Tricky: C
Suns of Thyme: A-
Die Nerven: B+

Friday, November 18, 2022

Stereolab / Julien Gasc - Live 2022.11.17 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

On the same night I saw Michael Rother at Synästhesie in 2019, I also saw Stereolab. Around that time, they’d reissued most of their back catalog. Since then, they still haven’t made any new music, but they’ve released two new double-disc editions of the Switched On series – Electrically Possessed last year, mostly covering latter-day obscurities (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and Pulse of the Early Brain this year, which is more of a mixed bag, but still quite good.

I couldn’t figure out if there was an opener, but unfortunately, there was. Now, I’ve seen some great opening bands in my time (I mean, Chicks on Speed opening for Rother just last month was awesome!), so I usually like to take the chance if I haven’t done my research. But just in case, I usually do a bit of research so I can skip things I’m reasonably confident I won’t enjoy (e.g. The Smashing Pumpkins’ 2012 tour opener, whose name I don’t recall and I didn’t even mention in the review!). And in this case, I think the less I say about Julien Gasc, the better. He appeared alone, without even an instrument, and sang lounge pop songs without much movement. I guess he had a decent voice. That’s probably the only positive thing I can say, so I’ll stop there.

Thankfully Stereolab was another matter. They started with the bouncy but somewhat unexciting “Neon Beanbag”, but then picked things up with “Low Fi” from the 1992 EP of the same name, recently reissued (finally!) on the aforementioned Switched On Volume 5: Pulse of the Early Brain. The rendition was relatively tame, but had the classic cozy groove and familiar needling guitar and crunchy keyboard sounds. This set the mold for the night: intermittent album cuts interspersed among a wealth of relative obscurities, most of which can be found on the various Switched On releases. It’s almost like they were trying to do the opposite of their 2019 tour, where their choices formed a bell curve over their discography and mostly focused on the core albums. This time, they overwhelmingly picked from the first few and last few years of their original career. Given the recent releases, that makes sense, although they still haven’t reissued their last few albums. And since every single one of the early tracks that they played was a jam, I’m certainly not gonna complain.

That said, some songs worked better than others. “Harmonium” was already a strong, upbeat rocker, and then Tim Gane tapped a pedal that activated a loud, swirling overdrive that shook the building, reaching levels of intensity that weren’t even present on the recorded version. But while I liked the idea of trying to bring the looping vocal layers of “I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)” to the stage, it didn’t quite fulfill the vision. Bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimera and keyboardist Joe Watson each added vocal parts, but neither of their voices hits the same way Mary Hansen’s did, and both were just a bit too low and dull in the mix. (The mix overall, including the backing vocals, was quite a bit better than the 2019 Synästhesie show, but still not perfect.) Performing the full four-part suite of “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” was another bold choice, and while I like the twists and turns in the recording, on stage it felt a bit jarring and even tiring by the end. But “U.H.F. - MFP” and “Mountain” were both great rockers in their early style, and “Super-Electric” was another absolute peak performance. The perfect, locked-in groove of all the instruments was a delight to bathe in while Lætitia Sadier charmingly sang about nuclear apocalypse. They extended the song into an improvised jam, then brought it down to almost nothing before tearing into another round of the chorus.

The encore was also well-chosen: the strangely sweet b-side “Allures”, followed by another raucous rocker extolling anarchism (“French Disko”), and then an extended space jam. Ironically, “Simple Headphone Mind” was originally Nurse with Wound’s cut-up reworking of “The Long Hair of Death”. But they didn’t play “Long Hair”. They played “Simple Headphone Mind”, including the slightly disturbing, time-stretched vocal samples repeating the title. It started as a kosmische jam based around Watson’s synth noodling and guitar riffing from Gane and Sadier, but increasingly got wilder and weirder, eventually culminating in a heavy, driving version of the final section of “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh’”. That was an excellent way to end the show!

I wouldn’t could call Stereolab’s performance incredible, but it was impressive and a lot of fun to watch them dance through the many sides of their career, even if I wish they’d’ve played literally anything from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), still my favorite of their albums. The musicianship was great, and the balance of styles was well-managed. They gave time to their more formalistic and precise pop experimentation as well as their rawer bursts of energy and protest, although I wish they’d been a bit noisier and less shy with the distortion pedals. I imagine that a casual fan might have been a bit confused by the scattershot approach to their discography and sound, but for a dedicated listener, this was quite a treat.

01. Neon Beanbag
02. Low Fi
03. Eye of the Volcano
04. Refractions in the Plastic Pulse
05. U.H.F. - MFP
06. Miss Modular
07. Mountain
08. Delugeoisie
09. Harmonium
10. I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)
11. Pack Yr Romantic Mind
12. Super-Electric

13. Allures
14. French Disko
15. Simple Headphone Mind → Excursions into “Oh, A-Oh” [second half]

Stereolab: B+
Julien Gasc: F

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa and Uwe!