Gravetemple / Russell Haswell
Café Oto; London, England
This wasn’t one of those experiments where someone senior was asked to respond to a new piece of music for questionable comedy value. But if it was, this definitely would have been a choice opportunity. After I moved back to London last year, my dad and I made a habit of going to the occasional gig together — it’s a chance for me to catch up on some of the acts he listened to in his youth, and for him to become acquainted with musicians new to the scene, relatively speaking. In fact, it was my folks’ vinyl collection that got me hooked on music in the to begin with — I recall being utterly enthralled when I was a kid, listening to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Grace Jones records as they spun on our haggard turntable.
Gravetemple was probably not the most sensible concert to have chosen for our most recent outing. But having said that, the generation gap may have proved almost irrelevant as Attila is closer to my old man’s age than he is my own. Where the curiosity lies is in the music the former is responsible for. The supergroup got together in 2006, and consists of metal-drone master craftsman Stephen O’Malley, prolific multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and the former Mayhem vocalist himself, who also contributed to a number of sunn 0))) offerings. Earlier this year, the collective’s 2008 LP Ambient/Ruin got a re-release on O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint, hence this triumphant reformation and mini-tour of Europe.
The gig was sold out, and as we stood outside in the evening rain, taking in the deafening sound check, we made bets on whether Café Oto would be able to maintain its license after the show. Additional speakers had been stacked up so high behind the band that the interior was almost unrecognizable. So loud was the group’s collective output that the windows rattled uncontrollably in their panes. We spied one of the ladies at the bar chalking up a sign underneath the cocktail menu: EARPLUGS. 50P.
Once the sound check came to a bludgeoning close, the doors were opened and people filled the place. Russell Haswell unveiled an arsenal of equipment at his makeshift stage — there is no elevated platform, so those at the very front were only a couple of feet away from the stacks of speakers that surrounded them. As intrigued as I was to find out what my father thought of Gravetemple, I also wanted to discover what he made of Haswell, who is renowned for exemplifying the very harshest of live noise. Whereas O’Malley and co. rely on long-form feedback, resonance and distortion set-pieces to create walls of pandemonium, Haswell builds, crumples, and shifts a range of frequencies in forcing out his unpredictably savage display.
Dad took the whole thing in stride; pint of Helle Weisse in hand, looking on curiously as Haswell approached his machines. The Coventry artist started by building a gloomy atmosphere with white noise and church bells. While the volume was felt simmering with crackle, it wasn’t fully tested until a few minutes into the set — the audience could taste the potential, and waited patiently for it to be unleashed.
A sonic magma of fierce mechanical gush hurtled out of the speakers, accompanied by blistering snaps, ruptured snares, and a screaming pulse. Each variation was jack-hammered through a coarse of frequency shifts and sporadic temp thrusts — the impact was incredible. It was one of the most fascinating noise performances I have witnessed, and my dad seemed to agree. Though he had never seen anything quite like it before, the set reminded him of the festivals he had been to in his teens; Stonehenge, Knebworth, etc. Essentially this was nothing new, but the experience had been refined and intensified, making it more powerful and captivating — Haswell was indeed spectacular.
By the time Gravetemple took to their positions, we were as close as we could get to the center in the now packed-out café. Attilah began his vocal gymnastics and for minutes at a time, the high pitched ringing of O’Malley’s guitar raced through Ambarchi’s gear. It felt like the sound was dialing directly into my nervous system and pinning me to the spot; there was nowhere to move, no means of escape. People were standing in a kind of transfixed cramp — proof that nobody had bothered with the earplugs — until the strings collided once again to create a shuddering drop; Atillah hummed and murmured and moaned at his workstation, apparently hypnotized by the aural forcefield his group were creating. The set was spellbinding; more of an addition to the Ambient/Ruin material than a reenactment of it, though the shifts in pace, mood, and style slowly emerged over the evening’s course.
So it seems the exploration of volume tolerance isn’t so fresh after all — it was very much a part of the gigs my dad had gone to as a youngster. But technology, low ceilings, and a seeming desire to break a record for noise complaints had pushed those boundaries further than either of us had ever experienced. This was the first of a two-day residency at Oto. “Would you go and see them again?” I asked as we walked back through the soaked streets. “Without a doubt, son,” was all I could make out through the tinnitus and aftershock.
Roundhouse; London, UK
After years of doubt and suspense, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual was released in April, and its delivery did more than satisfy the gnawing need that had been building among their fans in the seven years since their release of genre-defining masterpiece Silent Shout. Not only is the highly conceptual album more than an hour-and-a-half long, it was released alongside a manifesto, comic strip, and rare interviews from the band laying bare the radical feminist and egalitarian principles the LP espouses. How they would bring this vision, a radical departure from their previous work, to their live show was a mystery. Would they have a “band”? Would their faces, for once, be visible? Would they just throw some bell hooks quotes up on a screen and walk away?
The Knife’s performance at London’s Roundhouse on May 9 was more spectacular and satisfying than I had dreamed. Their opener, simply advertised as “DEEP AEROBICS,” was a buff, black drag queen wearing a dreamcatcher as a necklace and a long white wig, who comedically worked out the crowd with hip and rib isolations and synchronized jumping as thumping electro played. If this seemed an odd choice for a band whose last round of shows had more in common with a horror movie than a jazzercise class, the inconsistency was quickly compensated for by their performance.
Shaking The Habitual is explicitly about breaking down our assumed perceptions in order to open ourselves up to different truths, and that’s exactly what The Knife’s show accomplished. They came onstage with a band consisting of five or six people in shiny hooded cloaks, playing, shockingly, what seemed like honest-to-god instruments. This in itself put this show in a different realm than the Silent Shout tour, which found Karen and Olaf standing alone between four screens of trippy projections. This time, one of the performers was playing an unrecognizable, custom-made, bass-like instrument that looked like a sawed-off part of a tree laid horizontal, and was used to replicate the unsettling strings on experimental track “A Cherry On Top.” It got better — at the conclusion of the song this instrument was flipped over to reveal a drum machine on the other side, which was played for the next few tracks.
But we hadn’t seen much yet: after a few songs as a “band,” the cloaks came off, revealing brightly colored sequined outfits, while Karen, Olaf, and cronies assembled themselves for what would be a nearly hourlong dance routine, while their music played in the background. Though they clearly aren’t professional dancers, their performances had obviously required a lot of training and forethought. The choreography riffed on everything from musicals like West Side Story to the Nutcracker to traditional African dance, creating a disconcerting post-modern atmosphere while both older tracks and new singles like “Full Of Fire” blasted into the incredible space, sounding like a showtune from hell. To me, this was the most important part of the show. As a former high school dancer, I’ve been mystified by the lack of dance in underground and DIY art spaces in recent years, so to see a band that is creating some of the most interesting and risky music today make such perfect use of it was awe-inspiring. Aside from the theatrics, to have the whole band, who we’d just seen in a traditional live music set-up, abandon their instruments as tracks were obviously played back out of their control certainly shook up at least a few long-standing ideas of what it means to play live as an electronic artist, a debate that has been raging for decades and has resurfaced recently in light of the EDM explosion.
But The Knife are never satisfied with one interpretation of anything, and what it became clear they were saying with their intentionally glitzy set was to force upon the audience the realization that what we consider truth is always a matter of perception, and human interaction always a performance, be it of your gender, sexuality, or belief in governments, economies, and traditions. Just as The Knife seamlessly transitioned from their seemingly sincere act as a “band” playing instruments to their winking experimentation with artificiality of show, what the experience was meant to teach us was that a world where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, and class are equally permeable is possible. But most incredibly, none of this intellectual politicizing felt oppressive — to the contrary, it felt like a celebration. It was no accident that they ended their set with a rave-infused version of “Silent Shout,” thanked the crowd warmly and then left us to dance to their DJ’s beats, while the crescent of lights at the beautiful Roundhouse lit the audience with rainbows. After a show like that, what else was there to do but revel in the ecstasy of breaking down the walls that oppress us — whether politically, physically, psychically or emotionally? In seven years, The Knife has gone from icy, creepy, and detached to sparkling with warmth and humanity, succeeding ecstatically in giving us hope that we can still try to change the world.
Lincoln Hall; Chicago, IL
Do you have any idea of the aural impetus required to cause a power failure through volume? It’s hard. Really. Fucking. Hard. Professional venues are designed, and staffed, in order to accommodate a frat-sized party of decibels ransacking eardrums and the concert hall. Boris is the only band I’ve ever known that are notorious for their ability to rend PA systems and power supplies apart, and they’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. In their maturity the trio refined and polished their performance into a seamless assault of Japanese metal, the Ghost of Power Failures Past felt like it was looming over the stage, waiting to take the sound system in its jaws and shake the life out of it. Boris chose Lincoln Hall for a two-night stint of shows, the first covering their “classics” (I’m feign to use that term in that all of their songs play like an assault on the listener), and the second an experimental set trying out new material.
Boris’ set was exhausting even when viewed from 20 feet up in the balcony. They played for two hours straight, with maybe a couple of minute-long reprieves peppered in. My favorite to watch was Atsuo, the drummer. He had hair down well past his legs while sitting down, with eyeliner and neon lights all over him. Wata, the wildly skilled guitarist wielding a Les Paul Custom, who also happens to be an attractive Japanese woman, had an enclave of sweaty, long-haired dudes in the pit who all looked like they had seen more than one tentacle monster in their life. Bluh. Anyway, the show was incredible, one of the most enjoyable abrasive concert experiences in recent memory.
Purity Ring / Blue Hawaii
The Metro; Chicago, IL
Purity Ring have mastered the dangling-keys sleight. Similar to an irreverent toddler or an idiot crow, I’m easily distracted by bright lights and pretty colors (and booze, plenty of booze). When you reduce Purity Ring to their essence, the entire musical aspect is Corin Roddick on Ableton with a synth and Megan James flitting around on stage singing. In any other case, this would be boring as shit. However, they bring one of the best sets of dangling keys to the table: a massive branching network of 20 light-up cocoons responding to both music and the movements of Megan James. After four or so gin and tonics, the Purity Ring live experience felt weirdly similar to when I would get too hyperactive when I was 5 and my grandma would put on Fantasia. In both instances, I shut up immediately and watched.
Unfortunately for opener Blue Hawaii, also consisting of a dude (Alexander Cowan) on synth/sampler and a chick (Raphaelle Standell-Preston) running around singing, they did not have a wild light-up tree to distract people from the fact their show is basically a DJ set. Ergo, the experience felt like a lanky guy who looked weirdly similar to DJ Qualls and a girl who looked like one of the violinists in Arcade Fire trying to fill out The Metro, one of the best live venues in Chicago. The effect was underwhelming.
Purity Ring, however, made up for the boring-ass first 40 minutes of my time spent at this show. The crowd was way more eclectic than I’d envisioned. I was expecting a herd of attractive vacuous faces clad in overpriced neons from American Apparel; what I got was these same people interspersed with dudes in True Religion jeans and Wrigleyville beezys who look like they have memberships at Flirty Girl Fitness. I swear to god there was a couple in their 50s. Whatever. Anyway, the trap bass rattle, epileptic lights, and Megan James wandering around the stage in some sort of weird wedding dress (she makes her own clothes; I had an internal dialogue the entire show over whether or not she made it) kept me entertained for an hour, which is all I ever wanted. Oh, and there was a Soulja Boy cover. Let that be the rest of my life: Soulja Boy covers and Blue Hawaiians.
Wonder Ballroom; Portland, OR
I’d better just go ahead and admit that I fucking love Spiritualized. If J. Spaceman were to walk onstage and sing the alphabet, I’d punch myself in the face. Irrational enough? There’s a certain mood here that I’m trying to capture and make the metaphorical crux for this review.
I like to show up early, because I like to see the other kinds of people that show up early. Plus I don’t have a lot of friends. And I’m short, so venue floor space gains the price of Times Square reality once a 6-foot-5-type jerk-off tries to squeeze their ass right in front of me. I assumed watching Spiritualized wasn’t going to be the kind of activity during which I would dance senselessly with a bevy of strangers, and with the exception of a drunk and/or shrooming girl with great hippie dance moves who knew all of the words, I was right.
So here’s the kind of people who would show up early to a Spiritualized show: other short people who really like this band, “gear” dudes who love taking pictures of other people’s pedal boards (p.s. this shit is boring, no one cares, stop), mid-30 year olds who like to talk about their interactions with “famous” people (one lady went from some dude in Cake, to Wayne Coyne, to Gus Van Zandt in the same breath), some other folks with no friends who were actually nice to talk to (we spoke of rent prices in various cities), and people who love living their concert experience through a fucking iPhone (also, stop, no one cares, etc.). Also, the venue decided to get its fog machine on nice and early, and nothing is weirder than hanging out in a pre-fabbed fog room in full light with strangers.
I take a lot of vitamin-D to help deal with the sun-less Portland winter, and I also listen to a lot of feel-good music. I mean, all music experiences should be feel good, and I’ve not had one in recent memory that wasn’t, but hearing J. Spaceman and co. (which included the incredibly enthusiastic drumming of Oneida’s Kid Millions) play a cycle of songs that included “Shine A Light,” Rated X,” and “Let It Flow” kind of compounded all of my bullshit into one burst of physical joy. Not only that, but these were songs that weren’t played the last time I saw Spiritualized about a year ago at the same place, and thank god for that. Even my fan boy-ness isn’t impervious to a recreation tour, and this set was nothing like the last one I saw. I mentioned Kid Millions above, but it looked as if Mr. Spaceman had kicked everyone out of last year’s band except the guitar player Doggen, (who looks to be a close friend).
Last year’s arrangement had everyone spaced out into a semi-circle, with one half wearing all-black, the other white, the presentation a part of a post-album tour process. This arrangement had everyone jammed together as close as possible, and felt like a new group of musicians presenting fresh interactions. The free-jazz blowouts were frequent and varied. The guitars of J. Spaceman have straps, which he doesn’t use because he sits down, and my favorite signifier of sound assault came when he leaned back and held his guitar towards his amp, strumming the neck while everyone else took it as a sign to go all, “Pound! Pound! Pound! Errereerrrrr! Thud! Thud! Thud!” It drowned out the Wayne Coyne BFF-groupie lady and her annoying penchant to snap about a thousand iPhone photos right next to my head, an act which more or less spoiled my closed eyes enjoyment of the quiet-yet-sporadic breakdown of “Rated X.” Why do people do that? Can’t you talk about the years you used to be cool at home? Once again, vindictive sounding, but my garden-variety hipster ass dressed up for this shit; favorite button-up shirt, clean brown blazer; I take my selfie-dates seriously.
Did I mention that Kid Millions is a fucking boss? I once saw him play drums/hold together a Plastic Crimewave Sound Guitarkestra, which was about 30 or so guitar players jammed into New York City’s Cake Shop all playing “E” (or “in E,” or “maybe E,” or “E-ish”) for half an hour. That guy has energy; something of which I was afraid would overshadow the group. But it enunciated parts, especially the freak-outs. I didn’t imagine ever seeing this guy play with Spiritualized, but now it makes sense. He’s been playing with Yo La Tengo recently, as well as a number of other groups. Flat out, he’s a good musician who melds well with others.
Some songs were rearranged to the point of being almost unidentifiable. They ended the pre-encore set with “Take Your Time,” which is more or less a segway song on Lazer Guided Melodies, but as they did it, a great finale. Better than the single song, semi-reluctant encore of “Walking With Jesus.” Last year’s set ended with an exhaustive 40-minute “Cop Shoot Cop,” an experienced I was enthralled by but happy to leave in its time and place. The end of this show didn’t have that same amount of gravitas due to such, but it seems that J. Spaceman isn’t the kind of performer who looks to redo on past successes. Enough of an indication would be that they started on a new song rather than “Hey Jane” or some other album opener. In total I think I counted three new songs (memory’s a little fuzzy, and the internet tells me so).
I wish I could end this with some sort of great summarizing line, or clever coda, or other writing device that wraps up some logical conclusion, but I have none. Memories don’t work in that way; I don’t have a succinct way to encapsulate my thoughts with endpoints. I’ll still be thinking about this show, thinking about listening to music in the dark, thinking about poor attempts to turn off my collective frustration, whatever related comes around. We all want to think of ourselves as better than the adversary (in my case, the people I found myself so annoyed with), but now I realize how much I missed by vexing over the problem so much.
Shepherd's Bush Empire; London, England
“I’m feeling a little out of sorts,” Channy Leaneagh muttered after “Fist Teeth Money,” the bass humming in the air after a delightful rendition. I couldn’t help but feel deflated after hearing the lead vocalist divulge feelings of disappointment about her performance that night. In the wuthering throes of spectacle, Leaneagh appeared assertive, sparkling, and aligned with the rest of the band, but after each combined rush of percussion at the end of a song, she would apologize for how nervous she felt. The Empire was packed to the rafters, a sold-out show for an act with just one album to their name, but who come with substantial celebrity props.
I followed C-Monster’s lead and took my young lady to the gig, or rather, she took me. I wasn’t too geared up about seeing Poliça live because of how their debut, Give You The Ghost, comes across; it’s eerie, illustrious, and beautiful pop that’s so personal it sounds purpose-built for small venues and private playback. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgement call, perhaps not; “There are so many of you,” Leaneagh said somewhere between one auto-tuned frenzy and another. The band played for just more than an hour, which was enough time to hammer every track on their album along with a couple of new songs, much to my gal’s delight. There were screams, whistles, and rapturous applause, but very little movement from the crowd, which was transfixed on the singer as she pranced awkwardly amongst the bass player and two drummers. She seemed fragile, but constantly trying to overcome her anxiety by belting most of the material in a different key to the record, which sounded bold and spirited on tracks like “Darkstar” and “I See My Mother,” but fell considerably flat on the much-anticipated “Lay Your Cards Out”.
We had seats on the first upper level, which gave us a near perfect view — the Empire is an impressive venue, large enough to hold 2,000 people while retaining a degree of intimacy. Only on this occasion, the most intimate moments were shared by Leaneagh and the band, as opposed to the performers and their audience; the singer was so unsettled she darted off stage after the encore without so much as a “Goodnight, London!” They played a new track to finish, which proceeded a gorgeous a capella version of “When I Was A Young Girl”. Those two songs remain our personal highlights of the evening, and a glimmer of promise that Poliça’s new material is going to live up to the growing reputation they have hurriedly crafted — I just hope Leaneagh is ready for it.
[Photos: Carolina Faruolo]
Bad Credit No Credit / Blood Not Paint
The Bowery Electric; New York, NY
Of the innumerable “up-and-coming,” “rising,” “crossover-potential,” “omg like soOoOOo cool” bands that inhabit Brooklyn, many of them fall into one of two categories: those who work hard to attain a tightly controlled and hip aesthetic (though their success-rate varies widely) and those who rebel against this by being as bland and apathetic as possible (see: most bands involving four straight white dudes playing “garage rock”). Bonus points for those who manage to do both!
Blood Not Paint, who opened at Bowery Electric last Thursday, are a decent example of a band that tries a bit too hard to do something I can’t quite figure out. Although they were killing it on the matching black tights and creepy face paint front, their music wasn’t as interesting as their outfits suggested, which was stuck somewhere between power pop and post-hair metal. Although their sound was tight, the whole thing was a bit too much of a put on for me. It was more enjoyable to watch them on the screens by the bar than actually standing in front of them.
But it was cool; I was there to see Bad Credit No Credit, a band with more brass instruments than a high school marching band, a charmingly manic lead singer, and zero pretense. Lead singer Carrie-Ann alternates between playing jazzy, Baltic-influenced horn hooks on sax (where she’s joined by a trumpet, another sax, and two trombones) and singing in a voice that can jump from sultry to screaming in a matter of seconds. She is a total Performer, and her facial expressions convey as much about her dedication to drama as her tendency to unexpectedly launch herself into the crowd and play her sax from the floor. Their set was ecstatic and the crowd responded in kind, doing the Charleston, skanking, and spastically dancing in ways that most New York concert attendees would rather not be seen participating. They are always a great time, and the new material from their 2012 album, The Whole Buffalo, didn’t disappoint. (It should also be mentioned that their lead singer’s side project Clapperclaw is incredibly worth checking out — creepy looped jazz vocals with backing electronics and, or course, more horns that evoke a dream sequence from a Lynch film.)
Guardian Alien sadly cancelled, but it was a night well spent anyway, or at least I seemed to think so, as my night spiraled into raved-out oblivion at a strange Puerto Rican club where the only reasonably priced drinks were electric blue and came in fishbowls. I’m sure the members of BCNC went home and hung out with their cats or practiced the clarinet. They seem like they’ve got their shit together.
[Photo: Emily Wheeler]
Oneohtrix Point Never
The Institute of Contemporary Art; Boston, MA
I visit Boston, my old home, a lot. I have friends there still in college; my old school is there; and my favorite bar is there. Needless to say, there are a lot of memories in that city. But I also feel a personal sense of decay every time I visit, and I never felt it more than this weekend when I saw Oneohtrix Point Never — one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (but more on that later). When I walked into my old bar — my former go-to spot to take dates, all exes now — to get a drink, the usual bartender (Michael) was still there and instantly recognized me, but for most of the new staff, I was a stranger where I used to be a regular. It was also my first time in town since The Boston Phoenix stopped publishing, which is where I got my first job working at a print publication (I was spending my time last week screen-capping my writing on their website before they all turn into a big 404 error), and later, at an after party from a memorial for a friend who had passed away last year, I bumped into someone I had worked with in college. He was embarrassed because he couldn’t remember my name, which I said was nothing to feel bad about: I couldn’t remember his either.
Not to say any of these feelings are unique; in fact, they are extremely mundane. But while none of it was at the forefront of my mind when I went to see Oneohtrix Point Never at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, that changed when Daniel Lopatin, a master at playing with decaying memory, started performing. Anyone who has listened to Replica knows he has a way of injecting these thoughts into your mind, subconsciously or not. The performance, titled Reliquary House, with visuals by Nate Boyce, has been done before at MoMA, but we were given a huge shock right beforehand: The program director made his announcements and then casually ended with, “I just talked to Dan, and he said he has mostly new material tonight.” Before that massive news could even really be processed by any of us, Lopatin and Boyce came out and started.
A reliquary is a sort of shrine that houses ancient relics, and in this case, these relics are commercials: bruised, beaten, broken, and warped in all their beauty. And, with the all-new material (a new album is coming soon, but no details have yet been revealed), Oneohtrix Point Never has progressed the style of Replica beyond anything I could have imagined. The music is a massive collage of memories that are at times stunningly beautiful, sad, dissonant, and spiritual, all of it paired perfectly with Nate Boyce’s hyperreal digital sculptures projected above them. The pairing is very appropriate due to the way OPN’s new songs sound so three-dimensional, ebbing and flowing from overwhelmingly dense to airy and smooth. This time around, he gives the samples more room to breathe, with moments of tremendously heavy beats that just explode out of the mix. Ghostly samples of choirs haunt tracks, and to see him trigger samples in his intense way is genuinely exciting to watch.
One of the major questions I had before going to the show may be a little inevitable. Daniel Lopatin is perhaps the most influential person on the vaporwave scene (it has evolved tremendously, but Chuck Person’s eccojams still remain a blueprint), and I was hoping to see if there was a reaction or a response to it in his new music. And there is. It’s difficult to describe how, and it might just be me hearing him live again with the reappropriative musical context of 2012 in mind, but artists like New Dreams Ltd. (Macintosh Plus) and James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual felt like reference points in the new music but absent when he finished the set with “Nassau” and (an awesomely dissonant version of) “Child Soldier.” The perfect moment for me, though, came roughly 30 minutes in: after triggering a choral sample over a sea of throbbing percussion, Lopatin actually sat on the floor, back against his table of electronics (and the audience), and looked up at the projector, watching, just his head in view. For just a moment, he was soaking everything in, just as we were.
The first time I saw Oneohtrix Point Never play was about two months before Replica was released. I spoke to him after the show and told him I’d been listening to my promo of the album, and I honestly thought it was the best album of the year. Three months and one perfect score later, TMT named it just that. It’s still early, and we can’t know for sure what the new album will really be like, but after leaving the show with a new perspective on contemporary electronic music, on this city, and maybe a little on myself too, I know one thing for sure: Something is coming from Oneohtrix Point Never, and it is going to be huge.
Devendra Banhart / Swans
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY
My girl and I enter to a quaint Devendra Banhart squeaking out Spanish licks and gently plucking strings for a shoulder-to-shoulder, swaying crowd half-repeating the song. He stops, casually speaks his mind to the crowd following meaning to the song just sung, which I hate, but whatever, and provides basis for the next that has seamlessly started playing. With charm and politeness, he croons through seven or eight more songs. Just he and his guitar. I typically have no patience for this kinda stuff, but he convinced me through heckling humor or nostalgia. Maybe it was nostalgia. And he’s funny, and he cuts, and he thanks Swans deeply, and we wait for 45 minutes, as it takes him five to exit the stage and 40 for Swans to dawn it.
Once the Swans flood onto the stage, their introduction is exactly the wall of sound you expect, and my girl is standing 3 feet back with a smile. And as it builds through drums, slide guitar, staggering bass, harsh guitar notes, random persecution, bow-noise, and cries/chants, I realize the whole stage is openly microphone’d. I found this out during the hushed moments as Michael Gira softly (yet through the speakers clearly) directs and perfects the sound emulsion. And this is how the entire two-and-a-half hours proceed: an entirely pleasure-driven live set centering his idea of what Brooklyn sounded like via Swans. Oh, shit that’s terribly bland. I’m saying the carefully crafted egotistical measure that Gira brings to noise and sounds and Swans, including the irresistibly flagrant takeover of marketability in the Brooklyn area (see: Girls), provided a crushing experience both for the drabness of passerbyers in the area, and those forced to this location by Swans fan-dom. The blend was a beautiful awakening for the all-encompassing, endearingly prophetic in might and will and visual thought.
Tate Modern; London, England
When The Mix was released in 1991, it created an irreversible divide between fans who were willing to accept new material, regardless of the form it took, and those who were disgusted by the very thought of a pseudo best-of. Throughout a sweeping gape of the 1970s, Kraftwerk had positioned themselves at the forefront of electronic music in using synthesizers and drum machines to create compositions that set a benchmark for the hordes of aspiring electronic acts that were to follow. The Mix was seen as a turning point because it saw the group demonstrating a desire to revisit past material and identify with their music through a new context. Although this may appear to have been industrious at the time, by that period, their back-catalog had achieved cult-classic status, which meant they were altering their history in ways most fans were not ready for. The Mix was widely shunned by dedicated followers and critics alike, not only because it saw the band looking backward, but because Kraftwerk’s ‘greatest hits’ were being tampered with.
Announcing the leap from analogue to digital recording on the album also symbolized a desire to drive forward technologically — ambition derived from intent to reshape the dimensions of those classics in a way that should have improved sound quality and allowed for fans to experience Kraftwerk in a contemporary light. That never really happened though. Despite the fact that a number of tracks were subject to a dance floor-oriented shift, the mastering of the record left plenty to be desired. It sounded flat, half-baked. The group’s signature tracks had been sacrificed on the alter of remix without yielding particularly pleasing results, and that was enough to push the hardcore over the edge. The Mix consequentially went down as an unjustifiable failure — a step in the wrong direction. So why would anyone in their right mind chose to see that troubled regress performed in its entirety over any of the master works?
For a generation of listeners born after the heyday of Trans-Europe Express, and who grew up in a world coming to terms with the scope of electronic music and its capabilities, The Mix was a solid introduction to the efforts of the very outfit that had kicked things off way back when. The album worked as an embodiment of manhandled success that shed light on previous material in a way that demonstrated Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider’s willingness to experiment — all this at a time when the remix was a standard format on cassette and CD singles. Indeed, this was my initial experience with the band, and one of the central reasons I chose The Mix as the album to see performed live at Kraftwerk’s recent Tate Residency.
The London shows took place 10 years after the group’s most recent release, Tour De France, and showcased every other studio effort from 1974’s Autobahn hence — eight albums, eight nights. Each performance promised two hours of music, including every track from the album of the day plus a selection of hits with improvisational fragments and state-of-the-art 3D visual effects. The concept sounded amazing when it was announced, and despite the fact that Kraftwerk had already conducted similar performances in New York and Berlin, when the London tickets were released, the Tate website crashed at the hands of rampant admirers desperate to spectate.
The Turbine Hall is a cold and hollow space that works tremendously well as a makeshift stage. As we approached, the chimney protruding from the main building seemed so fitting amid the grey clouds that shuffled overhead it might easily have played a forgotten factory wherein a collection of neglected showroom dummies had been left to decay, only to come alive at night and perform electronic music for a starstruck selection. I had read a number of reviews about the concerts leading up to Night Seven and had a good idea of what to expect: 3D glasses, a black cushion, and a sold-out show that gradually shapeshifts through the album’s tracklist before spinning out into a panoply of hits. However, nothing can quite prepare for a 120-minute spectacle fronted by four men wearing illuminated lycra bodysuits, standing in front of their keyboards and pummeling their audience with cyberling techno classics.
The lights went down and a stern robotic voice projected over the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen” (something in German… something in English), “K R A F T W E R K” — the black drape covering the stage fell to the ground and “The Robots” burst across the venue. It might have been a pumped-up version of the original, but it sounded impeccable with the surround sound set up. The 3D spectacle displayed vintage cuts of mannequins moving their limbs slowly to the thumping drawl of the 1970s classic in an overwhelming surge of nostalgia as Ralph Hütter gingerly manipulated his keys alongside new recruits through the track’s iconic refrain.
After a beautiful rendition of “Computer Love” the momentum of “Autobahn” started up. It’s a track I have been told was revolutionary when it first hit the shelves on vinyl, for if you placed your speakers in the right place when listening to it, the fact that you could hear the cars zooming from one side of the room to the other was considered a mesmerizing party trick — all you had to do was shut your eyes and pretend you were on some sort of mad electro highway. I hadn’t imagined that shutting my eyes would be in the cards this evening, as the 3D visuals were supposed to be a component to behold. However, the MS paint VW that trundled along a cartoon road looked like it had come out of a kid’s TV show — it was a big disappointment that was only half-rescued by a shot of a dashboard and a gloved hand, which slowly turned up the volume to produce a series of music notes that poured out onto the audience to brilliant effect.
By the time “Radioactivity” kicked in, even the sight of people lifting their mobiles every few minutes to share the moment on Instagram could not taint my elated state. This was the track I had come to see, and it went down an absolute treat. It was one of those transcendental ‘wow’ moments that got me thinking, “Am I really here?” “Am I really experiencing this?” The croaking, mechanical voice “Stop! Radioactivity” and the humanized vocals that follow it’s in the air for you and me made this enough of a protest song without the inclusion of “Fukushima” to the laundry list of power plants Hütter reels off as names appears on the screen like newfangled superstar brands — “Tschernobyl / Harrisburg / Sellafield / Hiroshima.”
Each of those songs, along with a wonderful version of the “Trans-Europe Express,” “Abzug,” and “Metal On Metal” sequence, all came in the first 40 minutes or so, which left the rest of the show lingering in the balance of untold possibility. Where I disagree with other critics, such as The Guardian’s Michael Hann, is when he suggests the only place Kraftwerk had to go was downhill. How could that possibly be the case when there remained so many directions to take the show in!? As it happened, the second half was every bit exciting as what preceded. The synthetic panache of “The Model,” the cyber dirge of “Spacelab,” and the menacing whir of “Metropolis” were followed by a version of “Man Machine” that was just delightful, the undisputed highlight of the evening embedded deep within a context of glorious techno pop.
The Mix was somewhat disfigured by the songs played between it, but because the album itself lacks any structured narrative, Hütter’s keenness to experiment became easier to observe. The ‘greatest hits’ set-list avoided a strict diet of traditional crowd pleasers, and while the visuals might not have been wholly successful, they complemented certain aspects of the album’s unintentional aesthetic, which was pitted against an ultra-crisp sonic finish courtesy of the Tate audio setup. The evening was a triumph, even if that ropey stretch of “Autobahn” left me baffled, but then again, I could have always closed my eyes.