Pop-Kultur 2015: 18+ / Matthew Herbert / Levelz / Sookee
Berghain/Panorama Bar; Berlin, Germany

The only show I managed to catch the majority of during the newly established Pop-Kultur festival at Berlin’s famed Berghain was luckily the one to feature this zine’s heartthrob 18+, a group that’s become somewhat of a live fixture in Europe while remaining virtually impossible to catch in the US, the place they call home. This sense of trans-Atlantic dissociation ends up doing conceptual (or is it physical?) work in the context of the show — disassociation and dislocation of bodies and sexuality via cybernetic models remains the easy theoretical go-to for explaining 18+’s skeletal sex jams, but when those internet-provincial sounds come into contact with a massive, legendary club in a highly specific geographic space and a physical-social context (a Very Real Club), the results tended more towards friction/lubrication models than easy obverse relations.

As we walked into the cavernous main hall at a charmingly early 10 PM, 18+ was just beginning, Boy and Sis offering lackadaisical (half-scripted?) stage banter between their slinky post-hip-hop erotics. The most striking first impression was just how bad the mix was, with thin bass and a murky mid-range that left the music strangely directionless in its physical effects, but it seems fair to ascribe at least a semi-intentionality to the mix. Given Berghain’s well-deserved reputation for pristine sound, it’s easy to surmise that the strangeness of the mix was on 18+’s end, and regardless of where we locate agency, the results were arguably fantastic.

As the set swerved from Trust stand-outs “All the Time” and “Crow”(complete with inane crow sample) toward the frenetic, disjointed, EDM-influenced sounds of what the group happily announced were new songs, the flat effect of their recorded music, heightened by the flat but nevertheless loud and clear mix, created a space wherein an undeniable and physically specific (gut, lower chest) impulse to dance met with the refusal of the music and mix to fully push the audience into that space, a push/pull between sexual intimacy and spatial/emotional distance, sliding my hands on my friend’s hips, catching his eye, a move away, people smoking cigarettes in the most sensual manner they can muster, lighters flicking on and the inhalation of smoke establishing a physical distance between bodies, ego-centric pleasure, drinking, increasing sense of (satisfyingly erotic) isolation within the bullshit communal space of the festival-in-a-club, the satisfying feeling of being at the back of the room and desirable but unapproachable as the general mindset.

The inter-song banter kept up. Boy and Sis didn’t look at each other, which seemed almost trite. They also seemed happy. They finished each other’s lines as usual, but the effect is heightened live, the continuing-on of the sentence at odds with their deliberate disinterest in one another.

If it sounds like this is all an emphasis on the bad-music, bad-vibes element of the show — a theoretical apology for a shitty set — it’s not. 18+ have fully grasped the functional elements of their music, resulting in a performance that can fully engage with the physical-erotic mechanics of playing a club show and offering beat-driven music that engages the body organ, playing a set whose idiosyncrasies complicate the vibes of their achingly sterile club music but do not negate them, fun and not-fun intertwined and both functioning as weaponized erotics, pushing for sex but not sex-right-now, sex in the (endlessly?) delayed future. The club setting spills into the music and the music finds its home in the club, and when space of unlubricated contact between the two erupt, they provide the friction needed for bodily engagement and delayed release.

It was a good show. I had a very good time. It seemed like others did as well. 18+ were much better and both singing and rapping live than we’ve been led to believe.

Later in the night, we caught Sookee, a German-language rapper with some extremely straightforward, if still charmingly radical, politics and elegantly precise sonics; and Levelz, a UK rap collective with extremely talented rappers and some unexpected but perversely successful breakbeat-cum-early 2000s electrohouse vibes.

When Matthew Herbert — or Herbert — began his set at midnight, the energy of 18+ resurfaced in obverse, with Hebert returning to the hyper-specific set of club-oriented samples that first brought him to prominence as a house musician before turning toward conceptualism. Hardly a “return to roots” set, it was a rather involuted dérive through club music’s past, touchstones, and compositional techniques. The set as a whole remained unmistakably within the structural landscape of the late-night DJ; even more perversely, the set was at its most captivating in its initial 15 minutes, as Herbert struggled with a rack of malfunctioning equipment that halted progressions as soon as they started, resulting in a stuttering landscape of isolated little games and fragments. Apparently improvisational to a high degree, it was an unstructured bit of formalism rather than conceptualism that performed a similar trick to 18+’s, asking “What’s a club and where are we?” and then taking the question seriously rather than as a gimmick. It was less directly about fucking, but aren’t club musics always at least tangentially about the subject, even when they posit minimalism or cybernetics or warfare or whatever as the terrain?

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