or, Sulking at a Burial Vault Interior Decorators Convention
DISCLAIMER: I never take any pictures or, perish the thought, make videos of concerts I attend, simply because I go there to enjoy the show, not stare at a damn eyephone like so many of our fellow concert-goers do these days. So you can be sure that every picture or video I may stick in this report I’ve blatantly borrowed from the internets.
Steven Wilson is one of my favourite music heroes of the 21st century. I better get this out of the way immediately. I’ve previously seen the guy with Porcupine Tree in Ljubljana and Blackfield in Berlin. Last year the tickets to his solo project’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour sold out so quickly I inadvertently missed the whole thing, so I went this year instead. Throughout the concert I couldn’t help but wonder how the one I had missed was like, because this year much of it was like a burial vault interior decorators convention – fascinating, but pretty morbid.
Although Wilson’s crew is new, missing two of the “superstars” from last year (I was particularly disappointed that drummer Marco Minnemann is now frolicking around with The Aristocrats rather than submitting to my amateurish scrutiny), their musicianship was sublime. I won’t elaborate much on this – as expected, these guys are top-notch, their playing (and crooning) makes your head spin, makes you want to deposit your own musical gear and gadgets in a dumpster, and that about covers it, no need to go into details.
As much as for his obsession with gloom and doom (in my book that’s a good thing), Steven Wilson is also known far and wide for his focus on sound. Thus I fully expected the sound to be equally sublime as musicianship, but… I’ll just put it bluntly: it was highly disappointing. Sometimes I just don’t know how this can happen – is the sound guy on really lousy drugs? Fell on his head? Are the acoustics of the venue so peculiar as to confuse him, or make his job impossible? What could be the cause of this suffering? It was a flashback to the open-air Faith No More concert I had the misfortune of (not) hearing at Zitadelle Spandau last year, and which gave me ear warts… Though, to be sure, this wasn’t anywhere nearly as bad (I’m never going to the Zitadelle again in my life, not even if Frank Zappa himself rises from the dead and appears there). But it was still pretty bad.
First of all – interested as I was to see how the new drummer Craig Blundell would fill the shoes of the (figurative and literal) giant Minnemann – drums were so damn quiet it drove me nuts! What’s the use of Blundell raging down an (extensive) collection of toms (the guy can really play, hats off!), when I can’t even remotely hear what the hell he’s doing? I understand some people hate it when they cringe involuntarily each time the drummer hits the snare, feel nauseated at the kick of the bass drum, and worry about bleeding out of their ears due to the cymbals poking holes in them, but man, it’s supposed to be a ROCK concert. At least one filling is supposed to vibrate in your teeth, and you should get some tinnitus to take home and keep you company when you rest your weary wobbly head on the soft pillow. There was absolutely no punch or definition to the kick, toms were so smeared you couldn’t tell what was what, and when accompanied by bass (or Chapman stick) everything blended together in a distasteful, unintelligible soup booming away in the realms of muddiness without any definition whatsoever. Equally shocking was the fact that the snare(s) suffered severe lack of clarity and punch, were far too soft in louder parts (except maybe when played over loops), and most of the cymbals were virtually inaudible. It was as if somebody had covered the drums with feathers (or cut away loads of mids). The only redeeming quality was that the hi-hat and a few of the numerous splash cymbals were quite audible (though, again, only in high frequencies, so they sounded awfully thin), thus I was at least able to revel in some superb details that Blundell obviously put so much effort in. To my complete surprise, equally weird was the sound of the guitars – as if somebody had castrated everything at about 2 kHz. The vocals sounded great, though, and the appearance (and superb performance) of an actual singer (Wilson’s words, not mine!), Ninet Tayeb, was much appreciated (by everyone, it seemed).
Whether it was just the strange acoustics or not I do not know, but boy do I not appreciate listening to underwater rock concerts, because that’s how this felt. Either that, or the way your hearing turns sour when the rapidly-changing air pressure screws around with your eardrums. I, for one, do not appreciate the fact that I can calmly discuss the finer points of existentialist philosophy with my wife while the band is supposed to ejaculate a FFFfortissimo, goddamnit!
So, while the sound struck me as if it was actually geared towards a meditation retreat of the local Geriatric Tibetan Monk Association rather than a rock crowd, the atmosphere at Tempodrom in Berlin was absolutely funereal with everyone sitting in their chairs like so many (aging) statues. The fact that throughout the first part of the concert (the whole Hand. Cannot. Erase. album performed live, which was beyond lovely) we were forced to watch a monotonous documentary film about a depressed middle-aged middle-class woman living in a socialist-realist block of flats, in the sole company of her cat, where she despaired and pined away endlessly while smoking and staring into nothingness, failed utterly to uplift my spirits any, thank you very much, and it was also highly distracting, what with the low volume of the music and all that.
OK, I get it that Hand. is a conceptual album about a woman who disappears and whom nobody misses for three years. Fine. It is a touching, depressing, even creepy premise, something for a bit of dismal literary fiction few people will read, but many will praise. But, man, do the existential crises of middle-aged middle-class chain-smoking cat owners (apparently mercifully abducted by aliens in the end, so at least there’s that) feel misplaced and self-absorbed when you live in a world teetering on the brink of the precipice, in a city where tens of thousands of migrants are freezing their asses off in refugee camps without the comfort of their tomcats, cigarettes, or even a clean toilet and a shower, for that matter. But, admittedly, at least their fellow refugees know where they are, so they’d be missed, had they been missing: in the next bunk, damn it! They’re either in the next bunk or dead or worse! Roll call, everyone!
The only break from this bleak, life-annulling documentary feature – I must emphasise that I’m grumbling about the monotonous art video here, NOT the musical performance! – was the following animated gem:
Even though the dirge once again laments a forlorn and morose middle-aged middle-class housewife, at least this housewife, according to the yarn, apparently saw her nearest and dearest shot before despairing and pining away. Granted, that is extremely unfortunate for her, though by this point I was tempted to proclaim: “They had it coming, just jump over the edge!” And everybody would hear me, too, because the soundtrack was so infernally quiet. Damn it, I’ve experienced more cathartic moments – in terms of loudness – in my car!
Fortunately, Steven Wilson heeded my prayers and turned off the docudrama for the second half of the concert, and the guys launched into an astonishing mix of mind-boggling psychedelia; some very surprising numbers (the menacing, evil “collector” thing comes to mind, whatever that was, haven’t seen or heard it before – ah, Index, from Grace for Drowning, thank you, Google); a bit of new material for the upcoming album 4 ½ (sounded very sexy); dramatic, theatrical (in a good way) punches in the gut; and a good measure of Porcupine Tree tracks to boot, thank you, sir! I was almost able to forget about the feathery drums when the band blasted through Open Car.
In conclusion let me retract the position I’ve recently expressed elsewhere: that I like sitting down at concerts, because I’m a grumblin’ ole geezer and standing among evil rockers for three hours gives me back pains. I’ll amend that: that would only work if I were the only one sitting down in some strategic elevated position, with a nice cold beer on the hand rest of my well-cushioned throne, with everyone else standing. But this… The fact that last night we were a seated audience only contributed – in combination with the chamber-music sound level and the consequently overly distracting dreary video – to utter morbidity. It certainly bothered Wilson as well, because he admitted – after the much appreciated and completely non-cheesy homage to the late David Bowie (Space Oddity) – to feeling as if he stood in a graveyard, so he asked us to have some mercy, stand up, and sing along to the Sound of Muzak, which we happily did. Even the Germans, despite their proverbial reserved attitude.
So, all in all, a remarkable concert, with some annoyances and inconveniences – but what would I be grumblin’ about without those, right.