Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Leprous

Leprous is a Norwegian prog-rock/metal band I found out about from a pal of mine with a compatible taste shortly after they released The Congregation last year. As soon as I got around to listening to it carefully, this and their previous album, Coal, easily “qualified” among some of my favourite albums. The band brings everything I like go the game: superior musicianship; goosebump-inducing vocal lines and superb harmonies in combination with mind-bogglingly complex polyrhytmic (often odd-time, yay) structures; and massive sound.

I was overjoyed to find out they were about to play at the Musik & Frieden club in Berlin on Thursday, because I really wanted to hear them live, obviously. I am even happier to report that their live act is just as great as their last two albums: these guys can play, and they can sing (the lead vocalist is incredible, and the guys on backing vocals are really good as well). And, finally (after two very “subtle” concerts I’ve been to), last night’s gig sounded really good – and was actually loud enough that I felt as if I was actually attending a damn rock ‘n’ roll concert!

But, first things first.

Leprous, the headliners, were accompanied by Earthside from the U.S. and Voyager from Australia.

The music of Earthside was great, actually, and quite an unexpected bonus to the evening. Unfortunately they resorted to a rather extreme kind of “semi-live” performance that I just couldn’t get into. OK, I really understand the ins and outs of live (or pseudo-live) acts and I understand why bands without lucrative budgets will often resort to various “provisional solutions” in order to bring their vision to life despite the “logistic obstacles”. But I tend to be somewhat old-school in this regard: using sequencers, loops and pre-recorded synths in case you don’t have a small army of proficient keyboardists at your disposal is one thing, but having a whole symphonic orchestra and even SINGERS accompany you from a projection screen at the side of the stage just makes me grumble. There’s something about a four-piece band (guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer) accompanying a pre-recorded vocalist that’s just unholy, and such a solution will bother me to the degree where I can’t seriously enjoy the show. I’d be much happier with unembellished instrumentals, which the guys would have easily been able to play, had they wanted to (they are, without any doubt, awesome musicians). I’m also too old to appreciate statements like “you might have seen the following song on YouTube”… Yeah, I might have, and if I wanted to see it yet again, performed in a completely identical manner, then I could have just stayed at home and listened to YouTube real loud. Too bad and a wasted opportunity, because music-wise these guys have a LOT of great things to say. If somebody happens to throw some cash at them, they’ll definitely be going places, because they can rumble with the best of them.

Voyager was, fortunately, more “organic”, though they still used loops and pre-recorded synths. But OK, as long as an actual human is singing and two guitarists (one of them female!), a bassist and a drummer are blasting away, fine with me. However, music-wise I wasn’t very convinced by this particular blend of techno-metal. OK, if it floats their boat… But I couldn’t help scowling a bit at quite a few relatively cheesy tunes (with major chords, perish the thought) and a specifically mellow voice of the singer. This also resulted in one of my more cynical pals defining Voyager as “Modern Talking thirty years later (including perms)”, so after that the whole thing became hilarious: I couldn’t get the notion out of my head, so I couldn’t help laughing into my Weinschorle LightTM (heavy on mineral water) for the next fifteen minutes. As Voyager exhibited a clear ambition to be a “party band”, and did manage to persuade a good portion of the audience, our whole gang snickering at my cynical pal’s diatribes was actually in line with the general sentiment. Voyager was definitely not bad, don’t get me wrong, and they’re obviously great musicians, but their particular blend of genres and “let’s party” attitude is simply not my cup o’ tea. I much prefer your normal gloomy, dark, depressing epic metal – and I finally got my share when Leprous finally came on stage.

As I’ve already stated above, in my book Leprous are simply amazing. Their live act was completely on par with the best bands I’ve seen over the years and did perfect justice to the ingeniousness of their last two albums. If anything in this world still happens because of merit and superb achievements, they should be one of the bands that go places. Their professionalism and amazing music will hopefully place them on more “prominent” stages in the future, because it was somewhat sad to see them pour their guts out to a half-empty hall (which I really didn’t expect: I mean, what the hell do folks do with their time these days, if in a city of 3.5 million people not more than 200 souls can be bothered to spit out the meager 21 euros for a prog-metal feast such as this triple concert)?

But OK, at least this way a wish I’ve been toying with for a while came true on this occasion: we found a great spot on the comfortable bleachers in the far corner, where the sound was absolutely the best due to the extra bass boost, and we could lounge there in our makeshift thrones, in a strategic position slightly elevated over the enthusiastic crowd jumping directly in front of the stage. Even visibility wasn’t too impaired because of the relative emptiness of the hall, and whenever one of us felt like it we could actually stroll to the front and stand six point six six meters from the stage. Perfect for grumblin’ ole geezers. The only thing I was worried about throughout the continuous onslaught of the greatest tracks from The Congregation and Coal was whether Leprous would play my two favourite tracks –

– and they finally did. Down, my (temporarily) second-favourite track, was (without counting the single-track encore) their penultimate choice; and they blasted through my (momentarily) favourite track, The Valley, last (with perfect vocals: the stamina of their lead singer / keyboardist is simply astounding, and this was after tracks with growls and screams et cetera). Perfect.

The only hesitation, preventing me from being completely fascinated by the whole affair, was a peculiar, nagging suspicion that I was once again witnessing the death of “rock ‘n’ roll” concerts as I have known them; live performances on their way out. First of all, the lack of people interested in this event was astounding; and as I stood in front of the stage absorbing The Valley it was blatantly obvious to me that I was standing among musicians, mostly – a small, inbred tribe of fans that knew many an insidious syncopated trick, pulled off by Leprous, by heart. There was a notable lack of any innocent bystanders (save for the few obligatory bored-looking musicians’ girlfriends); of people who weren’t “in the know”, but still enjoyed the show; just another case of musicians playing for musicians.

Furthermore, prog rock/metal has – in the last decade, with the technological advances in music hardware – progressed (pun intended) to the point where the sound of these bands is virtually indistinguishable from one another, as well as from their recorded work. Three hours into mastodonic, larger-than-life, “God’s-own-amp” riffs I started thinking, holy fuck, when did this happen… And the zero-tolerance-for-any-errors-or-deviations attitude, exhibited by the bands, obviously stems from the absolutely rigid, in-ear-monitored, metronome-dictated song structures of today’s top-notch performances. Once upon a time underground bands were happy if they could get their hands on a few beat-up Marshall heads, and rejoiced at every opportunity to decently record anything… While nowadays underground bands actually live in their own studios, and all the “zero-mistake” perfectionism of creating (and editing) music in studios trickles over to live performances to the degree where you’re actually listening to studio albums, only louder… And everything is fuelled by the digital conundrum of computers, sequencers, software, amp simulations, cab emulations, time-synced effects and visuals, eight-string guitars quadrupled through Kemper/Axe FX/etc. processors, gates, compressors, EQs, exciters, saturators and limiters and maximisers to the point where you’re not sure – particularly if you’re a grumblin’ ole geezer – that any of what you’re hearing is actually organic at all… Or whether the bands are simply aspiring to simulate every nuance of the digital fabrications they have been constructing in their virtual studios to the point where the once separate sides of the creative process (songwriting, studio production and live acts) become indistinguishable. I mean, how far away are these simulations from simply becoming full-blown “virtual” performances? Hell, for all anyone seems to care, what would actually be the difference of modern rock/metal bands simply performing in their own living rooms and being projected as holograms into their audience’s living rooms (or clubs, for the purpose of sheer loudness) all over the world? I’m afraid the only thing separating us from that is some good and affordable 3-D projection technology.

I know, the last paragraph makes me sound like a technophobe, which I certainly am not (quite the opposite)… But the methodical approach to music – mechanically blasting through a collection of flawlessly-rehearsed mathematically-inspired phrases without an inch of room for improvisation – can be rather tedious and the bitter “inorganic” aftertaste of the whole affair lingers nevertheless.

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