There’s a reason – besides my being a serial procrastinator, of course – why it took me almost exactly two months to finish scribbling the following “review” (or, my personal concert journal entry) of the Opeth concert in Berlin on 24 November 2016: it was so damn good that I didn’t have anything to grumble about. I’ll try my best to find something that was annoying – but be warned, the following account may be damn boring.
This was the second time I saw Opeth live. The first time was in Huxleys Neue Welt, my favourite venue in Berlin, but this time the gig was in Astra Kulturhaus, which I was not yet familiar with. Because the place turned out to be one of those semi-dilapidated (on the outside) squats-turned-businesses that I normally don’t particularly enjoy, I was worried about the sound. Furthermore, drinks were far too expensive for its outward appearance… But all my reservations were soon appeased.
Well, maybe not during the opening act, which was a band of cute Swedish shieldmaidens singing lullabies and Scandinavian laments, thus promoting suicidal tendencies in most of us, the audience, as we had already been moderately to fully depressed due to the eternal winter doom and gloom of Berlin. In short, it was OK, but nothing to write home about: however beautifully performed (and it was fine, musically speaking), this sort of ethereal angel choir over acoustic guitar or piano (not even both at the same time) can make me very sleepy in no time. And I had got up at 5 a.m. that morning, so three tracks in I was in serious danger of prostrating myself in a dark corner and missing the whole thing.
Fortunately, Opeth soon elected to get on stage and…
Well, what can I say. Flawless musicianship, superb sound (clear, well defined, loud enough, though not brutally so… actually I don’t have any negative sound-related comments whatsoever, which is very rare for me), and first-class stage act and presence. As far as I’m concerned, Mikael Åkerfeldt is the man. Not only is he a musical genius, guitar virtuoso and top-notch singer (despite his continuous protestations that he doesn’t really know how to sing), but I especially appreciate his sarcastic and cynical ramblings in between tracks that never fail to entertain. His communication with the audience is stellar (he even made the proverbially reserved Germans sing some godawful vocal line I didn’t know my way around at all – I suppose it must have been a hit in Germany or something, which is certainly an achievement in its own right, as it was definitely not a sing-along jingle). In this regard he reminds me of Zappa, and in a very good way, too. One of the self-ironic remarks I remember went something along the lines of “I was bored, so I changed the tuning on my guitar, played a few chords, and – lo and behold – another masterpiece.” Ha, ha, ha, indeed.
What else… Oh, there was one thing that pissed me off, besides the prices of drinks: there was a nasty pillar between me and the stage, so my vantage point sucked, but it was my fault – because I had no wish whatsoever to elbow my way further into the impressive crowd. However, another positive thing: this time there weren’t many hipsters around, unlike the All Them Witches concert the other day, which was a massive relief. Opeth do attract a great, loyal crowd of sensible people, and for a reason: they’re simply so damn good. If I ever have the chance, I’ll definitely go see them again.
I hadn’t known All Them Witches at all before a friend of mine with compatible music taste, whom we’ve been exchanging musical tips with for the last 20 years or so (we’d even played together in my first band back in 1994/1995), happened to mention that they were playing in Berlin on 15 October. (Yeah, so it took me a while to write my impressions about it, what can I say, I’m a world-class procrastrinator.) So my pal decided to mount an expedition from Slovenia and drop by the now eternally dark and murky Berlin for a visit, and we’d go to this gig while he was at it. A grand idea, if you ask me.
I gave the blokes in question a good listen, like I usually do when I’m about to attend a concert by a band I don’t know, and, lo and behold, even though I hadn’t recognised their name, I already knew their whole Our Mother Electricity album by heart for some peculiar reason. Raising a semi-surprised eyebrow I thought, what the hell, man?!
Later I realised that my neighbour – this demented dipsomaniac who lives next door and keeps blasting his rock ‘n’ roll through the window for all the neighbourhood to hear – might have been a bit obsessed with this album for a while, so he must have played it frequently, without my registering it, really. As his musical tastes are quite OK – even if he’s otherwise an insufferable idiot – I don’t often get back at him back by playing Meshuggah or something, for example, to drown out his tunes… At least not until he really pisses me off. So I must have inadvertently picked up the whole All Them Witches album through the wall. Excellent.
Therefore this had been my favourite track by All Them Witches even before I knew the name of the band, and they did perform it here in Berlin, which I appreciated a lot:
The rest of their albums sounded perfectly cool to me as well, a sweet combination of blues and stoner rock, so I was looking forward to seeing them live. They played at White Trash Fast Food, a place I’d never been to before – a sort of a “moderately hipsterish” fusion food joint / tatoo studio / DJ lounge / (rock ‘n’ roll) concert venue. So of course I had my doubts with regard to sound and atmosphere and clientele et cetera – you know, the usual concerns of a cranky old fart. Unfortunately my pessimism once again turned out to be well-founded, though the actual reasons for the disappointment completely eluded me this time. I mean, we’re all used to bitching about the guy who is dying a slow, tedious death behind the mixer, but this time I couldn’t possibly imagine whose fault the poor sound was. I’ll explain.
My first impression of the place was very positive:
The second impression was that half of Berlin’s hipster population ate there, and the third was that the concert venue security was totally weird. We had to go in through a side entrance (NOT through the restaurant), where they punched our tickets and felt us up, of course, you know the routine, in order to prevent us from bringing anything illicit inside. We ended up in this neat hall, quite large, I estimated you could stuff around 1000 people in there (turns out I was close, just checked it, and the capacity is 450 seats, 700 standing). Then we were once again forbidden from vaping (this was the second time after the Katatonia concert the other day, I suppose they’re finally onto us), but we were told we could go “smoke” in a “designated smoking zone”. So we did, but it turned out that dragging your ass there meant you had to get a stamp and vacate the premises through the restaurant, so we, for all intents and purposes, ended up where we had already been before: outside, in front of the restaurant. At that point we could have loaded up on beer and suspicious pharmaceuticals… Or grown jihad beards, put our passports in our pockets for the police to conveniently find later and fetched our scimitars, AK-47s, hand grenades, rocket launchers, suicide vests and sarin gas, because nobody gave any of us evil smokers/vapers a second glance when we reentered the venue through the restaurant on our way back from the “smoke break”. Of course not: after all, we had THE STAMP. How typically German.
The gig was opened by infernally loud (hell, yeah!) Israeli stoner rockers who call themselves The Great Machine. I must admit I was impressed: the sound rocked and if this was how the rest of the gig would go, it would be one hell of a concert. As impressive as The Great Machine sounded, I was starting to feel horrendously bored about four or five tracks into the set, which is just something a full-on stoner rock setlist consisting of virtually identical three-chord tunes will do to me. Still, the sound and the band’s stage presence were a plus. I wondered how many cymbals per year their drummer cracks, because he kept slamming down on them like a deranged methaphetamine-abusing blacksmith. Nice, it makes an average rocker all warm and fuzzy inside.
After a most welcome break – because The Great Machine took their sweet time – All Them Witches finally got on stage. I’ll just get it over with and spit it out: THEIR SOUND SUCKED DONKEY BALLS. Well, isn’t that odd? Usually it’s the other way around, isn’t it? I mean, hasn’t it been etched in the great rock ‘n’ roll tradition with letters made of titanium that the sound of the support act should suck so as to underline the monumental glory of the headliners? Well, this time it was the other way around, and the difference was shocking. To sum it up in short:
– The Great Machine: excellent drums with a good kick and punchy snare, gut-punching overall sound, massive and well-defined bass frequencies, radical guitar; but barely audible vocals (which nobody missed, really, as they were mostly nonexistent or consisted of tortured screams, for the most part quite gratuitously provided by the bass player for some reason – though, as far as I can see on YT, it’s usually the guitarist who “sings”?);
– All Them Witches: bass frequencies horrendously poorly defined (puffy, muddy as hell, so you couldn’t distinguish between the kick, bass, and anything else), barely audible drums with non-existent kick and flimsy snare, frail guitar and feeble vocals drowning under an excess of electric piano.
The proverbial tormented person behind the mixer apparently worked on it and gradually improved the sound somewhat as the concert went on, but didn’t succeed in saving the day for whatever reason (one of which might have been that the guitarist’s amp died and the Israelis lent him their hulking Marshall stack, which made a notable improvement). Besides, at least the infernal electric piano was eventually toned down a little and the vocals pushed some more, but the morbid muddiness of the bass/low-mid frequencies plagued me until the very end.
Nevertheless, it was good to hear songs like this one live:
…though I really ached to sit down, because my back and my knees were killing me. Next time I’ll get there sooner and appropriate one of the seats. Yeah, so I’m a grumblin’ ole geezer, but due to all of the above the concert felt as long as a day at the dentist’s. To make matters far worse, it was sold out, so one could barely move, which was quite a surprise after the “relaxed” Katatonia and half-empty Leprous concerts recently. Well, at least we could secretly vape by hiding in the crowd, just like everyone else (hell, people even smoked, the criminals!). What a crowd, though… You’d think that there’s something odd going on with the stoner scene, but judging from the sickening mass of full-blown hipsters around me I immediately suspected what it was. I mean, for crying out loud: where do they put all of the woodwork that such vast quantities of these bearded, man-bun-toting blokes, preferably sporting silly hats to boot, can crawl out of?
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Katatonia is one of my favourite bands, and since I moved to Berlin a few years ago I’ve kept an eye on their touring schedule to finally see them live (or rather, hear them, who cares about they look). Admittedly, they were here last year already, if I remember correctly, but that was with their “unplugged” or all-acoustic set, which I decided to avoid simply because… Well, it’s obvious why. Not that I dislike their digression from distortion (in fact, their acoustic live album Sanctitude, recorded at Union Chapel in London, is a real treat and I’ve listened to it many times), but I nevertheless decided to wait for a “thoroughly plugged” set, simply because I like it when the fillings threaten to fall out of my teeth as the band blasts away, and I love a good bassy punch in the gut. So sue me.
A couple of days ago I finally caught Katatonia on their “Fallen Hearts of Europe” tour.
At this point I’d usually start grumbling about things that got on my nerves, but this manifestation was simply too good to complain about (much). First of all, the concert was in Huxleys Neue Welt, which is my favourite concert hall in Berlin by far. First of all, it’s walking distance from my flat… Secondly, it’s exactly the right size and boasts a very handy bar… And most importantly, I have yet to hear any sound blunders in this hall. I’ve witnessed shitty sound all over Berlin, sometimes so much so that it ruined my evening completely, but to date Huxleys has been excluded from my list of grudges. So there it is: finally a concert that I don’t have any complaints about – I mean, sound-wise. And hell yeah, it was loud! Good! Great! Because sometimes I suspect rock ‘n’ roll is going down the drain simply because rock (and even metal) concerts have suddenly become too damn quiet. Health concerns in the vein of the smoking ban? (Speaking of which, for the first time ever the bastards didn’t let us vape in there, we got reprimanded despite of tons of the same shit being pumped in the air onstage already during the opening acts, VOLA and Agent Fresco, so we had to hide in the crowd where we blew vapour at the floor in the company of other clandestine vapers. I felt like a goddamn teenager again.) Or am I slowly growing deaf as the gap between my birth date and the present time is getting increasingly abysmal? I have no idea, but seeing a heap of people standing around with earplugs and goddamn cotton in their ears made me… Well, grumble a bit. I mean, why the hell do you go to a metal concert at all, then, if it’s too loud for you? OK, I get it that the waiters resort to earplugs: they have to be there on a daily basis whether they like the bands or not. But the audience?! I mean, really!?
But I digress…
And so it began:
The only thing that had me slightly worried at the beginning was that the singer’s voice was noticeably tired, maybe because they apparently played at the Epic Metal Festival in the Netherlands the day before (and who knows what was happening there, right?). However, the guy (Jonas Renkse) warmed up thoroughly after a couple of tracks and that was that. Apart from that infinitesimal hiccup that only grumblin’ ole musicians noticed at all, probably, everything else was flawless. Another thing that made me all warm and fuzzy inside was the light design – well thought-out and tempo-synced (yep, Katatonia are slaves to the metronome, no way around that if you use pre-recorded synths in the absence of an “analogue” keyboardist, loops, and tempo-based guitar effects) – which contributed significantly to the dramaturgy of the tracks. Kudos to whomever did that. I enjoy superb old-skool light design much more than (more often than not pretty lame) videos running in the background, which bands like so much to abuse these days. (Mayhaps to steer the attention away from their grim visages? Who knows.) As expected, both guitarists singing perfect backing vocals really put the “H” in the goosebump-inducing harmonies because of which I can’t get enough of this band… And last but not least, I loved Daniel Moilanen, the new drummer, and appreciated the fact that he looks like a physics professor and as such represents a heartwarming counterpoint to the rest of the long-haired Vikings. I mean, the guy can play (so can the others, of course).
And so it went on:
Speaking of long-haired Vikings – the only thing that got on my nerves in the second half of the concert was this two-point-ten-metre bloke with a huge hairdo who decided to stand and headbang right in front of me all of a sudden, interrupting my reverie… But even him I no longer registered as the band concluded the concert with one of my favourite tracks:
Anyway, to date this was the best concert I’ve been to this year. We’ll see if it stays on top of my list, though, because Opeth are dropping by at the end of November.
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!
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.
I only became aware of Ibrahim Maalouf and his work recently, a few months ago… But as soon as I heard the first track by Maalouf by pure coincidence (True Story, it just played on Deezer one day), I knew I had to hear more. Since then I’ve “studied” his whole discography and was very happy when I heard he had a gig scheduled here in Berlin for 23 February – I went out and bought tickets immediately. It was the right decision, because yesterday’s concert was one of the most goosebump-inducing events I’ve attended recently.
Admittedly, I was quite a bit concerned when I found out the concert would take place in Konzerthaus Berlin. I’ll freely admit that I prefer louder, more rock-oriented fusion concerts to any “chamber music” events by far, so I was immediately worried that this would be a very gentle acoustic affair. What else to think, when the concert hall looks like this:
Unfortunately, my concerns were well-founded and instead of the electric bass and guitar I had hoped for, Maalouf’s lineup featured double bass and sax – no electric guitar. Damn, there go my heavy metal horns. The acoustics were as problematic as expected, because the hall is surely better suited to classical music than fusion bands. At this point I couldn’t help but wonder why in the hell jazz/fusion concerts are discriminated against in such a manner? Maalouf, judging by his jocular comments, seemed equally surprised at the pure “fanciness” of the venue he had just filled to the brim. A Simon Phillips concert I’d seen back in Slovenia ages ago came to mind, when Mr. Phillips was so frustrated with this “jazz discrimination” that he refused to play encore until the seated audience vacated their thrones.
This time such a thing – getting off our butts and remaining afoot for more than five minutes – would have been a tall order, because for some reason I couldn’t quite explain about a quarter of the yesterday’s audience were pensioners (unless it was some sort of a season-ticket-for-the-Konzerthaus thing?). Half of the audience, though, were obviously musicians and their significant others, which was to be expected… And another quarter consisted of Frenchpersons and Maalouf’s Middle-Eastern compatriots (many of whom knew the lyrics to the tunes Maalouf’s trumpet toyed with).
You see, the thing was, the Lebanese-French Maalouf and his crew performed Kalthoum, his newest album and homage to the Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum. I admit I’d been hoping for a Red & Black Light and Illusions oriented setlist, but this was fantastic as well. Maalouf’s more “acoustic” team sounds like this:
I soon came to terms with the rather gentle volume of the whole affair (and with the fact that the poor drummer was sweating under pressure – not because of raging all over his drum set like a deranged blacksmith on methamphetamine, sadly, but due to all the excruciatingly hard work invested in keeping it “pianississimo” most of the time, which all drummers will know how hard it is, especially once the passion and frenzy of performing live takes over). To be sure, regardless of the volume (or, actually, thanks to it – anything louder would have been terribly boomy in such a hall), every detail was perfectly audible, down to the last microtonal escapade by the virtuoso Maalouf. In fact, Maalouf’s brooding, lyrical, extremely dynamic and highly melodic, exotic microtonal solos resulted in some of the highlights of the performance. Not that the other band members didn’t do their part: as expected, all of them exhibited superb musicianship, and I could even enjoy one of the most musical and not so very pianissimo drum solos over the 7/8 time signature I’ve heard recently. The pianist, saxophonist and bassist (who, sadly, kept having, to his obvious dismay, severe technical problems with his bass) were just as great.
Maalouf is also a real joker (and blabbermouth), and his contact with the audience was amazing. If I were filthy rich, I’d have these guys play at my wedding. For three days and nights. His humour also featured several pointed hints and remarks about the ongoing refugee crisis as well as stereotypes involved in it; and he also invited a superb oud player and singer – who he explained was a Syrian refugee, otherwise a master judoist and expert carpet layer (because one can’t earn a living playing music these days) – to demonstrate how Kalthoum’s tunes sounded with vocals.
Finally, during… what… third encore and standing ovation, I believe? he taught us a musical phrase and got us to whistle along with him while he and the pianist (in Maalouf’s words “a German who doesn’t look like a German”) frolicked around on the trumpet and piano. Simply presenting a phrase (with a slightly tricky variation in the second half) in thirty seconds and teaching it to at least 20 % of the hall in three minutes attests to Maalouf’s optimism – or to his awareness that his audiences consist mostly of musicians. Because, to be sure, we knew perfectly well what to whistle and when to do so just a few minutes into the “experiment”, all of us apparently drawing from the experience of a thousand rehearsals with various bands under our own belts. Hell, even the variation sounded almost right after the third attempt!
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’sHand. 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.
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