Grumblin’ Ole Geezer’s Volcano Lair: Part 2 – Dear Berlin

Dear Berlin, you’ve been good to us, but it seems it’s time to go our separate ways.

You have some serious advantages going for you. You’re still reasonably cheap, though the prices of everything are, sadly, steadily getting worse, fie on you. I don’t need a car to navigate your innards as your public transport is superb. Your multicultural atmosphere and complex, fascinating past – yes, I know you hear this cliché far too often and you’re probably sick and tired of it, but it’s true – makes you one of the most vibrant and enchanting cities I’ve ever set foot in. Perhaps you don’t make a fabulous first impression, but you’ve certainly grown on me: once I got to know you, it became hard to let you go.

Indeed, Berlin is a city that never sleeps, but at the same time it’s so far from any sort of extreme hustle and bustle usually associated with beehive metropolises and their go-getter, yuppie populations that staying in Berlin still feels like living in a real place inhabited by actual human beings, not all of whom are completely revolting, miraculously. Anywhere you happen to be in Berlin – with the possible exception of Mitte, where barely anyone strays voluntarily if they don’t have some specific business to attend to – you’re most likely just a stone’s throw from the nearest park. The city itself is surrounded by lakes and forests that you can escape to simply by hopping on a train any time you feel like you’ve had enough, though you almost never feel confined or constrained: the city is airy, green, easy-going and open-minded; if you don’t like something, you just go and look for something else, as the possibilities are innumerable; and, most importantly, people live and let live, which is so very unlike Slovenia, where it seems that your life and your opinions are just about everybody’s goddamn business. So, all in all, the Berlin stint has been a very useful experience: if nothing else, Monika and I have learned some German while basking in the freedom that Berlin provided.

However, after a few years in Berlin – once we had separated our business from all aspects of the Slovenian system for good – the most mundane reason for our move manifested itself: while Germany offers much better conditions for freelancers than Slovenia (at this time, Germany doesn’t force you to contribute to the pension fund, so it doesn’t bleed you dry with these contributions whenever you’re not making nearly enough money, which is, in our case, most of the time), Germany also has horrendously expensive health insurance in comparison with Slovenia. Thus, once you exit the Slovenian system and can no longer take advantage the EU health insurance by paying for it in Slovenia where it’s cheap, you’re going to be doling out around EUR 350 per month for health insurance per person (or around EUR 260 at the minimum, provided that you’re broke enough and can prove it with your tax statements). Unfortunately this defeated one of our main reasons for living in Germany: because the conditions for freelancers were, at least in our case, better than back home. On the other hand, the conditions in Spain, when you take everything into account, are more favourable than even in Germany – let alone Slovenia, which has in the last decade or so become an absolute hell for freelancers. What is even more convenient is that Monika had graduated in Spanish, so we rejoiced in the fact that all the communication, especially with bureaucrats, would be much simpler than back when we’d moved to Berlin without any of us speaking (or understanding) German to any degree worth mentioning… And it has been her long-time wish to live in Spain one day, at least for a few years, so why not actually go ahead and do it.

Furthermore, we gradually realised that we were simply getting too old for the German capital – and I kid you not. Sure, life in Berlin can be spectacular if you’re twenty and looking to spend your nights partying your brains out and whoring around. However, once you hit an age advanced enough, you might gradually get sick and tired of meeting innumerable young so-called “creatives” and all sorts of clueless self-proclaimed artists, who do nothing but obsess about their “image” and work on “networking” by means of hanging around hipster bars incessantly, nursing their overpriced drinks, staring at their smartphones, and talking about themselves and their “awesome projects” that they never actually finish. You may suddenly feel that if you hear about one more cunning startup, another ground-breaking app – or have any sort of a new brilliant scheme, intricate concept, top-notch design, monumental business enterprise, and/or ingenious (crowd-funded) product described to you by a spoiled brat who invests all of his or her parents’ money in Apple products, beard oil, tattoos, piercings, ear plugs and coke – you’ll grab someone by the throat… Or hop over to the Ukraine to procure a second-hand AK-47. You may suddenly find innumerable bearded man-bun-toting blokes (with or without silly headwear) absolutely obnoxious, and you might even stoop as low as to abhor the very thought of spending any of your precious time in clubs, jumping to the infantile one-quarter techno beat in a drug-fuelled haze. Should that happen, it’s probably time to get out.

Don’t get me wrong, Berlin can be great. It was stupendous, and besides enjoying everything else that such a culturally-rich metropolis has to offer it’s also possible to see loads of first-class rock concerts here. That’s something that I’ve really taken advantage of, having, in the recent years, seen practically all the bands I’d wanted to see – but had been unable to – back in Slovenia. However, the relaxed and sometimes anarchic, chaotically liberal left-wing liberalism of Berlin has in the recent years given way to thorough gentrification, despite the constant and noticeable resistance from the leftists. The once colourful multicultural streets full of immigrants, crazy people, cheap dives and 24/7/365 liquor stores are currently being replaced by an increasing number of criminally-expensive hipster bars, vegan restaurants, vegetarian butcher shops (I’m not even joking) and yoga studios, populated by the global gluten-free convention of clueless, phony, spoiled brats – all of whom are driving the prices into the stratosphere with their idiocy. Rich morons are indeed the worst kind. You can’t even find a safe haven in the remaining traditional Berlin dives, as the hipsters have already invaded them all in their search of “authentic experience”. So the remaining authentic indigenous winos (who get their clothes by the side of the road or in dumpsters) can no longer afford to hang out in their former hangouts, as the clientele in these dives is rapidly being replaced by hipsters (who buy the same threads that the indigenous winos wear in hip second-hand stores for heaps of cash). Thus Berlin is gradually being transformed into a modern and utterly obnoxious European capital in the vein of London (it’s not nearly there yet, but it will be, eventually): the prices are being driven up steadily, and so are the rents.

To make matters worse, the weather is horrendous – as pedestrian as that may sound. No, it’s not so cold: in fact, my hometown in the north of Slovenia, which is a bit on the hilly side, can be much colder, on average, during the winter. However, without any exaggeration, in Berlin it’s a normal occurrence that the sun disappears behind an impenetrable wall of grey towards the end of September and doesn’t touch your skin for more than a minute or two at a time until the end of March or even April. That’s six or seven months of your life down the drain each year, because believe me, if you don’t have a very urgent reason to get out of your flat during the winter, you don’t. If you’re a freelancer who works at home, like my wife and I – or in case you’re a pensioner or zombie on social welfare – chances are you only leave your apartment once per week for months on end, and that only to buy groceries and run the most urgent errands. Cabin fever is so frequent an occurrence in Berlin that when the first truly sunny day hesitantly yet miraculously manifests itself sometime in March or April, after half a year of eternal darkness and tenaciously drizzling rain, the houses disgorge hordes of desperate, half-crazed people who are in such an urgent hurry to feel the sun on their skin that the parks immediately fill to the brim with half-naked and often blind-drunk characters that look as if they’ve just been released from subterranean dungeons or lunatic asylums. It really is pretty bad, and after five winters in Berlin I no longer have any wish whatsoever to spend more than half of my life hibernating.

Here, for example, is a photo of the barbecue frenzy on Tempelhof on the first sunny weekend in April:

Thus being moderately to clinically depressed in Berlin is not newsworthy at all, and during the winter sullen-looking, resigned people do little but complain about the weather: barkeeps, shopkeepers, waitresses, clerks, radio hosts, your friends and acquaintances as well as random strangers of all colours and creeds – they’ll all have horrible stories to tell about the dismal meteorological phenomena. No wonder that Berliners are relatively immune to ceaselessly fantasising about migrants, terrorism, or, perish the thought, refugees from the Middle East: they’ve already been terrorised by thick, droopy clouds, perpetual darkness, soul-leeching rain and bone-chilling wind that loves to swoop in from somewhere in Siberia just to see Berliners squirm; and they’ve all come together, internationally, to hate the weather equally under the united bearlin banner:

Yep, the first thing most of us foreigners learn here is to appreciate the hell out of the weather back wherever we’ve come from. Conceivably only Scandinavians would be able to stoically put up with the Berlin weather, but there aren’t too many of them around here, probably because they can’t come up with a reason to leave their own apartments back home.

In such circumstances I happened to talk to a very good old friend of mine who had moved to Canary Islands last year, so my wife and I decided to pay him a visit. As I have mentioned, we had already been thinking about moving even before that, perhaps to one of the Greek islands or to Spain, definitely somewhere far less “Nordic”… So why not check out what this friend was up to?

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer’s Volcano Lair: Part 1 – Introduction

Last year, after four full years of our investigation into what it’s like to live in Berlin, my wife Monika and I decided to move yet again. After a long and careful deliberation we decided to go for the proverbial Monty Python “and now for something completely different” option, as we’d had our fill of exploring what living in a metropolis was like. The village people that still lurk inside us came a-knocking again, but they’re of the “coastal” variety: as far as we’re concerned, barely anything beats staring out to sea every day. Thus we decided to relocate to the Canary Islands. I know the idea may sound ludicrous and outlandish, but we’re no strangers to those sorts of schemes.

I won’t go into details in this short introduction, but it soon turned out that the very rational and well-considered “plus and minus table” with Berlin on one side and Canary Islands on the other tilted very much in favour of moving as soon as humanly possible. The urgency stemmed primarily from the fact that we had to move somewhere, as the translation work we do for a living is rapidly going down the drain, and Berlin is getting increasingly expensive.

Speaking from my experience with our move from Slovenia to Berlin roughly five years ago, radical upheavals like this usually result in a collection of tragicomic anecdotes, mostly involving Kafkaesque bureaucracy as well as a vast collection of screw-ups, thus making for a good source of at least semi-entertaining texts. Nevertheless, I wasn’t initially planning to write this series of blog posts or, for that matter, mention our newest “crackpot project” in public at all, mainly because I didn’t want to annoy people unnecessarily, and uncalled-for posts like this are just irritating. You simply can’t beat annoying your friends on Facebook with heinous provocations like “Hey everyone! While all of you are probably enjoying another horrific winter, let me just remind you that I’m currently scratching my nut sack on a subtropical island where temperatures barely ever drop under twenty Celsius. Speaking of which, here, feast your eyes on a gratuitous photo of me in my bikini (that I really took last summer)“. This is something I wanted to avoid (especially as I don’t have any photos of myself in a bikini that anyone could stomach without succumbing to a dizzy spell, at the very least).

However, a good friend of mine expressed genuine interest in this newest scheme of ours and asked me to write about it, because he was itching to see how we’d go about organising such a ridiculous undertaking. As I’m always glad to find that at least one or two humans on this planet still prefer a “tl;dr” wall of text to Twitter tweets, I decided to heed the man’s words and start describing the whole process in this here “Grumblin’ Ole Geezer’s Volcano Lair” series of blog posts. After all, why not: so many people seem to be moving to the Canaries these days that I may even unwittingly contribute a piece of information someone might find useful. If I happen to do that, please let me know so that I can edit it out! (DISCLAIMER: Jokery aside, I have no intention to write a “Moving to the Canary Islands for Dummies” manual, so don’t take anything you might read here for granted. Do your own research, so that you can make your own mistakes!)

Anyway, as great as moving to Canary Islands might sound in theory, in practice it’s already been pretty exhausting for about three months now. So, as far as pissing anyone off with my extraordinary luck goes: relax, because in general my life sucks donkey balls as much as anyone’s (I’m talking about the population fortunate enough to wallow in the misery caused by our “first-world problems” here, not about the much less important utter horrors occurring in the other 90 % of the world). Besides, our main reasons for the move are very mundane, even banal: Berlin has simply become too expensive to be a feasible choice for us under our current circumstances. The postponement of my next novel and the new Cynicism Management album, both of which are in the works but progressing much too slowly because the move has obviously taken precedence, is just the most obvious downside for me personally… While in the rest of the posts in this series I’ll mostly be whining about the more concrete snags that we’ve already stumbled upon, as well as the pitfalls still lurking behind the next corner.

Mind you, though: I started posting these contributions AFTER we’ve already secured our apartment on Tenerife – so unless something goes monumentally wrong from here on in, all should end well… That’s simply because starting a journal like this and having to conclude it with something like “so we fucked up – we tried really hard but it didn’t work and everything turned to shit” would be just too damn depressing. I have recently read one such journal, written by a friend of mine on that same island of Tenerife, and let me tell you: it sure gave me pause. However, on the other hand it, quite paradoxically, made me warm up to the silly idea even more. You know how it is, a terrier with a bone and all that… Anyway, I will explain more about it all as I go.

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Opeth

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.

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ All Them Witches

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:

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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?

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.

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Ibrahim Maalouf

Goosebump-inducing microtonal escapades

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:

Konzerthaus_Berlin_Aussenansicht_quer_Foto_Sebastian_Runge

Grosser_Saal_Foto_Sebastian_Runge_1
Photos by Sebastian Runge, “borrowed” from http://en.konzerthaus.de/

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!

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Steven Wilson

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.

KSCOPE522_COVER-MED300Steven 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.