Monday, April 22, 2019

Dance Craze (1981)

I recently had my attention brought to Dance Craze, a 1981 film depicting British ska bands on stage in the height of the second-wave 2 Tone revival. It's appropriate that I just saw The Specials live; the 2019 incarnation might not quite match the original 1981 version, but it got close. In any case, it's amazing to see the original lineup in full force, playing a bunch of their early classics.

Madness, still thickly steeped in ska, are also given a lot of screen time, and they earn it, particularly with their hilariously hyped rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The Beat are also given a prominent place and perform at their peak.

The real highlights are The Bodysnatchers and The Selecter, two bands fronted by Black women that didn't last as long as some of the others. The Bodysnatchers are the only band in the film that are all women, and they only released two singles before dissolving. Considering the relative lack of available material from either band, the footage here is perhaps the best opportunity to experience them.

The only band that didn't speak to me was Bad Manners. Even they weren't particularly bad, but their stage antics and songwriting were conspicuously less refined. The film also inexplicably contains a six minute long interlude with old newsreel footage from 1959 about dance crazes. Presumably that segment is there to contextualize the wild youth of the day or to legitimize second-wave ska as the latest in a long string of ever-changing trends. Whatever the intention, it acts purely as a distraction and can safely be skipped entirely.

Other than the interlude, there is nothing to the film except the six bands performing on stage. Director Joe Massot made a solid choice to focus on the high-energy live acts and keep out (most of) the filler. The film is a blast, and almost every song and performer is solid. It reminds me of Urgh! A Music War from the same year, but it is far more focused and serves as a great document of a scene that splintered and shifted shortly soon thereafter.

Score: A-

Thanks to Slicing Up Eyeballs for their article!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Drenge / The Indian Queen - Live 2019.04.15 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany

I saw this concert more or less on a whim, knowing next to nothing about even the headliner.

Artist: Drenge
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 15 April 2019
Opening Act: The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen were a duo of just drums and guitar/vocals. Their style was hard, aggressive, and thrashy. The guitarist spent most of his time playing metal riffs with occasional breaks for strummed and/or muted sections with some shouted vocals. The drummer was propulsive and carefully followed the rhythmic breaks but offered few additional flairs. I could almost get into the intensity of it, but the vocals just weren't doing it for me. The guitarwork was impressive, but I can only get so much out of that technique, so most of what I appreciated was just the lock-in with the drums.

Drenge appeared in a more conventional rock format with a vocalist/guitarist, a lead guitarist/keyboardist, a bassist, and a drummer/vocalist. I was expecting something in the vein of garage rock or a bit of fun punk, and there were bits of both of those, but they started out by focusing on riffy hard rock and ended up going off in several directions. Most of these diversions were more interesting than their core rock sound. The large keyboard and effects rack was only used a few times, but always to good effect. Their mellower songs tended to be more expressive. One song could even have been categorized as sparse, and it was all the better for it. I again liked the energy they brought to the show, and the instrumental performances were good, but I still didn't find much to pull it together. The lyrics might've helped, but they were often drowned by guitars, and the sound system wasn't doing any favors. At least they could write some decent melodies, and the attempts at harmonies were pleasant when audible.


The Indian Queen: C-
Drenge: C+

P.S. Thanks to Jochen and Matthew!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Palais Schaumburg - Live 2019.04.05 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

Palais Schaumburg came to my attention thanks to the excellent Verschwende deine Jugend oral history and compilation. Their two songs on the album, "Telephon" and "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt", are both unconventional, lyrically confusing, melodically simple, rhythmically creative, and full of weird sound effects and synthesizers. I bought their second album, Lupa (1982), while living in Frankfurt almost ten years ago, and I love its playful, funky, exploratory variety. Once I finally found a copy of their self-titled debut (1981), I was actually quite disappointed. The two tracks I already knew were as good as ever, but the rest felt like it was just second-rate material that was weird for the sake of being weird. Their third and final album, Parlez-Vous Schaumburg? (1984), is a third-rate excuse for dated synthpop. Despite the mixed track record, I thought it would be worth giving their show a chance.

Artist: Palais Schaumburg
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 05 April 2019

The current incarnation of Palais Schaumburg is the same as the quartet that recorded their debut album: vocalist/guitarist/synthesist Holger Hiller (who left shortly after the first album), synthesist/trumpeter Thomas Fehlmann (the only constant member), bassist/vocalist Timo Blunck, and drummer Ralf Hertwig. Despite their marketing language, this is not actually the original lineup; that would include drummer FM Einheit (who ultimately spent more time with Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten in particular).

For whatever reason, the band only played songs from the first album, the preceding singles, and a few new compositions that sounded a lot like the old ones. This restricted their palette substantially, and other than the two aforementioned "hits", few of the songs lived up to that standard. Most were in the same vein of dada bizarreness, but lacked any compelling elements of substance. Some were played with an aggressive rhythm that worked up the energy of the crowd, but the primary musical content was just repetitive bass and drum parts. The only other highlights were some sparser, spookier elements and of course the delightful array of synthesizer noises. Oddly, for the second encore, they just repeated "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt" in the same arrangement.

I suppose I should've known that if I didn't like half of the band's recorded material, I might not like the live show. I'd hoped for something more in the style of their second album, but they steered completely clear of that. The charm of their obtuseness has a limit and they reached it quickly. It might've helped if I could've understood the vocals better, but the mix was subpar. It also didn't help that a photographer spent half the show wandering around the stage taking pictures with a bright flash. All that said, I'm curious to see what comes of their new material. If they do release a new album, I'd still give it a chance!

Score: C

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Specials / Swutscher - Live 2019.04.03 Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, Germany

The Specials were yet another band that I was introduced to via Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again. Despite their popularity in the UK, they'd never crossed my radar in the US-American heartland before that. With an unexpectedly strong new album at #1 in the UK charts, they are apparently back in the spotlight. This show was originally scheduled for the Columbiahalle, which is already a decently-sized venue, but it was relocated to a large sports arena in Mauerpark.

Artist: The Specials
Venue: Max-Schmeling-Halle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 April 2019
Opening Act: Swutscher

01. Man at C&A
02. Rat Race
03. Do Nothing
04. Vote for Me
05. Friday Night, Saturday Morning
06. Embarrassed by You
07. Blank Expression
08. Doesn't Make It Alright
09. The Lunatics [Fun Boy Three song]
10. Blam Blam Fever [The Valentines cover] →
11. A Message to You, Rudy [Dandy Livingstone cover]
12. Stereotype
13. 10 Commandments [with Saffiyah Khan]
14. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys [The Equals cover]
15. Nite Klub
16. Do the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover] →
17. Concrete Jungle
18. Monkey Man [Toots & The Maytals cover]
19. Gangsters
20. Little Bitch
21. Too Much Too Young

First Encore:
22. Breaking Point
23. Ghost Town

Second Encore:
24. Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) [Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra cover]
25. You're Wondering Now [The Skatalites cover, with Saffiyah Khan]

Despite the advertised start time of 8pm, German 7-piece Swutscher came on stage 15 minutes early. They brought a bro-heavy attitude and played generic and sloppy barroom rockabilly and 90s macho-rock. It seemed like the only reason they were opening for The Specials was because they had a saxophonist and a lot of members on stage. The vocals were so distractingly bad that any good elements were completely overshadowed. They even did a messy version of The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" in German, but the vocals were so terribly yelled that I couldn't understand them.

Then the strangest thing happened: they started playing a motorik beat and went into a long, psychedelic, pseudo-Krautrock jam. The song had a totally different groove and feel. It would've been awesome but for the vocals. They followed that with another long jam in a more classic rock style done surprisingly well. Why weren't all the songs like that? The last two songs hardly seemed like the same band.

The Specials eventually arrived with eight members: guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, vocalist Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter, lead guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe, trombonist Tim Smart, and trumpeter Pablo Mendelssohn. Notably absent were Jerry Dammers (who has avoided all reunions), Neville Staple, Roddy Radiation, and John Bradbury (who died in 2015). Three original members still in the fold ain't too bad after forty years.

The band wasted no time getting down to business. They started with a few classic tracks and then "Vote for Me" from Encore (2019), which was given a bit of an extended dub treatment. They continued in the pattern of mixing early songs with the new ones, including several covers from both periods. The new album has a new version of "The Lunatics", originally performed by the splinter group Fun Boy Three, which was performed quite successfully. They even brought out Saffiyah Khan to reprise her role on Encore's "10 Commandments".

The Specials have always been quite upfront about their politics, and I was impressed by how relevant the old songs still are as well as the quality of the new work. Thankfully, the mix was great and the vocals were loud and clear, so I could hear almost every word. I was also impressed by how solid the performance was: if you ignored all of their socially-conscious lyrics and just focused on the grooves, it still would've been a great show. Panter's bass was the star, holding down the beat and carrying much of the musical structure. He was frequently locked in step with Rowe's drums but yet never felt tied down.

Most of the music kept close to the two-tone standard, but there were a few deviations into some deep and heady dub jams. In addition to "Vote for Me", "Stereotype" and "Ghost Town" (introduced with the single word "Brexit") were given a similar treatment. For these songs (and "10 Commandments"), Hall moved to a rack with some combination of keyboard, synthesizer, and/or reverb unit.

I was amused that the band only played songs from their first two albums, contemporaneous singles, and their new album. Admittedly, that is their best work, and most of albums in between were either all covers or recorded with substantially different lineups. But then why did they perform Dammers' "Little Bitch", one of their only songs with a conspicuously less progressive message?

This show felt like a party. It was high-energy and people were dancing enthusiastically. (There was even a crowdsurfer at one point!) The band played for almost two hours and almost exclusively played uptempo numbers. It's always cool when an old band can put out new work that almost matches their best and then back it up with a successful tour.

[The Specials with protest signs.]

Swutscher: C
The Specials: A-

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Heiterkeit / Hans Unstern - Live 2019.03.30 Lido, Berlin, Germany

Die Heiterkeit came to my attention while I attended my last SXSW before I moved to Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed the brief set I saw. Since then, bandleader Stella Sommer put out an English-language solo album, 13 Kinds of Happiness, and just about a month ago, Die Heiterkeit released Was passiert ist. The new album is more condensed than their prior masterpiece, Pop & Tod I + II (2016), and may be even better.

Artist: Die Heiterkeit
Venue: Lido
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 30 March 2019
Opening Act: Hans Unstern

Hans Unstern appeared alone with a harp. His voice was high and thin but well-paired to his intricate instrumental prowess. He occasionally strummed the harp to reveal its traditional beauty, but mostly relied on a plucking style that was a match for any piano or classical guitar arrangement. The counterpoint of the repetitive higher parts against a more dynamic bass part was an inversion of typical popular music norms, but this clearly wasn't standard-issue pop music. I was mesmerized by the fingerwork, even if the songs themselves weren't especially captivating. Naturally, I also appreciated his unconventional fashion and appearance.

[Hans Unstern.]

Die Heiterkeit again performed as a four-piece, but from what I could tell, the entire band besides vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Stella Sommer has changed since the last time I saw them in 2017. Their sound and aesthetic were so similar that I didn't even notice at first. The other three members again filled the roles of keyboardist/vocalist, bassist, and drummer.

The band played songs from all four of their albums, unsurprisingly focusing on their latest. The new songs were almost across the board a delight, and the band seemed more engaged playing them. The bassist played a slightly more active role, filling much of the melodic space and even taking a solo in one song. Sommer mostly strummed a capoed guitar with clean and subdued tones, but also switched off with a keyboard, where she was able to show off a bit more dexterity.

The cold but grandiose tones of their albums came somewhat more alive on stage, but other than a couple small hiccups, they played with an impressive tightness and accuracy. Sommer's deep and stately voice remained the highlight of the show. Her style struck me as something uniquely well-suited for singing in German, in that what would otherwise seem like an exaggerated enunciation is instead an expression of emotional depth and proof of mastery of the voice.

[Die Heiterkeit.]

After closing the main set, the band almost immediately returned for a lengthy encore of four more songs. For the latter two, Hans Unstern joined the band on the side of the stage to provide some additional harmony vocals. These last two were somber numbers that seemed like a fitting end, but the crowd continued cheering for another encore. The house music had come on and I was fairly certain it was over, but to my surprise, after a few minutes they filtered back out. First, Sommer played a song on guitar accompanied only by the bassist, and then she played a brief lullaby in English. It was perhaps an even more appropriate conclusion than the first encore.

[Encore with Hans Unstern.]

Die Heiterkeit risk sounding depressive and restrained, but something in their dramatic energy has the opposite effect. They were still fairly rigid on stage, but their concentrated focus resulted in a solid performance, and they came across more human than on their studio recordings. At times, one is left wishing for a flourish or some greater cause for excitement. But if you can do without that, it is easy to get entranced by their darkly beautiful tones.

Hans Unstern: B-
Die Heiterkeit: B+

[Edit 2019.04.17:] Die Heiterkeit have published a video of the second encore. The two songs were "Kapitän" and the English folk tune "Lavender's Blue".

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nancy Boys - Live 2019.03.16 Madonna, Berlin, Germany

Yes, it's St. Patrick's Day, and you've probably figured out what my first name is. Oddly, out of some sense of shyness or contrarianism, I've rarely celebrated the day in any particular fashion. I never went to any of the parades in any of the cities I've lived in. The most I can say is that in 2005, my parents took me to see The Elders, an Irish-American folk-rock band based in Kansas City. Well, this year, I for once had a reason to celebrate: a colleague invited me to see him play at a beloved whisky bar on the eve of the holiday.

Artist: The Nancy Boys
Venue: Madonna
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 March 2019

The Nancy Boys are in infrequently-performing Irish folk band. They appeared as a five-piece: a guitarist/vocalist, a mandolinist/vocalist, a cellist, saxophonist/flutist, and a percussionist. They were crammed on a small stage, unamplified, in a loud bar full of revelers, but I managed to squeeze right in front for the perfect position to hear every note.

For being a band that do not all inhabit the same city and that claim not to have performed together since the previous St. Patrick's Day, they played two solid sets of music. There were a few rough edges, but they just laughed it off and kept going. I doubt most people even noticed, and their high spirits and playful style meant that any such trivialities were easy to ignore.

Their repertoire consisted of a mix of traditional Irish folk songs and classic rock performed in a folk arrangements, including songs like "The Weight", "Dancing in the Moonlight", "A Rainy Night in Soho", "A Horse with No Name", "You Can't Always Get What You Want", and of course "Whiskey in the Jar". The band emphasized vocal harmonies and big sing-alongs, but gave the saxophone, flute, and cello room for the occasional solo.

I spent the hours leading up to midnight enjoying the best whisky I've ever tasted and mesmerized by the talents of performers that seemed to just pick up and play songs as if they were emblazoned into their subconscious. They joked frequently about not knowing how to play the songs, and often cursed bemusedly when looking at the next song on the setlist. But this was a farce: they performed the tunes with passion and got me singing along without me even realizing it.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin - Live 2019.02.23 Kino Babylon, Berlin, Germany

Just over ten years ago I wrote my second film review and first soundtrack review of the Moroder version of Metropolis. I loved the film, although I criticized that version and particularly the soundtrack. I'd already seen the 2001 restored version, but the Argentinian footage that led to the 2010 restoration hadn't been found yet. Thanks to the wonderful Webster University Film Series, I saw that version shortly after moving to St. Louis for a second time, which ended up reuniting me with several old friends. The same film series had introduced me to another concept a few years earlier, before I'd even started this blog: silent films with live musical accompaniment. While a student at Webster, I'd caught a few examples of this. The most notable was Text of Light, which paired experimental musicians with experimental silent films. Yesterday, I saw these two threads unite.

Event: Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin
Venue: Kino Babylon
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 23 February 2019

The Kino Babylon is a 90-year-old theater, apparently the last venue built specifically for silent film screenings in Germany. It's beautiful and comfortable, and it features an orchestra pit and a cinema organ. The pit is now inhabited by the Babylon Orchester Berlin, supposedly the first silent film orchestra to be founded in the 21st century. For their first project, they chose Metropolis, appropriately filmed primarily in Berlin and neighboring Potsdam.

I'll refrain from going into great detail into the plot of Metropolis or the backstory of its restoration, as others have done it better than I ever could. Nonetheless, there are a few points I'd like to mention. The many rounds of editing done to the film after its poorly-received debut is frustrating to consider, and the effort to reconstruct it was long and torturous to a degree that perhaps no other film has ever required. What is fascinating to me is that one of the keys to putting the pieces back together again (and figuring out what is still missing) was the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

My original impression of seeing the 2001 version of the film was that the plot was convoluted. Several characters and plot points had been almost completely removed from most edited versions, and even when those points were explained with title cards, it just didn't entirely make sense. The tempo and flow were also a mess. When I reviewed Moroder's version from 1984, I claimed that "most of plot essentials remain". But after seeing the 2010 version, that statement just doesn't hold up. Now that the film can be seen with almost all the original footage (and properly sequenced to boot), it's an entirely different experience. The plot is much more cohesive and there are fewer obvious holes. However, that doesn't mean that plot is particularly good. The confused combination of Marxism, expressionism, horror movie cliché, heavy-handed religious symbolism, anachronistic 1920s fashion, and sci-fi futurism doesn't always come together well. That said, it looks fantastic and I love the acting.

Seeing the movie with live orchestral accompaniment made the experience all the more engrossing. The emotional movement driven by the score was made substantially more dramatic. For most of the screening, I was so captivated that I ceased paying critical attention to the performance and just enjoyed and absorbed it. Since that happens to me so rarely, I can only credit the musicians with doing their job quite successfully. There were a few points at which the timing seemed just barely off, but considering the incongruities between the original score and the available film version, that's probably inevitable. The only other criticism was that the original cinema organ was out of commission and under repair, so we instead just got an electronic keyboard, which was a conspicuous downgrade. On the whole, though, the thrill of surging crescendos at the peak of the action and the percussive punches matching the characters' movements more than made up for it.

For the modern movie-goer, this event is certainly the most ideal environment for experiencing Metropolis in its full glory. The footage is probably about as good as it will ever get, the musicians are well-versed in the score, and the venue is a delight. What more could you want?

Score: A

P.S. It is pure coincidence that just last week I reviewed another film with a complicated backstory, Amazing Grace!

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!