Monday, October 14, 2019

Noctorum - The Afterdeath EP (2019)


Artist: Noctorum
Album: The Afterdeath EP
Release Date: 2 August 2019
Label: Schoolkids Records
Producer: Noctorum

Tracklist:
01. Dancing with Death
02. The Mermaid
03. I Can't Escape Myself [The Sound cover]
04. Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing [Buffalo Springfield cover]

What happens when a band crowdsources the funds to produce an album, only to have the company that hosted their campaign run away with the money? In this case, the fans get an opportunity to hear a few extra tracks that might've otherwise remained on the shelf. To be clear: everybody should be upset with PledgeMusic. Countless bands have been affected by their sudden bankruptcy. However, it's encouraging that under these circumstances, Noctorum didn't slow down and instead pushed forward with a new release.

Noctorum is a collaboration between Marty Willson-Piper, best known as one of the glorious guitarists of The Church for most of their career, and Dare Mason, an experienced engineer and producer. Despite the PledgeMusic fiasco, they still managed to release their album The Afterlife as intended earlier this year. The album is a solid affair with hints of classic Church sounds, but taken in a more immediate, alternative direction.

The Afterdeath EP, though, shows the duo at their extremes. It features two songs from the same sessions as well as two covers. "Dancing with Death" is a pumping rocker with a shimmering edge. Marty's vocals are strong and the layered guitar parts are great. The lyrics are a well-written critique of organized religion. The song is so good that I wonder why it wasn't on the album. "The Mermaid" is airy and jazzy, but it too keeps it moving. It's not nearly as convincing, though, and neither the vocals nor the music excel.

The covers are entirely different. Both are excellent choices, although neither is altered too substantially from the original. "I Can't Escape Myself" (originally by the underrated The Sound) is considerably amped up and given an electronic edge. After the second verse, a winding sax and noisy guitar solo fill out the song's sense of unease. Some of the subtlety of the original is lost, but the aggressive take still makes it work. "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" (originally by Buffalo Springfield, written by a very young Neil Young) was originally released in 2006 on the Five Way Street tribute album. It retains the folk feel of the original, but extends it with a bunch more guitars, bells, and assorted keyboards. It feels like a logical update, even if it is a fairly straight rendition.

Considering the situation, I'm happy to have this EP on my hard drive. "Dancing with Death" alone is better than most of The Afterlife, and the rest is plenty enjoyable as well. The Afterdeath EP is available via a GoFundMe campaign started to recoup the funds they lost from PledgeMusic. It's pay-what-you-want and only available until the end of October.

Score: B

Sunday, October 13, 2019

David J - Live 2019.10.11 Chausseestraße 131, Berlin, Germany


Artist: David J
Venue: Chausseestraße 131
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 11 October 2019

Setlist:
01. Not Long for This World [a capella]
02. The Auteur
03. Clandestine Valentine
04. Blue Eyes in the Green Room
05. Copper Level 7
06. Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh
07. Feel Like Robert Johnson at the Three Forks Saloon
08. Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure
09. Shelf Life [originally performed by Love & Rockets]

Encore:
10. The Dog-End of a Day Gone By [originally performed by Love & Rockets]

This was a weird show for many reasons. First of all, David was originally scheduled to perform the following day at Bi Nuu (where I saw ChameleonsVox two years ago), but that show was canceled for unspecified reasons. However, I subsequently caught wind of this show at a much smaller venue. There was no mention of tickets or a price anywhere, just a claim that David would play at 10pm followed by a bunch of DJs. I arrived early and the place was fairly empty, without anyone at the door. David arrived, did a soundcheck, and then just hung out. 10pm came and went. Finally, at least 45 minutes late, the show began.

The venue was small and lacking any sort of stage. There was a DJ booth in the back but not much else. The space was dark and sickly smoky. Getting the sound in a decent state was clearly a challenge, although in the end it was fine. The crowd was sparse and an odd lot. Most seemed like dedicated fans, and yet several kept talking or coming and going during the set.

David didn't seem to mind, though, and he started his set with a dramatic flair by singing "Not Long for This World" from the 2011 album of the same name a capella. The rest of his set was just him and his acoustic guitar in the typical folky singer-songwriter style. I was hoping for some accompaniment, but David's songwriting and performing skills are strong enough such that even when unadorned, his songs are clever and varied enough to keep things interesting.

Half of the set came from David's new album, Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure, officially released on October 18, but already available at his concerts. A highlight of the album (and the concert) is a new version of "The Auteur", originally a b-side of "The Guitar Man" from 2002. Where the original is country-inflected and pleasantly lilting, the new version is sinister and foreboding. The subtlety of the original may have been easily overlooked at the time, but this version, particularly with Rose McGowan's vocals, is an even clearer damnation of predatory Hollywood figures.

In plenty of other regards as well, the new album hearkens back to Estranged, David's superb album from 2003 (one of the first albums I ever reviewed on this blog!). In much the same way, Missives is rather accessible and yet full of surprises. It's folk-oriented, but features rich, lush instrumentation. It makes for a beautiful listen even if you don't focus in on it. The only downside is that many of the lyrics continue David's tiring trend of treating women only as sexual muses. Many of the songs are nonetheless clever, humorous, or earnestly thoughtful, like "(I Don't Want to Destroy) Our Beautiful Thing", "Pre-Existing Condition", and "(I Walked Away from) The Girl in Yellow". But others are less subtle and lack that level of depth. Unfortunately, those are the ones that David focused on at the concert. I wish I could've instead seen the meticulously crafted soundscape of "Mosaic" live, but recreating that level of complexity was probably infeasible.

The rest of the show came from across David's substantial back catalog, including his classic "Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh" (always a pleasure) and two Love & Rockets songs: "Shelf Life", a personal favorite from the latter-day Sweet F.A. (1996), and "The Dog-End of a Day Gone By", originally a pummeling rocker from Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven (1985). Naturally, these were highlights, even if neither was perfectly performed.

The context of this concert makes judgment difficult. The circumstances were obviously far from ideal, and if I take all of that into account, it was disappointing in comparison to what I was hoping to see at the originally scheduled show at Bi Nuu. However, I appreciate that David adhered to the notion that the show must go on, and although it was a short set, he put on a good show for those 45 minutes. He clearly wanted to make the most of it, regardless of the limited financial gain to be had from such an intimate show. With a strong new album in tow, and considering past experience, my bet is that the rest of his tour will be even better.

Scores:
The performance itself: B-
The entire experience: D
The album (Missive to an Angel from the Halls of Infamy and Allure): B+

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Wilco / Spiral Stairs - Live 2019.09.12 Tempodrom, Berlin, Germany


My third time seeing Wilco after great shows at Austin City Limits Festival and Stubb's in Austin. Their new album, Ode to Joy, is due out on October 4th, so all the new songs were unfamiliar to me except for the early single "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)".

Artist: Wilco
Venue: Tempodrom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 September 2019
Opening Act: Spiral Stairs

Setlist (thanks to wilcoworld.net for the new songs' titles):
01. Bright Leaves
02. Before Us
03. Company in My Back
04. War on War
05. One and a Half Stars
06. If I Ever Was a Child
07. Handshake Drugs
08. Hummingbird
09. At Least That's What You Said
10. White Wooden Cross
11. Via Chicago
12. Bull Black Nova
13. Reservations
14. Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
15. Impossible Germany
16. Box Full of Letters
17. Everyone Hides
18. Jesus, Etc.
19. Theologians
20. I'm the Man Who Loves You
21. An Empty Corner
22. Misunderstood

Encore:
23. Hold Me Anyway
24. Random Name Generator
25. California Stars
26. True Love Will Find You in the End [Daniel Johnston cover]
27. The Late Greats

Opening band Spiral Stairs is actually the solo project of former Pavement member Scott Kannberg. Despite his length indie rock credentials, he appeared with an acoustic guitar, accompanied only by Tim Regan on lead guitar. Kannberg twice made jokes about them being Christian neurosurgeons. No explanation was provided, but who knows, in an alternative universe, maybe it could've been. At any rate, without a rhythm section, the songs fell a little flat. Regan did a great job filling out the songs with melodic riffs and tasteful solos, but Kannberg's voice wasn't too sharp, and it felt like he was trying to sing the songs as if they were intended to be bigger than they were. The political lyrics were good, though. I felt a little bad when he said he was going to play a Pavement song ("Two States") and hardly anyone responded when he asked if anyone remembered the band.

[Spiral Stairs.]

Wilco started their set with two new songs, both of which were low-key and relatively unadorned. I was concerned that they might again be pulling the full-album trick as they did last time I saw them, but thankfully they broke the pattern with the delightfully oddball "Company in My Back" and the shimmering, tuneful "War on War". The band scattered new songs throughout the whole set, and although I wasn't initially impressed, they seemed to improve as the night went on. The new material seems to fit in with much of Star Wars (2015) and Schmilco (2016) in particular, in that a lot of the songs sound downcast, subtly and loosely arranged, and oriented around Jeff Tweedy's obscure but idiosyncratically humorous perspective.

The rest of set bounced all around Wilco's career, collecting exactly one song from almost every album they've released, plus an abundance of songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and especially A Ghost Is Born (2004). Those are great albums, so I wasn't upset about it, but the bias was extreme, and I was surprised by the lack of material from their recent albums. I liked the front half of Star Wars quite well, and I never saw Wilco tour Schmilco. Somehow, "If I Ever Was a Child" is already something of a classic, and I was surprised to hear some of the audience singing along.

Highlights were the triple-guitar attack of "Handshake Drugs" and the clearly beloved "Impossible Germany", the wild cacophonous dynamics of "Via Chicago", the plaintively beautiful "Reservations", the awesome bells-and-guitar solo of "Bull Black Nova", and the perennial classics "Jesus, Etc." and "California Stars". The biggest surprise was "True Love Will Find You in the End", presumably played in honor of Daniel Johnston's passing the day before.

Even if not all the new material blew me away, I still liked the way Wilco were able to blend the songs into their long setlist. They never lost steam and balanced the softer and quieter numbers with plenty of high-energy rockers. Many of their songs appear in most of their setlists, but their songs are varied and plentiful enough that they can play endless variations and it never gets old. I didn't find this show to be especially different than the core of the last time I saw them, but it was different enough to still be compelling, and I've thoroughly enjoyed them every time I've seen them. All six members remain strong performers, and I like that each gets their moments to shine.

[Wilco.]

Scores:
Spiral Stairs: C+
Wilco: A-

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Torstraßen Festival 2019


Despite the name, this event isn't really a street festival like the Choriner Straßenfest. First of all, it's all about the music, and second, it doesn't normally actually take place in the street. (Ironically, it would seem it doesn't even usually take place in venues on Torstraße, but rather in venues near Torstraße.) This year, the entirety of the festival took place inside the Volksbühne, one of the nicest venues I've been in in Berlin. Apart from the main hall, both of the secondary "salons", two makeshift stages in the halls above those, and a back room even higher and further back in the building were in use as well. The foyer was used for an independent label market as well as various talks and workshops. It was quite fun to explore the many parts of the expansive building!

Event: Torstraßen Festival 2019
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 7 September 2019

I arrived in time to see the end of the set by Jealous in the Roter Salon ("red salon"). The Berlin trio played a noisy, punky, gothy blend with hints of Cramps-style psychobilly. The most immediate reference point, however, was Bauhaus, especially in the spindly, Daniel Ash-inspired guitar. Nonetheless, my favorite part was the bass: it was prominent and driving, but for one song, the bassist used a slide to play most of the riffs and even played a wild solo with it. The vocals were unfortunately quite distant and mixed too low, but they had a good sound otherwise.

[Jealous.]

I went up a back stairwell to the Rangfoyer Rot ("red balcony foyer") to see Michaela Meise, a Berliner accordionist. Most of her set consisted of international, politically-oriented folk tunes from the 60s, often translated from the original languages (Greek, English, French, etc.) by herself. Several songs covered the plight of Jews during and after World War II, many were protest anthems from various European freedom struggles, and her final song was a cover of DDR band Karat's "Der blaue Planet", an anti-nuke song from 1982. Meise's vocals were plain but clear and precise, which lent itself well to understanding the words. For most of the set, she was joined by Barbara Wagner, who I recognized from seeing her earlier this year with Britta in the same building. The guitarwork was fairly restrained but was a nice accompaniment to the accordion. I appreciated their effort in keeping these older yet still relevant songs alive.

[Michaela Meise with Barbara Wagner.]

I took another back stairwell up another level into the back room merely described as the 3. Stock ("third floor", but by German counting, i.e. not including the ground floor) to see John Moods, better known as a member of Fenster. He appeared alone with just a guitar, a keyboard, and an iPhone. I had been expecting something somewhat psychedelic, but what I got was more like a cheesy, laid-back 80s pop sound with a hint of R&B. The vocals were okay, but with the dominant backing tracks, his stage presence came off a bit strange. It worked slightly better when people stood up and started to move a bit, but it seemed like he was missing his target. I was also disappointed that his guitarwork was minimal and mostly overshadowed by the backing track. There were even taped guitar parts that were louder and more interesting than what he played live! It was strange. I liked his lyric "Why do we try to be cool?", but most of the rest was uninspiring.

[John Moods.]

I left a bit early and went back to the Roter Salon to catch the end of Swoosh's set. They were an instrumental five-piece (three guitars, saxophone, and drums) playing free jazz or noise rock. The music sounded mostly improvisational, and the three guitarists were well-trained in making small rhythmic patterns and noises that fit together to built up a bigger sound. However, most of what I saw was fairly sparse, and the saxophonist in particular was quite minimalist. Some parts did have some groove, but most sounded fairly brooding and looming. It seemed they were on to something and I wish I'd heard more.

[Swoosh.]

I crossed over to the other side of the building to the Grüner Salon ("green salon") to see Kate NV, a Moscow-based experimental electronic artist. Most of her set consisted of building up weird sound fields by looping hand instruments, keyboards, samples, and processed vocals. Her first piece started with playing a series of tuned bells and glasses that she looped to create an abstract harmonic foundation. As the set progressed, she increasingly relied on her electronics, in particular what sounded like synthesized wood percussion. (In that, I was reminded of the strangely delightful BANANA collaborative project from 2017.) Most of her songs were instrumental or had minimal, possibly wordless, vocals, but for her last song, she finally sung a longer set of lyrics in Russian. Her playfulness was enjoyable, as was watching her put the pieces together of her songs, but it was a bit slow and not always entirely successful.

[Kate NV.]

I went back to the 3. Stock to see Jana Irmert, a Danish cellist and vocalist. She also used a backing track, but it was fairly minimal and would have given her instrument and voice plenty of room to shine had she chosen to take it. However, her material was almost exclusively downbeat, droning, and tepid. She appeared to be a skilled performer, but I longed for a bit of movement, or an excuse to take a more expressive solo on the cello.

[Jana Irmert.]

At that point, the Großes Haus (the main hall) finally opened, and I went to see the first band of the night on that stage, The Chap. Their electronic indie rock was consistently upbeat and extremely high-energy. I was impressed that they basically didn't slow down at any point. They were a bit punky, but were tight and had a strong rhythm throughout. Their energy was wild and tense, yet they harnessed it effectively. One song even featured coordinated dance moves. Their lineup featured two keyboardists, a drummer, a guitarist, and a bassist/guitarist. Everyone contributed backing vocals. The balance between the instruments was arranged well; no instrument dominated, and all had their moments to shine. Their final song was somehow even more highly charged than the rest and featured a more explicitly motorik-oriented driving drumbeat.

[The Chap.]

The next act on the same stage was P.A. Hülsenbeck, who was accompanied by a drummer, a trumpeter, a bassist (on bass guitar and double bass), and another performer who seemed to be providing sound manipulation and samples. The songs were jazzy and started in familiar territory but gradually got more experimental and exploratory, particularly when the person in the back started wielding his effects. At different points, he added dub-like delay to the drums, messed with the reverb of the bass, and distorted the trumpet à la Jon Hassell. The centerpiece was a dark, haunting song about the disintegration of Europe. While the band was completely hidden by fog machines, two dancers approached each other from opposite sides of the front of the stage. They wore large veils with a blue light emanating from where their faces should've appeared. After that song, one left, but the other remained, mostly just huddled sadly on the ground. The mood was rather gloomy, but the creative use of instrumentation and effects was well done.

[The best I could do for P.A. Hülsenbeck with so many fog machines.]

I went back up to the Grüner Salon to see Chris Imler, a drummer gone solo in the vein of Robert Görl of D.A.F. He had a rig with samplers and synthesizers built around his drum kit so that he could play standing, trigger his samples, and sing simultaneously. The techno vibe risked being generic, but his humor and intensity kept it rolling, and the live drumming made a big difference as well. He regularly interrupted himself with comedic interjections before jumping back into the middle of his songs. It was all a bit bizarre, but he made it fun and the audience was finally ready to dance, so he fit the bill perfectly.

[Chris Imler.]

The festival continued with more bands and DJs until 4 in the morning, but it was after 11 when I decided it was probably time to head home. I'm sure there were even more quality acts to follow, but I was happy with what I got to experience. The Volksbühne is a great venue, and I loved the cozy salons with their color themes including matching upholstery. The festival was well organized and well curated; the variety of performers was excellent. It felt like a smaller-scale, more approachable and sustainable version of South by Southwest. I look forward to going back!

Scores:
Jealous: B
Michaela Meise: B+
John Moods: D
Kate NV: B-
Jana Irmert: C-
The Chap: B+
P.A. Hülsenbeck: B-
Chris Imler: B+

P.S. Thanks to Tim and Lutz!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Choriner Straßenfest 2019


I happen to live on a street with an annual Straßenfest (street party). It's pretty awesome. I've been to a number of Straßenfeste, Volksfeste, Dorffeste, and so on over the years, and they usually feature music, but I rarely pay enough attention or feel inspired enough to write anything up. At last year's Choriner Straßenfest, I was mostly focused on hanging out with my fellow attendees. This year, I paid a bit more attention to the music.

Event: Choriner Straßenfest 2019
Artists: Koueme / Bando Berlin / Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot
Venue: Various stages on Choriner Straße
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 24 August 2019

I still didn't see every act of the day, and there was karaoke on the corner with Oderberger Straße for most of the evening. I'm only going to cover what I saw. First was Koueme, an African singer-songwriter with just a guitar, set up under the awning of Buchhandlung Mundo Azul. He switched between English, German, and at least one African language. His songs were pleasant but plain. One of his final numbers was a cover of "Let It Be", which he was able to do justice to, but I preferred his own songs. Unfortunately, his last number was a bit overshadowed by the soundcheck from the main stage.

After taking a break, I went back out later to eat an awesome saffron rice dish from a Persian food truck and listen to Bando Berlin. Their tagline was "Hardcore Percussion / Industrial bis Worldmusic", and that's a pretty accurate description. Their only instruments were large barrels, or what are called "drums" in the business world, and they were loud. They were tight, though, and they varied their rhythms and style just enough to keep it interesting. If they had played any longer, I probably would have been over it. The rest of audience (or at least those for whom it wasn't too loud) seemed to be loving it. I guess all you need really is just a good beat.

After another break, I went back out and saw most of the set from the Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot. I recalled that they also played last year, and they are apparently an institution. They formed in 1986 in East Berlin, when playing songs as socially and politically critical as they did probably wasn't looked too fondly upon. Their members mostly played traditional brass instruments (as one would expect from a proper Kurkapelle) but mixed in guitar, bass, and drums. Similarly, their material was a balance of traditional folk, light classical, jazz, and modern alternative music. Their strangest song was a cover of "Der Fuehrer's Face", which I only later realized was an anti-Nazi song from the Donald Duck propaganda short film. The highlight was a high-charged cover of Ideal's "Rote Liebe".

Not bad for a party right outside my window!

[Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot.]

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Isabelle, Silly, Uwe, Rachel, and Kamyon!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Tame Impala / Blood Orange / Yeasayer - Live 2019.08.13 Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, Germany


I'm still only marginally aware of the connection between this concert and the Musikexpress magazine, but whatever, they threw a birthday party and invited three strong acts to perform on one stage. Calling it a festival is probably a bit ambitious, but whatever.

Event: 50 Jahre Musikexpress – Das Festival
Artists: Tame Impala / Blood Orange / Yeasayer
Venue: Max-Schmeling-Halle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 13 August 2019

Yeasayer immediately gave me a Devo vibe, although it might've just been their focused stage presence and the bassist's red tracksuit. There was something mechanical, bizarre, entrancing, absurd, and precise about them as well, and the way they took R&B and funk grooves and mutated them into something danceable but unexpected also reminded me of Devo's famous streak of successful reinterpretations. None of it would have worked if the songwriting and performance hadn't been solid, though, and I was quite impressed.

The high points were the fretless bass, which was fluid, expressive, all over the place, and yet still always perfectly tight, and the vocals, which were almost always sung in harmony. All three core members sang, and they consistently nailed their parts, even when some segments featured minimal instrumental accompaniment. Before their last song, "Ambling Alp", they claimed that the lyrics mentioned the namesake of the venue, Max Schmeling, and I thought they might be joking, but it really does. That song also featured a heavy synth-like effect on the bass that rendered it completely unrecognizable, and it even featured a wild but superb solo! Meanwhile, they had psychedelic and frequently creepy projections mostly using images of the members' heads while presumably screaming.

[Yeasayer. I unfortunately didn't get a good picture of the projections.]

Yeasayer's setlist (thanks to setlist.fm!):
01. 2080
02. People I Loved
03. 24-Hour Hateful Live!
04. Fluttering in the Floodlights
05. O.N.E.
06. Ecstatic Baby
07. Ambling Alp

Devonté Hynes' Blood Orange continued the trend of vocal prowess and harmonies, and took the R&B to another level, but otherwise was quite the opposite of Yeasayer. His sound was sparse and wispy despite the sizeable backing band (guitar/keyboards, bass, drums, sax, and two backing vocalists), and the mood was decidedly chill, casual, and thoroughly non-aggressive. The music was always danceable but still textured and nuanced enough for several of the performers to take brief solos. Hynes played a lot of keyboards but also frequently picked up a guitar and even busted out some decent lead bits. Most of his video projections were just people grooving, hanging out, and being stylish, although several inexplicably featured amateur drag racing footage. I appreciated the vulnerability and queerness that was otherwise present.

[Blood Orange.]

Blood Orange's setlist (thanks to setlist.fm!):
01. Champagne Coast
02. Dark & Handsome
03. Saint
04. Augustine
05. Jewellery
06. It Is What It Is
07. Hope
08. Holy Will
09. Losing You [Solange cover]
10. You're Not Good Enough
11. Negro Swan
12. Happiness
13. Today

And then finally came Tame Impala, obviously the biggest draw for me. After being blown away by their thoroughly psychedelic set at Levitation in 2015, I was a bit let down by their lighter, more dance-oriented set later in the same year at Austin City Limits Festival. Currents (also 2015) hasn't really grown on me in the meantime, and their only other releases since then have been the deliberately pop-oriented singles "Patience" and "Borderline" earlier this year (okay, and a cover of "Confide in Me" on a Triple J compilation). The trend here is clear, and it doesn't really speak to me. But knowing that the band are supposedly working on a fourth record, and still holding out hope that they'll move in a more interesting direction, I had to take the chance.

[Tame Impala.]

Unfortunately, my hopes were unfounded. Most of the set consisted of Currents songs, and along with the two new singles, the overwhelming sound was dance-heavy and poppy. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making dance-friendly music, but it came at the cost of the complexity of their arrangements and their free, improvisational jams. There was still a taste of psychedelia, even in the pop, but the guitar jam bliss was restricted. Other than "Sestri Levante", which is at least six years old and mostly a fixed part of "Mind Mischief" at this point, the only other real jam or improvisation was at the end of "Apocalypse Dreams". That was wisely chosen as a set closer, and it was probably the highlight of the night, but it was the only moment like that. (By comparison, at that 2015 Levitation set, at least half the songs had improvisational sections or extended instrumental surprises.)

It's not like their newer work is bad, though, and they thankfully skipped "'Cause I'm a Man", but I felt like the band were playing something static and pre-programmed, even though it appeared to be almost entirely live. There was a rigidity to it, like they no longer had the flexibility to throw in surprises. Again, a few songs like "Elephant" had brief moments of a diversion from the recorded version, but they were the same tricks as four years ago, and infrequent and brief enough to be easily overlooked. The presence of two drumsets and a separate percussion rig with congas led me to hope there might be some rhythm section workouts, but oddly the same drummer just switched from one set to the other for no apparent reason, and I only saw a guest percussionist at the other rig for one song ("Patience" if I recall correctly).

The worst crime was that the low end was overwhelmingly over-biased. I never thought I'd complain about the bass being too loud, but if this is what Kevin Parker meant when he's talked about trying to get his music played in clubs, then count me out. All texture and subtlety was lost in favor of earth-shaking low end vibrations. This was particularly apparent on the pre-recorded tapes played as the band walked out at the start and again for the encore. In both cases, the recordings were deafeningly and headache-inducingly loud in the low end.

On one hand, I appreciated that the band brought out "Led Zeppelin", a b-side from Lonerism (2012), but on the other, it was the only curveball from their back catalog in the whole set. Otherwise, all five other pre-Currents tracks were also played at both shows I saw in 2015. What happened to the rest of their songs?

If there was one particularly fun element, it was probably that for once I was down in the middle of the pit, and the laser light show was a delight from that perspective. Mixed with the heavy smoke machines, it made for an oil-on-water type of effect above our heads. At three points in the show, they released confetti cannons upon us, and combined with the lights, it made for some cool visual effects. I'll ignore the wastefulness and the cost of cleanup for the present, and I'm well aware that none of these tricks are new or unique to Tame Impala, but it was my first time experiencing them from such a central location, and that was admittedly enjoyable.

[The smoke and light effects.]

I'm still curious to hear where Tame Impala goes next, and I'm not sure I'll be so quick to jump on concert tickets next time around, but we'll see what happens!

Tame Impala's setlist (thanks for setlist.fm for the taped track names):
01. List of People (To Try and Forget About) [Tape]
02. Let It Happen
03. Patience
04. Led Zeppelin
05. The Moment
06. Mind Mischief → Sestri Levante
07. Nangs
08. Elephant
09. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
10. Borderline
11. Love/Paranoia
12. Yes I'm Changing
13. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
14. Eventually
15. Apocalypse Dreams

Encore:
16. Mutant Gossip [Tape]
17. The Less I Know the Better
18. New Person, Same Old Mistakes

Scores:
Yeasayer: A-
Blood Orange: B
Tame Impala: B-

P.S. This show was originally scheduled to take place in Parkbühne Wuhlheide, a large open-air amphitheater in the former East side. I've never been and was looking forward to it, but it was moved due to the demands of Tame Impala's light show. Oh well. Hard to complain about a venue that's walking distance from my apartment, though.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Reconstructing the Velvet Underground's Lost Album (Again)


Nine years ago, I did one of those silly things where I tried to revise history to make my own convenient compilation of a large, disorganized body of work that is hard to track down in full. In this case, it was the "lost album" by The Velvet Underground from circa 1969. Since that time, a few new reissues and archival releases have been released, and I've tracked down a few other stray versions I hadn't been able to find before. I finally took the time to re-evaluate all of the available versions, and as a result, I've expanded my original commentary and updated the playlist to account for my new preferences. See what you think!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Boogarins / Carnivore Club - Live 2019.07.30 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany


Amazingly, Boogarins were back in Berlin after playing here just last November!

Artist: Boogarins
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 30 July 2019
Opening Act: Carnivore Club

Setlist:
01. [Unknown]
02. As Chances
03. Lá Vem a Morte [Instrumental]
04. Foimal
05. Tempo [Extended]
06. Tardança
07. Invenção
08. Te Quero Longe
09. Passeio
10. LVCO 4
11. Polução Noturna
12. Lucifernandis
13. Auchma [Extended] →
14. Sombra ou Dúvida

Encore:
15. Dislexia ou Transe
16. Onda Negra

Carnivore Club appeared unassuming at first: just two musicians, one on guitar and one behind a keyboard. I got a heavy 80s synthpop vibe, but they had a slight extra edge in that the keyboardist hit a drum pad for the snare. The rest of the percussion and some of the rhythm parts appeared to be programmed, but that one bit of live percussion made a difference. They reminded me of the early, darker side of New Order. However, their penultimate song was notably more pop, and I think they were on to something with that one. It featured sampled vocal harmonies, which was a bit awkward in that it felt like karaoke, but it helped give the impression that the song was even bigger than it was. Their final song was built around a metal riff, but unfortunately they didn't do much with it. I liked their willingness to play around with their sound, though, and I think they have some real promise.

[Carnivore Club.]

Since their last show in Berlin, Boogarins released their fourth album, Sombrou Dúvida. It continues the electronic experimentation of Lá Vem a Morte (2017) but is a bit less chaotic and more diverse in sound and rhythm. They played most of the new album as well as about half of Lá Vem a Morte. Despite the new material, the concert felt fairly similar to the previous one, but considering how good that show was, that's not at all a bad thing.

In fact, this show may have been even better. The more expansive sonic palette of the new material broadened the horizon of the live show. Benke Ferraz sang lead on more songs, and even bassist Raphael Vaz took the lead on "Polução Noturna". Vaz spent even more time playing keyboards than before, again widening the spectrum of the band. The band didn't try to reproduce the sample-heavy cacophony of songs like "Lá Vem a Morte", which was performed as a brief, guitar-oriented instrumental that merely linked other songs together. Instead, they relied on the individual virtuosity of each member and an appreciation for basic guitar and synthesizer effects to drive their sound.

In fact, that method of merging songs and subtly segueing from one to the next was a hallmark of the show. If you weren't keeping track, it was easy to overlook these transitions and assume the band were playing long, continuous jams. And in a sense, they were. The pacing of the slower, sparser songs between the heavy workouts was such that when one joined to the next it often felt natural enough that it could've been written and recorded that way in the first place.

That said, while most of their songs featured some improvisation, it was the three older songs that were most drastically rearranged into extended jams. "Tempo" began especially quiet and open with long pauses between Dinho Almeida's individual lines. He was clearly just having fun and teasing us. The song still inevitably broke into the bigger choruses, and at some point it finally launched into a wild jam. "Lucifernandis", again the only song they played from their debut album, As Plantas Que Curam (2013), was another starting point for an extended jam sequence that was mostly based around "Auchma", originally the brief closing number from Manual (2015), but regularly rearranged into a much longer and heavier exercise.

[Boogarins.]

Even if the new songs weren't quite as jam-oriented, the guitarwork from Boogarins is always solid, and there was even more room for Vaz and drummer Ynaiã Benthroldo to contribute to the sound. The newer songs are more fully-formed and rounded out; instead of just two guitarists exploring their instruments, the collaboration of all four members is more readily apparent. As a result, they sound big, pulsing, groovy, and always full of surprises.

Scores:
Carnivore Club: B
Boogarins: A

P.S. Thanks to Jochen!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Neil Young & Promise of the Real / Bear's Den - Live 2019.07.03 Waldbühne, Berlin, Germany


This was my second time seeing Neil Young, and as luck would have it, I was able to see this show in the same company as the last time in Dallas in 2014. That show was a rare solo outing focusing on acoustic guitar performances and rambling storytelling. This show was part of a larger tour with Neil's preferred backing band of late, Promise of the Real, and as expected, the focus was on electric guitar workouts. The name of the venue translates to "Forest Stage", which is accurate: it is located in the western outskirts of Berlin, surrounded by the woods, but adjacent to the large Olympic stadium complex from the 1930s. It made for a beautiful environment, and thankfully the weather was pleasant.

Artist: Neil Young & Promise of the Real
Venue: Waldbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 July 2019
Opening Act: Bear's Den

Setlist:
01. Country Home
02. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
03. Over and Over
04. Mr. Soul [originally performed by Buffalo Springfield]
05. Helpless [originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young]
06. Old Man
07. Field of Opportunity
08. Heart of Gold
09. Words (Between the Lines of Age)
10. Lotta Love
11. Walk On
12. Winterlong
13. Bad Fog of Loneliness
14. Danger Bird
15. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
16. Love and Only Love
17. Rockin' in the Free World

Encore:
18. Roll Another Number (For the Road)
19. Piece of Crap

Opening act Bear's Den played a rather generic brand of Americana that blended country pop with hints of what might've been dream pop. However, they leaned much too heavily on the country and pop side of the equation and had none of the delicate balance of Mojave 3. The songs maintained a steady, dance-friendly beat and featured synthesizers despite a lack of anyone playing an instrument that seemed capable of creating that sound. This all was paired with lyrics of minimal content. They were harmless but also edgeless and I was unimpressed.

When Neil Young showed up with Promise of the Real, they were ready to rock. They started with a strong series of songs mixing Young's early days ("Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere", "Mr. Soul") with extended, jam-oriented songs from Ragged Glory (1990). This transitioned into several of his biggest hits and some of his more serene, country-rock material, including a rare electric version of "Lotta Love" (from Comes a Time, 1978). Another highlight was "Words", a great song with an unusual time signature that that band pulled off with finesse.

That was followed by a few of Neil's best early 70s deep cuts, namely the still-relevant "Walk On" (from On the Beach, 1974), personal favorite "Winterlong" (first played in 1970 but unreleased until Decade, 1977), and the almost forgotten "Bad Fog of Loneliness" (also first performed in 1970, but unreleased until Live at Massey Hall 1971, 2007). The rest of the main set consisted of lengthy rockers. First was the dark and brooding "Danger Bird" (from Zuma, 1975), and then came "Hey Hey, My My" (from Rust Never Sleeps, 1979), which was as heavy and intense as ever. "Love and Only Love" (another from Ragged Glory) was given an extremely long workout, including sections with dueling lead guitars and warped delay manipulation of Neil's guitar. "Rockin' in the Free World" went over even better with the crowd than "Heart of Gold", and the band's triple-fakeout ending was received with ecstatic delight instead of annoyed impatience. No one seemed to mind that Neil forgot a few of the words.

The encore consisted of a ridiculously comic pair of tunes: "Roll Another Number" (from Tonight's the Night, 1975) and "Piece of Crap" (from Sleeps with Angels, 1994). The latter's consumer capitalism critique is just as relevant as ever. Young mentioned wanting to finish on a "spiritual" song, which led me to think he had one more song to offer, but he left the stage, so he must have been referring to "Piece of Crap"!

Young and Promise of the Real performed in top form. The band played tight, followed Neil's energy and whims without hesitation, and provided a huge space for impressive improvisational solos. However, Tato Melgar's percussion was mostly overshadowed by Anthony Logerfo's drumming, and there was rarely space for three distinct guitar parts. Lukas and Micah Nelson seemed to often play the same thing, although on a few songs like "Winterlong", they played distinct parts that fleshed out the song wonderfully. Micah also switched to a piano for a few songs in the middle.

If there was a weak link, it was probably Young's voice. For the most part, he was still in good form, and he even managed to make the almost-whined lines of "Helpless" sound convincing. However, "Old Man" was less successful, as Neil couldn't quite hit the notes in the chorus, so some of the power of the song was sapped.

I was surprised at the lack of songs performed from either of Young's albums with Promise of the Real (The Monsanto Years, 2015, and The Visitor, 2017). In fact, everything the band performed with written in the 20th century. However, they played a variety of fairly obscure songs from Young's discography in addition to some big hits, so I can't really complain with what we got.

Much like with John Cale, you can never be quite sure what you are going to get when you buy a ticket to a Neil Young show. On this occasion, he seemed to be aiming to please the audience, but he still had some time for extended jams and rare songs from across his back catalog. It's strange for Young to completely bypass his recent records, but his choice of material was nonetheless a pleasure. The jams were good and the performance quality was high, so this was another thoroughly enjoyable show from Neil.

[Neil Young & Promise of the Real.]

Scores:
Bear's Den: C-
Neil Young & Promise of the Real: A

P.S. Thanks to Cheryl and Alyssa!