The moment I heard about a festival put on by the people of taste at the 8mm Bar (where I've seen Love'n'Joy and The Shivas) taking place at a venue ten minutes' walking distance from my apartment and featuring Stereolab and Michael Rother, I was sold. I bought a ticket the day they announced it.
Event: Synästhesie 2019 Day 1
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 16 November 2019
I started off my evening with Steppenkind at the Baby Satan Stage. The Berlin-based band played a D.A.F.-like version of darkwave based on sequencers, synthesizers, live drums, and spoken word vocals. The vocalist also played some heavily effected guitar parts. Musically, I liked the heavy beats and the electronic soundscape. The vocals were an unusual choice, somewhere between rap and spoken poetry, but the words weren't enough to draw me in. I admire the risk, though.
I left early to head to the main stage in the Kesselhaus to see Laura Carbone. She first crossed my radar by playing at SXSW in 2016 and 2017, but in both cases, I somehow missed seeing her. This time I made it a priority. Her songs were rooted in folk and blues, but she draped everything in gothy psychedelic rock. Half of the songs featured fuzz bass, and there were moments when she manipulated her guitar with delay and subtle whammy bar usage to get the classic My Bloody Valentine sound. Most of her set was slow and smoky, but that was interspersed with just enough higher-energy rock to keep it engaging. Her lead guitarist was exquisitely suited to the style and was well-honed on playing just the right thing at the right time. The drummer provided a number of nice harmonies, and occasionally even the lead guitarist and bassist pitched in, too. Carbone's voice was strong and risked melodramatic oversinging, but she restrained herself such that when she did go big, it caught your attention. I was impressed that even with a voice like that, she paid careful attention to the atmosphere she created.
As soon as Carbone's set ended, I went up into the Maschinenhaus to see Perilymph, another Berlin-based band. I came late and they were busy producing a big, warm, chilled-out psychedelic soundbed. Featuring two guitarist/synthesists, a bassist/percussionist, and a drummer, most of their music focused on exploratory instrumentals. One song did have vocals, but they seemed secondary. Their rhythms were steady and motorik-inspired. Several songs featured webs of interconnected instrumental parts, including several sections with really nice harmonizations. Their songs were pleasant and simple at first glance, but exploratory and full when you focused in. I wish I'd seen their full set.
Back in the Kesselhaus, Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar from Niger had already started. I've seen a few different Tuareg "desert guitar" groups now, and I haven't been disappointed yet. Mdou's recordings are known for his experimentation with effects and electronic elements, but on stage, he focused on the rhythm and his blazing guitar. He did end up using some guitar effects for bonus pysch points, but it was just the standard array of distortion, overdrive, and phasing. He sang some, but I couldn't understand the words, so they came across as just a vehicle for the music. The rest of the band consisted of a rhythm guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and another person who literally just clapped along to the beat. Most of the set was energetic and upbeat, but they played around significantly with tempo changes. There were only a few brief pauses and slower, sparser sections, but several occasions where the band suddenly started charging ahead and playing at incredibly fast tempos.
Instead of rushing around to catch a bit of another set, I just waited patiently in the Kesselhaus for Michael Rother of Neu! and Harmonia to take the stage. He suffered a false start, but once he got going, he was on. He played guitar but sat behind a table full of electronics. Rother was joined by Franz Bargmann on rhythm guitar and Hans Lampe on drums. Lampe was originally the engineer on Neu! 2 (1973) but graduated to play drums on the second side of Neu! 75 and then became a full member of La Düsseldorf (notably the band started by Klaus Dinger after Neu! split). Rother even introduced him as "Mr. Motorik", and sure enough, he spent the whole set pounding away on the classic beat, albeit frequently with the aid of a drum machine. In fact, I was a bit surprised that backing tracks were used for the bass parts as well, although considering how simple and repetitive they were, I don't blame them.
Rother's set mixed up a number of classic Neu! songs along with songs from Harmonia and his solo career. All of them were reworked to sound fresh and vibrant. In some cases it was enough for the original electronic drums to be replaced or augmented by the live energy of Lampe, and in others it was simply that Rother played beautiful lead parts in his trademark shimmering fuzz that in many cases outshone the parts on the original records. Bargmann's guitar was mostly relegated to the background, but the balance of Lampe and Rother was excellent, and the music was transcendent and thoroughly delightful. I was surprised by how quickly the time went by and disappointed that it was over so soon, despite that he played even longer than the advertised 70 minutes. Here's the setlist:
01. Katzenmusik 5
02. Neuschnee [Neu! song]
04. Seeland [Neu! song]
07. Deluxe (Immer wieder) [Harmonia song]
09. Hallogallo [Neu! song]
10. Negativland [Neu! song]
11. Dino [Harmonia song]
12. E-Musik [Neu! song]
I wasn't about to give up my spot at that point, so I stayed put and waited for the big headliner of the night, the newly reformed Stereolab. My first real interaction with the band came from seeing frontwoman Lætitia Sadier open for Beirut back in 2011. Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly impressed. In the meantime, I eventually got with the program and have since become a huge fan.
Stereolab today is quite similar to the group it was when they split in 2009. The founding members Tim Gane on guitar and Sadier on vocals/keyboards/guitar were joined by longtime drummer Andy Ramsay, keyboardist Joe Watson from their last few albums, and new member Xavier Muñoz Guimera on bass and backing vocals. They played a set that covered most of their career, but left out everything before Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993) and their last pair of albums, Chemical Chords (2008) and Not Music (2010). As if they were aiming for some sort of bell curve, the only album they played more than two songs from was Dots and Loops (1997), which was tellingly the album that saw the band move explicitly into a more experimental post-rock phase. Here's the setlist:
03. French Disko
04. Baby Lulu
05. Infinity Girl
07. Miss Modular
08. Need to Be
09. Metronomic Underground
10. The Extension Trip
11. Ping Pong
14. Lo Boob Oscillator [extended]
15. Rainbo Conversation
I appreciated the varied setlist, but it leaned particularly heavy on the jazzier, academic, somewhat stiffer side of their catalog. Stereolab never forgot how to groove, and they wrote clever and exciting songs throughout their entire career, but I still prefer their looser early years when they wore their heavy influences from The Velvet Underground and Neu! on their sleeves. We still got a few of the rockers like "French Disko"and "Ping Pong", though, and the whimsical "Lo Boob Oscillator" was another highlight for me. They extended the second half of the song into an almost 15-minute jam with several intense uptempo sections separated by a long abstract interlude. It was a delight to see them cut loose and improvise, and they never wandered into territory that lost my attention.
However, there was one notable problem: the mix was not great, particularly in the vocals. I could barely understand Sadier even when she spoke between songs. Even worse were the backing vocals from Muñoz. It probably isn't possible to replace the loss of Mary Hansen, but I appreciate that he tried. However, his vocals were mixed so low so as to be almost unrecognizable. When I could discern him, he seemed to be hitting the notes, but the cheerful interplay from the records didn't quite come alive.
This was a pretty incredible set of bands to see all in one night. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, which is a rare occurrence for me!
Laura Carbone: B
Mdou Moctar: B+
Michael Rother: A