Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Guitar And Other Machines - Part 2

Just before Christmas, I posted an article on the music of Portal, which had been made available for free download. I commented at the time that there only seemed to be 94 tracks, rather than the 100 that had been promised. It turned out that this was because a handful of tracks had been discarded, either because the sound quality wasn't great or, in the case of a John Peel session, the copyright belongs to the BBC. Scott Sinfield has now added some unreleased tracks to the archive to bring the total up to 100. So if any readers downloaded the entire archive after my first post, you can now head back to Scott's blog to download these extra tracks:

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

It hurts too much to be where you are


After the grandeur of the Town Hall, I find myself back in the more confined surroundings of the Victoria for an evening put on by local promoters Sound of Confusion. They specialise in noisy psychedelia, particularly the kind that was briefly popular in the late '80s/early '90s and made up a large proportion of my listening during my student days. First up is London act One Unique Signal, kicking in with some heavy, repetitive guitar riffs of the kind that dominated the works of Loop, who were one of my favourite acts in this genre. There is nothing particularly original going on here, in fact I'm even wondering at first if they are playing a cover of a Loop song, but I'm pleased to find that someone is still making this kind of music. It's all going fine until the guitarist opts to sing on one of the numbers, and does so in a rather bizarre growl. I'm not sure if this is down to his own efforts or if his voice is going through some kind of distortion effect, but the impression this creates is one of a slightly comical death metal band. The rest of the set is instrumental and I would advise them to keep it this way, or try some different vocal effects. They only play a short set, but this is not the last we will see of One Unique Signal tonight.

I'm surprised that Einstellung are on next as I would have expected them to be higher up the bill, especially now that they get invited to play venues such as the Town Hall. Watching them for the second time in just a few days, in some ways it feels comforting and familiar to see them back in the kind of venue they are used to playing. Now I've seen them in a large venue, they do look kind of cramped on the Victoria's small stage but this obviously doesn't bother them. They give it everything they've got, still managing to create an infernal racket from a much smaller sound system. The set is pretty much the same as Thursday night's, again focused on the new album, with the same film playing behind them. The only difference seems to be that due to time constraints, the amusingly titled "Neu Ist Der Neue Neu" has been omitted. The Town Hall show has given me a deeper appreciation of the way their music is structured, and now even seeing them on a small stage again I notice minute details that I would probably have overlooked before. Their two shows this week remind me that it's great to have a band who can always give an exciting performance in any environment. There's not really much more to say that I haven't already said about the first show, except that anyone who hasn't heard them yet should head to their MySpace page or their manager's Krautcast radio site and check out the sounds available there.

Jesus Deluxe don't really seem to fit with the overall mood of the evening. I can see why the promoters might have picked them to play as their fuzzy guitars sometimes hint at the poppy psychedelia of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. However, the singer, in both his vocal style and general appearance, reminds me of countless mediocre local indie bands who performed at the Flapper and the Jug of Ale in the mid-'90s. After a couple of songs, all I can think of is Verve (before they became The Verve). This is an evening of nostalgia, but Jesus Deluxe hark back to a period of indie history that I would rather forget. Even the band's name suggests bland, NME-approved indie. The atmosphere during the set is also rather unsettling. It soon transpires that it is the singer's stag night and he has brought with him a bunch of drunken friends, who stand at the front and chant like football fans. This is probably what it's like to be at an Oasis gig, but thankfully I have no first-hand experience of that. I'm relieved when the set finishes and the singer hurriedly leaves the room, taking his intoxicated rabble with him.

When noisy, pre-Britpop indie is discussed, The Telescopes seem to be overlooked in favour of their contemporaries such as My Bloody Valentine, but of all the bands from that era, it is their recordings that I return to most often. They have gone through a number of changes in the past two decades, and the last time I saw them live they treated us to a set of minimal electronic drones, so far removed from their early work it was hard to believe it was the same band. Having been absent for a few years, The Telescopes name has been resurrected but singer Stephen Lawrie is now the only original member remaining. Tonight we have been promised a full band set concentrating on early material, but I'm uncertain if these classics will retain the power of the original recordings or if the songs, and the singer, will have mellowed with age. The backing band that Stephen has assembled tonight is actually made up of the members of One Unique Signal, and it soon becomes obvious that there will be nothing mellow or ambient about tonight's set. Within moments of them walking onstage, I forget where I am and what year it is as they launch into "There Is No Floor". This is one of the most ferocious songs The Telescopes recorded in their first incarnation. I love the sense of mystery surrounding the song's central character, who lives on a non-existent floor, and also how it is really called "There Is No 13th Floor" but due to some unexplained superstitious belief the number 13 is never printed in the song's title or on the lyric sheet. The Telescopes manage to outdo even Einstellung in getting the maximum output from the small sound system, and immediately I'm hit by a tidal wave of noise, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. One Unique Signal do a fine job of reproducing the power of the original Telescopes line-up, and their performance here seems much more consistent than when they were playing their own material. The set is made up of most of the tracks from the "Taste" album, plus the two singles "To Kill A Slow Girl Walking" and "Precious Little". There is nothing post-1990, when the band entered their mellow, dreamy phase. This leads to a debate on whether Stephen should be so reliant on songs he wrote 20 years ago. I'm well aware that I criticised Sonic Boom for doing the same thing at a gig last year. For me, the main difference is that I never saw the Telescopes in their early years so it's the first time I've seen most of these songs performed live. You could argue that it's me, rather than Stephen Lawrie, who needs to move on from the music of the past, but I'm just happy that, for one evening at least, he is willing to indulge me in my musical fantasies.

Another big difference between this and the Sonic Boom show is the relentless energy that Stephen injects into his performance. He is in no way a conventional frontman, and his onstage demeanour is just as I imagine it would have been 20 years ago. Perhaps in a deliberate homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain, he performs "Silent Water" with his back to the crowd. With a space at the front now vacated by the Jesus Deluxe stag party, Stephen is free to leave the stage and stumble around, dragging the mikestand behind him and colliding with anyone foolish enough to stand too close. He curls up in a foetal ball or rolls around the floor, frequently getting tangled up in his microphone cable. The anger, fear and frustration that he exudes can be uncomfortable in such a small room. Watching him up close, I'm not sure that this is just an act. Stephen looks genuinely tormented and I believe this is his way of dealing with traumatic events in his life. I have not seen a performance this cathartic since Michael Gira fronting Swans. As the final song, "Suicide", heads towards its ear-splitting climax, I begin to wonder what Stephen has in mind to finish the set. He picks up a bottle and I'm worried that he is going to do himself some serious harm, but instead he calmly leaves the room and sits alone outside to finish his drink, while the noise inside gradually diminishes to a single piece of feedback. This may seem like an anti-climax, but much of the excitement here comes not from Stephen's actions themselves but the tension of not knowing what he will do next. It reminds me that there was a time when gigs were often confrontational, and dangerous for both audience and performer. Today's live shows are often very safe in comparison and it makes me wonder how I would have coped seeing some of my favourite acts the first time round, for example the notorious JAMC gigs.

Despite a couple of minor failures, overall this was a memorable night and I'm glad that Sound of Confusion share my enthusiasm for great music of the past. They usually put on a gig once a month. For info on their upcoming events, and to see the wonderful op art posters they create for each show, check out their MySpace page.


CLUSTER / EINSTELLUNG - Birmingham Town Hall

Even by their usual high standards, those wonderful people at Capsule have excelled themselves with this show. Tonight they have laid on for us two hours of the finest Krautrock, in one of Birmingham's best venues. The night kicks off with one of my favourite local acts, who prove that you don't need to be German to play Krautrock. I've been meaning to write something about Einstellung for a while now, and their outstanding performance tonight has finally given me the incentive to do so. I have seen them live many times, but usually in small venues. To witness them playing the Town Hall, with the powerful sound system that their music deserves, is a real treat for me, and I suspect for them as well.

Einstellung's sound is based on the driving rhythms of 1970s Krautrock, Neu! in particular, but they also remain true to their Birmingham roots by incorporating solid metal riffs that could have come straight from an early Black Sabbath album. This heavier aspect is partly due to the members' history in a number of local bands, in particular Steve Hough's involvement with Cable Regime and Godflesh. Einstellung's debut album, "Wings of Desire", would surely have made it into Julian Cope's top 50 Krautrock records, had it been available when he compiled the list. Their second album is due soon and tonight we get a sneak preview as they play a set consisting mostly of these new numbers. The only piece that is familiar to me is the opening number, "Und Die Ruhe Ist Donner", which also appeared on the recent Audioscope charity compilation.

The first thing that becomes apparent as they begin their set is that their music, which I had always considered to be one of the most powerful live experiences anyway, is so much more effective when played through a big set of speakers. It's so loud that I actually need to remove my hearing aid as it's starting to generate feedback. They also benefit from having a larger stage on which they can move around, and I find I can watch each member in turn, giving me more of a feel for who is responsible for each of the individual elements in their sound. Most of the heavy riffs seem to be provided by Andrew Parker, while Andrew Smart adds more subtle melodic elements on top, although I have a feeling they sometimes swap roles when I'm not paying attention. The twin guitars are underpinned by Steve Hough's bass, which contributes directly to the Neu! feel. It's easy to forget Si Rider sitting at the back, but his solid drumming keeps the whole thing on track and stops it from descending into a messy free-for-all. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their live show is how they work together and everyone instinctively knows when to change tempo or move into the next phase of a song, without giving each other any visual cues. Their shows often feature a film projected behind them, which tonight seems to be "Scott of the Antarctic", and a lot of the sudden musical shifts seem to occur at the same time as scene changes in the film. That they manage to do this without looking at each other or the screen is incredible to me, as a non-musician.

All of the song titles are in German, and the band recently explained that, as instrumentals, the songs aren't really about anything at all so there is no point giving them titles in English that might impose an interpretation that was never intended. So for once, I don't feel the need to look for hidden meanings in the songs and instead I can just sit back and let the sound wash over me. The predominant sensation that I get from any Einstellung song is a solid rush of adrenalin that lasts for the song's entire length, which often exceeds ten minutes. This is how I imagine it feels to take hard drugs. I am grateful to Einstellung for providing this experience in a legal format and without any lasting ill effects on my health.

I could happily watch Einstellung all night, but eventually they have to wind down so they can vacate the stage for Cluster. The duo of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius have been making music together since 1971 and as they wander onto the stage it occurs to me that they are possibly the oldest performers I've seen live. Roedelius is well into his seventies, while Moebius is, I think, slightly younger. They prove that age is no barrier to creativity as they generate haunting sounds every bit as imaginative as their early albums. The music they offer us tonight is the complete opposite to that of Einstellung and also the perfect antidote. I still haven't quite come down from the buzz of the first set, so Cluster's gentle, drifting sounds help me to unwind. While Einstellung could be said to represent a high-speed motorway drive across Germany, with Cluster I feel I have reached my destination and am now relaxing by the pool.

I haven't kept up with all of their releases over the last 40 years so I can't begin to suggest what the setlist might have been. I believe some of it came from their most recent album, "Qua", but I suspect large parts of the show were improvised. They play from behind a wooden table and the equipment they have at their disposal is hidden from those of us sitting near the front, due the relatively high position of the stage. I'm not sure if they are using synthesisers, laptops, tapes or CDs. I would guess that most of their gadgets are modern, but it is possible that they have retained some of the vintage machinery that would have been up-to-date when they started out. However, it matters not what tools they use, as the effects are mesmerising however they are created.

Watching electronic music played live can often be a strange experience, particularly to someone like me whose formative gigging years were spent watching the traditional rock band format. It often seems pointless watching someone lean over a laptop and not engage with the crowd at all, and I find that electronica is usually something I choose to listen to at home rather that see live. While Cluster's performance doesn't feel like the live gigs I am used to, it's still a rewarding experience. I feel privileged to be here because at times it seems like I am intruding on a very private moment. It is as if I have stumbled into the laboratory of two reclusive scientists and witnessed their secret experiments. They occasionally exchange comments that are inaudible to the audience (there are no microphones) and smile at each other, as if they have discovered, by chance, the exact combination of sounds that they have been searching for. It is obvious that they are enjoying the performance every bit as much as we are.

Cluster are perhaps better known for their wide-reaching influence than their own music. Watching them tonight, I am constantly reminded of more recent music in my collection that owes a huge debt to Roedelius and Moebius, whether that is their releases as a duo or their groundbreaking work with Brian Eno. A recent show by Murcof that I attended at the Hare and Hounds, the works of Portal that I reviewed at the end of last year, and more underground acts such as Coil or Psychic TV are the most obvious examples to me. Even the shoegazing bands of the early 1990s, despite relying mainly on guitars rather than electronics, have something of Cluster in their swirling textures. Music fans who listen to anything that is remotely "experimental", even relatively mainstream acts such as Radiohead, will find plenty that is familiar to them here. By the end of the show, I am nothing short of amazed at how much these two elderly men have shaped modern music, while remaining relatively unknown themselves.

The two sets tonight demonstrate the wide range of music that can be filed under the general heading of Krautrock. If asked to define the genre, most people would probably mention the so-called "motorik" rhythm favoured by Neu! However, there are many bands that fall into the Krautrock category without coming anywhere near this recognisable sound, Cluster in particular. If I had been played a few tracks by each of tonight's bands without being told who they were, and then asked to pick which one I thought was from Germany, I would almost certainly have chosen Einstellung. Cluster prove that Krautrock is as much about having an innovative approach as it is about fitting into a pre-defined sound. Capsule made an excellent choice tonight by putting on two bands who are very different in style, but have similar attitudes towards performing and complement each other perfectly.