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LIVE REVIEW: The Dead C, Alice, 07.06.2018

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The Dead C live at Alice, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Dead C are considered a bit of an anomaly in the New Zealand music scene. While their contemporaries were engaging in the jangly pop-punk associated with the Flying Nun label, the trio were honing noise-scapes both brash and thoughtful. Three decades later, Bruce Russell, Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats are still going strong as a fiercely independent improvisational act.

Walking on stage to a sound collage of crackling voices and noises, the trio slowly start to disclose their separate functions, distinct enough to that you could tell, knowing nothing of them, that they’re dynamics have been honed over decades of playing together. Morley’s guitar is washed in reverb, delay, looping in on itself, a rough seascape over which his chants are occasionally just loud enough to cut through. In stark juxtaposition to this are the heavily distorted wails, drones and bleeps from Russell. His tiny amp has a pickup taped to the speaker, a technique I vaguely recall being used by Dead C fan Thurston Moore.

The drums follow the guitars rather than vice versa, their rudimentary rhythms there to enhance the chaos of Yeat’s bandmates. The impossibility of the task to impose a structure seems a premeditated satire of the idea of structure itself, couple with a distant, romantic reminder that at their heart the Dead C are a rock band.

You see this in Russell’s increasingly convoluted guitar techniques, as he abandons his strap to drag the instrument upside down on the floor, grating the strings with a beer can or abandoning it altogether to fiddle with his pedals. Because of that extra pickup taped to the amp itself the signal chain is so odd that the most improbable sounds start to emerge. Apparently satisfied with his latest effort, Russell turns to Morley with an obvious look of “I’ve done my part, let’s bugger off”, and after a few more truculent loops from his bandmate, eventually they do.

LIVE REVIEW: Çiğdem Aslan, Alice, 01.06.2018

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Çiğdem Aslan live at Alice in Copenhagen, Denmark

Istanbul-born performer Çiğdem Aslan stands at the centre of a whirl of cultures, languages and musical traditions. Her solo work focuses on the rebetiko tradition that grew out of cities in modern day Greece and Turkey during the Ottoman period, and as such featurues songs in both languages. These are songs of love and vice, full of drama and, if the exegeses to the songs are to go by, a certain amount of rebellious humour.

Tonight Çiğdem Aslan is accompanied by double bass, percussion and the kanun (or kanonaki for Greek fans)—a harp-like instrument played horizontally across the lap—a reduced set of instruments compared to her recorded material, but more than enough to summon the passion and melodrama of rebetiko. The double bass adds a touch of jazz to the sound, and the kanun moves from dreamy glissandos to tempestuous trills. Çiğdem summons the character of the mortissa, after which her first album is named—the rebellious barfly and chanteuse of the Aegean.

As dramatic and controlled as she is a performer, Çiğdem is also an enthusiastic storyteller, providing the audience with brief translated summaries of the songs. There’s something for everyone, from tales of a jilted wife hooking up with a young butcher in Smyrne, to reveries of hashish-induced bouzouki jams. A particular favourite of mine seems to sum up the quintessentially Mediterranean experience: a woman asks her lover to let her sleep over, promising him his mother won’t find out.

Slowly over the evening the audience is coaxed out of its nordic reticence, with girls from a local dance class twirling wildly in front of the stage, and people singing along in both Greek and Turkish. The atmosphere is contagious and before long you would be forgiven for thinking you could hear the sea lapping against the shore of some Cycladic island just outside.

LIVE REVIEW: Pere Ubu, Hotel Cecil, 29.05.2018

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Pere Ubu live at Hotel Cecil, Copenhagen, Denmark

In the 40 years since they began their career, Pere Ubu have never been worried about making their audiences comfortable. Their music is harsh, their lyrics are often grotesque, and singer David Thomas has cultivated a voice that is unsettling to its very core.

But what is most discomfiting about Pere Ubu’s performance at Hotel Cecil is Thomas’s own obvious discomfort. There is no way to not acknowledge this: Thomas has trouble getting up the stairs to the stage, getting across the stage, getting settled on his stool. There is a chuckle in the audience as he repositions himself with the help of his bandmate, and as the music starts he spits back at the crowd, “I really appreciate you laughing at me, asshole.” And though there is fire and life in his retort, there is still a pall over the first part of the set.

Once Thomas is back in storytelling mode between songs, the mood in the room shifts back to the weird: Thomas intones that “…one out of two songs is about monkeys. I’m sure it makes some kind of sense, it makes sense to me,” before the band play “Monkey Bizness” followed by “Carnival.” Robert Wheeler, responsible for electronics and theremin, has what is either a toy ray gun hooked up to a contact mic for glitchy sound effects, or an instrument that looks remarkably like a toy ray gun hooked up to a contact mic (he seems delighted with it, whatever it is). Darryl Boon serves as a wonderful reminder that a clarinet can sound weird as fuck when taken out of context and is probably under-utilized by bands opting instead for more electronics.

It all strikes exactly the right tenor of the strange post-punk band that, despite a few pop tricks up their sleeves, is still just a strange post-punk band. But then there comes the awkwardness of the end of the show; it seems that, despite Thomas’s mobility issues and the stage not being optimally accessible, the convention of an encore is going to be met. And the crowd are appreciative, never halting their applause for a second until the band return and cheering anew when Thomas comes on stage a minute after the rest of the band starts up. It doesn’t seem like gratitude enough, though, for this unnecessary cruelty for what is ultimately only one song. But the band are to be admired and appreciated. Touring is hard on performers that are younger and more mobile. We should count ourselves lucky that Pere Ubu are still willing to do this.

LIVE REVIEW: Tomaga, Alice, 25.05.2018

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Tomaga live at Alice, Copenhagen, Denmark

Taking their cues from the minimalism of Reich and Riley as well as free jazz and psychedelia, even on paper the British/Italian duo Tomaga tick all the right far-out boxes. The result of two musicians taking the term DnB very literally, their most recent work, Memory in Vitro Exposure, starts with a very Reich-ian pattern of mallets, destabilised by a descending bassline, before moving in more atmospheric directions. But the duo’s involvement in projects as diverse as psych outfit The Oscillation and the dark post-punk of Raime is an indication of the breadth of their outlook. What side will we see tonight, the meditative or the free-er, more off-kilter?

This is the second date in Tomaga’s Alice-sponsored mini tour of Denmark, with shows in Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense. Tonight the opener are local boys Erna, who engage in a very energetic set of drums and effected percussions, winning over an audience through sweat and the intricacy of their interlocked rhythms.

Tomaga begin their set in a deep ambient cloud of electronics and the screeching of metal on cymbals. But it is not long before this gives way to a percussion-heavy thrill ride. And it would be a crime not to give space to Valentina Magaletti’s drumming in a live setting, where there is less space for effects but more for her creativity and energy. In the meantime Tom Relleen juggles bass, synths, mixers and samplers, laying down the foundational mood on which the rhythm develops.

Apart from the occasional use of some Korg Volca leads, the electronics and samples have a raw edge to them, at times metallic and at others more organic, the interlocking of Magaletti and Relleen producing a multiplication of elements both cerebral and physical. Add to that the occasional dub-tinged bassline and you have something way groovier than any of the fancy name-checking above would have you believe.

 

LIVE REVEW: Little Simz, Pumpehuset, 16.05.2018

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There is a look of euphoric incredulousness to Little Simz as she announces that tonight is the final show on her Poison Ivy tour. But this is unnecessary self-effacement from the 24-year-old London-based rapper, already at the end of promoting her second album, Stillness in Wonderland. Her naturalistic flow, jazz-infused beats and self-analysing lyrics have already made her a significant presence, with plaudits from everyone from Lauryn Hill to the Gorillaz.

It’s a warm early summer evening at Pumpehuset, made all the warmer by the 90s-infused harmonies of the opening act, RnB duo VanJess. The Nigerian-American sisters are brimming with grooves and good will, and after several months of only attending  rather austere experimental sets this is a very welcome change to my listening habits.

Accompanied by drums, keyboards and a DJ, Little Simz jumps on stage to deliver a celebration of her work so far, even teasing a new track from her upcoming album. In a live setting her vocals are more raw, the occasional dreaminess of Stillness in Wonderland giving way to something more direct.

If you want a clear indication of the thoughtfulness of Little Simz’s approach to lyrics you have only to look to “God Bless Mary”. The song starts out as a classic ‘tales from the early days’ jam that takes a fundamental key change when Simz reimagines her days and nights spent honing her skills from the point of view of her neighbour Mary, who “has heard everything before the world has” and tacitly supported her by never complaining about the noise.

No one is likely to complain tonight either. Called back by the chants of the audience, Little Simz brings them on stage to the delight of everyone except a rather worried looking tour manager.

 

LIVE REVIEW: Johnny Marr, Store Vega, 19.05.2018

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Johnny Marr live at Store Vega Copenhagen

Johnny Marr is one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, but he’s only come into his own as a solo artist in the last few years. His visit to Store Vega, however, suggests that he’s now at home in this role. Half of the set is songs from his forthcoming album, Call the Comet. You can stream a couple of the tracks now, but it’s mostly unavailable.

But Marr knows that you know him from a particular time and place (or maybe from one of the other dozen bands he’s played with in his career), and everyone in the audience seems keen just on being in his presence. They’re excited about the new material, they’re just as happy to rock out to “Easy Money” as any 80s classic.

Marr also has a very low-key personality that lends itself well to what feels more like a promotional exercise than your average tour. He has a few guitar god stances to pull, but seems to quickly become shy about them. He expresses his mixed feelings about streaming as he introduces his latest single, “Hi Hello,” asking the audience to buy it even if it’s only a bit of plastic. There is a jangle to his new songs that brings to mind his work with the Smiths, and an evident but not heavy-handed political bent that jives well with being the guy who told off David Cameron.

And there are unexpected moments such as“Getting Away With It” from his project Electronic. While he seems to reach for the notes that Bernard Sumner hits on his own, the focus on guitar compared with the atmospherics of the album version breathes a new energy into the song.

But in answer to the inevitable question,”Is he playing any Smiths songs?” the answer is yes. They are interspersed from “Big Mouth Strikes Again” as the second song to show closer “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (sold to us as the weirdest singalong ever). It’s nice that they’re threaded throughout the set instead of presented as a block or a treat in the encore after listening to Marr’s solo work. And while his is not the voice we associate with the Smiths, he does a pretty good Morrissey impression; his voice takes on a throatier quality for those songs. And after watching Marr mess with his tuning pegs for effect while playing “How Soon Is Now,” there’s no point in ever watching any other performer fumble their way through that song again. So good news for all you Smiths fans who cringe every time Morrissey speaks: We definitely don’t need him anymore.

LIVE REVIEW: US Girls, Hotel Cecil, 06.05.2018

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US Girls live at Hotel Cecil in Copenhagen

US Girls’ Meg Remy styles herself as the creative force behind her project than a solo artist. There are no musicians credited on her most recent albums (this year’s In a Poem Unlimited and 2015’s Half Free), but rather producers are credited for building the tracks. So it’s a surprise when she takes the stage at Hotel Cecil that she’s backed by a seven-piece band, including a backing vocalist and a miniature saxophone.

The band is already playing “Velvet 4 Sale” when she and her backing vocalist join them. She jumps straight into the song. With her enormous, multi-piece band, the work translates very well. The references to funk and disco come through very clearly and sound more organic than the records — especially the saxophone — and the band have mastered the live fade out.

Remy never says anything to the audience the entire set, but she’s very present throughout the evening. The performance is full of dramatics, of Remy acting out the gender politics themes of her work, most memorably when her saxophonist menaces her and her backing singer with his tiny saxophone. The lighting choices, however, make it difficult see these details, and I’m not sure how much audience members even a few rows back pick up on. Considering the musical style and the fantastic costuming of the whole band (wide legged trousers, cheetah print jumpsuits, military style jackets), it would be fantastic to see the pageantry played out on a brightly-lit, full disco-style production.

It’s not the most straight forward evening and Remy doesn’t give us any signposts along the way, but she does make an impact. This is definitely a case where the components are all there and it’s only a matter of waiting for the staging to catch up.

LIVE REVIEW: Lawrence English, Alice, 19.04.2018

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Picture this: our intrepid photographer arrives late and sweaty (we must assume) to the venue, parks his bike, and approaches the entrance. The area outside is ill-lit and completely deserted. As his hand reaches for the door handle, the entire building starts to vibrate.  The windows and doors rattle, the bricks tremble and even the pavement outside murmurs underfoot. One intense tone wrenches through the building, and as he makes his way through the corridor, past the empty cloakroom, it intensifies.

Inside, the room is dark but for a set of neon red strips on the stage. Under their ghoulish glow the audience lies strewn across the floor, as if stunned by the aftershock. I am lying among them, but the shock, though real, is mostly metaphorical. The man at the centre of all this, Lawrence English, introduced the piece with a recommendation that we experience it lying on the floor. There is some initial awkwardness, but as soon as the first dark waves of bass come crashing through the floor, it is clear that he knows what he is talking about.

Of course his previous body of work proves this on its own. Through his work both as an artist and a thinker, Lawrence English has long been interested in developing ideas around the bodily experience and politics of listening. The piece he is presenting tonight is Cruel Optimism, which draws its inspiration from a book of the same title by the theoretician Lauren Berlant. This is English’s most collaborative piece, including contributions from, among others, Swans percussionist Thor Harris and Austrian artist Heinz Riegler.

From down here on the floor, the initial impression is of sheer violence, an intensity felt directly through every limb in contact with the hard surface. For the first minutes I am coming to terms with a feeling of helplessness, an awareness of another being affecting my body in such an un-ignorable, un-interpretable way. Maybe because there is nothing I can do but experience it, the music stops becoming a medium, and becomes a complete object.

The first passage feels like being stuck in the loudest and busiest of city intersections. Subway trains of unimaginable size barrel through the earth below, sirens phase in an out of each other. A high pitched buzz covers all of this, swarming here and there until the bass collapses away and the buzz becomes the frothing sound of a wave after it has crashed. At other points the sound is positively monolithic, an insistence that occupies each body until it is suddenly swept away and replaced by something which is almost choral in quality.

It is very hard not to sound utterly ridiculous in recounting this, but as I consult the track list afterwards they seem to bear out my own listening: “Hard Rain”, “The Quietest Shore”, “Pillar of Cloud”, “Exquisite Human Microphone”. Needless to say, I will be lying down at concerts more often now.

 

LIVE REVIEW: Carla Dal Forno, Alice, 13.04.2018

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Carla dal Forno live at Alice Copenhagen

There seems to be an odd reluctance to label anything ‘goth’ these days, but Carla Dal Forno’s You Know What It’s Like is pure goth: dark, minimalist, eerily nostalgic in sentiment but progressive in execution. All in black, she appears on the dark velvet stage of Alice as if it had been specially built for her.

Despite the austere trappings, there is also something very affable about Dal Forno, who early in the set apologises for having lost her voice this evening. But the result emphasises the ghostly quality of the vocals already present on the record. The lyrics are hidden away under synthesised drum patterns and a ghostly wash of ambient noise.

The ambient glitches and buzzes are a backdrop for the entire set, connecting all the songs. The effect then is of a continuous piece, interspersed with awkward moments when people in the audience look at each other wondering whether it’s appropriate to clap. The nordic reticence must but a little daunting at first for a performer, but Dal Forno soon twigs to this and pierces the veil by introducing the songs.

“Fast Moving Cars” and “What Are You Gonna Do Now” are delightfully antithetical to what you would expect songs with those titles to sound like, slow and silky. Performed live, they spread to fill the room as if consuming all oxygen.

LIVE REVIEW: Arto Lindsay and Zs, Alice, 07.04.2018

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Arto Lindsay live with Zs at Alice Copenhagen

Whatever fantasies people harbor about New York’s downtown avant garde scene are more or less brought to life in the collaboration between Arto Lindsay and Zs. Lindsay is a legend of the No Wave scene who has used his last couple of solo records to create accessible, bossa nova-inflected indie rock. Zs are the noise jazz collective (performing tonight as a trio featuring Greg Fox on drums) that came up at a time when New York’s music scene was associated with something a little more Strokesy.

The performance feels very in-the-moment and less one band backing an artist or one artist fronting a band. There is less of a focus on traditional song structures and more free moving forms, often dominated by extremely loud guitars — not that we’re complaining. Patrick Higgins’ guitar is fed through so many effects that it no longer resembles guitar at all while Lindsay swipes away at a 12 string that mostly produces crunching sounds. Tenor sax player Sam Hillmer alternately provides incongruous whines that sound like they’re trying to soothe some maniacal beast and being that beat himself, straining and blustering like a banshee. Our opinions of Fox are unchanged from last month.

Zs live with Arto Lindsay at Alice Copenhagen

The main set ends with a deafening cacophony of mid and high frequencies. Lindsay seems impishly pleased with the noise, even as people around us wince. Sometimes the thrill of experimental music — or the inaccessibility of it — is down to basic physical challenges. But the volume is memorable and the composition is memorable, and there is the very distinct impression that this set is a rare and special thing to witness. And even if it’s not rare or the opportunity comes again, it still feels damn special.

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