Grauzone festival has been growing for the past few years.
Growing into something very special.
Mining that seam somewhere between the edgier end of darkwave and so-called Goth and the still-evolving shards of post-punk, it is a unique event and was deservedly sold out this year. Fully established now as a key event on the calendar there is talk of expanding next year and creating something even more special although this year’s line up will take some beating…a line up of Shellac, Blixa Bargeld, Lebanon Hanover, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth): Songs&Stories, The Messthetics (Fugazi members), Ancient Methods, Pink Turns Blue, The Cosmic Dead, Rendez – Vous, The Blinders, Nik Void (Factory Floor), Snapped Ankles, Steve Shelley, Ernie Brooks and Matt Mottel, Tempers, Maggot Heart, Sink Ya Teeth, Charlie & The Lesbians, Rude66, Knekelhuis and
Fatamorgana and much more…
Headlining band Shellac are living breathing proof that longevity doesn’t have to dull the senses. Tonight’s performance sees the band, thirty years in, at the peak of this game. This was a powerful, inventive, thrilling and visceral show. A stunning display of the possibilities of guitar, bass and drums and also just what can be done with guitar music with a fevered imagination, a dark sense of humour and a high level of intensity.
As they play a mix of new material that they are working out right in front of our eyes live and older songs that still sound as restless as the day they were recorded, Shellac create a seamless whole. Their minimalist stripped down sound tonight is perfect – crisp and powerful courtesy of the band’s stark and deeply intelligent music and a wonderful job by their sound person behind, the desk who somehow manages to create the space between the sonic skree and underlines the key dynamics that make the band sound so vital.
Never has Bob Weston’s bass sounded so good live. He delivers that perfect clipped and heavy sound that always been firm LTW favourite and not always easy to recreate live – tonight it sounds like a perfect example of the school of bass playing that is rooted deeply in our psyche from our teenage years of loving The Stranglers and marvelling at the repositioning of the bass into a lead instrument.
What Shellac do is the classic post-punk thing where everyone plays lead at the same time – a creative democracy with all these interlocking parts running round each other from Bob’s aforementioned bass, Steve Albini’s scratch/tension razor-sharp guitar that alternates between skull scraping riffing and spidery lead lines or Todd Trainor’s stunning drums which are something else to behold. He drums heavy but with a genuine swing and punctuated with a lot of imagination, perfect drum rolls with a lot of tension and release whilst still retaining a melodic drum style – his lanky frame stretches around the drums like an octopus and on a night like this, he is my favourite drummer in the world.
Shellac worship at the altar of minimalism and the songs are stripped skeletal bare. There is no excess in their playing but plenty of imagination. Their stark stage set up sees them three in a row across the front in both a democratic and oddly practical display and the monitor being placed at the back of the stage instead of the front underlines their deep knowledge of sound and also turning the tried old rules of rock upside down.
Sometimes it feels that the band was created as the perfect line up to record in Steve Albini’s legendary studio – that sense of space thrives on his famous mic-ing technique and sense of space between the instruments but to be honest they can’t sound like anything else, this is the sound of all the rule breaking attitude of the long lost post-punk period honed down to a restless perfection and the fact that they pack the room out and create a mosh pit with the explosive moments and hold the audience in a hypnotic flux with the tense passage is proof of just how big this band could be if they ever played the game.
Shellac are built for the connoisseur but are in fact the biggest and best rock band on the planet that you may not know about.
In the preceding in conversation with me, Steve Albini is in brilliant form. I have known him since 1986 when he was brilliantly combative and acidic but somehow has managed to mellow out yet kept his music and attitude to the music business as intense and disciplined. He looks back at the younger Steve with a wry shake of the head, admits that his youthful attitude is now alien to him but still retains his clear and purposeful musical vision. It’s a real victory for the poker champ!
Blixa Bargeld is the frontman of Einsturzende Neubauten and he has arrived on his own for the show tonight. Whilst the gig itself is a splendid and captivating adventure of ideas and textures created by loop pedals and vocals manipulated by four pedals by the besuited German art monolith and his quite brilliant soundman Boris Wilsdorf on the desk, his in conversation before is quite the opposite.
Always an awkward interviewee with his disdain for music writers it was always going to be a total drag having to do this interview – especially as a long term fan where disappointment with someone’s behaviour is always worse. Fuck knows why he bothers doing these interviews and I certainly have no time to be used as a prop by anyone. This will be the last time I ever interview him probably much to his and my relief and mine and I will happily enjoy his music from a distance. Of course, it’s up to the interviewee to conduct themselves in any way they want but I’m nobody’s fool to be wheeled out for this kind of stuff and spent the rest of the night dealing with the audience’s disappointment in him.
The concert, though, is something else.
Bargeld has always had a stunning and unfettered imagination and the very ideas themselves can be thrilling even before their execution. Tonight he builds up soundscapes using the words almost like Neubauten would use metal and found sound in post punk Berlin to create a music out of it. The pieces are a riot of ideas from one piece starting with the audience creating a drone to be built upon by Bargeld’s words and phrases and pedals creating layers of sound and rhythm from the syllables whilst Bargeld built up a narrative about the universe in layers above it.
It’s so utterly effective and so immersive and captivating that you have to marvel at the ingenuity of barrier-breaking ingenuity of the singer as he plays around and free-forms with his own ideas, pulling words and sounds inside out, breaking down and reconstructing their meaning and also making a damn great sound to pull you into this world of dada ideas that jolt you back to a different reality. It’s a stunning set of thrilling originality and your heart races at the scope of textures of syllable deconstruction.
Lee Ranaldo is the George Harrison of Sonic Youth – the quiet guitar player sparked into an avalanche of work by the demise of his main vehicle. The past few years, since the end of the iconic alt-rock band, have seen a variety of projects which he attempts to explain in a series of films tonight, detailing his history from his early days playing future guitar with Glenn Branca and the New York no wave scene to the now.
After the film shorts, he plays a great set of deconstructed drone and chime guitar, still attempting to find new nuances and sounds from the eternal electricity. It’s great stuff of course and helps to underline his key role at the fore of guitar players.
His in conversation with me after the show is a real joy as well as in about 27 minutes flat we manage to cram in much of his life story from his early days growing up with the Beatles in real time with his father coming home with the band’s early releases on American underground labels before their youth-quake took over pop culture and showed all the possibilities of art rock – a cue he still resonates from all these decades later. This is a long and winding journey that has taken him from Glen Branca’s guitar army to the destroyed early eighties New York and the claustrophobic cellar owned by Michael Gira of Swans where they initially constructed their sound. It’s an entertaining ride and he is a great storyteller and his modesty is a neat contrast to his boundless imagination and constant quest for a new noise.