Michael Gira, Lydia Lunch, Caberet Voltaire, Idles, The Soft Moon, Alexander Hacke and Danielle De Picciotto, Bashan, Motorama, Schewelgelb and many others...
John Robb (the Membranes and LTW boss) takes time out from an extensive series of in conversations at Grauzone Festival to review as many of the bands as possible at the key alternative festival in Holland.
In the endless vista of festivals and high decibel gatherings, Holland’s Grauzone is a real highlight. Pitching itself somewhere between post punk, alternative and the darker gothic hues of the left field, it’s the kind of place where the Damned could pitch up rubbing shoulders with the Fall and a drone act next to many younger bands who carry the standard into the 21st century.
This year it’s been housed in the legendary Paard venue in the Dutch legislative capital of Den Hague – the third largest city in the orange nation. Den Hague is a direct shockingly easy, comfortable train ride with super fast free wifi and cheap tickets train ride from the main Dutch airport near Amsterdam that puts the UK’s shabby service to shame and is a bustling. future looking place with tall towers rubbing shoulders with classic Dutch old streets – and this atmospheric old with the shiny new is a pretty neat reflection of the festival.
The one day Grauzone is a whirl of bands from the legendary Swans leader, Michael Gira, working out new material live solo armed with an acoustic guitar and his rich velvety Velvets voice. His set is mesmerising. Stripped of all the orchestral, electric thunder of Swans, there is an added intimacy and intensity to the songs and you can see the visceral, physical, passion etched on his face as he delivers the deeply personal songs that perhaps detail a creative and personal life at a new crossroads, the kind of crossroads that spark creativity.
With the current line up of Swans disbanded and no template set for the future, Gira is deliberately tearing down the fabric for adventures new and whatever musical arrangements and backdrops he comes up for these songs they will work very well with material as strong as this.
There is one moment of old school tension when the chattering classes at the back threaten to not only drown out the intimacy of the music but also trip up a complex vocal intro. Gira snarls ‘shut up’ with a genuine menace, before smiling and charming the audience who were already on his side bizarrely being happier to hear the raw and beautiful melodies of Michael than the drunken chundering of people at the back who had wandered into the wrong room. It’s a spellbinding set and he will be in the UK this playing two shows.
Intense was once a byword for brilliant, that’s how we used to describe gigs that we liked back in the post punk wars. The older performers at Grauzone come from a time of soul bearing and confrontation and Gira’s former New York neighbour Lydia Lunch is on brilliant acerbic form for her set. With just her charismatic presence on the stage with Weasel Walter’s free jazz drum breaks and some kind of sparse electronics this is a tense, dangerous and creative tightrope walk of a show as Lydia free forms her emotional skree and poetic dynamite over the top. She takes no prisoners and this is genuinely edgy stuff laced with dark humour and a dark literate vision.
Her delivery is, as ever, sneeringly brilliant, her hoarse lived in voice and penetrating stares into not only the audience but the heart of darkness making for a mesmerising trip with the off the cuff poetic spleen and a willing eyeball to ball fierce intellect that challenges, provokes, instigates and is full of the crackle of life and she is is even more full on off stage than on with endless captivating monologues and displays of her boxing skills peppering her dialogue. Whilst many competitors have either died or even worse gone soft Gira and Lydia Lunch are proof of the old guard never losing that much embraced edge.
Alexander Hacke and Danielle De Picciotto are two more fellow travellers from that period – Alexander as the youthful member of Einsturzende Neubauten who he still looks on as being his ‘older brothers’ and Danielle as instigator of Love Parade in Berlin and a CV peppered with legendary collaborators like Crime and the City Solution and Gudrun Gut. The pair of them delver a set of deep, dark drones with Alexander’s tonal throat singing filling the room with its unique vibrations accompanying his stark rhythm patters and delay loops building up shape shifting atmosphere with Danielle’s violin adding a melody and beauty to the spectral deep forest sound. With their muse fired by their endless travels around the world the pair of them are locked into a perfect unkempt garden of sound that details their nomadic lives and relationship.
The Soft Moon hail from Oakland and are breaking big in Europe and we need to embrace them in the UK. The band is built around main man Luiz Vasquez, who masterminds the songs that he writes and records in solitary introspection. Not that the music is shy and retiring, there is a pounding bass driven proto goth period of early eighties pioneers like Xmal, The Cure given the post NIN darkwave sheen with the inner terror being conveyed by whispered vocals cutting through the beautifully constructed gloom with the bass as the spine and the guitar creating atmospherics meshed in with the whirring electronics also added into the pot is the industrial melange of Trent Raznor not that the group is a last copycat act as they have carved out their own niche with brilliantly written songs and a killer sense of dynamics.
The vocals are often a whispered intensity – a spooked trip into a soul scarred by a difficult upbringing in the Mojave desert . The forth album – the recently released Concrete – has seen Luiz lift the vocals away from these ghost like whispers and reverted into a more strident declaration of soulfulness perhaps cranked by his current home city of Berlin.
The Soft Moon have great songs that are hooked around powerful dynamics and Luiz’s background as a graphic designer makes sense with his carefully constructed pieces and intense delivery ratcheted to the max. Time to embrace them. Grauzone certainly has and the main hall is packed to the melancholy you can dance to.
Motorama are from Russia and are already popular in this Alt world – the room is insanely packed for the group’s bass driven cold wave – deceptively gentle songs that lie somewhere between Joy Division’s bass melodies and Talk talk’s mystical pop. Russia is the new musical powerhouse of Europe and near Europe and the amount of groups coming from there is astonishing, Short Paris, Glintshake and Lucid Vox are just two more of the bands that we love here at LTW and Motorama are ahead of this new pack in terms of visibility in Europe.
Bashan is the new project from Savages inventive guitar player Gemma Thompson who is eschewing Savages pounding, inventive, post gothic rushes into a darker, more intense, affair that allows her inner creative melancholy to manifest itself in a series of droning soundscape guitar pieces where she turns the instrument into an eerie landscape of dark splendour. Written and recorded in her current home bass of Leipzig where spent several months experimenting with different guitar frequencies, with the goal of letting the sounds lead the songwriting. This is music built around atmospherics way away from the constraint of the ‘song’. With her partner Sam Sherry (A Dead Forest) she has stretched her capabilities to a perfection with songs where she says she wanted to find ‘an audible way to describe landscapes, using the way it travels to represent different physical formations: cliffs, rocks, waves.’ And the dark hues and hypnotic pieces that make the guitar sound like a metallic Viola and are quite beautiful and engrossing and capture the deceptive damp backdrop of nature perfectly.
Schwefelgelb are two likely lads from Berlin who dress like mid eighties Terrace lads – the sports casual, cheap aftershave, sportswear labels as the duo ace off over a table of keyboards and bullying electronics. What they deal out, though, is quite unexpected – a pounding and powerful 2st century DAF take on the Belgian new beat of the late eighties – a micro scene of pulverising beats and 4/4 bass drums that is starting to appear in many group’s inspirations in recent months which is one of the cool things about music – the moment a scene is consigned to the historical scrap heap it becomes relevant and inspirational again. The duo’s perfect beats are hypnotic and the room is packed with angular dancing and their triumphant set pounds deep into the night.
Due to the tight schedule we only capture moments of the headlining Cabaret Voltaire’s multi media lights. Films and electronic maelstrom which is still pretty effective even with the ground breaking unit being down to one original member whilst at the other end of the musical equation Idles further underline their position at the UK’s hottest new band with a raucous show that delivers their post post hardcore, angular skree with its thrilling intensity and post Brexit, new youth, under 25 generation hex wild power and new idealism that is the great cultural schism in the UK that the elders so wrapped up in their generational backyards have failed to notice.