18/10/2011

Live Report: Denovali Swingfest 2011

Weststadthalle, Essen, 30th September – 2nd October 2011


Denovali Records has proven to be quite a powerhouse for experimental music in the past few years, which consequently made their own Swingfest festival an attractive one for anyone into the sound (if its possible to even call that a particular sound). Although the previous two editions, in 2009 and 2010, respectively, had considerably strong line-ups, it takes a really dreamy assembly of musicians to make someone from Serbia (hint: me) spend more than 400€ and travel for two entire days over 2500 kilometres just to witness a three-day event. For the first time, the festival seriously expanded its offer, so to speak, stretching across a wide array of styles and musicians, some of which have nothing to do with the label itself, and bringing some really big names under one roof.


The roof in question proved to be an excellent one – the venue can’t have been better in terms of available space and facilities. Plenty of room in the main hall for the several hundred people inside, which was the amount of constantly present fans, but I can’t say I felt cramped during headlining performances either. Sound was also a major contributor to the overwhelmingly positive impression; other than a few artists who definitely threw too much treble in the mix (something that seems to occur at every festival regardless of the genre, for reasons unfathomable to me), the sound remained crisp, clear and within an acceptable dB range throughout the duration of the festival. Add to this a very professional, knowledgeable and efficient staff (with good command of English, mind you!) and the lack of any boring security scans, and you’re in for a carefree three days of pure enjoyment. The organising crew has seriously honed their skills in making an event of this scale as sleek as possible for musicians and visitors alike. Even the schedule was respected as much as possible given the circumstances. A particular thank you goes to Mikula Lüllwitz, the talented freelance photographer that has provided me with the marvellous artist photos for the purpose of this article!


Before moving onto the festival itself, though, I’d like to say a few words about the city of Essen as well; after all, the perceived attractiveness of the host town is a make-or-break factor for many people when choosing which festival to visit. I couldn’t be more satisfied in this respect. Essen is a charming little city, quaint by standards of western Germany (just over 500,000 inhabitants), but sufficiently large to contain everything you might look for as a tourist: plenty of places to see and visit, whether you’re into museums, nature, historical buildings, shopping malls, or just diverse places to eat. I’ve even spotted a Primark in the making, due for opening in 2012, so for anyone planning to visit the next year’s rendition of the festival, make sure you stop by if you’re into dirt-cheap clothes of reasonable quality and don’t mind the fact that they’re all made by Filipino children working for twelve hours a day and earning a whopping half a dollar per hour in the process. Accommodation can be found at any price level (for comparison’s sake, I grabbed a bed for 20€/night in a private room of a pension on the outskirts). It should also be noted that the public transport system is perfectly efficient, which goes for both the underground and the numerous buses connecting the more sparsely populated or distant areas of the city. Even the night transport is impeccable – everything’s arranged so that it takes you no longer than an hour between any two points in the city. For instance, it took me about 40 minutes from the festival area to the outskirts on the other side of town via the main train station, which serves as a hub for all bus connections. Useful, efficient, German. If you’re coming from abroad and are inbound by plane, you’ll probably be aiming at Düsseldorf Airport, which is located just half an hour away by train.

DAY 1


AUN was the first artist I’d really been looking forward to, and boy did they deliver! Their particular concoction of drone and dark ambient really works wonders in a live setting, especially since they know how to use their gear right. The mix was absolutely perfect, and everyone in the audience was kept entertained throughout the fifty-or-so minutes of their performance. The sound was dynamic, descriptive, and seamlessly evolving from one track to another, creating a very immersive soundscape which truly felt like a wave rolling over the audience. The live feel was definitely there, and the duo created magic surpassing the material itself, which is what a live performance is all about. With no offence intended towards Martin, I have to say that Julie was the one who stole the show, with her angelic, perfectly pitched and balanced voice, and the no less impressive video backdrop, by far the best I’ve ever witnessed, which was also her creation. Honestly, I’m still amazed by the backdrop for “Out Of Mind”, the most prominent track from their latest album, “Phantom Ghost” (Cyclic Law, 2011) (the review of which I've recently published), consisting of nothing more than a streak of photos of a little girl, but blended together and manipulated masterfully. Playing material from the past three albums, including the latest, which hadn't yet come out at the time, I felt I had received the very essence of AUN and more. Schoolbook example of how to make drone music work live. Can’t wait for their next European tour.

9/10


The Greek act Subheim was up next, him also with an interesting video backdrop. It’s difficult to say which category his visions fall into, as the backbone of his compositions is definitely ambient, but with plenty of rhythmic and instrumental elements as well, making for a more experimental feeling. While it was easy to appreciate how much effort he put into his live appearance, especially with his aim at a cinematic feeling, the fellow in question seemed to constantly cram in more than was necessary for the music to remain interesting, creating an overall impression of being too complex to follow and too erratic to comprehend. The rhythms used were also very banal, the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in a random nightclub, which was a detracting factor as well. Still, the assembly of traits as described was sufficient to keep me entertained for the duration of the show, so it’s not all bad.

6/10




The only studio album of the Bersarin Quartett had left me halfway between unsatisfied and impressed, and this turned out to be similar during their live performance as well. Their musicianship is obviously high-quality, as they complemented each other perfectly at all times and managed to create a unique stream of sound, as if managed by a single person. However, I couldn’t escape the thought that there was simply not enough live feeling in their performance. Too much seemed sampled, especially the rhythm sections which were downright annoying at times. This was more than made up for by the guitarist, though, who manipulated his instrument in order to create a more comprehensive string sound and fill the soundscape almost entirely by himself, giving the music an almost neoclassical feeling. A very interesting experience, overall, although not quite to my liking in some aspects.

7/10




Little can be said about Bohren & Der Club Of Gore without succumbing to exaltations in superlative. They are probably the most revered band of today in the jazz/experimental scene, and rightly so. I have to admit that I was both super-excited to get to see them (in fact, they were the trigger for my discovering and coming to Swingfest in the first place) and sceptical about whether they can live up to all the hype. After all, their particular brand of minimal, dark jazz with a touch of ambient isn’t a formula immediately associated with live appearances. After thorough preparations and engulfing the entire hall in thick smoke, the band finally started playing. It took them about 10-15 seconds to dispel any doubts I might have had. They sounded so perfectly confident and relaxed that I really see why they’re considered the absolute masters of their craft. Although they facetiously call themselves the most unromantic band in Germany, I can’t say that I agree, having witnessed their music in such a direct, immediate manner. It’s incredible how much emotion they manage to put through such a minimal sound. Even when they took the saxophone (and its heavenly sound) out of the equation, and relied on the vibraphone entirely to thread the songs, everything managed to remain as interesting and coherent as ever. They also proved they know where their success comes from, playing three songs from their most popular (and straightforward) album, “Sunset Mission” (Wonder, 2000). On the whole, this performance of about an hour’s worth of material was not just the perfect showcase of dark jazz, but its very definition. Seriously, if a Bohren tour ever came within 500 km from where you live, you’d be committing a crime by not going to see them perform.

10/10




Thomas Köner was perhaps the most important figure among this year’s Swingfest performers, and not only because his seminal trilogy from the beginning of the nineties put him in the forefront of the dark ambient scene, but also because he’s well-versed in photography and video editing as well, which promises a remarkable live performance by itself. The quality of his last studio album, “La Barca” (Fario, 2009), as well as his recent audio-visual installation in Belgrade, made me that much more eager to see him in ideal conditions, with good sound and a full set to himself. There’s no way around it – it was disappointing. Although I knew I would be treated to a relatively minimal soundscape, going through two or three loops for more than fifty minutes is more than even the attention of the most fervent dark ambient fans can withhold. The video was no more dynamic, as it consisted from several photographs, with effects and some video editing applied to them, but no more than that. The idea was good in general, but the concept was simply too thin to support a full set. Anything over twenty minutes would have been (and was) too much. Even the sound was a bit too dissonant and suffered from over-treble problems at times. All in all, an interesting, but passable experience, which is so much less than what Köner fans had hoped for.

6/10


DAY TWO

The day opened with UK’s very own Petrels. Musically, it’s astoundingly similar to Subheim, with a very cinematic experience offered through some excellent instrumental work dispersed over an ambient backdrop. Interestingly, you can really see that the artist is enjoying himself while playing live, even if most of his peers prefer to remain static. Unfortunately, the act proved to be suffering from much the same troubles as the mentioned act, but with an additional difficulty – no video backdrop, which only dragged the entire experience down by a level. An interesting listen, but not something I’d really need to see again in the near future. It’s still a young project, though, so I’ll keep it on my radar just in case.

6/10


Contemporary Noise Sextet offered a very, very nice performance, sweeping through tracks with ease and enjoyment, as evident from the contact their charismatic frontman (the pianist) had with the audience. They offer a relaxed, jazzy atmosphere, not unlike Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, but more upbeat and with fewer dark overtones. However bizarre that may sound, that’s actually the main issue I had with them – there was little to distinguish them from common performers at a local jazz club. True, their musicianship is clear and they do have hints of experimentation in their sound, but hardly enough to justify their presence at a festival of experimental music. Then again, I suppose the folks at Denovali know why they signed them to the label. Either way, they do their thing well, and are sure to entertain casual jazz fans (such as myself).

8/10




Next up was the Dale Cooper Quartet, the recent French addition to the dark jazz scene. Their albums are close to perfection, and so was their performance. Presenting material from their (at that moment still unreleased) second album proved to be a fantastic decision, because they continued their descent down the experimentation spiral while creating a more accessible packaging for everyone to enjoy. The male vocals in particular were a splendid addition to the live mix, and not once did the performance drop in atmosphere or quality. Furthermore, the tracks merged seamlessly one into another, giving a coherent feeling of witnessing a live amalgam of musicians. The new material works particularly well in a live setting, so there truly was little to wish for that hadn’t already been readily provided. The guitarist seems to overcomplicate things a little, truth be told, since he was constantly tampering with equipment and his instrument to little (obvious) effect, but this is more of a personal remark than any sort of drawback. Excellent sound, excellent mix, excellent gig.

9/10


I was fairly unfamiliar with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s work before the festival, but I knew that he was in the same waters as Tim Hecker, and being in this high-profile an event, that was all the recommendation I needed. His performance started out aggressively, but interestingly, and the very vivid backdrop was a very cool feature in my book. However, there was one thing that made it impossible for me to immerse, and that’s the sound. I don’t know whether the problem was caused by Jefre’s setup or if someone behind the mixing board had pushed the wrong slider all the way up by accident, but the result was abysmal – the entire thing sounded so ridiculously over-trebled (in addition to the already high volume) that it was literally reaching pain limits. After about five minutes, the experience became so uncomfortable that it made me leave the hall. Not very fortunate, but there were still many artists to hear, so I wasn’t in the mood for risking anything.

2/10




The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble needs no particular introduction. The band that arguably made the term dark jazz as popular as it is today has reached cult levels of worship in the past few years, even more so than their spin-off improvisation act The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Expectations were high. Expectations that were surpassed in every conceivable way. I could tell you about the immense levels of live cooperation between these musicians. I could tell you about the heavenly beautiful female vocals. I could tell you about the gorgeously homogeneous mixture of rhythm, brass and bass. I could tell you about the perfect example of a good mix with a load of sounds and instruments. But none of this can really transpose the two-hourly feeling of bliss listening to what may very well be the best live band in the genre today. Catch these folks as soon as possible.

10/10


DAY THREE



After skipping the first few artists in order to catch a better glimpse of Essen, I was all ready for Tim Hecker. The Quebecois artist is one of the bigger names in the ambient/electronic scene, but one that has released works of variable quality, and since I hadn’t been listening to any of his recent output, I had no idea what to expect, really. The resulting performance was one of mixed quality. Tim managed to go through much of his back catalogue in just 45 minutes, and didn’t stick to one drone for too long, which was a welcome and refreshing change having in mind most drone artists’ live tendencies. Most importantly, the rapid switches didn’t seem erratic; Tim has definitely honed his skills as a live artist. What I do have to reproach is the rather harsh sound in terms of levels, which was a bit unforgiving at times, with no real need for it to be so. I also couldn’t escape the feeling that a good video backdrop would’ve complemented the gig perfectly, but alas, there was none. All in all, a dynamic and engaging, if not stellar, performance.

7/10


Now, one of the most surprising names on this year’s festival, but also one that entirely justifies its reputation of experimental, was Hauschka. The latter is the pseudonym of Volker Bertelmann, an extremely talented pianist from Düsseldorf that has built significant reputation with his concept of the prepared piano. When he says prepared, you should really believe him – I’ve seen all sorts of things done to percussive and string instruments, but what this man does with the piano is bordering the unbelievable. I don’t want to spoil your own experience of this amazing artist by divulging all of his secrets, but the objects he uses to manipulate the otherwise perfectly natural and intact piano sound range from chopsticks, over crown corks and duct tape, to ping-pong balls. But that’s not the stunning bit. What will really bewilder you is the ease with which Hauschka plays with both his instrument and his add-ons; what you’re seeing looks mindbogglingly random, but what you’re hearing is a perfectly controlled experimentation session. The man isn’t all about effects, though, as striking as they may be – he’s perfectly proficient with the piano in general. To top things off, he likes to have a casual chat with the audience while (re)placing objects on and into his piano just as casually, which makes him just plain loveable. It’s a pity that there isn’t more of such artists. A charming concert (yes, concert) by all means.

10/10




Even fifteen years into their career, Sunn O))) still manage to attract the masses. I swear the number of people doubled for their performance compared to the remainder of the festival. All the folks wearing their shirts (and earplugs!) said enough of their popularity, even among the experimental community usually accustomed to much milder sounds. After requesting us to empty the main hall completely, the band started a soundcheck that lasted for more than an hour. You couldn’t hear a single complaint, though; everyone was psyched and eager to rush into the hall as soon as possible and occupy the best possible position for the mayhem that was to ensue. I’d heard many a tale about the sheer power and madness of a Sunn O))) performance, but frankly, although a major fan of the band, I never really thought drone could match the power of a metal concert, for instance. How wrong was I! A mild look at the wall of equipment they set up on the stage was enough to make me tremble with excitement. And excitement I got. Shortly after appearing on stage in their trademark black robes, the band started emitting the most breathtaking, primordial pulses imaginable. They’re the ultimate embodiment of doom, radiating energy straight from a black hole. For a good hour (out of over two hours of their performance) I remained standing, completely transfixed by an experience that can hardly be described with our limited vocabulary. What we were treated with was a massive, crushing tsunami of sound, much slower and much less variable than on the band’s records, but ten times as powerful. Attila Csihar of Mayhem fame was part of the touring line-up as well, providing a most interesting interlude with his signature demented vocals, although I have to admit that the level of atmosphere dropped a bit due to the interlude overstaying its welcome, as well as an anti-climactic end of the performance when the entire band came back up on stage to finish off the two-hour gig. Nevertheless, I felt full of adrenaline when the final drone ended, and had the gig been just a tad more varied and coherent, it would probably have been the best drone performance I’ve ever seen. This couldn’t hamper my feeling of having witnessed a completely transcendental experience, though. Indeed, Sunn O))) is not a band, it’s an experience.

9/10


Official Denovali Swingfest website
All artist photos © Mikula Lüllwitz