Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Knife, "Shaking the Habitual"; Omar S, "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself"

Both of these acts are very highly regarded but I've never understood what all of the fuss was about.  Maybe they're just not for me.  Or maybe it's about time I gave their new albums a chance ...

I have to hand it to The Knife, they have a keen understanding of their audience and how to promote themselves.  Leftfield electronic acts, take note.  They lead a shady, mysterious existence (accentuated by their wearing of masks in public), and release music only occasionally.  The same strategy has worked wonders for Daft Punk too.  They've also stopped giving face to face interviews. This would annoy casual music fans who expect their favourite artists to maintain some kind of public profile and to try to cater to their fans a bit more.  Also, what teenager would wait seven years between albums by their favourite band without going crazy or giving up on them completely?  Remember waiting for the follow up to the Stone Roses debut?  The delays and waiting seemed interminable ... and it was "only" five years!  Good thing that The Knife's fans are twenty and thirtysomethings whose free time revolves around music and music criticism.

They've also been streaming their album for free partly because they're anticapitalist but they know that they're fans are the kinds of people who will still pay for music even if they know how to get it for free.  All the advance press is focused on the political nature album, but the exact political stance isn't immediately obvious when you're listening to the long instrumental passages that make up the bulk of "Shaking the Habitual".  But they've talked up the political stuff in a number of interviews, which again, they know all the people will care about them will read. So they can be confident about getting the message out.

I'm not being sarcastic here.  Publicity and music distribution is about the music into the hands (and ears) of the people who want to hear it.  The Knife couldn't have satisfied their objectives any better.  How about the music though?

I rarely pay attention to lyrics, especially blurry, distorted ones, so if you're looking for a detailed lyrical breakdown then you've come to the wrong place.  Like Swans' widely acclaimed album from last year, "The Seer", The Knife have gone epic by stretching nearly every song out to eight minutes or more, presenting a near 100-minute palate of music that ranges from twisted dancefloor bangers to ambient noise.  It's ambitious to be sure, and holds my attention better than I expected it would.  But at no point during the album do I feel like I'm listening to a truly inspired work, in fact it's quite the opposite -- I feel like I'm hearing songs that are highly derivative of other artists, stretched out to maximum run time in the concerted attempt to make a masterpiece.  It's not such a bad bet to assume that a 100-minute album will get twice the hype of a more "ordinary" album running "just" 50 minutes.

"Full of Fire" is the kind of song that Crystal Castles might make if they had the attention span to write nine minute songs, and the nineteen minute "Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized" definitely hits its mark by being the haunting and unsettling experimental noise piece its supposed to be, but is really isn't anything you couldn't hear on any one of two dozen Nurse With Wound albums.

The Knife: still not "getting it", unfortunately.

Omar S is undoubtedly talented, but I was mostly hearing a more house-y version of Ricardo Villalobos.  After a while, the never ending cycle of ten minute gently pulsing minimal dance tracks becomes exhausting.  Omar S always had sick beats (something Villalobos has always had a problem with, his tracks rarely have enough ooomph) and the coolest song and album titles in the biz, but even universally acknowledged classics like "Here's Your Trance, Now Dance" and "Psychotic Photosynthesis" never seemed to really go anywhere for me.

That's why I was surprised and delighted that "Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself" (another great title) blew me away from the first listen.  "I Just Want" is a percussive slow builder that was mixed by Luke Hess but could be a dead ringer for Petar Dundov -- compare it with the similarly structured "Oasis" and wrap yourself in the enveloping bass of either track. "Air of the Day" and "The Shit Baby" are solid late '80's/early '90's throwbacks, especially the latter, which reminds me a lot of Ron Trent's "Altered States" (one of my very favourite 80's house+techno hybrids).

A couple of weeks after first hearing this album, I read RA's fairly middling review which concluded that it was good but nothing new, just the usual solid Omar S release that hits the spot but nothing more.  No surprises, no new tweaks on an old style, nothing.  Obviously they know his catalogue better than I do ... so what am I missing?  Or rather, what past Omar S gems have I been missing out on?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Ranking the Depeche Mode concerts

It's been all Depeche Mode all the time around here lately, so if you're sick of hearing about them, don't worry, it'll pass.  I'm still enjoying the excitement that comes with your favourite band releasing a new album and starting their world tour.

I don't see as many concerts as I used to, so I might be writing more of these kinds of posts in the future, where I have to live vicariously through past concertgoing experiences.  If this turns out to be the first of a series then it's one hell of a test case because how can you possibly compare seven concerts spread over twenty three years?  Who changed more over that time, the band or the reviewer?  It's almost like taking seven vaguely similar bands reviewed by seven vaguely different people (seven people who were not very objective observers at that) and trying to compare them.  Nevertheless, let's give it a try.

It was only after gathering all the concert details and finding all the set lists did I realize that I saw these even shows in seven different venues.

The judging criteria will be these two simple categories, with approximately equal weighting.  Of course all of this is completely subjective.

-- Performance.  This includes technical aspects related to the performance (e.g. how well they sang, how well they played their instruments) as well as design and planning aspects (e.g. the songs they played, the stage setup)

-- Overall experience.  Did the venue help or hurt the show?  What about fan participation or lack thereof?  How excited was I during, before, and after the concert?

With that out of the way:

7. Skydome, Toronto, Canada, November 5, 1998, The Singles Tour 86>98

This is and likely always will be in last place.  Horrendously bad sound (like listening to someone play Depeche Mode on a beaten up tape recorder from 100 metres away), terrible and completely colourless venue, and subdued, even apathetic fans.  Depeche were still getting used to the live band setup (in particular, the drums were drowned out by the canned beats) and there were nothing unexpected or remotely surprising about the contents of the setlist or the versions of the songs they played (a built-in disadvantage of doing a "Singles Tour").

I wrote a review of this concert in an old notebook and really need to dig it out sometime.  I recall that I was disappointed (for all the reasons listed) but generally positive about the show and about Depeche Mode's future.  I was partly in denial.

6.  Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto, Canada, June 16 2001, Exciter Tour

I'm on record as loving the "One Night In Paris" DVD from this tour, and it's still my favourite Depeche Mode concert video/DVD after "Devotional".  As a way to relax on your couch and enjoy a Depeche Mode concert film, it's top quality stuff.  But seeing it live, it lacked the breathless excitement and adrenaline rush I'd come to expect from a Depeche Mode concert (or any other great concert).  The first half, featuring mostly "Exciter" material (still well entrenched in their lower tier of albums), seemed to pass glacially slow, subduing the mood in the arena nearly beyond recapture.  Martin Gore sang "The Bottom Line" -- one of my favourite songs from "Ultra" -- and I can't remember a thing about it.  Overall I had a good time but this was the first time I walked out of a Depeche Mode concert and had a smattering of doubt of whether I'd want to see them again.

5.  Ramat Gan Stadium, Ramat Gan (Tel Aviv), Israel, May 10, 2009, Tour of the Universe

We've been over the problems with this concert before.  There were many obstacles to overcome -- bad acoustics, fickle crowd, set list tweaks (the number of songs from "Sounds of Universe" gradually declined as the tour progressed) -- but the sheer size of the crowd was something special, the new songs sounded a lot better live than they did on record, and the re-inclusion of songs like "Stripped" and "Strangelove" was a treat.

4  Air Canada Centre, Toronto Canada, December 1, 2005, Touring the Angel

I saw this concert during a very emotional and busy week, and if I hadn't had a bunch of other things on my mind I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  Looking over my review, it reads like a nearly flawless gig filled with peaks and completely lacking in valleys.  I wish I could remember it as being as exhilarating as the review reads, but like I wrote, I had a degree to complete and had too many other things on my mind. Details of the concert must have vanished into the memory pit, so I'm glad I recorded my thoughts soon afterward (and that's a big reason why I still maintain a blog).  The crowd was great (well done Toronto, this was a nice comeback), and me and my friends couldn't have been more stoked (we were all long time fans).

3.  CNE Grandstand, Toronto, Canada, June 22, 1990, World Violation Tour

I can't possibly be objective about this one.  It was my first Depeche Mode show and my first real concert, ever.  We were under the grandstand which was partial death for proximity and acoustics, but we kept dry when it started raining mid show.  The crowd was going INSANE and I'd never seen anything like it and might not ever again.  It was just a swarming, slightly intimidating mass of fans dressed in black who screamed literally every time Dave Gahan moved a muscle between song verses or bellowed "thankyou!!" or "letsseethosehands!!", which seemed to happen about every ten seconds.  I was under the spell of both audience and band, chanting and yelling like a robot from the opening notes, helpless to escape.

For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the "World Violation" tour was never recorded for commercial release, but the bootleg recordings portray a band still taking baby steps forward in terms of performance quality, even though the song quality was reaching its peak.  Somehow, I hadn't heard all of "Violator" when I saw this show.  Those were the days when I was glued to the radio and I didn't feel compelled to buy certain mega-albums (like "Violator" and "Disintegration") because most of the songs on them were staples of alternative radio.  So I didn't know "Clean", and I'm also fairly sure I hadn't heard "Black Celebration" at that point because I remember nothing about "Stripped", and had to fake my reactions somewhat to the first encore.

2.  Kingswood Music Theatre, Vaughn (Toronto), Ontario, Canada, June 20, 1994, 1994 Summer Tour

For a long time, I listed this concert among my five favourite gigs ever.  We were deliriously excited about seeing this concert, not least because we'd all missed the "Devotional" leg from the previous fall.  We were going out clubbing a few times a week to escape the monotony of our dead end summer jobs and music meant just about everything to us.  The energy in the audience was off the charts.  People couldn't control themselves, all these goth teenagers and leather jacket wearing twenty somethings turned into pre-pubescent boy band fans and wouldn't stop shrieking for ninety minutes.  I had butterflies in my stomach the entire time, the kind of feeling you only get when you fall in love or sit on the edge of your seat completely entranced the first time you see your favourite movie.  Primal Scream were the opening band and we went nuts for them too.  Primal Scream joining the tail end of the "Songs of Faith and Devotion" tour -- the debauchery jokes wrote themselves!  On this night nobody particularly cared about all the scary stories we'd read for months about the band falling apart and Fletch finally breaking down and going home. We even made friends with the people in the row in front of us and I remained pen pals with one of them for a few years afterward.  Modern technology has completely obliterated the concept of pen pals, but even in the 90's it wasn't all that uncommon.  But she was the only pen pal I ever had.

I can't put this concert at #1 in good conscience for two reasons.  One, they've gotten so much better as a live unit since then.  Two, I tracked down a bootleg copy of this show a few months afterward, as a favour to my pen pal friend.  I was in for a minor shock when I heard it again.  The energy and general insanity that reigned throughout the show was more than evident.  It was easy to immerse myself in that aspect of it.  What couldn't be ignored what how awful Dave Gahan sounded.  He was hoarse and out of breath on nearly every syllable.  He did a lot more chanting than singing, doing his best to carry a tune but failing more often than he succeeded.  It was basically every tabloid story about how messed up he'd become come to life and recorded for posterity.  Take a look at this concert recorded in Milwaukee about two weeks after the show I saw or an even better example, this one from Holmdel recorded on June 24 and you'll have a good idea what I'm talking about.  Witness a rake thin, sickly looking Dave Gahan try his best to survive the concert and keep the crowd involved (and succeeding beyond all reasonable expectations, a testament to his talent and willpower) while the rest of the band puts in a professional but unspectacular performance.  When you watch it back in a vacuum it all seems so obvious.  At the time we didn't notice, and no, it didn't matter to us one bit.

1.  Park Hayarkon, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 7, 2013, Delta Machine Tour

This concert just happened ten days ago, so maybe I'm not judging with a clear head yet.  It didn't have the calm poise of the "Exciter" show, the atmosphere of the "World Violation" and "Summer Tour 1994" shows, and "Delta Machine" isn't as strong as "Playing the Angel".  All they did was look and sound great, playing inspired new and old songs in front of an amazing crowd.  As I've described, every other concert had a notable weakness (either at the time or in retrospect).  This one did not, and Depeche Mode excelled in every aspect of putting on a great concert.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Depeche Mode, Booka Shade @ Park Hayarkon

What a difference a few years and a change of venue makes.

In retrospect, "Sounds of the Universe", with its throwback to twinkly 80's electro pop and impressive collection of vintage synths, was not the album to back Depeche Mode on a huge stadium tour where they played the consistently largest venues of their career.

Their concert in Ramat Gan Stadium that opened the tour was a deliriously promoted show, fed by the narrative of Depeche Mode finally playing their first concert in Israel after two previous cancellations, including one on mere days notice in '06. They packed fifty thousand people into a stadium, one of the largest of the tour, and the anticipation was at a fever pitch.

The band was game, and did the best they could with the material they had, minus a few noticeable slip ups that can be attributed to the opening of the tour.  But the spaciousness and poor acoustics of the venue hurt the atmosphere a lot.  And the casual fans who packed the stadium, many of whom hadn't heard the new album and thought they were in for a night of 80's nostalgia, dragged the show down even further.  Look, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a casual fan, and there's nothing wrong with having high standards when you pay good money for a ticket and expect to be entertained.  But at some point you have to meet the band halfway.  Great concerts are made when band and audience feed off each other.  The local media hasn't learned that lesson, even four years later.  Most of the press leading up to this week's concert blamed Depeche Mode for having a sub-par night and not tailoring their set list to the "needs" of the fans.

Park HaYarkon is a completely different kind of venue.  It's not much more than a sectioned off part of a huge city park.  But it's a natural concert venue in that it's situated in a bowl shaped area of the park, providing a natural enclosure for both the crowd and the sounds emanating from the stage.  For me, this was the first time seeing Depeche Mode in a general admission venue, where I could stand among thousands of people at stage level.  Somehow, even though I've been a fan of Depeche Mode roughly as long as I've been a paying music customer, I'd never shelled out big money for the best seating or followed them to see a show in a city I wasn't living in.  I'd just patiently waited for them to come to town and usually stood in the back away from the epicentre of all the craziness and general bedlam.  And that was still true on this night.  I didn't open my wallet for the golden tickets where you could stand in the roped off area directly in front of the stage and around the catwalk, but I arrived relatively early to get a spot in the next closest tier.  Baby steps, even after 23 years.

Some of the local papers (*ahemYisraelHayom*) incorrectly reported that the opening act would be a DJ set, because of course all artists associated with techno don't play live, they spin records.  That was one of just many reasons that many people seemed oblivious to the fact that Booka Shade was playing live and not just queuing up files on their computers.  It was going to take more than the occasional shout out to the crowd and some sparse live percussion to get the message across to people who have never seen live techno, let alone live techno in a huge park.  The percussion seemed to function more as a spectacle for a live setting, merely something to make the stage look busier than it was, rather than a key element of the music.  But the songs they played, many of which was announced as new music by the duo, wouldn't disappoint anyone familiar with their style.

During Booka Shade's set I was interviewed by a reporter from the Jerusalem Post who was searching for superfans who had flown in just for the concert.  My Violator shirt that I bought at their 1990 concert tipped her off (note: this is my one exception to the "never wear concert t-shirts to concerts rule).  She asked me a few questions even though I wasn't the out of towner she was looking for.  She asked whether I'd been to the concert four years ago, I said yes.  She asked what I thought about  it, and I gave my diplomatic opinion.  She asked what I was hoping for from tonight's show, I said I hoped the crowd would be more energetic and not just wait around to hear "Just Can't Get Enough".  I told her she could quote me on that.  The next day, a review of the concert appeared in the paper but I'm not sure if it was written by her. It's written more in the style of a gushing fan than a more neutral and passive newspaper reporter, but that's OK sometimes.  Most of the JPost's music reporting comes across as something sloppily written and edited by high school students, but this review was a lot more sincere and accurate than most of the ones they publish.

I'd heard Depeche Mode's short, widely circulated sets that were recorded at Letterman's studio and in Austria, but I purposely hadn't looked at the setlist from the warm up gig in Nice a few days earlier.  Wanting to be surprised on the first night of the tour proper is a good thing.  I wasn't exactly blown away.  Dave Gahan's singing seemed tentative, as if he wasn't sure how hard to push his voice.  The new songs, save for "Soothe My Soul", didn't sound stadium-ready.  But sometimes, and especially at the Depeche Mode shows I've been to, being at the show among thousands of fans can transform the songs into something else.  And a live set by a band with a deep catalogue, much like a DJ set, needs time to develop.  The compressed, 45-minute version might not give them the time to communicate all they need to say.

As for the concert ... well, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different from '09.  Everyone around me was singing, sometimes loud enough to drown out Dave Gahan. People standing way at the back of the arena were waving, clapping, getting emotionally invested in the show.  It wasn't a crowd of curiosity seekers, it was a crowd of fans.  You can't say enough about what kind of difference that makes -- to be dropped into a pool of thirty thousand people who want to see a band just as badly as you do.  

Even though their concerts have been more based around live instruments than synths going on fifteen years, I've always considered their live setup a bit of a work in progress.  Sometimes they've toured with singers, sometimes not.  Sometimes they've leaned heavily on visuals and elaborate stage designs, sometimes not. In the past the live instruments seemed like embellishments (not a criticism) on top of the synth and other pre-programmed components. For instance, it seemed like Martin Gore started focusing on the guitar not because it was an essential addition to their live sound, but because he wanted to do something different after fifteen years of standing behind keyboards.  But now their transformation into an actual rock and roll band feels complete.  It's mostly in the small details -- the ultra slow burning into to "Personal Jesus", the semi-improvised intro to "I Feel You", the always expanding repetoire of ballads sung by Martin Gore -- but they've never sounded less constrained by their electronic equipment or more freer with what they can play and how they can play it..

This is also the first Depeche Mode tour in twenty years that doesn't feel like a "new album" set and a "greatest hits set" stitched together at the hip.  It hardly seems possible for a band going on thirty years.  First, if a band wants their fans to take their new songs seriously, rather than a part of the show to be tolerated while they wait for the proper hits, then they need to treat them seriously. That means spreading them evenly throughout the set, mixed among the more well-known songs.  It means making gutsy decisions like picking "Goodbye" to not only close the set, but as a follow-up to arguably their two most popular songs, "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus".  It means choosing to play older songs like "When the Body Speaks", "Black Celebration", and "Only When I Lose Myself" because they mesh well with the darkened robo-funk of "Delta Machine" and not only because they're songs that all their fans would recognize.  The updated arrangement of "Only When I Lose Myself" was especially great, overhauling the song from an oft-forgotten single to a tune that would have fit in perfectly on the still-underrated "Ultra" (where it probably should have appeared all along).   I used to think that "Playing The Angel" was their latter day "Black Celebration", but now it feels like "Delta Machine" is the true heir apparent to their darkness-obsessed 80's selves.  

Like with any great concert, there were plenty of surprises.  The re-appearances of "When The Body Speaks" and "Only When I Lose Myself" were bold and unexpected song choices.  "A Pain That I'm Used To" and "Halo" were brought back in radically different forms -- as "covers" of the Jacques Lu Cont and Goldfrapp remixes respectively -- that fit the bluesier style of "Delta Machine" much better than the original versions would have.  The end of "Should Be Higher" turned into a call-and-response singalong that prompted the kind of audience participation that Depeche Mode were striving for but couldn't quite reach with a then-new song like "Peace" on their last tour.

The stage set was almost absurdly basic.  The space pods from "Touring the Angel" and even the minimalist hanging globe from "Tour of the Universe" are but a distant memory.  Even the tour videos, done in Anton Corbijn's easily recognizable style, were used only occasionally. The video screens mostly projected live images of the band from various angles, as if they were ... a real rock band!  The energy in the park perhaps faded a bit toward the end, but it was a very long performance (2 h 15 min including a five song encore), although that's not really an excuse because the band weren't showing the slightest bit of strain.  Everyone got to hear what was "denied" them in '09 -- namely  "Just Can't Get Enough" -- but people in my section seemed relatively unenthusiastic.  They'd read the advance press and knew it was coming, but plenty of other songs were more hotly anticipated.  

Depeche Mode shows won't ever again be black-clad mobs of insanity bordering on near riots.  Maybe that's still the way it is in certain cities, but in most places you'll expect to find a mix of teenagers looking to see legends in action and children of the 80's who go to cheer on their heroes like they did in the old days.  The older generation might even be bringing their kids to the concerts, after all Depeche Mode have certainly reached that level where they transcend generation gaps.  But in many ways, things are a lot better now.  A sea of camera phones light up the darkened park like a starry night, no more so than during a typically transcendent "Enjoy the Silence".  At the end of "Never Let Me Down Again", those who weren't waving their arms in unison with Dave Gahan were trying to capture the moment on their smart phones (along with plenty of others, I was doing both). 

But most importantly, Depeche Mode are a much more well-rounded, dynamic and enrapturing live band than they were in the 80's.  Journalists used to rip on them for putting on a supposedly boring show, after all, it was just "three guys standing behind keyboards while the fourth guy sings".  They never understood that the spectacle of twenty thousand people showing possibly unhealthy devotion to a band to the point where they'd dress like them and follow them everywhere was exactly what Depeche Mode concerts were all about.  Not guitar solos and light shows or anything like that.  Maybe they really are entering their Rolling Stones period, where the danger is long gone and they can settle into a cycle of endless touring behind an armful of hits that anybody can sing.  But unlike the Stones, or nearly any band in music history that been together for as long as they have, Depeche Mode are still evolving with every album, both on record and on the stage.  Amazingly, they might have finally perfected this rock and roll thing after thirty years.  Or will everything have changed again by 2017?  I can't wait to find out.