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live reviews

By: Mark Reed

KRAFTWERK - manchester velodrome - 02 July 2009

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Spoken of reverently, akin to a techno Beatles, Kraftwerk are really no such thing. An ever-evolving set of like-minded musical workers, Kraftwerk have become a quietly impersonal enterprise. The clichés are legion: scientists in a musical lab, releasing the experiments that they feel are ‘true’, unemotional, and working detached from their environment.

Despite what you may have heard, Kraftwerk live is a thrilling experience: akin to a musical art installation that presents a set of images and ideas that work in a narrative context to create a vision that is more than the sum of the parts. In short, this is not a concert as such, but an idea that welds art, architecture, and the Akai.

Aside from that, Kraftwerk – now consisting sole remaining founder member Ralf Hutter alongside longstanding musicians Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz with newcomer Stefan Pfaffe – are a largely anonymous presence. There’s no gestures, words – barely – or stage presence. These four men stand behind laptops, twiddle buttons, play keyboard parts, and co-ordinate a visual extravaganza that predates almost every other band on the planet with synchronized video.

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Whilst Ralf appears the most active – looping and controlling vocals and playing melody parts, and Henning and Fritz are clearly the engine room controlling the sounds, rhythms, and body of the work, Stefan appears to not do anything musically (his role however, is far more pronounced that that: controlling the visuals, including some absolutely stunning effects at the shows finale).

And the music? Oh yes, the music – born from a classical upbringing and welded to a timeless mastery of melody and unique, home-made electronic sounds that makes Kraftwerk both unique, timely, and immortal – is matched by minimal, clipped vocals and lyrics that operate ruthlessly: there’s no joining words, no ‘ands’, no ‘buts’, just the adjectives, nouns, verbs, that describe a concept with an efficient minimalism. Whilst only two of these songs reference anything but an abstract technological or sociological concept – that is ‘Computer Love’ and ‘The Model’ – the vocabulary of a Kraftwerk show is not emotional, but conceptual – the framework within which everything else exists.

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And it is by Kraftwerk standards, an almost perfect show. The music is immaculate – subtly updated, yet absolutely faithful to the original releases – and the presentation quite unlike anything else there is. At the time the band debuted this format – thirty years ago – they were operating on frighteningly unreliable equipment pushed to the limit of its abilities, and then, as now, they are always interested in how technology can help an artist achieve a vision, and then go off and do it.

Each song follows a progression in the development of the idea, from the appropriate ‘Man Machine’ to the finale of ‘Music Non Stop’. The music ebbs and flows, with nary a thought for tempo, or – for that matter – dance ability: instead it is about a thematic cohesion. Thankfully, the band are not nostalgic: and whilst there is plenty of old stuff, a third of the night comes from the under-rated, relatively recent ‘Tour De France’: and it is here that Kraftwerk show the most invention, effortlessly melding all the variants of the title songs together into a quarter-hour epic that is both fluid, human, and unique.

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For when the opening chords of ‘Etape’ start, the cycle track around the Velodrome light up, and the concert suddenly changes into something far more inclusive – for the British Olympic Team lap the stage for the remainder of the songs, and at least one of the cyclists, the four riding in some kind of musical tandem ballet, claps his hands in time to the beat on the straits, which also encourages the audience.

Modestly more effective than the singer walking into the crowd during the last chorus, don’t you think?

As the show progresses, the band are replaced by Robots. They have been doing this for 20 years, but it’s still awesome. The finale – of ‘Numbers’/’Computer World’, ‘Radioactivity’, ‘Vitamin’, ‘Aerodynamic’ and ‘Music Non Stop’ – leaves the crowd speechless. As the visuals commence, and the audience dons their 3D glasses – there is a gasp that travels the auditorium as the reworked visuals encompass the audience in an effect that is unique, stunning, revelatory. It’s beyond 3D, as the band are there in front of your eyes performing, and yet also, in a level of hyper-reality that is more real than real. The numbers leap out of the screen, I see other people here try to reach out and touch them, and the beats compound the stage during the elegant, stunning ‘Radioactivity’.

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Finally the closing, 10 minute ‘Music Non Stop’, condenses half of the ‘Electric Cafe’ album as each member of the band slowly enjoys a solo spot of various motifs and elements before taking a bow: at the end, it’s Ralf Hutter alone who overplays the chords of ‘Man Machine’ as the song comes to a close, and leaves the audience alone with the concept as the machines perform the end of the song themselves – that makes you wonder, exactly how much of the set did the man perform, and how much of it was machine? Is it who plays what that matters? Or what is played? On the basis of tonight, where the sole remaining original member Hutter lead his orchestra of men in a living avant-garde art installation, one wonders whether Kraftwerk need ever be touched by human hands again in favour of a continuation by machine once the flesh itself is retired. Music Non Stop? Only the future knows.

By: Mark Reed

NINE INCH NAILS - JANE'S ADDICTION : london o2 arena - 15 July 2009

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If you quit when you’re ahead you never get left behind

In one way, you could say it shouldn’t really be like this: Jane’s Addiction, playing to a 95% bored hockey arena, with tiny pockets of furious exorcism and a feeling that – with barely 100 people seemingly making the most of the first London appearance by the original line up of the band in 18 years – these returning legends are in an uphill struggle.

To some, Jane’s are stoner music. You sit and get stoned, and lose yourself in the genres that flip and switch from bar to bar, from jazz to Joy Division, from art-metal to anaesthesia in what you might call unformed jams. For others, this music is more than art, more than music, but a musical, aural philosophy. Farrell as a kind of seer, the rest of the band shamanic, creating music that steamrollers the old fashioned notions of genre and rails. Jane’s never followed the convention: they never had a ‘sound’, nor a pigeonhole you could put them in. To some people they are formless – those steeped in the narrow road of verse/chorus/verse. To others, me, they are the open plains of musical possibility.

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So, for 100 or so of us, arms raised to the sky, lost in the tribal battering of all of us with wings in the middle of opener ‘Three Days’, Jane’s Addiction, look, feel, and sound as they always did. Which is timeless, relevant to the human condition, cutting through the bullshit of trends to the eternal truth of life, that we are still the same we always were, flawed, neurotic, hopeful, but most of all, capable of so much more than the mediocrity life and convention gives us. Music, art, this is the resistance, the thing that elevates us from pupae or breathing meat.

Farrell himself shuts his eyes and pretends that 19,500 people don’t give a fuck don’t exist and preaches to the 500 who give a shit. Navarro and the returned Eric Avery are lost in the grooves, not exactly playing the music, but the music is playing them. Treated like rag dolls. Stephen Perkins flips effortless between primal rhythms, loose spaciousness, and intense pounding in the blink of an eye. Sure, reforming Jane’s Addiction may be a commercial move; it may be nostalgic as no song tonight is under two decades old; it may be many things, but also, it’s the story of a volatile chemistry between Farrell – who sees himself as the leader and organiser – and the rest who posit that if words were all, then there would be no music, and when these elements mix it can be dangerous, volatile, and explosive. No doubt they will split at some point and reform again, but for now, the power in the music is as effective as ever.

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Whilst there are plenty of heathens – a fact not unnoticed by the band, for the encore Dave Navarro asks the crowd to show the band that they have friends in the town after a limp response to some of the most potent music there is – there is not much middle ground with Jane’s Addiction: you either think not very much of them, or that they are damn awesome. I’m in the latter camp. For the encore – one which most of the crowd see only as Something That Stops Nine Inch Nails Playing – it’s ‘Jane Says’. Pearls before swine.

For Nine Inch Nails, it’s a whole different experience. NIN are the draw that has brought everyone here, by and large. This sort-of-farewell ‘Wave Goodbye’ tour, seeing NIN reshaped to a quartet for the first time in 18 years, and longstanding guitarist (last seen in Guns’N‘Roses as an entirely different, and incredibly capable lead) Robin Finck, alongside Justin – previously seen with an enormous afro in Beck’s band and Liam from Lost Prophets – form tonights version of Nine Inch Nails. The concept of Nine Inch Nails being a band is obsolete : a logical extension of Reznor’s vision aided by capable musicians. But as I felt many years hence, Reznor was becoming a form of angry James Brown, replacing himself with cheaper, younger musicians to maintain the world he created. But in a way, his artistic vision occupied one world – a world of anger, pain and frustration: this is easily deduced from words and lyrics as ‘Mr Self Destruct!’ ‘Killing, suffering, and pain!’. It’s not that the concept has become a straightjacket, but that there is more to express than that palette of emotions that ranges from despair to anger to angry despair. With songs twenty years old, written when Reznor was 20 or so, sometimes they cease to mean the same thing they did in 1989.

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‘For five minutes of that song, and probably an hour afterwards, it takes over. It’s neither going through the motions nor acting, you kinda become — I’m still driven by the same things that drove me to write it in the first place …. Now when I’m offstage, I’m not same guy onstage but it’s driven by the same place. I’d never want to be Gene Simmons, an old man who puts on makeup to entertain kids, like a clown going to work …’ – Trent, Inquirer.Net (July 2009)

Having seen Nine Inch Nails in many forms over the past decades (and many sizes, from 300 people to 60,000), I’ve never seen the band work so hard: each member slips from their primary instrument – guitar, bass, drums, to keyboards and other mediums for a number of bars, then straight back: and the sound is as full and viable as ever. The effort, time, and commitment are intense to watch. The rest of the performance – 24 songs – is almost flawless.

But only almost.

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Given that this is the only appearance the band have made in London since the release of ‘Year Zero’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘The Slip’, it’s disturbing to see that the band only play two songs from their last three albums. And not only that, that so much of the set is made up of songs that are fifteen years old: thankfully there is no sign of the played-to-death ‘Closer’, but that aside, there’s no sign of songs such as ‘God Given’, ‘Discipline’, ‘Letting You’, ‘Echoplex’, ‘Capital G’: all songs that prove that Nine Inch Nails were unlike many who fall to irrelevance, stupidity, aping their past successes and failing, and running out of things to say – but retained a vision to the end and an integrity. It’s not as if the new stuff is rubbish: it’s more focused than they have been for a long time. And it’s a first for the band, to turn, by some degree into a nostalgia band concentrating on the past and not the present. It leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth for a band that have always avoided the lazy route of a Best Of or retrospective.

They open with ‘Now I Am Nothing’ : still officially unreleased after 20 years. Lyrically this, alongside many of the choices tonight, point to an end: ‘Wave goodbye’ is the basic theme of the opening song – and later ‘The Becoming’ warns ‘the me that you know doesn’t come around much’, both signifying a finality, and a change. But the combined effect of the set is powerful. Trent still screams his way through the set with a fierce commitment, the rest of the band whipping up a storm. Thankfully the one-dimensional rage of the ‘With Teeth’ show I saw at Brixton has been replaced by a thoughtful, more considered approach that explores light and shade (admittedly, only in black and white).

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As the set progresses, and evolves through moods and themes that explore the central idea, the band coalesce into perhaps the most valid, and definitive, Nine Inch Nails show I have seen since the first one at Birmingham Goldwyns eighteen long years – and half my life – ago.

As the rarely-played ‘Down In It’ is exhumed, the band come to a crashing halt, and are joined, for the only time, by Gary Numan for ‘Metal’ (covered by NIN on 2000’s ‘Things Falling Apart’), and a note perfect, bonkers-version of ‘Cars’ to immense applause. What was previously shaping up as an artistically valid show of vision became, in a fraction, an event. Numan tones his keyboard and projects; Trent wears a big fat smile and loses himself in the song.

For the final strait, it’s a roof-raising ‘Hand That Feeds’, and a bitter, buzz saw, sounding-as-good-now-as-it-did-then ‘Head Like A Hole’. Finck peels forth sounds I didn’t know guitars could make, showing here that his time in GNR expanded his abilities; a brilliant genius of guitar who is content to stand at the side and explore the infinite possibilities of six strings. (And I never realised how much air guitar I play at a gig like this! Don’t tell anyone).

The show ends with ‘Hurt’: a hymn to almost anything you put into it. The insane, epilepsy-inducing light show is tamed. I am no longer watching a show that looks exactly the same with my eyes shut as it does open (I tried that), and the band leave us with our thoughts. If anything, the lights were too much: stuttering, dangerous, and brutal.

From here, the future is Trent’s oyster: with Nine Inch Nails, as a live proposition coming to an end, there still remains a mass world of creativity to explore in new records within and without the Nails banner, and visual and video art. But if this is it, the grand finale, I applaud Reznor for determinedly doing exactly and only what the muse suggests, and bowing out before the sadly likely litany of rubbish, irrelevant albums, nostalgia and reformation shows, and tired, dull, album-in-a-bucket cash cow tours. My only wish for tonight that was not realised was that Nine Inch Nails gave us a look back and a wave goodbye without the chance to experience – for the only time – the highly relevant and brilliant material from their last three records. If this is the end, or an end, then frankly, it was an exit worthy of, and maintaining, the standard they have always set. Never compromising, never taking the easy route, never a paycheck or serving the ego, but always going into the great unknown. And the next step? Who knows? But I’m keen to find out. If you quit whilst you’re ahead, you never get left behind.

By: Dez Innocent

MONO - live - stereo, glasgow, 22nd of march 09

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Okay, so it’s a formula – but then so were the classic songs of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Japanese quartet Mono do adhere to a rough template. Start gently, contemplative; build gracefully (or sometimes explode unexpectedly); and climax in a crescendo of noise. They’re not alone in doing so, either – it’s become a guitar-based, instrumental post-rock cliché. What they do have that sets them apart is a strong gift for melody. This never deserts them, even when they are in the heart of the maelstrom. As sheets of white noise engulf everything, there is always some gorgeous tune at its centre.

The last time I saw the band was at ATP in Minehead last year. They had the unenviable task of playing the first afternoon, when everybody was settling in, reacquainting themselves with old friends and generally jabbering away excitedly. In the cavernous upper bar, they got somewhat lost in all the hubbub. Playing a club like Stereo, packed to the rafters and with an atmosphere akin to a steam room, they were in their element. Even if the quiet sections were often almost overwhelmed by the venue’s noisy air con.

The new album, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, is a work on a huge scale. It’s fully orchestrated and has a tendency towards bombast. When I reviewed it, I thought it huge fun, but possibly not the sort of record that would continue to reward repeated plays. A month or so on, it still sounds exhilarating. I did wonder, though, how it would translate live, sans orchestra. As it turned out, exceptionally well.

Tonight’s set began with the first four tracks of the record and ended with its closer, with just a couple of old tunes chucked in for good measure. It sounded absolutely brilliant. The quiet bits lost none of their grace and subtlety, and the climaxes were colossal. They played for ninety minutes, but it seemed like half that. Wearing a critical hat, it could be argued that every tune signposted its direction, but I tossed my critical hat away about five minutes in and surrendered myself gleefully to the feast of aural delights. This was a band who were absolutely at ease with what they do best and who were in stunning form. The Lionel Messi’s of post-rock, perhaps.

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