Psychedelic Network 10th Anniversary Festival – AKW, Würzburg Germany - 17 November, 2007
From Aural Innovations #38 (Jan 2008)
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Germany’s Psychedelic Network, Horst
Porkert invited four of the best of Europe’s space/psychedelic rock acts
to his backyard in Würzburg for a one-off day-long extravaganza. However,
the event turned out to be so successful that there are already plans in the
works for another fest next year, such that perhaps this will become an annual
event. As well as I know Horst from meeting him at various shows and festivals
around Germany over the past five years, I’m afraid that I can’t
even tell you exactly what the Psychedelic Network is. What I do know, is that
Horst (and business partner Mani) operate a trio of CD shops (Würzburg,
Aschaffenburg, and Karlsruhe) that specialize in all of AI’s favourite
subgenres, including space rock, psychedelia, stoner rock, and naturally krautrock.
Such places naturally provide the stage for connecting like-minded fans with
each other and for getting the word out on more obscure events that would otherwise
be missed. In addition, Horst has himself been active in booking concerts in
local clubs (such as Café Cairo, Immerhin, and AKW) over the years, adding
to those put on by the energetic Charly Heidenreich (including his annual Artrock-festival
and various Freakshow events), making Würzburg an absolute must for any
cool band touring the country. In the last few years, Horst has also been releasing
the occasional CD on his Sunhair label, including the newest release of a live
double-CD release from Circle (recorded at Cairo in 2003)…good timing!
Whatever the case may be, the networking skills of Horst’s operation proved highly successful in this instance. What was initially meant to be an intimate gathering in the friendly confines of the Cairo club turned into a 300-plus sold-out affair at the larger AKW, the scale-up forced by continual demand, and even then last-minute arrivals had to be turned away. Not bad for an event scheduled to start at Noon, featuring far-from-mainstream music, in a city of just 130,000 population. The weekend’s festivities started on Friday evening, however, at a pre-show party across town at the Immerhin, where DJ Walter (of Roadburn fame in Holland) spun appropriate discs and the aforementioned Charly showed a fascinating video compilation of old krautrockers (Can, Amon Düül 2, Kraftwerk, Frumpy, et al.) from German TV shows in the early 1970s. I enjoyed meeting Walter for the first time, and discussing his plans for next year's bigger-and-better Roadburn fest in Tilburg (which I hope to attend finally), and seeing all those great old videos, but nevertheless I turned in early to be sure of getting a proper night's rest in preparation for the long day on my feet ahead.
In addition, I had to relocate from the hostel near the station where I had been staying the previous two nights, because no beds were available on Saturday night due (of course) Horst himself booking the place out in order to give all the bands a place to crash after the show. In the end, it was fine for me because I found a nice quiet B&B on the south edge of town where Sunday morning I could sleep in to my heart's delight, without being roused continually by a bunch of noisy musicians. However, I had to hurry with all my belongings first to my new accommodations, and then move on without delay to find the AKW way out on the west edge of town. I made it just a few minutes before the scheduled launch time (Noon), only to find out that there were some issues with the power supply and the soundchecking was still in progress. So I had a few minutes to look around and browse through some of the merch tables that had been set up in the foyer. The AKW is in an old brick factory building, with a smaller building just next door set up for casual dining and drinking. However, since the indoor smoking ban in Bayern is not yet in place (whereas in neighboring Baden-Württemberg, from whence I had just come, it is already thankfully enforced), the air quality therein was not to my particular liking, so I spent the time wandering around outside.
Shortly after 1 PM, after finally getting everything solved (apparently, the lightshow power cables were plugged into the wrong outlets), the fans were finally allowed into the club itself, eager to get this thing on the move. Zone Six is a band that I had already seen twice in the previous several months, between the Swampmania fest in Munich as well as their own festival (Space Farm Ahoi) in a more pastoral setting in rural Austria. However, because they are a totally improvisational act, each time is completely unique by definition. In addition, they recruited Guru Guru veteran Ax Genrich to perform with them for the entire set, which was extra special. Lead Zone-Sixer Dave Schmidt, of course, has been playing with Genrich and Guru Guru drummer/frontman Mani Neumeier for some years now (under the moniker Psychedelic Monsterjam...CD releases on Horst's Sunhair label, natch), so there was little need for the two parties to become (re)acquainted.
The first piece by Zone Six was a fairly standard get-warmed-up affair, a long, slowly building jam that took few risks, but was nevertheless a nice start. It was five minutes or so into the second piece that the band really took off, and it was Ax Genrich who suddenly decided it was time to launch into a mind-blowing guitar solo that went on a good six minutes or more. Zone Six regular Julius K. then decided to answer that with one of his own, his guitar screaming out of the speakers in true freak-out style. The whole second improv-jam lasted about 25 minutes I think, and was full of great moments like that. The third piece was brief by comparison, flirting with more of a swinging-blues beat, before then taking a sharp turn towards really avant-garde noise experimentation in the fourth. Genrich really showed his versatility (via a lifetime of guitar playing) in the myriad ways he could use his guitar as an fX device. Schmidt (aka Sula Bassana) followed suit, often playing his bass while sitting/kneeling on the stage in order to handle his pedals/switches more adeptly with his hands rather than feet. Here also Martin Schorn could make a major contribution from his rack of synthesizers, whereas it was hard for him to compete at many other times given the twin-guitar attack.
After another spacerock number, and a short break, the five-piece returned for a final encore jam, which saw Genrich playing some more great guitar. Having now seen Zone Six a few times this year (and also more recently the Oresund Space Collective, also 100% improv, up in Norway), I've started to notice a few subtle things about improv-jamming. Naturally, it appears easier for the bassist or drummer to suddenly introduce a new direction in the middle of the piece, although such efforts need to be sufficiently confident and bold in order to get the inertia of the other members to follow you. In that way, it seems a little like the Tour de France, where one rider will make a sudden charge forward forcing the others in the pack to follow. Although the goal is different: on the stage, the musicians *want* everyone else to follow along seamlessly and not be left behind. There's definitely a different kind of artistry at work here, apart from rehearsing fully-composed songs like 99% of bands do. And even the best of these improv acts have minor hiccups, like at the end of Zone Six's encore when drummer Walter Jahn decided to have one more flurry, starting a heavy rock beat that the others failed to respond to (I think Dave tried to cut it off because of time constraints). But then, the two talked it over briefly and in the end concluded "Ah, what the hell, we'll do it!" and we did get our last finale of Zone Six after all, albeit a bit hesitantly. In all-improv-space rock, no matter what happens, the show must go on!
Zone Six with Ax Genrich
After a 45-minute set change, Aachen's Electric Orange hit the AKW stage. Electric Orange is a band that I have known since their 1996 Cyberdelic CD on the Delerium label in England. However, at that time the band was a two-piece electronica act (Dirk Jan Müller (K) and Dirk Bittner (G, V), who both still front the band) which really wasn't my thing at all, and since then I hadn't really paid them much attention. That lapse was remedied earlier this summer when I saw them play on the Freak Stage at the Burg Herzberg festival in central Germany. Electric Orange are now a five-piece with several multi-instrumentalists, such that they offer a fully-fledged brand of tribal-space rock that reminds one of Tribe of Cro or even Korai Öröm during their better moments. So that was a pleasant surprise, and now here I already have another chance to see them, with the added benefit of knowing a little more about their recent musical output. Their latest CD release, Morbus (out on Dave Schmidt's Sulatron records...it's a small world), is a very good album and is selling very well.
However, on this lazy Saturday afternoon, I find Electric Orange to start out their set anything but 'electric.' Their early offerings (starting with the Morbus-Auftakt "Einwahn") seemed to me lethargic and colorless. Compounding the problem was that both guitars were too low in the mix at the beginning. The mix problem was soon solved, but it still took the band members some time to wake up and realize that they were not in rehearsal anymore. Drummer Silvio Franolic seemed to be insistent on playing at a different pace than the other (sleepwalking) members were comfortable with. Maybe they're not accustomed to playing at 3 PM in the afternoon (understandably), and maybe they hadn't gotten enough sleep the previous night (likely)? But I was beginning to wonder whether their Herzberg performance was a fluke. The fourth number, a slow, crunching space march entitled "Rote Flocken" ("Red Spots") started to liven things up a little bit, and "Span 5" followed up with some throaty organ passages and fX-laden psych guitar. Slowly improving now.
But it was the 10-minute "Wald" that was not only the highlight of Electric Orange's set, but perhaps the top moment of the entire fest for me. It is the perfect kind of psychedelic trance-rock piece, going through several phases of soft and loud versions of the same rolling, driving beat. During the quiet parts are some bits of vocal chanting and lots of synth noises and fX, and during the rocking parts we get some great guitar soloing. This one got most of the crowd dancing, and finally the Electric Orange that I remembered seeing at Herzberg was back. From then on, the set held to that high standard and in the end I was again impressed with their music, with the variety of sounds (some flute, hand percussion, synths, organs, vocals/chants) and the deft use of tribal rhythms and the full range of dynamics. “Sarau” was another of the instrumental groove-rock pieces we heard, set upon a tasty backing rhythm and colored with lots of electronic effects.
Because the sets were cut down slightly due to the late start, Electric Orange had to drop one song from their set list, offering only 11 of the 12 listed (I peeked). So I'm not certain of the name of their finale song (I think it might have been "Hydrat" from 'Abgelaufen'), but they ended up on a high note and got a nice ovation from the crowd. It's definitely best to put your best stuff at the end of the gig, but it would also be a good idea to put some energy into the show near the beginning too...after all, you don't want people walking out on you and never hearing the good stuff! Anyway, at the half-way intermission, I found myself getting hungry and went out for a bite to eat and some fresh air. It was a cool, wet day, so no good opportunity to go sit down and relax outside of the smoke-filled AKW cafe, so my feet didn't get much of a rest before Phase 3 was set to begin. Luckily, I didn't go far, because a three-piece stoner rock outfit (one guitar, one bass, drums, no keyboards) like ColourHaze can get their gear up in a hurry. Which did wonders to get the fest back on schedule, but some folks were not aware of them starting their set until already under way.
I just called ColourHaze a stoner rock band, which perhaps
isn't a fair description because they have some attributes which are more elaborate
than simple three-chord garage rock with a fuzzbox and wah pedal. ColourHaze's
songs are lengthy multi-faceted affairs with the maximum range of dynamics.
I won't say that they utilize the full dynamic range in between, because they
normally don't, choosing rather to abruptly switch from the quiet bits at the
beginning to full-on driving stoner-metal. And back again, as necessary. Guitarist/vocalist
Stefan Koglek then can sing either in a more relaxed voice with more melodic
flavor, or really belt out his lyrics over top of the heavy-duty fuzz guitar.
Koglek's guitar technique is also unusual, playing a wide-body semi-acoustic
with a peculiar picking action that seems to lead to him consciously tapping
directly onto the pick-ups at the end of the fretboard. The result is an extra
little percussive "click track" (if you will) in time with the guitar
line that helps gives ColourHaze a very identifiable style.
I have seen ColourHaze play live about five times now over the past three years, and they always put on a strong performance with a very professional attitude. Indeed, they are virtually the opposite of a band like Zone Six, in that they seem to rehearse the songs to the point of perfection, and rarely do you ever see Koglek, or bassist Philip Rasthofer or drummer Mani Merwald need to peek over at the others...they're machines. So while you're certain to always get a great performance from this trio, it also means that seeing them too many times in a short period will eventually lead to diminishing returns. However, on this night, with nearly two hours to play, ColourHaze was able to fit in some unusual numbers into the set and give something new to even the most familiar fan. And undoubtedly, here in their home state of Bavaria, they had quite a few fans that came primarily to see them.
The 110-minute set featured songs from not only the last three albums, but also two tracks from the album that they are recording just now. I think Koglek identified these new songs as "Oh" and "If" (that's what it sounded like to me, anyway...we'll know for sure when the album comes out) so I guess short titles are in. The songs themselves were quite short, rather unusual for the band, but otherwise I don't remember too much about them. A couple tunes from the previous new album ('Tempel') were offered, including "Aquamaria" and "Earth" if I'm not mistaken, and I think it was the instrumental title-track that was put between the half-hour length "Peace Brothers and Sisters" (a common highlight of ColourHaze shows) and the finale "Love" (always a winner). I'm also pretty sure we heard "Mountain," the opening track to the self-titled CD (I think it even opened the show), and "Sundazed" from 'Los Sounds des Krauts' was the first encore (right?). (Forgive me if I get some details wrong here...the extensive notes I took during the event were in my little bag that was stolen from me on the train several days later, along with my passport and more cash than I wish to admit, so I am having to write this whole review from memory.)
All these songs, arguably a 'best of...' from the last five years of ColourHaze were all great as usual. But the odd little track "Zen" (another from ‘LSdK’) was the one that pleased me the most. It's based on a crazy highly-syncopated riff written in a time signature so strange as to be unidentifiable, very hard to pull off live (think Yes' "Heart of the Sunrise") but the band is so tight and fine-tuned, the three played this track with relative ease. Of course, late into the song it gets super-heavy and fuzzed out...it wouldn't be ColourHaze without that! :) The last stage set-up went off without a hitch and the festival was virtually back on schedule, with the last band intended to finish up at about 11 PM. Good work by the sound guys and the band’s themselves, following the shaky start.
The final act of this wonderful night was NWOFHM (don't even try to tell me you don't know what that means!) champions Circle. OK, maybe I'm biased since I have been one of their biggest fans for more than a decade, and have even visited them in their hometown of Pori, Finland, including a visit to bandleader Jussi Lehtisalo's family cabin (where we shared a refreshing sauna). But they never cease to amaze me with the most peculiar form of avant-psychedelic madness out there, and that would be true even if we hadn't ever met. (Note: I’m having a hard time here deciding whether to use first or last names, since I know a lot of these musicians so well. Jussi will have to be Jussi, for sure.) My first times seeing them was with a completely different lineup (apart from Lehtisalo), around the release of 'Pori' and 'Prospekt.' Circle took a new direction soon thereafter when Kuusumun Profeetta frontman Mika Rättö came onboard with his distinctive borderline-apoplectic vocal stylings and piano noodlings, starting with the excellent 'Sunrise' CD. Lately, the group has become hyper-prolific with all sorts of different releases on a myriad of labels, impressively expanding an already-extensive discography.
It has been quite hard to predict just what you might hear at any particular Circle gig. Not too many years ago, it was quite common to only hear a few songs that had appeared on available CDs, as they would often work out new material just before touring, and then revise these new pieces on the road as a prelude to then committing them to disc in the studio thereafter. But finally, it seems that they have finally decided to implant at least a few common tracks into their live act that have some more permanence, such that fans will know a sizeable portion of the music going in. So the show in Würzburg was actually quite similar to the set on the recent live release 'Rakennus,' one of several CDs that have been released on Jussi’s own Ektro Records just this year.
The opener "Virsi" was an amazing pastische of gigantic, operatic statements that would give Queen a run for their money, mixed with laid-back but uptempo motorik-grooving. "Tulilintu" is one of those tracks that has found a home in the Circle set for some time now, and duly so. On CD, it is a mere three minutes of perfectly executed Judas Priest-on-acid madness, the rare track that follows any kind of normal verse/chorus format. But now it has been extended to more than double its initial length, with a long vamp in the middle that doesn't reduce its effectiveness one bit. Fabulous. Next we heard a huge, sprawling suite, that seems to be titled "Se Jonka Nimea" by the band now, although it begins and ends ("Moby Dick"-style) with the metal bits from "Puutiikeri." In the middle is all sorts of different stuff, some of the noodly-bits that characterized the offbeat 'Miljard' album (not my favorite material).
This was about the time that Jussi and Mika started into some rehearsed theatrics, with the two engaging in feats of strength that Jussi (being twice Mika's size) was predetermined to win. However, Mika's penalty for losing (being impaled by Jussi's bass) was given a rare reprieve, as the band was currently suffering from technical breakdowns (they had borrowed ColourHaze's amps for their set and Janne Westerlund's guitar was apparently disagreeing with Koglek's gear). Jussi himself had to switch bass guitars in the middle of the set, as he managed to break the E-string (the one roughly the size of a transatlantic phone cable) of his own bass - probably the time he threw himself down on the stage, and continued to play his riff while spread-eagled on the floor. He ended up borrowing Dave Schmidt’s bass, which actually had a more potent low-end character and made the overall sound more balanced for the last half of the set.
During the long rolling hypnotic jam of “Uusi Uhraus,” Rättö was marching in place in military fashion, looking completely possessed. Dressed in Rob Halford-style gear, his mannerisms were more David Byrne-like. Their concerts may be becoming more rehearsed than before, but the music and theatrics are weirder than ever. This whole bit eventually segued directly into “Nopeuskuningas” (Finnish for “Speed King”), a great, hypnotic rocker from the ‘Sunrise’ album that saw Westerlund really hammering out the repeating riff on his Flying-V guitar, such that Rättö was forced here to really scream out the lyrics in a crazed way. The set finale was another high energy motorik-rocker "Point," a song recovered from the very earliest stages of the band. Serious head-banging stuff. For encores, Circle started out with their favorite bit of silly fun “Kaapikellon Kummitus” (aka “Zum Zum”), drummer Tomi Leppänen accompanying on Rättö’s electric piano. Finally, last but not least, we heard "Murheenkryyni," another slow majestic rock number that bookends well with the opener. Well, that was one of the coolest Circle concerts of the dozen or so I’ve been to, certainly some of the heaviest material I’ve heard them play. Although perhaps a bit too much of the soft, noodly bits as well. Those help to build anticipation for the next big outburst, but once or twice they carried it out a little too long, I think. Never mind, most everyone enjoyed the show immensely. Only a few people had left before the end.
All in all, the fans really got a great 7 hours of music, packed into one single day. The visuals were also quite spectactular, as you can see in some of these photos. Kozmik Klaus and his Solar Sea lightshow were hard at work for all four performances, something that must have taken a lot of stamina and concentration. Klaus was really paying attention to the music, you could see, because the color schemes and patterns chosen often reflected changes in the musical style. For instance, much of the projections were in black-and-white (or shades of grey) for some of Circle’s very bleak soundscapes, at one point even splicing in a movie of people marching to go along with Rättö’s own motions. For Electric Orange, the colors were much warmer, and naturally we got some slides of actual oranges. Most of the shimmering effects between two superimposed images were done manually by waving pieces of cardboard up and down over the projector bulbs, so he could time those to the music as well. Klaus obviously likes the radiating starburst patterns that either flash or rotate in either direction, and by the end of the day I had seen quite enough of that, but still he managed to put in enough variety throughout the day to make the lightshow one of the most interesting aspects of the event.
I noticed a small team around the front and sides of the stage carrying handheld digital video cameras, capturing much (if not all) of the whole event from various perspectives, and I’m sure all the audio was recorded in some fashion (probably by a number of people). So we can have some confidence that some day we’ll see some kind of release out of the event, whether through official or semi-official channels. It’s great news that Horst and his Psychedelic Network will be hard at work putting together another festival for next year. Hopefully it can be even bigger and better than this one (though it would be hard to top this one), and that it will expose more and more new listeners each time to psychedelic music of this variety. We need all the new fans we can get, such that these hard-working and talented bands can continue to make it worth their while to get together and play for us. What a great time we all had…see you all again next year!
Reviewed by Keith Henderson