Elektrofest 2005: Visage/Girls Under Glass/Lowe

Elektrowerks, London - 26 March 2005


"Effortlessly shedding a quarter of a century!"

Usually a one-day event with anything upwards of ten or more bands, Elektrofest is pretty much an annual diary date. But due to an eleventh hour switch to a considerably smaller venue, the line-up was cut to just four acts and folks were offered either credit on their tickets or a partial refund. UK bottom feeders Trauma Pet were just finishing their set when I arrived, and I can't say I was disappointed my train had run late.

Lowe

Sweden's Lowe, with their polished brand of dark electronic pop, was a good way to start the truncated evening. With strong vocals and equally strong song structures, this three piece's varied set seemed to go down well. Hailing "from the coldest part of Stockholm", they soon got the Elektrofest audience warmed up for the bigger acts. Face to Face stood out with its unexpected changes and open breaks, but the plodding cover of Yazoo's Only You although initially welcome turned out to be less than just a good idea. The goth bassline to Ahead of Time also struck a chord even if it didn't match the band's cool appearance: no Day-Glo extensions for this bunch, more the black-rimmed glasses of the keyboard player and the Franz Ferdinand-ish shirt, tie and leather jacket of the guitarist. Lowe finished with the punchy Simplicity, having sustained most everyone's attention throughout their solid set. A noteworthy UK debut that can only have broadened their fan-base. (A few weeks later, the band went on to bag a well-deserved "Newcomer of the Year" award at the 2005 SAMA Awards.)

Girls Under Glass...

...I'd already listened to Girls Under Glass' latest album (Zyklus) so I knew I was likely to enjoy this set. Using the Title Music From A Clockwork Orange by Wendy Carlos as their  entrance music was the right way to immediately get me onside. Fortunately, their own compositions aren't too shabby either. With slim lead singer Volker Zacharias flanked either side by a vaguely Henry Rollins guitarist and a King Kong bassist (Axel Ermes), the other regular member (Hauke Harms) stood at the back with synths and laptop containing much of the backing electronics and programming. The live delivery focusing on the guitars was as expected from the driving aspects of their most recent release.

Girls Under Glass' music varies from the vaguely Rammstein-esque pile driving guitar chorus of last maxi Ohne Dich, across the manic techno dance of Burning Eyes and through to  more emotionally vulnerable pieces like In The Darkness. Varied is definitely the word to describe the range of GUG's output. Yet the quality never wavers, and whatever the vehicle, Zacharias' voice was more than capable at all ends of the spectrum, impressively holding notes throughout even the most belting of heavy choruses. They quickly hit their stride and a cracking pace it was too. The early songs sounded vaguely like Die Krupps in slo-mode: apocalyptic, dark and backed by a great bass synth sound. Then there was the unexpected but heavy cover of Madonna's Frozen. If they were to distil themselves somewhat it would be easy seeing Girls Under Glass attracting big label interest. But, somehow, I get a sense that they'd do little if anything to compromise their eclectic repertoire. Refreshingly three-dimensional in a scene so dominated with one-dimensional outfits.

[The terrific Girls Under Glass] [The return of Steve Strange][Steve Strange and Sandrine] [Never Fade to Grey: Steve Strange]

Photos [L-R]: Girls Under Glass, Visage (x3)

Visage

As I tried to secure a reasonable vantage point midway in the crowd, my mind drifted back to Visage's heyday and I was somewhat shocked to realise that I'd waited a staggering twenty-five years to see them live. Although never a huge fan I loved (and still love) every single the first two albums spawned, and the prospect of hearing Night Train or Fade To Grey sent an irrepressible shiver of anticipation down my spine. Founder member, one time Duran Duran vocalist, godfather of the new romantic movement, and lead singer, Steve Strange had been more famous in the intervening years for his well-documented inexorable decline into drink and drug rock 'n' roll hell. There were no guarantees at all that tonight would get even close to those expectations.

Visage "v.2" (as Strange referred to it) is largely backed up by Seize, whose steady rise up the underground electro scene has been well-documented here. Having seen Seize deliver an impressive cover of Fade to Grey at last year's Elektrofest, their conversation to backing band proper seemed a neat way for Strange to get back into the scene at a grass roots level. Nearly swooning from the excitement, the crowd's patience was rewarded with the opening sequencer moments from the beautiful Damned Don't Cry. A collective rush rippled through the audience reflected in their vocal cheers and whistles. Sadly though, the vocals (both Strange's and the backing) were deep, muddy and clearly lacked the lighter emotional heartache of the original. It was only after taking the applause that this was largely explained by Strange who, in husky tones, who pointed out that he was still recovering from bronchial pneumonia - not the sort of ailment a lead vocalist relishes after returning to the live circuit after 25 years away! All credit to Strange then that he decided to go ahead instead of cancel the show.

Thankfully, thereafter the vocals improved but the original sounds and samples remained as authentic and affecting as ever, effortlessly shedding the quarter of a century (!) after they first excited me so. A few rough coughs between songs then onto Visage. Strange didn't let his poor health dampen his spirits any. In fact, he joked his way through the set, never shy about engaging with the audience, taking the piss out the of gay contingent along the way too. (Second album The Anvil was apparently named after a gay club in New York.) There was an instrumental that I didn't recognise but was totally blown away by - all bleeping and metallic percussion. An unexpected rush.

In The Dark was the first taste we got of new Visage material, it's to be the new Visage single, and very retro it was too. Bravely eschewing safe hi BPM dance beats in favour of a more adventurous mid-tempo male/female vocal sparring (again, Seize's Sandrine) against a bassline lifted directly from Ultravox's Mr. X. The end of the set was looming and we got a terrifically faithful rendition of my favourite Night Train - pumping in all the right places, Steve Strange still even had the original dance moves featured in the video down pat. Great stuff!

Finally, Fade to Grey, perhaps the band's most memorable hit, closed the set in style; and it's easy to forget what an affecting song it is, with rare moments of uncommon beauty. In spite of his chest problems, Strange's characteristic voice still carried through, recalling those good old days. Like many mature acts returning to the scene after decades out of the limelight, there was every chance that this could have turned out more akin to a sad lounge bar cover act than the genuine article. Vocals troubles aside, this was certainly the genuine article, and with the promise of more live dates over the coming months, I'd gladly spend more evenings listening to some classic electronic pop music delivered with verve and a good sense of entertainment.

Rob Dyer


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