It's always nice to be in at the beginning of something special. As Infest, the UK's biggest (and best) alternative electronic music festival enters its second decade, it's satisfying and rewarding to be able to look back and remember being there for the first, formative outing. Same goes here for E-tropolis - the inaugural Berlin city centre electronic music festival which took place on one very hot and sunny Berlin day - same weekend as Glastonbury; but no competition there - I know which I'd rather be at! With annual leave limited, and trying not to feel guilty about casting aside concerns about flying contributing to climate change, we flew out on Friday evening after work and flew back late on Sunday night ready for the next working week. It literally was a flying visit, but worth every effort and penny.
Originally due to take place in the Spandau Zitadelle complex, a relatively late relocation to the Columbia compund venue proved to be the ideal location. Nestled in between Templehof airport and the West Kreuzberg district with its cafes and green squares, this two-hall central location is known not for its luxury but more for its excellent sound system - something perfectly suited then to the 3,500 black-clad industrial types in attendance (okay, I was wearing a black T-shirt too but at least my shorts were brown!). Three main reasons for attending were to catch up with Covenant, and the chance to sample my first live outings of PATENBRIGADE: WOLFF and Mind.In.A.Box. Covenant, because the last two times they've played in London have been on a Sunday with late starts and no hope of an easy journey home meaning I've had to bail out early on both sets - which is extremely annoying. A tad extravagant perhaps to travel to Germany for the weekend to be sure of seeing a complete set by them, but needs must! Bands were programmed from 3pm to 1am, split between the halls - with the smaller, newer acts playing in the intimate club space of Columbiaclub whilst the larger acts performed in the galleried Columbiahalle.
Kicking off the event in memorable style were Germany's PATENBRIGADE: WOLFF (photo left). I've been nothing but impressed by their recorded output (they're currently up to album number five) and had been hankering to see them live. Their shows are theatrical affairs with several accomplices and an extended live band family contributing either to the music or to the presentation. The band's obsession with construction site workers is represented on stage by groups of men sporting P:W's trademark orange overalls and yellow safety hats who, guide proceedings, establish safe areas by using caution tape, send sparks flying from their grinding tools, take official photographs of the performance and occasionally fall foul of the authorities. So, as a piece of tongue-in-cheek live theatre, this delivered in spades (literally!). Yet that was nothing compared to the music. This was as perfect a live rendition of their songs resulting in a heady mixture of relief and excitement. Taking in Popmusik für Rohrleger (the subtitle from their latest album Baustoff) and including fan favourites like Ostberliner Bauarbeiter, and Demokratischer Sektor this was quality non-stop, electronic soundtracks. Absolutely brilliant and setting the standard for the entire festival impossibly high.
KMFDM were the second act in the main space and their thundering live drums, especially the bass drum, were impressive. This looked like the same line up that I saw in London last year as part of their 25th Anniversary Tour, and it's a solid troupe. A smoking Sascha Konietzko led proceedings as usual, sharing vocal duties with Lucia Cifarelli. They belted out a series of hits, old and new, and guitarist Steve White appeared to be having a particularly fun time of it creating KMFDM's distinctive chugging guitar riffs to balance out their traditional triggering style synths.
After nipping out for some sustenance, I managed to see some of DAF's proper, old school minimalist EBM being performed in front of what by now was a very big and enthusiastic crowd. Singer Gabriel "Gabi" Delgado-López cut a familiar stage presence, with his constant pacing stage left, stage right and repeatedly drowning himself with bottles of water in an attempt to keep his body safe from the ever rising temperature, before spraying the (probably appreciative) audience at his feet. Rattling through their set of three minute songs, DAF were perhaps the most perfectly suited band for the location and the audience assembled.
A key part of my personal mission at events like this is to make sure I get the chance to sample something new (at least to these ears). Although their first release dates from 2006, Mergel Kratzer fit that bill perfectly and presented plenty eye candy but problems with the drummer's click track playback over her ear-piece interfered with the impact. When it was going to plan, it was all a bit too frantic on the percussion front, but there's some interesting stuff happening in the writing, which seems to draw inspiration from an eclectic range of sources. Mostly stomping and melodic, it was when they slowed things down, like on a track featuring the lyric "War and devastation" that things worked better. Though they are pretty much doing their own thing, which is to be comended, I was occasionally reminded of Velvet Acid Christ. A faithful core of early followers down the front clapped whenever the opportunity arose, and full marks to the band for pushing through their technical difficulties. For them this will probably be a performance they'll want to forget, but for the audience it will still have turned many onto the Mergel Kratzer sound.
Back over the in the main hall, Feindflug (meaning 'Fight against the enemy' - photo left) took to the stage and by now the audience were packed in with even the balcony level chocka. With a reputation that proceeds them for their punishing live sets, this was my first live sampling of this cult act. The air raid sirens ringing out over Berlin created a slightly disconcerting atmosphere before the band, four drummers strong, began their assault on the assembled crowd. Knowing Fiendflug's music beforehand doesn't prepare you for their live blitzkrieg. Nothing can.
Good-natured 'fighting' broke out halfway through the first song as, despite the intense heat outside, the big fellas worked out their excess energy. Wisely, I had relocated to the balcony, so could take advantage of the viewpoint without getting caught up in any of the melee. It's difficult to convey just how MASSIVE Fiendflug's live sound really is. If KMFDM was assault music then this lot were carpet bombing the audience into submission. Audiowar may have the name, but Feindflug have the firepower.
Image wise, they played against a backdrop of every kind of warfare imaginable, from jousting knights in armour to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Twin Towers going down, Stuka dive bombers, Muslim extremists, Vietnam… you get the picture(s). Still, I wouldn't want you to think it was nothing but warfare being projected. There was a smattering of the effects of climate change for light relief. But the Nazis marching in front of the Brandenburg Gate felt uncomfortably eerie with the location just a few minutes north from here. An unforgettable if exhausting experience.
It was a big (but pleasant) contrast to step from that back outside into the glorious sunshine of the courtyard that separates the two venues. Here was the perfect opportunity to grab a cold beer, chill out, cool down, partake in some conspicuous consumption from the assorted dealer stalls (filling in gaps in the back catalogue), do some people watching and meet up with friends.
After PATENBRIGADE: WOLFF, the other band I had high hopes for, seriously liking their first three albums, was Stefan Poiss' Mind.In.A.Box. A studio-only project for several years, it's really inventive what Poiss has done to bring the MIAB sound to a live setting. A lot of arrangement was clearly required for every song. Rather than rely too heavily on playback, instead major elements were created live by guitar, bass and drums instead of the purely synthetics and programming of the albums. This approach could have been a major screw up that spoiled the songs but, instead, it was surprisingly effective.
Fear was an unexpected highlight and provided some real hands in the air music. This was just so engaging, and indicative of the live MIAB sound which is quite different from the recordings, coming across more like electronica and less like trancey electro - I'd never really considered it like that before. When Poiss really went for it on the untreated vocals, he had a surprisingly Tom Jones quality about him! There's a lot of emotional power invested here and it shows, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
There was a very rocking take on the single Certainty which, again, despite being quite unlike the source material, was another successful approach. Poiss was flanked throughout by a guitarist and bass player - each taking on aspects that, in the studio, would have been created through keyboards or software. Light & Dark (the opening track from the first album Lost Alone) lived up to expectations, my only personal criticism is that I'd have liked more from that excellent debut. It was perhaps not a surprise that fellow performers Sven Wolff and Antje Dieckmann of PATENBRIGADE: WOLFF were in the house to soak up the enveloping atmosphere created on stage.
Having had to leave half-way through their last two London performances, Covenant (photo left) were the act that first planted to seed that it really was worthwhile popping over to Berlin for the weekend. An indicator of things to come, for the first time today a band didn't start bang on their allotted time. A great thing about these gents live is they are happy to perform very early material and so Stalker (from 1996's Sequencer album) provided a thumping good intro suggesting this could be a classic Covenant night. Knowing their songs so intimately, this was really the first chance I got to appreciate just how good the sound system was in the Columbiahalle. 20hz was a superb reworking with plenty of extras, then we got to hear the first new song from the forthcoming album Modern Ruin. Dynamo Clock is a classic mid-tempo Covenant number that shows progression whilst remaining unmistakably and resolutely Covenant. Invisible and Silent was introduced by Eskil as his favourite ballad. If I Would Give My Soul was the second new track, but the deep bass intro sounded like something from Northern Light. Another solid track that keeps hopes for Modern Ruin high.
Up until now, everything was going just fine. Then Joachim Montellius's behaviour caught my attention. He was looking very 'relaxed' shall we say, but then he often does. Between songs, he strolled over to Daniel's floor toms and gave them a playful couple of hand slaps as if he were playing them. Then we pretended not to see Joachim fall over backwards during the intro to The Men. He appeared to be drunk. He fell over a second time. He dropped his mike and looked increasingly out of it. I could have sworn I heard a few boos from the audience. As if things weren't already challenging enough for him, by the time we get to Ritual Noise JM's synth starts playing up. Distracted, he jumps off stage and into the photo pit, wanders aimlessly for a few moments and then scrambles back on stage. He then just walks off stage, with Eskil quickly following behind, leaving poor Daniel Myer to fill in with some improvised noise twiddling. A few minutes and an unscheduled Myer instrumental later, the two friends return. Joachim is now smoking a cigarette, whilst Eskil picks up Montelius' mike stand (again) for Babel.
But in spite of best efforts to pretend otherwise, it's clear that Joachim is virtually dysfunctional by this point, knocking over his mike stand again (and again Eskil picks it up for him - seemingly in a very forgiving mood). A short encore and a rendition of Call The Ships To Port with additional Myer percussion written in works effectively enough to wrap up the night. Very far from their best performance. Indeed probably the 'worst' I've seen. I only hope this was merely a temporary glitch that can be attributed to the rock n roll lifestyle, and that Montellius' behaviour isn't symptomatic of a larger problem within the group. Disappointing in part but (early in the set) there were some classic Covenant live moments that mean I still won't hesitate to be there next time, even if it does mean travelling aborad to see them.
This was what could be just the first of many E-troplis festivals to come. From a punter's perspective, this was an ideal overview of the current electro/industrial scene, in a practical central Berlin location with a terrific sound system. Hard to ask for more. Next year's E-tropolis is already scheduled for later in the year on 3rd September 2011. I'm already thinking about booking those cheap flights and some annual leave. 8/10