Elektrofest 2002 was the third event of its kind, the two previous one-dayers a mixture of the cross-section of alternative/underground electronic acts; but not without some decidedly dodgy artistes thrown in for good measure. This year two German acts were headlining and the remainder an overview of the current UK scene. None too apparently dodgy...
...although Kinetik could easily have been first in the queue. A former Kraftwerk covers band based in Cornwall isn't exactly a CV that immediately inspires great excitement. However, like a good job interviewee, it took just a few moments to realise that this three piece were more than the just sum of their previous jobs. Their stage set-up, the likes of which I hadn't seen since seeing Hard Corp's towering modular patch synths many years ago, even put Kraftwerk themselves in the shade. Apart from housing the backing track and the vocoder that Kinetik made regular use of, I'm not sure what the huge wall of equipment actually was doing, but who really cared when it provided such an impressive light show? Besides, all three had digital synths up front that they utilised throughout (an electronic flute also made an appearance on one track).
What followed was part Kraftwerk, part Orbital. Kinetik didn't just imitate their Dusseldorfian heroes, they merely used the Trans Europe Express/Computer World era as a template for most of their sounds (and subject matter) but produced contemporary dance music of which the Germans themselves would have been proud. With projections neatly synchronising with the beats, it was great fun listening to songs that, in taking their cue from Kraftwerk, not only understood the irony and humour to be found therein, but matched it perfectly with lyrics like: "Atomic rules... Make molecules", "Carbon dates... Tectonic plates" and the refrain "Helium and Gallium... Go elements go!" (from Go Elements Go!).
The beefy bass dance power of Tranzmission would keep most hard EBM-heads contented, but it was on the outstanding ISDN that Kinetik hit their creative stride. An epic, lyrical journey through the wonders of technology, complete with simple yet infectious hooklines, wonderful melodies, grooves and beat loops that were impossible to ignore. I admit to be highly skeptical about Kinetik before hearing them, but they proved themselves with ease. An impressive performance that got Elektrofest 2002 of to a cracking start.
The Sepia have, if you'll excuse the cheap pun, been seeping out onto the London live circuit over the last 18 months or so. I'd kinda caught them in passing, performing at Club Noir, but hadn't really paid close attention. I'd read stuff on their website about some of their tunes being used on TV for a Channel 5 programme. In the interests of informed journalism then, I thought I should listen attentively this time. Theirs was an odd set up. Three keyboard players (left, right and at the back - one of them the main singer), with the front and centre stage taken by guitarist who didn't sing and hardly moved. Why he had been chosen to take up such a prime position when he did nothing more than any quiet, low-key session guitarist would do was perplexing. Even odder was that the rock-orientated sound that emanated from primarily from the keyboards. I'm not sure where The Sepia are coming from, and I've no idea where they are intending to go, but they quickly lost me and my attention. Sorry, I tried.
Brighton's finest Swarf are probably the only band I know to successfully blend goth and electro elements into one whole new sound. They stand head and shoulders above all competitors and it is easy to see why this talented bunch, fronted by the increasingly captivating vocalist Liz Green, are beginning to make an impact in the European darkwave scene. Liz is the perfect frontwoman. She's got a powerful and distinctive voice, she's cute and she has bags of charisma - what more could a band ask for? Previewing new material from their debut album, Swarf have a big sound and it doesn't suffer from the pre-programmed, sterile predictability of others on the scene (see The Sepia above). By the time they played their infectious first single, Fall, the dancefloor was full with bouncing bodies.
Technical gremlins saw to it that Liz's charisma was pushed to the limit. Having officially blamed Microsoft for their laptop crash ('No surprise there' he says), it was left to Liz to give us an acappella version of My Way, a joke about Essex girls and some general chit chat to tide us over. Don't you just love those Brighton folks? They're so friendly. We're simply not used to this kind of thing in London! Laptop up and running, the final song of the set burst forth and it was all over. Swarf's impressive songwriting ability transcends genre boundaries and will, I'm sure, see them reap the bigger rewards they truly deserve.
Whilst there's no doubting Synthetic's energy and enthusiasm, having seen them a few times now I'm losing interest. With a line up that looks like a bizarre practical joke gone haywire - rock 'n' roll guitarist (replete with bad hair and cheesy 70s sunglasses), goth vocalist, and neo-nazi, bespectacled fetish nerd girl on keyboard - the band gave us a trip around their recently released second album ADSL. Provided I didn't actually watch them perform (particularly that guitarist - is he for real?) their songs are hard to dislike and they do have some capable darkwave tunes to offer. But they need that image consultant... NOW!
Some might say the same about Komputer but I'd have to disagree. For although these Mute signatories strolled on stage looking as though they'd simply put on whatever came to hand at the foot of the bed that morning, their non-image clearly was their image. Casually sat astride plastic chairs, two small glass tables pushed together impromptu style upon which balanced their limited equipment - a sampler atop its cardboard box and two control boxes of some sort - theirs was an underwhelming stage presence. Komputer couldn't have physically been further opposite Synthetic who'd recently walked off stage.
"You better be good..." someone called from the audience, "We've had to listen to a lot of goth crap!". Hmm, probably not a Synthetic fan then. But good they were. Strike that. Not just good, but excellent in fact. Spartan, minimalist, glitch electronica is what Komputer deliver and they do it with a nonchalant style that lets the music speak for itself. There are no compromises to fashion or the 'rules' in Komputer's world. Just as soon as a track locks into any kind of synchronised groove or beat, off it shoots into another direction almost stealing from you the pleasure of enjoying it for too long.
There's a lot of avant-wank going around the glitch electronica scene of late, trying (and often succeeding) in passing itself of as art. Komputer prove that unpredictability in music can be simultaneously challenging and rewarding without being self-indulgent - not a hint of wank about it. Currently finalising material for their second album for Mute, you should expect to read a lot more about Komputer on this site in the future. Simply magnificent.
The Nine (covered in some detail already on this site) were next in line and did their thing with increasingly consummate ease.
German electronic popsters Beborn Beton are very good at their brand of clean, slightly hard-edged electro pop songs. The problem with it though is that no matter how efficient or proficient it obviously is, after a while it all tends to blur a bit too much. There are a lot of European-based bands producing traditional verse, chorus, verse, lyric-driven electronic pop songs and it's often hard to distinguish between them. Taken in short bursts or in isolation they're often quite engaging. But I'd seen Beborn Beton at last year's Infest festival and already the novelty had worn off.
And One gave me the opportunity to catch up with my past. I hadn't bought anything by them since 1994's I.S.T.E. and wondered if they were still trading on their Nitzer Ebb-ish EBM tip, or whether they had actually moved on. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to report that they had moved on and were great too. They'd mellowed with age but the songwriting was a strong and catchy as ever it was. Once more, a European act showed our English wannabes just how it should be done. The slick presentation would please even the most demanding of major labels with main man Steve Naghavi having fun playing Dave Gahan.
Although there were lots of mid-tempo numbers, it proved they didn't need to rely upon high BPMs to make their mark. I recognised some of the jerky old classics which stood the test of time with consummate ease and had me happily singing along, and the newer (romantic electronic power ballad) material was just as impressive. There was a neat chilled-out version of The Secret and the bouncing beats of Goodbye Germany (which was at least new to me) were especially memorable.
The band seemed to be having a great time with their UK debut. Naghavi had a broad smile from start to finish, quickly built up a rapport with the packed dancefloor and casually chatted with the audience between numbers and striking poses that make him a photographer's dream front man (see photos). His jokey personality even extended to saying at one point "Don't mention the war!" How can you not like a German who says that to and English audience? All this charm and a voice that puts many of his contemporaries firmly in the shade. Naghavi has it all.
A medley of hits gradually got faster and faster until the strobe lights went into overdrive. By now the kids on the floor were going for it big time. An encore featured an unexpected cover of Alphaville's Big in Japan, but all too soon it was all over. Beforehand, I wasn't sure if And One had the pulling power of reputation in the UK to headline this festival. Not only were my doubts completely unfounded judging by the audiences rapturous response, but I'd forgotten just how good this band are, and as for their live show, I'm sure it won't be too long before we see them back. At least I hope not.