January is a difficult time for promoters to coax lethargic music fans outside to brave dark, cold nights. The small audience at Camden's Underworld, (looking barely over 100) was testament to this. Assuming the gig had been properly promoted, this had to have been the reason for the alarmingly low turn out when two of Krautrock's biggest names were playing in London for the first time in living memory. But before the two ex-Cluster/Neu!/Harmonia/Kraftwerk Germans took to the stage, England's very own Dead Voices on Air appeared to warm up the audience.
Dead Voices on Air
When the three unassuming members of DVOA led by Mark Spybey, formerly with :zoviet*france: and Download, walked on stage the handful of people on the dance floor didn't take any notice - probably mistaking them for sound engineers. It wasn't until Spybey took up his position behind a tower of equipment and announced who they were that most, myself included, cottoned-on. Their set began with ambient breathing noises but gradually transformed into big beat percussion and equally big grooves. A combination created by a live drummer, backing track, keyboards, sampler and theremin.
Tracks slowly faded out, but before disappearing completely the start of a new beat emerged. Ambient chords and strings and distorted choir voices contrasted with bass synths that shook the walls and pushed in your stomach. An array of influences and echoes of half-familiar tones and rhythms from around the globe came together into an amazingly powerful and rousing selection of compositions. Dub beats, digital birdsong, mellow jazz keyboards, short wave radio interference - all, somehow, blended perfectly. It was no mistake that DVOA were sharing the billing with two key exponents of the Krautrock attitude. DVOA are doing now what the Krautrock bands did back in the early 1970s. Spybey and co. are taking the same intellectual approach to experimentation and exploration - but simply with the history of the German movement behind them acting as inspiration and with more versatile technology to hand.
In among some of the louder moments the lead synths were slightly overwhelmed - probably more balanced on CD I expect. But Spybey's voice (featuring on just two songs) was loud and clear. It was also remarkably different on each track - the second, treated vocal sound seemed more successful than the abrasive first appearance. The perfectly-structured set built towards a track with a more conventional electro beat backing with simple, high pitched, synth sequences. Thoughts of Kraftwerk were irrepressible. Maybe, if they wanted to continue pushing the creative envelope forward, Kraftwerk could sound like this today. But if they're not going to bother, I'll take Dead Voices on Air any day. And so, it seemed, would the audience who, starved of the opportunity to fully express themselves during the set, certainly made sure their appreciation of DVOA could be heard as the three band members slowly walked off the stage.
Deiter Moebius and Michael Rother
Having been extremely impressed with my first live sampling of Dead Voices on Air, before Mr Moebius and Mr Rother came on stage I began to wonder just how they could stand up against what we'd just heard. After all they must be in their 50s now; surely their halcyon days were at least 20 years behind them? Would they now come across as slightly dated and out-of-touch, if venerable old men of (Kraut)rock?
A young accomplice mostly acted as a sound engineer - controlling the live mix, co-ordinating changing the mini disc backing tracks etc - though he did get to a keyboard on occasion. Moebius and Rother stood as far apart from one another as is possible on the Underworld's small stage. Rother looked at the audience and occasionally smiled. Moebius (with his cropped grey hair and black-framed glasses) kept his head bowed slightly, staring at his keyboard for most of the set, only infrequently glancing over to catch his old friend's eye. Deiter was keeping it cool but you could tell he was enjoying himself.
The opening bleeps were a crafty way to catch the audiences attention. "Ah!", you thought, "just what I was expecting" - quaint, and dated experimental noises of a classic Krautrock kind. But these two wise men then launched into a series of pumping grooves, effortless melodies - as simple as they were captivating - and produced the most imaginative and inspiring electronic music you could ever possibly hear. Dead Voices on Air were great - but this was amazing! Again, tracks segued into one another, claps and whistling just managing to get in between before being drowned out by a new sound.
I was envious of these two men who were generating such wonderful sounds and beats. It all seemed so easy. They were producing combinations of sounds and styles that you'd never heard together before. This didn't seem possible. Yet they did it. Standing there in their uniform black clothing, you could see the two of them relax into the music as it became clear that the audience, though small, was clearly very grateful. Despite the modest numbers present, the atmosphere was, if you'll excuse the pun, electric.
The dance floor was now full and being put to good use by the enthusiastic front rows. All around people were smiling, seemingly carried away by this uplifting music. Men and their machines in perfect harmony - creating perfect harmonies. From a track that had its percussion produced by water dripping into a metal bucket, to pieces that demonstrated it was possible to produce truly funky electronic music, this set had it all. But it wasn't a completely digital techno-fest. "Pick the fucking guitar up!" shouted someone down the front. Rother laughed and, shortly after, did. The track that followed was Krautrock (possibly from the Cluster back catalogue) at its sublime, exhilarating best.
It was easy to be transported back to 1972 despite the technology being utilised. But how Moebius and Rother make the sounds that they do is irrelevant. There is one reason this gig was so fantastic and that was due to what they fabricated out of thin air. The music takes you. And when it does nothing else matters - it's all you'll ever need.