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Concert Review/ Dirk Serries' Microphonics & N

img  Tobias

Summer changes everything. Just a couple of months back, Berlin was haunted by one of the worst German winters for almost a decade. Several centimeter-deep pools of molten snow were flooding the roads, a frozen crust of slippy ice was covering the pavements and I was driven through a raging hailstorm by Tresor-manager Dimitri Hegemann in his fourwheel-drive Defender talking about the first days of Techno. Today, in striking contrast, the sky is a shimmering blue and the evening sun pleasant enough for people to be sitting outside, sipping on beers and wearing tshirts and shorts. The microphonics tour is hitting the warm season and for anyone who connected the minimal, grey-tinted covers of Dirk Serries' debut-album under his civilian name with urban isolationism and sonic sorrow, watching him perform today must come as a complete revelation.

Admittedly, there could hardly be a better place to be celebrating this summerly drone fest. „Bis aufs Messer“ is one of those record stores you instantly fall in love with, an inviting two-room space of creaking wooden floors, unfettled walls, crate after crate of tasty Vinyl and a small refrigerator in the back filled with alternative coke brands and beer – if you want one, you simply grab the bottle and deposit a Euro at the small piggybank on top. While the smiling store-owners have created their own improvised open air cafe just outside the shop, visitors are enjoying the music either sitting on the floor, standing in the doorway or quietly browsing the small, but impeccable music archive. You can suddenly see why some people consider the social function of a record store as important as its commercial one: It really feels as though one big family were assembled here.

I've unfortunately missed the gig by Serries' long-time friend, journalist and guitar-drone-colleague Helmut Neidhard (aka N), who is now comfortably draped in a big armchair, taking in the sounds as if in a slowly floating, hazy midsummernight's dream. Serries' performance tonight, meanwhile, is an in-promptu reworking of the material from his limited tour edition ten inch and shows him in a mellow mood: An at first almost shy leitmotif is gradually washed over by harmonic clusters, which increasingly thicken into resonant organ points. Myriads of short tonal sequences and precisely placed singular notes are added and subtracted, adding melodic variation and textural direction to the piece, which quickly attains a state of perfect tranquility and then progresses through heartfelt and extremely careful refinements in its outlines and density. The doors of „Bis Aufs Messer“ are open, inviting a collaboration between these calm, undulating frequencies and the streets of Friedrichshain: People chatting, birds chirping, busses driving by, couples kissing. The intimacy of the place are even making the otherwise negligable ancilliary noises of Serries' performance audible. You can hear his fingers plucking his strings and his feet moving over his effect pedals and, in a sort of tender on-the-spot-field-recording-collage, it all adds to the action. When he ends the piece by leaving his set-up and programming a hauntingly stretched-out fade-out, not a single listener dares to breathe until the music has arrived at complete silence and this 40-minute meditation has ebbed away into the dreamy din of the evening.

After packing things up in the tonefloat-van, we're talking to the Bis Aufs Messer crew about upcoming projects and the pleasures and problems of the biz. When they've decided to head home, we find a tiny Vietnamese and Japanese restaurant somewhere near the hotel, where we indulge in wonderful and improbably cheap sushi until all other chairs have been placed on the tables we're kindly asked to leave.

Next day, the sun has taken a day off. Cold blankets of drizzle are wrapping themselves around the Cafe Wendel on the Schlesische Straße, which is rising like a friendly fortress from the ominous darkness. Once inside, however, one immediately feels at home: An earth-coloured combination between a living-room study in retro-design and a vivid live-space, the Wendel feeds from a discrete, candle-lit film noire mood: Bitches Brew is playing on the stereo when fellow-tokafi-reviewer Antoine Richard and I enter and next to a careful selection of biological beers, the menu is offering some fine red and white wines – curiously served in untypical glasses usually reserved for water. The gig has been scheduled for ten o clock which, with the weather and the unconventional line-up for a place steeped in Improvisation, is proving far too late: The already sparse crowd is dimishing with the minute and mostly treating the performance as pleasant aural wallpaper rather than sonic stimulation.

Unintimidated by the rather adverse conditions, Helmut Neidhard calmly takes to the stage. Sitting there up high on his stool with his instrument in his lap, he could well be a Jazz-Guitarist on a very strange trip. The notion that, in the end, drones are nothing but harmony, is taken to its logical extreme here: Following a hand-written score on a long roll of paper lying next to him, the music comes to life by passing through a labyrinthine chain of effect-pedals, entering as a series of straightforward chords and exiting as billowing tonal clouds, moving in colour from a sulfury yellow to a warm, resonant orange. The reverb on these airy constructs is anything but epic, with the overlap of different units resulting in crystaline overtones and blurry bass fields. Rather than complicating things in terms of composition, Neidhard is shaping the textural details of his creation: Slight irregularities in the way chords are struck, the occasional stray note or semi-harmonic addition and some piercing streaks of ebowed strings instead lead to a constantly shifting continuum resting safely within its own dream.

Seamlessly progressing into a second passage, these thick, enveloping sounds are dispersed by a far more open approach: A steady tonal drone provides for harmonic grounding, while Neidhard engages on a very, very, very slow solo. Think the Blues, think Jazz, think melancholic Rock – then slow that down to the speed of thought after two bottles of Merlot on a far-off Mars colony and you've got a rough indication of what his serene, sorrowful and sentimental soulsearch sounds like. In a final sequence, the direction changes one last time, with the advent of sweet, sensual harmonies in the high-frequency registers, infrared light end of the frequential spectrum plaintively disappearing into the ether. None of this material has been released yet and even though it is currently still envisioned to turn into three different projects (one of which a collaboration with Bonn-based colleague Mirko Uhlig), it could well constitute a single, epically arranged work: In fact, it is this tripart architecture which makes N's performance so intriguing and lends it an air of progressive Ambient: Differentiated parts are subsumed into a bigger whole and the listener is carried far away through a set of contrasting emotions and images.

Neidhard's final note is the cue for Serries to pick up the thread. Today, their sets are so closely alligned that, in a fortuitious coincidence, they're actually both playing in the same key. Other than that, however, the double bill is  proving how lazy the notion of all drone music sounding the same really is. Even though their set-ups, with the red, blue and white coloured stomp boxes  layed out at their feet may look exactly the same to a layman, the difference between these two sets is striking. While Neidhard is coalescing contrasting compositional approaches into a long train of thought, Microphonics is all about long tension archs uncoiling like a hypnotised snake  winding its way through a land of fragile and irreversible decisions. Even compared to Serries' own performance from 24 hours ago, his gig today is taking an entirely different trajectory tonight.

Again, a minimal motive is the point of departure, which is then set against an undulating sheet of silky nostalgia. This time, though, the rising drones never fully take over. At first, dry, metallic tones are sprinkled on top of the sentimental swell, like scratching the strings with bloody fingers. Only a few minutes later, three capillary layers of melody engage in a cosmic counterpoint. Their outlines will remain intact until the very end, infusing the music with a perpetual thematic pulse, while Serries focuses on enriching his brainchild with confidently strummed chords providing a sudden surge of bass resonance and a powerful sense of opaqueness. The individual lines of the piece increasingly begin to merge like watercolours on an overhead projector, but the inclusion of tangible themes keeps one's attention fully locked into the development. And because he is sculpting his soundscape in clearly delineated phases, it is interesting to watch Serries develop his piece on stage as well: The way the ebow is creating glassy overtones here, the subtle use of a pedal there. The switching between loop devices, the melodic passage in the middle section and finally the quiet closing stages, when he again leaves the track to its own devices and takes in its dying embers as a fellow audience member.

Not all too many people were present at all and who knows how many were actually listening. But it's their loss. This gig of two perfectly complimentary Sound Artists not only wets one's appetite for a future duo-tour but also demonstrates how much potential there still is in a music still suffering from an unnuanced public profile. When I step outside, it has stopped raining. Summer does have something magical about it indeed.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Dirk Serries / Microphonics
Homepage: Tonefloat Records
Homepage: Bis Aufs Messer
Homepage: Cafe Wendel

Homepage: N