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Concert Review: Sand Snowman & Fear Falls Burning

img  Tobias

There was a time when record companies were like families and label executives would come across as a comforting crossbreed between your best friend and your parents: They would guide you, support you, push you if necessary and party with you whenever possible and they'd try to keep you from doing stupid things. Most importantly, they would take pride in what you were doing and award a meaning to your music even if unsympathetic critics and displeased audiences „just didn't get it“. In short: They would bring out the best in you. This is the kind of ideal Tonefloat Records are striving for. The relationship between management and artists is marked by mutual respect and active input by musicians is encouraged rather than being considered a nuisance. This wave of fruitful friendship and trust carries me weightlessly into the small hall of Paradiso, just like you would be drawn into your mother's kitchen by the the sweet and irresistible smell of hot cocoa and freshly baked biscuits. It certainly doesn't take long to feel at home here: All around me, there is a lot of backpatting, handshaking, smiling and embracing being done, memories to be refreshed and biographies to be updated.

There is also a lot of open appreciation for the choice of venue, one of the Netherland's most legendary concert spaces: The stately facade of Paradiso, a detached mansion sandwiched in between hip Asian restaurants and regular residential buildings just a stone's throw off Amsterdam's umbilical square „Leidse Plein“, belies the eclectic and delectable programming, which has kept it at the forefront of Europe's live scene for decades: Later this week, Funksoul star Chaka Khan will perform two completely sold-out sets of her classics, Children of Bodom and Cannibal Corpse will satisfy fans of extreme Metal while to-die-for Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini has been scheduled to make a highly anticipated appearance at the end of the month.

Bad news first though: Tonight's lost son is Theo Travis, whose set of Ambient Flute was to make a transition between the intimate Acoustic Guitar work of Sand Snowman and the sizzling elecricities of Fear Falls Burning. Just this morning, however, global warming, generally considered a reliable partner, put a frosty spoke in his car's wheels: A sudden snow storm literally froze his itinary. There was a lot of hectic debate and for a moment, the idea of taking the train was discussed, which would have had Travis arriving at Amsterdam Central Station dead on time but without a single second's worth of sound-checking, but the immanent risk of just one of the connections being delayed and thus derailing this tour de force after all, was simply considered too high. At first, his trade-mark Ambitronics, whose soft  shapes would have made for a perfect moment of tonefloating tranquility, seem sadly missed but their absence turns out to be anything but detrimental to the evening's success: The combination of two musicians, each working with the Guitar in a highly idiosyncratic and recognisable  fashion, will prove to be a highly effective one and the seeming incompatibility of their approaches a stimulating contrast.

Both artists, after all, are fully prepared to see the stage as a testing ground for new ideas and to take risks in front of an audience instead of blandly catering to demands. The Sand Snowman gig is a great example of this philosophy. Tonight marks the release of the project's third full-length „Two Way Mirror“, an album whose compositional merrits and striking guest appearances by Steven Wilson among others, have created expectations of an immanent breakthrough and wider recognition. Most artists would have used this opportunity to play it safe and give in to commercial pressure. Not Sand, however. Even though a final evaluation of „Two Way Mirror“ still seems premature at this point, first impressions undeniably reveal it to be a private and beautifully bewildering effort rather than an extrovert stab at stardom. And while his recorded output is courageous because it dares to integrate even the most lyrical of melodies into a psychedelic maelstrom of surreal metaphors, his live performance is doubly so because it wilfully refuses to merely replicate these twisted songs on stage.

In fact, not only have the chamber musical arrangements of the studio cuts been replaced by a spartanically stripped-down approach, the entire notion of song structures has been all but eliminated. Vocals and incisions between tracks have disappeared and made way for an almost classical reinterpretation of the Sand Snowman cosmos. Dressed in black, Sand is bent over his instrument like an introvert Flamenco Guitarist, stringing together themes of his entire oeuvre into a congruent concerto. After the initial bout of confusion has subsided, this concept makes complete sense. Even on more richly orchestrated efforts like „I'm Not Here“ and „The Twilight Game“, lyrics were used in the most subtle way imaginable and with utmost respect for the integrity and fragility of the instrumental backbone of a piece. The human voice was never a tool to create thematic tension but a sort of sonic grounding: As soon as singers like Moonswift and Jason Ninnis took their leave, the music immediately lifted off into a higher orbit, just like a helium-inflated, brightly coloured balloon escaping the hands of an inattentive child on a fairground.

Sand taps into this sphere right from the start and it takes a couple of minutes to finetune one's senses to this sensitive ambiance. But after your mind have been attuned, the result is mesmerising and the hypnotic character of the music, which suddenly no longer seems that minimal, is just as nuanced and detailed as on the CD with all of its its electronic effects and band connotations. The almost absolute silence of the audience during the performance, careful not to disturb his flow by coughing, sneezing or chatting, is testimony to the effectiveness of his philosophy. Caught in this tender trance, 25 minutes feel like a borderless ocean of time and before you know it, the gig is over and the intermission has begun. After my eyes have adjusted to the light again, Sand has already disappeared backstage – or was he ever here in the first place?

The presentation of Fear Falls Burning has a similarly stimulating concoction of recognition and estrangement on offer. Dirk Serries has performed at Paradiso's far bigger main hall before, but with regards to that earlier visit being part of a festival and of his Vidna Obmana phase, tonight effectively feels like a premiere after all. His set for the evening is divided into three distinctly delineated sections: A halucinatory rendition of „We took the deafening murmur down“, a brand-new passage and a finale featuring the second part of the title track to his „Frenzy of the Absolute“ album from last year on Conspiracy Records. The fluency of the transitions between these movements is impressive, even the critical moment when the electronic drumkit sets in towards the climax of the performance and the tribal atmospheres take on a far more concrete character, blends in all but seamlessly with the preceding drone work. There is a great sense of both control and engrossed concentration running through the gig: „Murmur“ sounds delirious, with ghostly harmonics pulsating feverishly on top of the track's mantric riff and the live version of „Frenzy“ has mutated into a gripping meditation, pushing forward with brutish power. While the studio cut had a cool, industrial touch to it and the interpretation of his support gig for No Man in Düsseldorf gradually sublimated into a shimmering piece of Space Rock, the latest incarnation of the composition emphasises the prismic textures simmering and growing underneath the percussion.

Part of how effective this piece is on stage is down to the direction on the part of Serries' longstanding partner in sound, Ronald Mariën. Where others would strive for a blurry or swampy audio image, his achievement lies in creating a sound which is both crystaline and crunching. As the music approaches its climax, you think to yourself: It can't go any louder, it can't get any more momentuous, there's not a single line to add. And then another Guitar pulse hits your ears with stupenduous precision, pushing the adrenaline level up in sync with the club's decibel measuring device. The importance of mixing also shows in the middle segment, based on rhythmically tweetering subsonics, a pensive melodic loop and scintillating sheets of deep sonorities. As the arrangement grows tighter, the music approaches a wave-like state, where all frequencies coallesce into a single, complex, physical undulation, bypassing the brain and setting your entire body in motion. Motives and harmonies can no longer be discerned, all thematic lines aligne into a bulbously bulging bundle of fulminant frequency, flooding the room like congealed, viscous liquid. As Serries reveals after the concert, it is a vision he is still working on, but if this is a sign of where the new Fear Falls Burning full-length is headed, then it will be anything but a simple rehash of „Frenzy of the Absolute“.

As on previous occasions, Serries leaves the stage at the acme of his set to allow the machines to play a few bars on their own, wandering through the audience and towards the mixing desk where Mariën raises the volume yet another notch, setting the audience's pulse rate on fire. For a few seconds, Serries enjoys the result of what he has just created, like a painter standing back from his latest image to gauge its effect on the eye. Then, with a decided push of the button, he ends the concert as abruptly as it started. The thundering applause he receives is testimony both to the by now wide appreciation his music is capable of evoking and of the success of the evening's eclectic and undaunting program. Most of all, it ridicules the notion that only a stern and cool distance between artists and public can yield impressive results.

Afterwards, noone leaves straight away, the public taking in the afterglow of what they have just experienced and promising to attend at least one of the upcoming follow-up gigs in Tilburg and Verviers. As the hall slowly empties to the sound of DJ Maarten van der Vleuten, whose wildly diverse and yet wonderfully well-adjusted interludes are essentially a bonus gig in their own right, it really feels like a family gathering coming to a close.

Even the next day, the unhurried pace continues. Much too early, I take my seat in the all but empty pub which serves as the diner of my cheap hotel, firmly resolved to finish my concert report during breakfast, when a friendly black cat jumps into my lap, demanding with a warm but insisting meow, to be stroked. It is impossible to refuse. Sipping my coffee and watching the waiters wait for work, I fondle her soft fur. There's more important duties than writing to attend to right now.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tonefloat Records
Homepage: Fear Falls Burning
Homepage: Sand Snowman

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