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Concert Review/ Sand Snowman, Theo Travis, Fear Falls Burning

img  Tobias

April 1st, 8:40pm, Paradox Tilburg
Bulky and forlorn, a dark suitcase is drawing a lot of attention in the backstage area. With only ten minutes to go before the opening set of the evening, busy figures and stressed-out shadows are flashing by, ever so slightly avoiding a luggage-induced collision. The case's owner Sand, who only a few seconds ago has sat pensively on a comfortable couch, is now standing next to me and we're talking about David Bowie's early work („It's almost like children's songs, but very twisted children's songs! I love this world of strange creatures that he's created“), his vision of quietude in a world that won't stop screaming („I like to think of making music as standing in a corner and whispering. You can always come nearer and listen, if you really want“) and the way that subtle changes in the music of Steve Reich can stun the subconscious while fooling the ear. Sand has bought himself a looping pedal to enhance and enrich his stage performance and is now curious to find out more about its possibilities. He's talked to Theo Travis about it just this morning: „Theo told me that there's pedals with a capacity of sixteen minutes. I mean - what are you going to do with 16 minute-loops?“

April 1st, 8:55pm, Paradox Tilburg
I'm sitting in the left corner of the Paradox with a perfect view of the stage and the venue's auditorium. Generally regarded as one of the finest live clubs of the Netherlands, time has stood still here: Roundly shaped tables, intimate candle light, a lot of dark wood and a low-floored podium evoke nostalgic images of the long-forgotten glory days of Jazz. If John Coltrane were to come in right now, I don't think anybody'd be surprised. Instead, however, the Paradox has created its own traditions: Most of the girls are sipping on ice-tea and the boys are drinking a plethora of different beer brands from customised glasses in all different sizes and shapes.

April 1st, 9:00pm, Paradox Tilburg
Charles of Tonefloat Records enters the stage for a short introduction.

April 1st, 3:20pm, a petrol station a few kilometres outside of Tilburg
After an uninterrupted ride of two and a half hours, Charles pulls the key from his egg-yoke-yellow Citroen for a cheese sandwich and some Douwe Egberts coffee. Standing inside an improvised cafe of some chest-high, chairless tables, we talk about the tour so far. The moody Belgian town of Verviers was an artistic success thanks to a small but attentive and appreciative crowd. At Bielefeld's „Movie“, some visitors had apparently expected a line-up leaning towards Symphonic Rock (Tonefloat publishes Porcupine Tree's catalogue on Vinyl, after all, and Theo Travis is about to release the LP version of „Thread“, his collaboration with King Crimson-legend Robert Fripp in just a couple of days), but there were moments and faces which made it all worthwhile: An Erfurt-based couple, for example, who'd driven 300 Kilometres to attend. A journalist of German daily „Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung“ dropped in and wrote a nice feature. And then there was a lot of encouragement to keep pursuing the recent course of the label: „I've slightly neglected song-oriented material on Tonefloat over the past few years and I want to change that“, Charles confesses, „But I've told myself that if I'm going to do it, the songs need to be really, really good.“Which almost automatically lead him to Sand Snowman, whose mysterious and wondrous (rather than whimsical) pieces seem to encapsulate quite a lot of what his labels stands for: Craftsmanship above virtuosity, timeless quality above trendiness and a straightforward approach coupled with the desire of transforming it into something emotionally complex and artistically stimulating. „Partly, I organise these gigs for myself“, he says, „Because I like to listen to the music of these artists in a concert situation and to meet people who feel the same way.“ He takes another bite of his sandwich: „It's better than placing an anonymous ad in a magazine, too.“

April 1st, 9:02pm, Paradox Tilburg
It only takes about a minute until you realise that even though Sand's set tonight doesn't stray too far from his Paradiso-concert in Amsterdam two months ago, the location is much more organically suited to his sound: People are seated which gives them a chance to close their eyes and allow the soft Guitar permutations to slowly trickle in. Instead of working against the room's innards, Sand seems to thankfully make use of the privacy of its acoustics. The music again consists of themes from his three albums, sensitively threaded together into a continuous train of thought. Sat at the far right of the stage and notably removed from the central spotlight, he has found his own little corner and every single person in the room is following his whispers. The Guitar turns into a narrative landscape and the more he is leaving his initial point of departure behind, the more surreal the story gets: As his fingers increasingly move towards complex chords, one can't help but feel as though this journey's degree of estrangement is measured by the distance covered on the fretboard. In the middle section, the transition to the looped parts creates exactly the kind of discreet shift in perception he has always wanted: Slight irregularities take on hypnotic qualities and side-thoughts are ornamented into multilayered prisms. A rhythmically descending motive sets the whole affair tilting towards disorder for a while, but with a decided push of one of his pedals, Sand returns to his pure Classical Guitar sound and comes full circle after all.

March 31st, 7:30pm, browsing Theo Travis' Homepage
„Theo performs with ambient and progressive rock artists and has performed or recorded with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Hatfield and the North, Richard Sinclair, Porcupine Tree, Harold Budd, Jah Wobble, the Tangent, John Foxx, Gong, Porcupine Tree, Anja Garbarek, Kangaroo Moon, No Man and Bass Communion.“

April 1st, 9:45pm, Paradox Tilburg
In the beginning, there is nothing but a single note. For its duration, Travis' breath and the air emitted by his Flute are one, a direct translation of his lungs' contents into music and a microscopic scan of each of its nuances and undulations. After every line, he quickly turns his head towards his pedal to check whether his statement has registered before progressing to the next element. You can tell in these very first seconds that complacency is the last thing on his mind: Unlike with other loopers, fluent fluctuation and constant change are valued above repetition and stasis. Travis' pieces move forward like a cloud-shelled Tortoise, placing one feather-weight foot in front of another as it steadily makes its way towards the soft drone of the sea. No two moments are the same here, as singular tones combine into complementary intervals, triads and even more complex harmonies, but their heavenly polyphony quickly dissolves into loose, circling strands of sound again. Because this music takes place all but completely in the upper frequencies, it doesn't bully your body into submission like a shockwave, but instead frees it from its physical shackles, making you feel all light-headed, romantic and dreamy.

Far from turning ethereal, however, Travis' flutescapes are finely filled with hoarse, coarse and grainy impurities and you can hear the smacking sounds of his lips and his air-intakes before a tone is actually released. The thematic action, meanwhile, takes place in the deeper registers, as warm bass notes coalesce into resonant melodies. Poignantly short and leaning towards ambient compositions rather than immersive soundscapes or full-blown improvisations, each track has its own recognisable markers: Cascading movements on the one hand, sharp upbeats on the other. A Soprano Sax  solo which opens up like a spectral fan here and the octave-pitchdown of a motive there. Taken together, these swings can turn a track from lively to hazy within a fraction of a second and prevent them from ever sounding the same even though Travis remains true to the natural timbre of his instrument throughout.

Then, after he has concluded the solo part of his set, he invites Dirk Serries of Fear Falls Burning to the stage.

April 2nd, 1:30am, Hotel Lindeboom Tilburg
I'm lying in my bed re-listening to „The Tonefloat Sessions“. The curtains are drawn, shrouding the room in darkness, and I notice that I've never once played this album before night time. For a while, it was my preferred soundtrack to fall asleep to, even though I would never actually do so before the last note had died down and merged with the silence of the room around me. It was as though these two artists would very carefully set up a space for themselves to operate in and then sonically fill it with precisely placed elements, which in turn dissolved into the flow again. „Krautrock“ was what I thought at the time, but tonight, a different image imposed itself on me: That of a classical concert, a chamber-musical setting in the context of electroacoustic improvisation. The images of the performance keep coming back: While Travis pushed their interaction with strikingly subtle melodic pulses, Serries started sculpting the air around them. Increasingly, his web turned tighter, moving from translucence to fiery viscosity. His function seemed that of an accompanyist at first, but his discreet yet incisive stimuli were just as much reactions to prompts given by his partner as well as creative leads pushing the piece into new directions: A sudden harmonic variation by Serries preceeded Travis' both inquisitive and questioning Soprano Solo, a forceful dynamic swell introduced the return of the Flute with rasping and ripping airsounds. Just as in the studio version, this longform piece appeared to gradually awake from a deep and century-long slumber but underneath the waves, there was more pent-up aggression and energy as ever before. The more things progressed, the more the stage looked like an aquarium with the duo sitting on its bottom, sending volcanic messages to the surface.

April 1st, 10:29pm, Paradox Tilburg
A mere minute before the Fear Falls Burning gig about to begin, Charles shows me the brand-new copies of the just-released remasters in oversized Japanese Digipacks and proudly sporting a black Obi Strip. It's taken ages to get them in this quality.

April 1st, 11:45pm, Paradox Tilburg
Ronald, Dirk Serries partner in sound, is enthusiastic about the performance we've just witnessed. We leave our beers at the bar and he takes me to the mixing console at the back of the Paradox, where hundred of LEDs are flashing in polyrhythmic patterns amidst an ocean of darkness: „I think we captured the concert perfectly. I just bought myself this digital 8-track, which allows me to work with the material much more easily and to edit each track later on.  We even captured the room ambiance with two additional microphones. The balance was just right, the best of the entire tour. I don't know about Charles' plans, but I could well imagine releasing this on record straight away.“

April 1st, 2:15pm, passing Bottrop-Boy
„I really like Dirk's current set, the way he played at Bielefeld“, Charles says, „There is this part where he weaves in a section of his 'microphonics' album and it really makes for a great contrast with the more powerful passages before.“

April 1st, 00:00am, Paradox Tilburg
„The idea of closing the concert with this quiet 'microphonics' section came up before the Bielefeld gig“, Dirk tells me, „The organisers were telling us not to get too loud and I thought to myself: Okay, in that case, I am going to go really quiet at the end.“

April 1st, 10:30pm, Paradox Tilburg
Vintage elements from Dirk Serries' 2006 „Carnival of Ourselves“ album (whose recognisable opening motive highly effectively kicks in after a razorsharp, piercing tone has purified the air like atomic incense) shoot like laserbeams  through the lense of 2009 and are spat out as burning chunks of sonic slag, red-hot and anthemically glowing. Metal-references and raw Guitar power take turns with tranquil Ambient passages supported by roaring and groaning Bass vibrations and cathedral-like towers of harmonics. In the final, the flutish sequences of his 'microphonics' record close the performance with a painstakingly slow fade-out rather than the abrupt and dramatic plug-pulling of the Paradiso-gig. The fundamental idiosyncrasies of his various projects and monikers are not dispelled by tonight's rendition, but instead of separating them, Serries has turned their differences to his advantage.

Rather than just artfully stringing together interpretations of studio classics, this openness allows for a new level of minutely planned and yet intuitive storytelling in his live immersions, which could easily have extended beyond the concise 30-minute allotted to this evening's bill. „Frenzy of the Absolute“, with its stupendous Drum pounding, is not even part of tonight's program, but one can easily imagine what the addition of a percussive partner would add to this already intense and intoxicating cocktail. Or of a second Guitarist for that matter: After the floating 'microphonics' loop has kicked in, Serries takes a seat next to his friend Paul van den Berg, whose raw and Blues-infected touch has already spiced up the psychedelic trip of „The Amplifier Drone“ and is soon to feature on the upcoming debut of new group 3 Seconds of Air. Could they be discussing details of a future live collaboration?

April 2nd, 1:00am, the parking lot in front of the Paradox Tilburg
Happy faces all around. The Paradox has slowly emptied amidst a lot of back-patting and chatting. Theo Travis and Dirk Serries especially could be seen talking to various spectators, among them one of the members of Heavy Doom band Bunkur 13. After the DJ Maarten van der Vleuten's turntables have been loaded into his car, the tour crew assembles in front of the Paradox to embrace and say goodbye. But the party isn't over before the club's owner has confirmed he likes the idea of a new concert sometime next year as part of a potential 'microphonics' tour. Sand, meanwhile, suggests a performance in his home-base of London. Then he trots off into the night with Theo Travis and the last time I see him, he's walking down the road somewhere in the distance, carrying his Guitar case in one hand and his bulky dark suitcase in the other. Then he disappears around the corner without making a sound.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tonefloat Records
Homepage: Paradox Tilburg
Homepage: Sand Snowman
Homepage: Theo Travis
Homepage: Fear Falls Burning
Homepage: Maarten van der Vleuten