Friday, April 25, 2014

Live Show Review: Tycho - 4/20/14

Date:  April 20, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

I rarely attend good shows on Easter Sunday - apart from the choir at the occasional sugar-fueled church service (admittedly, it's been a while).  This past Sunday I checked out Tycho at the 9:30 Club.  It happened to be 4/20 as well - a day famously dedicated to a different kind of ritual sacrament.  Despite that apparent contradiction, Tycho's mix of pastel colored grooves and heady atmospherics seemed entirely appropriate.

Tycho (Joe Davancens, Rory O'Connor, Zac Brown, and Scott Hansen)
Tycho, real name Scott Hansen, is a San Francisco-based indie-electronica musician and graphic artist who previously worked solo but took on a full band for his latest album Awake.  I had just reviewed Awake and was excited to see how Hansen would perform his latest material with new bandmates Zac Brown and Joe Davancens alternating between guitar, bass, and synthesizer, and Rory O'Connor on drums.

If I had to sum up the show in one word, it'd be "bass."  Relentless, bowel quaking bass.  It might've been my close proximity to the subs at the foot of the stage but, as Davancens plucked the first bass notes for opener "Awake," the titanic low-end threatened to drown out the rest of the band.  However, after the initial concussive shock of sub-frequencies morphed into more of a tranquilizing ambient vibration, other sonic elements began to filter through - twinkling synthesizer, tremolo guitar, and percussion.

Tycho (Joe Davancens, Rory O'Connor, and Zac Brown)
O'Connor faithfully hammered out the simple kick-snare rhythms common to most of Tycho's music, but got to flex some serious chops on more challenging material like "Apogee" and "Spectre" from the newest LP Awake.  Most impressive was O'Connor's transcendent beat-for-beat take on "Past is Prologue," the set's lone inclusion from the album of the same name.  I had criticized Past is Prologue in my review of Awake, but forgot that the title track itself is an oddity in Tycho's repertoire - a brisk drum & bass roller featuring complex breakbeats.  O'Connor and the band absolutely nailed this one.    

Tycho (Joe Davancens and Rory O'Connor)
Apart from a couple technical flubs, one of which caused a minor delay as Hansen stopped the music to readjusted some knobs, Tycho delivered a fine set.  The band dependably recreated and enhanced choice cuts from their growing collection of hypnotic jams while projecting some striking visuals onscreen, no doubt curated by graphic artist Hansen himself  - panning slo-mo of crashing whitecaps, desert landscapes, surfers gliding atop ocean swells, and nude models draped in gauze shuffling seductively across sunset illuminated sand dunes.  No Easter candy to be had, but not a bad way to conclude a beautiful holiday weekend.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Album Review: Tycho: Awake

Tycho:  Awake
Label:  Ghostly International
Released:  March 18, 2014


Tycho is to Boards of Canada what Coldplay is to Radiohead.  After the latter band pioneered an appealing sound, then defiantly veered into "difficult" territory, the former band emerged to fill the new gap - shamelessly emulating the latter band's original pop sensibilities.  This isn't a total indictment however.  Why did Boards of Canada have to alienate fans by following up the infectious Super 8 trip-hop of their classic 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children with that onerous collection of nightmare vignettes Geogaddi in 2002?  Enter a host of unapologetic imitators like Tycho, with albums like 2006's Past is Prologue, giving hungry fans a generous helping of that classic Boards of Canada sound.

Tycho is the alias of San Francisco audiovisual artist Scott Hansen.  As Tycho, Hansen creates instrumental electronic soundscapes as impeccably as he does graphic art (design alias ISO50).  All washed out pastels, hazy landscapes, abstract nostalgia, and an ethereal sun baked atmosphere. After the aforementioned pastiche of Past is Prologue, Tycho released the much improved Dive in 2011 (on Ghostly International, a Stateside analogue to UK's Warp Records).  Dive brought more focus and definition to Tycho's fuzzy Instagram aesthetic. That trajectory continues on this year's Awake.          

On the appropriately titled long player, Awake, Tycho breaths new vitality into his sound by integrating live session players into the project.  Tycho now sounds more natural and organic - like an actual band rather than a solo bedroom project.  Bass lines are beefy, drums snap vigorously, guitars shimmer, and ear-worm melodies ebb and flow vividly.  Album openers "Awake" and "Montana" ride elastic bass grooves reminiscent of a funkier Cure, while "L" and "See" incorporate straight-forward 4/4 kicks that beg for extended deep house edits suited for poolside sunset deejay sessions.

Toward the end of the album, "Apogee" and "Spectre" expand Tycho's audio dynamic by merging crunchy breakbeats with spiraling synth arpeggios, before fading out gently with the ambient wash of "Plains."  Whereas previous albums buckled under lengthy run times, Awake runs a merciful 37 minutes - staying engaging throughout while demanding repeat play.  Though Tycho isn't breaking any barriers with Awake, he's definitely going in the right direction and forging his own identity.  Fortunately, even studious mimics can break the gravitational pull of their biggest influences and blast off into uncharted space.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Live Show Review: Kraftwerk- 4/4/14

Date:  April 4, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

I couldn't help but grin like an idiot as Afrika Bambaataa's 1982 electro/hip-hop anthem "Planet Rock" came on the system while I had a burger and beer at the bar adjacent to the 9:30 Club a couple weeks back, just moments before catching Kraftwerk's first live performance in DC in nine years.  Of course, the hook and beat of Bambaataa's classic are built on samples from Kraftwerk's 1977 track "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers" from 1981, respectively.  Kraftwerk's indelible influence on popular music, especially post-punk and new wave, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, can't be overstated.  

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

Kraftwerk formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1970 amidst that nascent "krautrock" scene with two classically trained music students at the helm - Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider.  This was the original oddball robo-duo, coaxing beats and melody out of machines thirty years before Daft Punk.  Hutter and Schneider would soon expand to a foursome and though they weren't the first to make electronic music, like the Beatles in their genre, Kraftwerk hit on a revolutionary formula and sparked a musical explosion that reverberates to this day.

After putting out nine studio albums at a consistent pace during the 70's and 80's, Kraftwerk eased back on the throttle as their musical progeny surpassed them on the charts.  The band settled into elder statesmen status, shedding and replacing ancillary members while founders Hutter and Schneider tinkered in their legendary Kling Klang Studio on the occasional remix or remaster.  2003 saw the release of their first studio album in seventeen years, an excellent Tour de France Soundtracks, and a rekindling of the band's touring spirit.  I last caught Kraftwerk at the 9:30 Club in 2005 - a sold out show, and a truly unforgettable experience.

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

So Kraftwerk returned in 2014 for another sold out gig*, minus founding member Florian Schneider who left the band quietly in 2008.  Lone founder Ralph Hutter was joined onstage by long time associates Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and new "video technician" Falk Grieffenhagen - wearing matching spandex outfits and arranged at their stations in a neat four man row.  That video technician earned his keep as the CGI imagery for the show was projected in 3D, with each song featuring a unique visual theme pertinent to its subject matter.  The crowd, all wearing collectible paper 3D glasses, gasped and shrieked as the camera swooped through a future cityscape for "Metropolis," between two speeding cars for "Autobahn," and over the earth as satellites whizzed into the foreground for "Spacelab."

Appropriately enough, Kraftwerk's set leaned heavily on selections from their two most defining and prophetic albums, 1978's The Man-Machine and 1981's Computer World, with tracks like "Numbers," "Computer World," and "Home Computer" stitched together in flowing sonic montages.  Other tracks from the catalogue took on new weight and uncharacteristic menace.  "Radioactivity," from their 1975 album Radio-Activity, uncoiled like a sinister half-time dubstep track right out of a Youngsta set with vocodered references to nuclear disasters in Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, and, timely enough, Fukushima.

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

My favorite part of the show was a three track sequence with 1983 single "Tour de France" followed by two beautifully restyled versions of that track from their 2003 album of the same name - "Tour de France Etape 1" and "Tour de France Etape 2."  Sweeping aerial footage of the French cycling event played onscreen in stunning 3D behind the band.  The latter two tracks are undoubtedly the most contemporary in the Kraftwerk catalogue - paying homage to the minimal Detroit techno the band inspired long ago.  Despite never playing their goofiest hit, 1981's "Pocket Calculator," Kraftwerk played a great set - covering essential highlights spanning their nearly fifty-year career and handily reconfirming their unimpeachable tenure as true pioneers and godfathers of electronic music.

*Krafwerk played two back-to-back sold out gigs at the 9:30 Club on 4/4/14.  I attended the early show.