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Thursday, August 1, 2019


By Martin Schray

July 31, 2019, Berlin

When I volunteered to write about this year’s A’larmé! festival again, my colleague Colin joked that it would be the same as ever year: too hot and too loud. Surprisingly however, the first day was nothing like that at all. Even Louis Rastig, the art director of the festival, said that he was glad that the temperatures (20 °C) were moderate this year and that it was even raining. As to the music the 2019 line-up is very promising, a bit more focused than the one last year with its extensive excursion to electronic music, which tended to frighten away the regular free jazz audience. This year’s program looks a bit more like going back to the roots without giving up the main characteristics of diversity and crossing genre boundaries. It’s the seventh festival and as usual it’s combining avant-garde jazz with experimental music and noise, improvised music and performance. As a reference to the neighborhood the festival started at the Säälchen at Holzmarkt, very close to the usual festival venue Radialsystem. And the first day was A’larmé! in a nutshell - experimental drumming, mainstream bar jazz and hiphop/free jazz crossover.

Greg Fox
The evening started with Greg Fox, who has performed and recorded with a wide range of artists like the black metal band Liturgy (he left them in 2011) to the experimental/multi-genre act Guardian Alien and Colin Stetson’s Ex Eye. In 2011 the Village Voice called him the “best drummer“ in New York City and until today you can sometimes see what a super fast wizard he still is. But Fox wanted more and studied with Milford Graves and Thurman Barker, both real free jazz legends. He worked with the avant-progrock band Zs and with Oneida’s post-rock drummer John Colpitts. Fox also added Sensory Percussion software into his setup. On this evening Fox was equipped with an ordinary drum set and a lot of electronics, on which he recalls pre-recorded material: saxophone lines, e-piano snippets, bass runs, guitars arpeggios. Drum-wise Fox works a lot with rim shots but also with powerful synth chords which reminded me of 1980s pop as well as massive prog-rock excursions. In his fifth track of the evening the Sensory Percussion technique became visible, although quite reduced. At the end of the set the audience could witness some weaker moments (when he briefly sounded like someone doing a drum solo in the 1970s) and excellent ones, when he restricted himself almost solely to the snare drum, which was very intensive. Here he was really close to the music of Graves and Barker. The set raised the question what you can do as a solo drummer. How can you be independent of melody instruments? The grooves stood in the foreground and were supported by the textures and melody lines (the wonderful Maria Grant provided the saxophone samples) and not the other way around. A promising start.

Squeezed between two relatively heavy acts was the melodic sound of the Norwegian trio Gurls, who are Rohey Taalah (voice), Hanna Paulsberg (sax, vocals) and Ellen Andrea Wang (bass, vocals). The music and the lyrics paid a certain tongue-in-cheek homage to the more superficial sides of life (namely boys) in a self-aware, ironic way. Their music was very different to that of the other acts of the evening, it was song-orientated and very close to bar jazz and boss nova, though slightly off-the-wall at times. The music was carried by muted grooves, the bass rolled, the sax often played short, rhythmic licks reminiscent of Stan Getz. Talaah’s phrasing was a bit similar, especially in the balladesque pieces. Every now and then the whole thing was very close to the border of being overdone, but luckily it doesn't cross it. Most of the audience loved it, but there were quite many who also left the venue to get some fresh air waiting for the highlight of the evening.

As one might imagine, Anguish was quite the opposite to Gurls. There was no tongue in cheek, everything was dead serious. Anguish are Will Brooks, (a.k.a. Dälek), guitarist / synthesist Mike Mare, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Andreas Werliin (both from Fire!), and keyboardist Hans Joachim Irmler (of Faust fame). Their music includes atmospheric improvisations as well as repetitive beat patterns, sax outcries, and plenty of tension. Gustafsson delivered the tenor sax madman, and Irmler’s and Mare’s contributions were haunting, apocalyptic, and evil. Like on their debut the hiphop tracks angrily explored the darker side of urban and social life. Dälek often recited the lyrics in the tradition of the Last Poets, sometimes it could hardly be called hiphop, since there was no flow in his lyrics. Between these tracks there were long instrumental electronic transitions, here the band moved large monolithic blocks. Once there were grooves, they crushed the delicate accessible structures. Above everything Gustafsson’s sax soared intensively, as if he was going through agony.

Today the second day of the festival will start very early (6 p.m.) and with Christian Lillinger, Hamid Drake, Tristan Honsinger etc. there are even more famous musicians on the schedule.
I’m looking forward to the next three days.