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Sunday, August 4, 2019


By Martin Schray and Nick Ostrum

August 3, 2019, Berlin

The last day of the festival started with Irreversible Entanglements, who were the logical connection to Matana Roberts’ show the day before. Moor Mother (a.k.a. Camae Ayewa) is currently regarded as one of the most eloquent and radical artists on the scene. The international press has described her lyrics as “hardcore poetry“ or “slaveship punk“, though Moor Mother rather prefers the term “truth teller“. She’s particularly committed to the Black Lives Matter movement, dealing with traumas and experiences of violence. In this context - at an event against police violence - she met the other band members of Irreversible Entanglements, who now underline her very powerful lyrics with Free Jazz. And what a band it is: Keir Neuringer (saxophone), Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Luke Stewart (double bass), and Tcheser Holmes (drums). About 50 minutes of pure hyperagile improvisation rummaging with sound playing phases, which were of an incredible intensity. Everything was in motion, always looking for threads of combinatorics.

Irreversible Entanglements

As usual, the A’Larmé! gig was about the situation of African-Americans, about oppression in general and state aggression. Moor Mother lamented about the ignorance and forgetfulness of the people regarding the everyday injustice. Here the festival referred back to other spoken word contributions, but this one was the most touching and provocative one. Music-wise the show was reminiscent of old-school free jazz. The music never took a break, there was no relaxing, it was always full throttle. It paced in cramped circles, over and over, the movement of the powerful soft strides was like a ritual dance around a center in which a mighty will stood (not paralyzed (at all) (to quote Rilke’s famous poem “The Panther“). When Moor Mother recited that “bombs fall from the sky in America / we try to escape / it’s not that easy / you better move / it’s coming“ in combination with the relentless beats of her band, this was one of the best moments of the festival. At the end she almost cried repeating the words “It’s enough“, like she was collapsing under the whole situation. The expectations before the concert were high and Irreversible Entanglements more than met them.

Talibam! Ensemble de Neu
The next band was the eagerly awaited Talibam! Ensemble de Neu: the core of Matt Mottel on keytar and electronics and Kevin Shea on drums with Ron Stabinsky on various keys and Dodó Kis on electronic wind instruments (EWI) and recorders. The performance was right in line with what one might expect from such a line-up: hard, fast, wacky, and loud. It began with a set of thick, heavy energy that persisted the entire 45 minutes or so. The second abandoned the wall of noise approach and let the musicians – particularly Dodó Kis– shine, particularly on her electric great bass recorder. By the midpoint, the hitherto-masked Mottel was laying a heavy groove, Stabinksy was adding his atmospherics, Shea was doing his spazzy marathon grindcore-free jazz thing, and Kis, well, she was exploring the possibilities of her EWI’s and recorders. Out of the assault of sounds (ok, maybe they hadn’t completely abandoned the wall-of-noise approach) emerged a new wave-no wave-psychedelic-noise rock stew. Sandwiched between Irreversible Entanglements and Ex Eye, this was an apropos and absolutely impressive addition to a night characterized by volume, controlled chaos, and outright intensity.
Kiki Manders
Parallel to Talibam! Ensemble de Neu there was Berlin-based Dutch composer and singer Kiki Manders. Her band was the living proof that the A’Larmé! Festival is one of contrasts. Her music could best be described as vocal jazz with an esoteric touch, while the band provided the whole thing with free modern jazz, which in the best moments reminded us of the still underestimated (actually almost forgotten) Universal Congress Of, but also of a mixture of Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny. However, in the worst moments, the whole thing sounded like bad 1980s jazz rock with as many harmony changes as possible. Then again, Manders’ voice was both powerful and fragile sometimes singing, sometimes as a recitative. For this gig she was accompanied by her long-time comrades-in-arms Philipp Braemswig and Jonathan Ihlenfeld Cuniado on electric guitar and bass as well as the well-known American drummer and Berliner-by-choice Jim Black. Manders often sang in her local Venlo dialect and supported her performance with sweeping arm movements that seemed a bit inauthentic and too hippie-esque. A strange performance, which didn't really fit into the program, although it was well-played.

Ex Eye
The festival was closed by Ex Eye, a group that defines itself as a “post-everything quartet” led by saxophone madman Colin Stetson, Greg Fox on drums, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily on synthesizers, and Toby Summerfield on electric guitar. Of course, this is the brutal rock version you'd expect: Avantgarde Metal, loud, evil and straight in the face. Structurally, harmonically, and compositionally this was nothing new, only the sound of a baritone saxophone has rarely been heard in such a context. Stetson’s sax filled in as bass guitar here, only when he changed to the alto saxophone, he brought in his usual loops. The band played their usual mix of Black Sabbath drones and free jazz and the audience liked it a lot. Only at the beginning the sound was very mushy and undifferentiated (but it got better in the course of the concert), so that at the beginning the quite interesting structures were hardly distinguishable. A nice finale as a bouncer, but you can hardly call it avant-garde metal.

In a nutshell, this year’s A L'ARME! Festival was great. The fact that not all acts appealed to us in the same spectacular way is just normal. But the festival has always risked something, which is why it never gets boring. Louis Rastig announced that A L'ARME! will be subsidized by the Berlin Senate for another four years, which is certainly a great confirmation of his and Karina Mertin’s work as organizers. The two managed to attract a very different audience from the usual free jazz festivals - younger, more female, more diverse. This is a real achievement. However, in his final announcement for Ex Eye, Rastig also asked the audience questions they could ponder on. Why Holzmarkt as a second location (and not just Radialsystem)? Why HipHop? Why Kiki Manders (or Gurls)? But perhaps these are not the decisive questions for the improvement of the festival. Diversity is important and the fact that you try to involve the Berlin scene in the best possible way is also legitimate. But why do rock bands often play on the big stage at the end of a day (in recent years Thurston Moore, The Ex, Ex Eye, Natalie Sandtorv's Free Nation)? Why not something like Nate Wooley's Seven Storey Mountain (even if it's expensive)? Or why not integrate new classic avant-garde, especially up in the Loft? And the festival should work on the sound. There's still room for improvement. But all in all it was fun and very successful. We’re looking forward to coming back again.


Anonymous said...

the exe eye was nt the closing of the festival, indeed, their set was just an introduction to what was coming later...

Martin Schray said...

It was the actual closing of the normal program, the rest was officially called "after show". Even Louis Rastig said that. However, there was a set by Golden Oriole after Ex Eye and a DJ set, that's true.