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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Review of Unter Null & C/A/T tour @ the High Dive, Denver CO

Review by Christian Wright

While having a few drinks and jerk chicken at the Sputnik a few weeks back I noticed a flyer, unexpected in this rather hip (as in -ster) bar, for a goth/industrial/electro show coming up next door at the Hi-Dive. It seemed that Unter Null and something I hadn't heard of before called C/A/T was coming to Denver. So I made a note and a point to check it out.

When I first encountered Unter-Null in the early-mid 2000's I had written them off as one of the many, many, generic hellectro/ suicide commando ripoffs that was making music increasingly more and more predictable and less interesting. When you are 15 years old and for the first time you encounter 4/4 beats, the saw lead, a bassline, and someone angry and screaming with white makeup and fake blood, it's pretty interesting. However, 5, and then 9 years later, when you're not only seeing the same people do the same thing for that many years, but you've seen them spawn an entire bastard generation of would be imitators who have made electronic music, and live shows in particular, more and more predictable and less and less interesting, it's just sad.

Is that played out or what? With the red tie and all? Agree? Disagree?

Erica used to appear live more like this:

which at one time did have a certain charm. However, bands still beating to death the same image over and over do increasingly provoke the suspicion of pandering to formulaic redundancy.

However, this past spring I was doing a bit of music exploring and I actually bought her album, "The Failure Epiphany" after hearing "You Have Fallen From Grace" on the UN website. To be sure, the lyrics on that song, as with most UN, are very very repetitive. The drums and synths are also pretty repetitive, but nonetheless the song is very beautiful and really stood on in my mind. When I bought the album I was pleased that enough other tracks (Bloodlust, Martyr, Scilence, The Hook, Desire) were able to do this as well. The tempos are definitely faster than most all Suicide Commando work, which helped a lot with a pulse, the elements of beauty in very nice synth sounds contrasting with the hard drums was there, and not all songs (as I had previously feared) had all lyrical orgionality/emotion/talent masked by the increasingly uninteresting distortion/pitchshifter combination.

So I came to this show interested and quite willing to part with 10 bucks. But other than that I really had no idea what to expect.

When the first band played I very quickly and without great expenditure of effort was able to get started on a few pages of rather discouraging pointed notes. However, it was only after they were done that someone told me what I had just seen was not C/A/T- an act touring nationally with Unter Null, but a local opener from Pueblo by the name of Ilion Conflict which was added late to the bill. Being a local band without even a CD out I was moved to relax standards somewhat and be a lot more forgiving.

On the plus side what I'll say about this band is that their live keyboardist has a freaking awesome keyboard stand. He built it himself of his own design.

This thing moved around in all directions and they keyboardist could really rock out into it. It can be hard as a live keyboardist in a band with no live drummer and no guitarist to contribute some of the performance energy that is often expected of rock bands (and almost universally lacking in the 'industrial'/ebm scene). This guy's invention definitely helped, and was very interesting to watch.

My negative comments I will confine to three areas. Though the keyboardist had a nice stand and was a nice person, he wasn't playing a lot. Sometimes he'd only be hitting a key on a snare drum. On one such song when there was a break down that took out the drums of a section and the song's only prominent synth part continued playing just the same while the keyboardist took a break, it didn't look very cool. At all other times it didn't look like he was playing melodies. In fact I couldn't tell if he was playing anything at all or not, though he probably was doing something. After the show I learned this individual was only told he we playing the show two hours before the singer picked him up to drive to it... so some lack of prep I can understand. Still, it doesn't make for very interesting watching.

The next two problems consisted of one forgivable, and one unforgivable. The forgivable problem was that the singer seemed to be a bit unsure of how to galvanize the audience, or what to do with himself when there was a pause from him singing in the song. However with a newer band this is normal and I hope as they grow this guy will get more ideas. However, he and others MUST learn that it is NOT forgivable to play an entire live set and never take off your distortion effect while engaging in inter-song, on stage lead singer banter. Being perceived as awkward, unintelligible, and lazy is no was to go about your career of lead singing.

The last problem, for which I will concede not an inch of understanding, is this guy:

I didn't catch is name, and I'm sure he might very well be a nice guy, with good taste in music, and maybe some musical talent. But what this guy was doing for the 30-40 minutes while the band played was stand behind a minidisk player while it played the "band"'s backing tracks. Other than this one decidedly unnecessary supervisory function the individual appeared to be quite good at making sure that the 16 channel mixer in front of him, that had exactly TWO cables plugged into it's main inputs, was still turned on. Seriously. That was all this guy did. Maybe he's really sexy and adds to this band's appeal but I couldn't tell. This guy did not need to be there.

After the change up two people got on stage... the rest of the evening was a of a disappointment, though ultimately I left more confused than angry.

According to Ben from C/A/T, when he usually performs, he has a live drummer and a keyboardist playing with him. I've also seen pictures of Unter Null having a keyboardist. But what occurred for the next hour and a half before my eyes was nothing of the sort. In two sentences, while Ben sang on the C/A/T set, Erica stood behind a table with laptop which had a small MIDI controller connected to it which I could not tell whether or not she was playing. Then, while Erica sang on the Unter Null set, Ben stood behind the same table with a laptop which had a small MIDI controller connected to it which I could not tell whether or not he was playing. That is it. 50-60 people showed up and we all payed $10 each to see karaoke.

On the plus side, neither singer used hardly any effects or distortion. This was very refreshing for me and for this genre. Also, there was no white/fake blood uniform and the dreaded black button down with the red tie was nowhere to be seen. Both performers had good stage presence, clear emotion, kept people's interest, and sang pretty good (although Erica's vocals cut in and out slightly- I think she could have used a little compression perhaps). They both looked cool, in an alternative, but mature way, which demonstrated an independent fashion sense and a genuine attractiveness which each singer possessed and did not need tons of gooey drip to hide behind.

Audio quality was great, although when you're just singing over backing tracks there's so little to mix and so little to potentially go wrong that this is hardly an accomplishment. The Unter Null songs were mostly familiar- many where off the failure epiphany (though You Have Fallen From Grace was not performed, unfortunately). The C/A/T material I was less familiar with. Basically what you got was some kind of electro-powernosie. Think noisex but with more synth parts and friendly to ravers.

On the bad side, once again, this was karaoke. Seeing this tour is basically like attending a DJ night where only C/A/T and Unter Null songs are played, but you have the added bonus of seeing each band's singer actually sing live. If I had good ecstasy and was dancing, it would have been great. But because I had come expecting to see two live "bands" play, I was disappointed.

There are some artists who just sing over backing tracks, and have no shame about just handing their CD to the DJ and then with only a microphone they proceed to deliver captivating performances to thousands of people. These people are called "rappers". Unfortunately, while increasingly adopting this technique over the years, "industrial"/EBM singers are NOT rappers. Rappers fill every song with an incredible quantity of intricate, rhyming, witty, ironical/satirical material which generally completely boggles the minds of most on looking mortals bearing witness to the fact that a human being is actually able to remember that much material! But in the scene I was at last Tuesday, vocals are hardly as dynamic, continuous, and engaging. The energy is lost.

What makes it hard for me to be totally mad at Unter Null and C/A/T:

I caught up with Ben after the show briefly I only had one question, "why aren't you playing live instruments?" His answer made me feel more sorry for them than mad at them. Apparently, due to $4/gallon gasoline and spiraling jet fuel costs, it is financially prohibitive for C/A/T and Unter Null to tour with other band members and more equipment. According to this guy, just checking in their merch bag for every flight costs $100 extra for weight.

This is hard to argue with. While some of us might be either dedicated enough or dumb enough to work very hard and then spend thousands of our own dollars on a tour, not everyone is going to (or even should) be able or willing to do this. And what sorts of DIY, self financed tours bands have been able to do in years past today seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. On top of all that what is hard for musicians in general is particularly hard for industrial/ebm/noise/avant-garde musicians, whose scenes are always smaller and more strapped for cash.

Yet, there is a catch here. C/A/T and Unter Null may not have Skinny Puppy status; but they are playing this summer at some of the biggest industrial scene nights in the country (Industry @ the Church in Dallas, Sadisco in Phoenix, Das Bunker in LA, Inferno in Madison, the Fez in Portland). For this scene, these guys pretty much hooked up a lot of the biggest nights that exist in most cities they're playing at, and most cities they're playing at are the biggest cities for this scene in the US. If they're operating at this level, and due to costs are stripping down their live show to the point of a fan-disappointing karaoke, what does that say for the future of this music?

There's a few dates left on this tour. If you get a chance, check it out, support these guys, and enjoy what is good music. But ask the people around you, how you feel about this sort of "performance", and what, if anything, you think can be done to deal with the monumental financial challenges facing this music today.

Unter Null


Ilion Conflict

These guys sponsored the show and helped pay for the bands to get out here. Check them out:

RTS Unlimited Comic Books
Vendetta Music


Anonymous said...

as a reviewer, you fail.

Anonymous said...

as a review reviewer, you fail to support your arguement.

Anonymous said...

absolutely horrid review.

Unknown said...

Thank you for reading and leaving feedback. As the writer of this article I am more than happy to discuss any concrete point you mentioned that you feel is unfair, although you have not drawn attention to any.

My support for my arguement that people who get booked as "bands" ought to play their music live in a transparent and engaging way is the fact that I, who am a self produced, unsigned artist, toured this winter and got myself who is in a band few have heard of 22 dates in cities all across the United States. I even got booked at the church in Dallas- which was a pretty big suprise to me! More info on this tour can be found at http://www.myspace.com/bajskorv

For that tour, I, who work full time in the service industry, played an Akai ax-60, a waldorf microwave I, a waldorf pulse +, a nord lead 2, mixed backing tracks, and had 44 minutes of self edited synced video, fog, and strobes. I had absolutely zero label support and very little assistance with publicity.

If I was able to do that and I was able to put together a good show with live instruments and compelling visuals, I fail to see how well known, signed artists, who MAKE MONEY off their music, can deliver so little to fans.

Anonymous said...

if you don't like this review, please feel free to write a better one.

Anonymous said...

Well, obviously this guy is entitled to his opinion. That's fine. I, personally, was far more interested in the multiple comments I got from other people in Denver, CO who had a great time (many who had seen me in other cities, with a different live line-up also) and said it was one of my strongest performances they'd seen.

The reality of things is... neither my label (Crunch Pod) or Alfa Matrix (Unter Null's label) are in the position to give their artists "tour support". That happens on MAJOR LABELS that have thousands upon thousands of dollars to throw at their bands for promotion, tours, press, etc.

Even as signed acts in the "industrial scene" many bands, like UN and myself, go out on tour and hope we can break even on expenses and usually supplement this by selling CDs or T-Shirts so we have gas money, food money, etc. while on the road. I know in my case, I pay for my merchandise out of my pocket, in advance so I saved and worked overtime in the months leading up so I could INVEST money to have more merchandise to sell at the shows on this tour.

I guess my main point in response is that the financial climate sucks right now. It's hard and it's amazing any bands are able to tour at all. We pulled it off and unless I missed something, will not LOSE MONEY on this tour, which in this scene is definitely counted as a "win".

FWIW, I've had a three person line-up for C/A/T since 2007. However, I had personal conflicts with a keyboard player and then my fiance, who was our live drummer, was diagnosed with cancer (which is now 6 months later finally in remission, thankfully). So, granted, my live line-up for this tour was a little different than previous shows and tours... but this tour also has hit far more cities than anything I've done before... and I think there is an obvious correlation there.

I can't totally comment on Unter Null since I'm just a live keyboard player and I honestly don't know if she will come here to add to this but... hopefully that adds a little more insight to my side of things.


Unknown said...

i might as well chime in here since i was the keyboardist for UN:

like you stated in your "review", due to labels not giving SHIT for tour support and the insane cost of gas these days, its no wonder why bands only have 2-3 people for live shows.

you have to take into consideration everything that goes into touring:

gas (or transportation in general)
paying other members

and lets not forget if anything goes wrong (blow a tire for example), the cost to fix that.

now, as far as performing, i cannot comment on who was playing what and what was not being played, but what i CAN tell you is is that when i was in the band, we played everything we could (we dont have more then 2 arms) and obviously the rest was backing tracks.

and with this being said, when i start doing shows (possibly next month..), i will probably only have 2 people as well.

it sux, it really does, but with the way the music industry is and the way our world is, its kinda hard to support 3-4 people in a band on tour.


Mic Litter said...

Looks like I'm a few weeks late for all the action (story of my life). But I can't help but agree with you on all fronts, here. And hey, at least you were sympathetic, I don't see why there's so much griping.
The first thing that gets me going is the fake-blood-and-fairy-wing fetish thing. "Played out" is a generous understatement. Is this supposed to scare people or something? If you're that freaked out by blood, especially FAKE blood, maybe you haven't been beaten up or injured enough times. That's not a provocation, I'm just saying, it is as fake as it looks. I've seen plenty of the real thing both on and off stage and I don't particularly care much for either.
Granted, I find it maybe a step too far in an altogether worse direction, S.P.K. ate sheep brains onstage. Genesis of Throbbing Gristle genuinely and entertainingly mutilated the SHIT out of himself onstage. Coil did blood enemas. Of course, much as I respect the aforementioned acts, these kind of antics are indeed WORSE, but at least they are not watered-down play-acting like this. We all know how retarded the whole performance art thing is by now, but at least it was genuine and not a run-of-the-mill Goth-Topic ad campaign.
I am just as guilty as many electronic acts on the backing-track thing. I trigger them as samples and I organize them in real time, but there is live playing. Getting electronic music to be more live is much easier now, though, even if you are just one person. I have an RC-50 I use now in live performance to layer loops in real-time. I like it almost more than my multitracker, because I can PLAY instruments onstage to create my backup track, rather than press a fucking button.
No less, all the above-mentioned acts are decent enough on record. They at least sound good in the studio, which counts for enough. And I feel like a total GIMP for having BOUGHT a keyboard stand now, that guy made an awesome live prop there. Mad respect.