Gig Review: Harmonia

Harmonia @ Queen Elizabeth Hall
Fri 18th April

In complete contrast to the other gig I went to this week, here were a crowd raring to go, but who were let down by the band not delivering the goods. On Monday Scroobius Pip played us phat beats and rocking tunes, but the crowd weren’t quite ready to party so early in the week; yesterday Harmonia played extreme ambient noodlings to a crowd who really wanted to hear some classic Motorik style Krautrock.

Harmonia were one of the most important Krautrock bands of the 70’s, sharing members of Neu! and Cluster, and recording two classic albums, Musik Von Harmonia and Deluxe. Last year they reminded everyone of their greatness with the release of Live 1974.

You can have quick listen to their stuff on this unofficial myspace page:

So, lovely classic Krautrock, and when they get Motorik, it rules.

It is difficult to express the sense of disappointment when you walk into a concert hall to find three tables covered in black cloth, with a laptop on each, and a Nord Lead. And that’s all. Where were the modular Moogs? The patch cables? The ridiculous amount of equipment to drool over? Nowhere. That’s where.

To rub it in, they had a tiny projection screen above them on which they kept showing a photograph taken in the 70’s in front of one of those wonderful old modular synths:

Musically, the gig alternated between extremely boring ambient pieces and half decent motorik Krautrock. The ambient pieces were terrible, like someone auditioning the world’s dullest sample CD over a droning background. Not even the sounds were interesting, and it was so quiet! The Cobra (for it was he) and I had to keep stifling giggles as people’s footsteps on their way to their seats were louder than the music. Admittedly one man seemed to be wearing tap shoes, but still.

After the first ambient track ended someone in the audience even shouted ‘Turn it up!’. Quite.

There is no excuse in the 21st century for ‘performing’ ammbient music on laptops, even if you are legendary and in your 60’s.

The problem with laptops is that you have no idea what the performers are doing, so there is zero tension between the perfomer and audience. You don’t have the sense that something could go wrong, or that the musician is in anyway reacting to the moment. The challenge for bands/artists who do use laptops is to find a way round that, and of course, it can be done (you may have noticed me with a laptop on stage!)

On the other hand, if you have a wall of modular synths and need to be coaxing the thing into life and keep in tune and in time, then you have some interest! Especially as genuine analogue machines do not reproduce the same thing identically over and over again like digital versions do.

That’s what we were there to see. So, with mind-numbing predictability they alternated these ambient bits with proper krautrock. Yeah, some Krautrock, great! These bits were pretty cool, even though again, I have no idea what the guys were actually doing to produce the driving beats. Half the thing with Krautock was that it was produced live by guitarists, bassists and drummers, along with all the analogue synths, giving it that physicality. Not here though, it was just played off laptops by painfully static men. Ah well, at least it sounded nice…for the 3 minutes they played that stuff for… jeez, those tracks should be 20 minutes of relentless pounding grooves. Argh! What a frustration to just be getting into it – and then they’d fade the bloody track out. Hopeless!

And to top it all off, the guy in the middle WAS PUTTING CD’S INTO SOMETHING! WTF? Playing CD’s? To an audience. Really, the final insult!

So, to sum up, it was a tad on the disappointing side.

Especially as Goldfrapp were playing at the RFH at the same time…

(If you were at Harmonia, I would love to hear your thoughts on the gig)


7 Responses

  1. Hi Oli,

    I was at the Harmonia gig, and I think your review is spot on. Krautrock without those relentless pounding grooves just doesn’t make sense! Totally agree with you on the laptop problem as well. For me the best element of last night was the little chuckle I got from being reminded of the episode of Father Ted where the writers dress up as a sort of boring Kraftwerk tribute band.

    Didn’t see the guy loading CDs (we left after the third pause-for-applause), but I think I would have laughed out loud. Sad thing was, the guy sitting next to me was a massive fan and was totally pumped for the gig. When they started playing it was like someone was letting the air out of him.

    Great website by the way – love the crafty dig at ‘JTL’ on the Brain Game website.

    P.S. – totally incidental point, but did you notice that about a third of the men at the gig looked like Nick Hornby?



  2. Harsher review than mine, I loved the last track, “Deluxe”. I can confirm that Roedelius was definitely playing CDs though!

  3. Hi Oli, I don’t think you would ‘love to hear [my] thoughts on the gig’ as I disagree with almost everything you say. But you asked.

    Only some of the Krautrock bands of the day had anything much to do with ‘rock’ (kraut or otherwise) let alone ‘beats’, which is a purely 80s concept, and an equal amount, in a bid to leave behind anything so boring and formal, and more importantly to deny anything ‘American’ or Blues-based, were decidedly and defiantly non-rhythmic.

    Much of the very early recorded material, including that from Kluster, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Faust, Popul Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, and yes even the mighty Kraftwek themselves pre-dated the use of any analog synths, *at all*, with electronic equipment being home made and decidely lo-fi. Great use was made of tapes, loops and pre-recorded material which was then ‘modified’ in home studios. Very few of the bands of the period were really live bands per se. So it is entirely in keeping for Harmonia to use additional sounds mixed in from CD. Have you ever listened to the second side of Neu! 2 which has Rother and Dinger methodically dissecting their own 7″ single ‘super’/ ‘neuschnee’?

    Having worked in the music industry for three decades I know that *significant* amounts of ‘backing tapes’ are used by even the most live of live bands. Harmonia at least made no pretence of this as two Pioneer CD decks were clearly part of the kit. This did not matter one audio jot, as neither you nor I could distinguish quite how the sounds contained therein were blended into the ‘live’ mix.

    In fact the last piece, the one that mapsadaisical particularly enjoyed, probably featured the use of CD most obviously, as we clearly saw a disc inserted near the start. Such irony.

    With all those patch cables you talk about drooling over I can’t help think it was Keith Emerson you were expecting to see. 😉

    Sorry Oli, I loved Harmonia, they were *exactly* what I wanted to hear.

    Peace and love in a post-60s hippy style

  4. Hi Malcolm, thanks for your thoughts – I don’t mind at all that you disagree, that’s half the fun!

    I think you make a fair point about the ‘beat’ and a good portion of Krautrock comprising experimental noodlings. I guess I do have a preference for the motorik vibe and was looking forward to some extended Krautrock grooves!

    However, I do also like experimental and ambient music, but simply didn’t think what we were presented with was very good or very interesting (or at all loud enough.)

    If this was their original ambient music of the early 70’s, then it would have been nice to seen it recreated in the way it originally had been – hence my desire to see some actual equipment or instruments. Otherwise what was the point? If it was indeed new or newly recombined, then I’m afraid it wasn’t very good.

    Likewise, it may have been in keeping with the orignal ethic to use playback, but that’s not the bit I had a problem with – I use laptop playback in my own band. The point is, what you play back should be captivating, awe-inspiring and extraordinary. Or maybe make it clear what it is you’re doing…in the early 70’s it took effort to create musique concrete and other experimental works and the sound of it then was still new and surprising.

    This meant you could get away with a tape-machine on stage as it represented hours of laborious work. (I have a recording of an audience applauding – and cheering! – after a playback of a John Cage tape piece.) Laptops playing a recording of 30 year old ambient tracks just don’t imply that same effort.

    And you know, we, the audience, have made the effort to pay for tickets, to travel to the venue, to get excited about it beforehand…I don’t think it’s too much to ask for some effort from the performers.

    I still think my criticisms regarding the gig stand: the motorik pieces were too short, the ambient pieces not interesting enough and too quiet, and zero performance effort all added up to a disappointing experience for me.

    Peace and love in a 21st century electronic manner!

  5. Hi Oli, thanks for taking time to answer my points. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on some matters of musical ‘taste’ regarding the performance on the night, but you make some valid observations. (if a little overstated in your initial review 🙂 )

    At one point I wondered if they were (perversely) playing deliberately quietly at the start to make us all lean forward and pay attention. I suspect they just didn’t notice that the sound was not travelling well through the auditorium, as they are not ‘performers’ in any classic sense of the word, and I did notice the guy at the mixing desk yawning his way through that first piece, so he hadn’t noticed either. I was lucky to be sat right at the front, so the sound was ‘ok’, I just had to contend with photographers and their noisy motor drives. But it all added to the overall sonic ambience I guess.

    That said, I thought the noises they made with their machines, especially early on, were in keeping with some of the minimal scratchings I recall from their early recordings as Cluster. I’m glad they didn’t have any Moog, VCS3 or similar ‘period’ equipment of that kind, as the kind of warm burbling sounds made by them wouldn’t have been right for my ears.

    Indeed, those early scratchy, sonically unsophisticated noises which I had some ‘trouble’ with when I was listening to them as a lad, I now have much more fondness for, and appreciate them alongside the ‘motorik’ rhythms, which admitttedly have always had a more instant appeal.

    Yes, I could have listened to much more of those on the night, as dynamically they are more ‘entertaining’, but giving the guys the benefit of the doubt, I was pleased they explored more aspects of their oeuvre. I like to think that they were trying to give more than the obvious greatest hits style of Dinger-esque drums and bright Rother guitar. This was a Harmonia gig, after all, not just Neu! or Michael Rother himself, and I associate that motorik sound with Neu! principally.

    I do hear, and actually agree with, much of what you say about laptops and pre-recorded materials. I was struggling to try to work out just ‘what’ the laptop and CD decks were providing to the mix. I wondered if Michael Rother was using the laptop to ‘store’ sounds from his guitar and play them back in loops or triggered in bursts ,which he could also modify. His guitar was certainly ‘playing’ when he wasn’t playing it himself. And I like to think that there was nothing so obviously pre-recorded that any of them used ‘raw’.

    I quite liked the ‘zero-performance’ aspect of their ‘show’, but understand that many in the audience wished for more band ‘interaction’. Knowing the players in this genre of old (I’ve seen Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttshing) I wasn’t expecting anything there, they all seem to prefer the sound to speak for itself.

    Perhaps I’m more forgiving, but all in all I got what I expected. I was genuinely excited by the evening.

    Really not sure about those visuals though.

  6. It was a great concert.

  7. Cheers, nice review. Here’s an extract from mine

    …A short break and then some geezer came onto stage to do a brief intro (I remember him doing the same thing in 2004)…and then Harmonia took to the stage. The band got a great reception from the audience and then started to play a long ambient track, and it was here that the problems ‘for me’ really started. Firstly, the volume was so low that in parts the noise the audience was making was very noticeable…creaks, coughs, rustles, glasses or cups being kicked over, a couple of people chatting behind me. Perhaps at a ‘normal’ concert (i.e non-ambient) this wouldn’t have been such a problem, but my attention was shot, instead of concentrating on the music I was again and again distracted by late-comers, people walking in AND out, doors opening, beeps from cameras (it was almost as if the audience wanted to fill in all the pauses between the notes). The music itself wasn’t exactly bad, but the visuals most certainly were, a few slow fuzzy close ups of old promo photos and LPs projected on to a postage-stamp sized screen do not a video make. You might have got away with it in 1974, but not now. However, parts of this first track were quite interesting, especially Roedelius’s playing on a red keyboard, sections of which reminded me of the Baron’s Forbidden Planet soundtrack (or should that read Electronic Tonalities?), but these were soon engulfed into the mire of what was for me fairly average laptop knob twiddling (yeah I know they don’t have knobs, but you get the picture). One thing I always loved about Harmonia was their lightness of touch, it was melodically-playful, but with the best will in the world you couldn’t describe Harmonia (Version 2008) as that. As the song ended a cry of ‘can you turn it up please’ could be heard from the back of the hall.
    However we decided to stick around and see how things would develop. The next piece was better, a booming bass drum driven piece with complex skittering electro-rhythms, complete with waves of bass-synth subsonics, whilst Michael Rother picked out a few notes on his guitar. ‘Could be good’ I thought. However it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. Again and again I was willing them to produce a tiny melody that would grab me, a few bars of magic, but sadly it never came. So, after 30 or 40 minutes we cut our losses and left. Better to remember the group for what I love rather than just endure what they had become. Don’t get me wrong, I completely respect all three musicians, alone and collectively they have produced some of the greatest music I own, music that means something to me, moves me deeply, challenges me and has held my interest for decades. I would recommend their recorded output to anyone, but for me ‘live’ they were disappointing, a shame, but that’s how it was.

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