Following his acclaimed 2013 ‘Spaces‘ LP on Erased Tapes, Nils Frahm has become one of today’s most sought-after performers, with tickets for his concert at the London Barbican selling out almost a year ago. Frahm’s recent success is easy to understand. His mass cross-over appeal is derived from a masterful ability to seamlessly mix together electronic with more traditional acoustic sound-worlds, coupled with his gift for melody and a particular dedication to his craft. From selling out concert halls across Europe and North America, to performing for Boiler Room and festivals such as Dimensions, Mutek, and Primavera, Frahm has developed a truly universal audience. His initial ventures with analogue gear began at the age of eight, while having access to his fathers extensive ECM record collection as a child shaped his tastes and fuelled his creative faculty; looking back, it seems that his position under the international spotlight today was a foregone conclusion. His music is pure and honest, and his sound is undeniably unique; and it is for this reason Nils Frahm has been at the top of my list of artists to see this year.
Behind the dystopian façade of the Barbican, anticipation swells as the multi-levelled concert space gradually fills. In the main foyer there is a small performance space set up with a grand piano, where anyone can come up and play. People are casually sat on the floor, passively engaged with the tinkering of an amateur pianist and catch-up chit-chat. Several people take it in turns to play their own renditions of Nils Frahm and other neo-classical works; a nice touch to the event.
I take my seat and soon enough the lights dim softly as Frahm steps through his elaborate set-up to take center stage. He begins quietly, the opening motif sidles with the gravity and patience of a swinging pendulum, probing yet still hesitant. The distinctive sound of ‘Says‘ is characterised by the undulating synth figure, inanely and hypnotically repetitive, looping further and further into self-contained oblivion. Frahm moves silently to the upright piano and engages with the tentative melody line, melancholic and reticent. A singular spotlight shines over him, and at once we are completely immersed.
The atmosphere is electric, the collectively held breath of the audience unanimous; as broken shards of light filter towards the right hand side, the mesmerised faces of those closer to the stage are illuminated. Frahm moves to the grand piano to enter the final section, laying into the keys with a fiery intensity. Leaping across the rising minor arpeggio figures are strident chords that glide over the triplet time signature in wonderful rhythmic interplay. Pure elation. ‘Says’ ends abruptly, as the audience break into applause. An intense start to the evening.
Frahm continues with ‘Said And Done‘. One repeated note opens the piece, played incessantly, its harmonic overtones drawn out through the percussive repetitions. Frahm delivers a beautiful note-perfect performance here of one of his most accomplished works – from the earnest chord progression to the wonderfully optimistic passage of Reichian minimalism, this was a joy to watch.
As the final note subsides, Frahm turns with a smile on his face, before standing and addressing the audience through the mic. He introduces the next piece ‘You’, which is taken from his album ‘Screws’ (which has a nice little backstory behind it). He becomes even more amiable when you notice that he is only wearing one shoe, while his welcomed light-hearted humour builds a rapport with the audience.
To end quite a full-on first half, ‘You‘ provides a nice contrast to the programme. Here we really get to see the different ends of the spectrum, from the bracing analogue torrents to the intimate and vulnerable monologues of the acoustic piano; and it is this level of contrast and dynamism that makes Frahm’s performances so captivating. The upright is dampened by a felt cloth that is draped over the strings, a temperament from which his brilliant album ‘Felt‘ was eponymously conceived.
There is something benign and humble about the piano’s dampened sound, its muted tones reserved, polite almost; the lid and front panel have been removed, its mechanical, systematic insides laid bare. Hunched over the piano caressing the keys, it seems apparent that Frahm is the most absorbed out of all of us.
The tail end of ‘You’ transitions unbroken into ‘Familiar‘ another track from the ‘Spaces’ album, gently picking up speed with the movement of alternating chords in the left hand, accompanied by a painfully nostalgic right hand melody. There are undeniable hallmarks of Einaudi in this piece, but dare I say it more tasteful.
After a soothing acoustic interlude, Frahm dives into an eagerly awaited rendition of ‘All Melody/#2’, which many will recognise from his recent RA Sessions. Returning to the analogue set-up he reignites the sequencer and a rhythmic tapping begins to fizz and patter out of the machines, his arms darting purposefully around the various dials and knobs, moulding the sound with the skilled intention of a sculptor. Frahm is once again as fixated as is the audience, totally engulfed in his own creation. Rapid-fire notes on the Fender Rhodes flutter over the top until he awakens the celeste to continue the flowing melody.
Things turn more foreboding as he goes uninterrupted into ‘#2’; Frahm hits a groove, dancing to the 4×4 beat and jolting to the rhythmic interchanges; in the audience heads begin to nod in time. The track rolls at about 145bpm, pacey but grounded. Throughout the venue people brace themselves, no one is quite ready for what is unfolding. From out of the hypnotic psychosis erupts the howling synth lead, raged, anguished, matched by the contortions of his face. Frahm unleashes the full power of his gear, as bass-lines rumble into the stalls and an overbearing wall of sound storms throughout the hall.
It is absolutely mesmerising watching one man create such an intricate but powerful blend of timbres and textures, shaping the sound while incorporating complex rhythms between the rich, delayed synth lines. Here we reach the apex of the whole concert, the falling synth motif is a real gut-wrencher and the sum of what we hear is equal parts unrelenting and awesome.
For the more observant listeners, one recognises that ‘#2’ is actually an electronic arrangement of another firm favourite ‘Hammers‘, which he subsequently performs after a quick switch over to the grand. Through the piano mics you could hear Frahm’s background vocals quietly doubling the melody (a feature that appears on the original recording). Once again another immaculately executed performance.
Frahm follows on with a showcase of some new material, using “casual gigs” like this one to “practice” and “test run” some new ideas. The demo was made from a couple of synth machines he picked up in Australia, sharing his joy at the fact that they were not yet “kaput”. A bass drum is established, steady, weighty, aided by distorted textural embellishments, including a syncopated hat and snare on top. The track takes on a Techno orientated vibe, with clear elements of progressive styles in there too. It is somewhat uplifting, and stylistically more diverse and experimental than his other works. Here we can see previously made comparisons with fellow live electronic artists such as Max Cooper and Jon Hopkins amplified, as the trio occupy similar but highly individualised sonic spaces. Though the new composition does not quite live up to the same calibre as previous works, it’s good to see Frahm expanding and exploring his sound further, showing his capacity to change and evolve as an artist.
Frahm finishes with a faithful rendition of the weirdly wonderful ‘Toilet Brushes-More‘. As the title suggests, Frahm uses toilet brushes to strike different parts of the piano to create a percussive piece of avant garde. As with the upright piano, a number of mics peer into the frame, arranged with a refined precision that contributes to Frahm’s distinct, trademark sound. With the poise of an able percussionist, he moves around the body of the piano, eliciting different colours and tones from the instrument. Definitely entertaining to watch, he gradually moves onto the piano and enters into a flurry of intricate delay sequences. Impressive to say the least, Frahm finishes to ecstatic reception, receiving a standing ovation from all two thousand people in the audience – deservedly so.
The Berliner returns once more to the stage with the offering of an encore. He asks for requests, and after one person suggests “Happy Birthday” he returns to the piano, seemingly satisfied with the audience contribution. Frahm proceeds to play the hauntingly beautiful ‘Unter‘-‘Ambere‘-‘Tristana‘, a personal favourite of mine. As the piece subsides into nothingness, its Autumnal melancholy still lingering in the air, Frahm fits the melody from ‘Happy Birthday’ into the final cadence, in a gifted display of quick-witted brilliance.
A reaffirmation of the album-tour namesake, indeed Frahm’s performance seemed to create a liminal ‘space’, temporarily suspending our every day realities for something much greater. At some moments the music is disarming, almost abrasive, stripping you of everything superficial; at others it is charming, enticing, animated. This was an incredibly engaging and immersive concert and, like many great musical experiences, is something that words cannot do justice to.
I feel a special mention is in order for the team behind Frahm; working with him is an excellent sound engineer and an equally amazing lighting engineer. The level of craft was exceptional and without it the performance would not have been possible. This was one of those experiences that will linger in the memory.
Flux would like to especially thank Erased Tapes PR and the Barbican Centre for having us down for the evening.