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Drop Dead FestivalDrop Dead Festival

Day 1 - Bands in order of appearance:

Harry Merry
Petra Flurr
Noisy Pig
Die Selektion
Trans4Leben

ADS, Berlin
Thursday September 1 2011

 

Last time I was at the Drop Dead Festival, it was in Prague. The time before that, New York City. This year, we're in Berlin. It's quite common for live music events to switch from one venue to another, of course. But Drop Dead must be the only festival which, as a matter of routine, switches countries.

Drop Dead started in New York - at CBGB, no less - in 2003, and for its first four years stayed in New York, give or take offshoot events in Philadelphia, Boston, and other US cities.

But then, in 2007, the entire event suddenly upped sticks and shifted to Old Europe, where the festival has wandered like a travelling carnival ever since, taking in Prague, Lisbon and Vilnius in recent years.

It's been a long, strange trip from that first shindig at a storefront punk club on New York's Bowery to this year's location: a post-industrial blockhouse beside the river Spree in what was once the no-man's land between East and West Berlin.

The post-industrial blockhouse is Club ADS - which stands for 'An der Schillingbrucke' (At the Schilling bridge). Not exactly an inventive name, but at least it tells you where to find the place. Apparently, the the patch of land the club stands on was recently sold. This time next year, there'll probably be an office block on the site, as Berlin busily builds over its own history. I dare say there wasn't much point in thinking up a groovy name if the club isn't going to be around long-term.

But all we need to know is that the club wil be around for the next six nights. Yes, six nights. That's another thing that's changed in Drop Dead World. The festival keeps on getting longer. The first Drop Dead was just one day of bands. Now, it's six. These days the festival stretches over the calendar like a relaxed cat.

There is, of course, another thing that's changed over all those years and locations. That 2003 festival at CBGB was billed as a deathrock event. Over the following years Drop Dead became the main showcase for the new wave of deathrock - the bands which emerged when that early 80s strand of horrorshow post-punk music staged a twenty-first century comeback. Drop Dead played a big part in the resurgence of the genre, and arguably helped to push other festivals such as the WGT into acknowledging the surge of new bands. To this day you'll find people who instinctively think of Drop Dead as the home of deathrock.

But plenty of other stuff has gone into the Drop Dead mix over the years. This has meant the festival has been able to evolve and survive as deathrock itself went off the boil. And - let's face it - deathrock did go off the boil. The erstwhile top bands of deathrock shifted their ground: The Last Days Of Jesus, once carnival goofballs, are now Bad Seeds-ish rockers. Cinema Strange, once deathrock pin-ups in their mohawks 'n' fishnets, took off on their own odd art-tangent before disappearing off the radar altogether.

Older bands, some of which made high-profile comebacks when deathrock was at its height, couldn't keep up the pace. Newer bands have so far failed to break big. The infrastructure of deathrock gradually dismantled itself. Deathrock magazine vanished. The deathrock.com website stopped being updated. Deathrock's key movers and shakers moved on.

All of which would have pulled the carpet out from under Drop Dead's feet if it had remained a deathrock event, pure and simple. But the evolution of the festival - sometimes by deliberate shifts of style, but also by incremental changes, year on year - means that Drop Dead is still going strong while so much else has gone.

Drop Dead Festival flyers

Drop Dead's own descriptions of itself tell the story. The second Drop Dead festival, in NYC in 2004, claimed to feature 'Psychobilly, deathrock, gothic boogie and blood cabaret' among other strange genres, some of which were quite possibly invented on the spot. In Prague, 2007, the list included 'Post-punk, gothabilly, monster surf, tribal electronics, anarcho, and gore garage'. By the time Drop Dead reached Vilnius in 2010 the genre mix was 'Weird wave, deathrock and art punk'.

In Berlin this year, Drop Dead features 'synth wave , queer electro, mutant wave, minimal wave, no wave, cold wave, weirdo post punk, ritual music, anarcho and positive punk, psycho beats, future experimentation, neo billy wave, synth punk, death disco, 8 bit and nintendocore, tropical sexy beats, ndw, and everything in between.'   Crumbs. There are more waves in all that than you'd find on Bondi beach. But if you'd like to sum it all up in three words, try Drop Dead's short slogan: 'Art damaged music'.

I rather like the idea of being damaged by art. At any rate, it's clear that nothing remotely mainstream is going to happen over the next six days. So let's get in there, and let the damage commence.

Being the opening act at a six-day festival is a tough job, but someone's got to do it. Right now, Harry Merry is doing it, plunking away at a keyboard, wearing an air of dogged desperation like a badly gone-wrong supper club entertainer, while a screen behind him tells us that we're now in the Poopsy Club.

Harry Merry / Petra Flurr

The Poopsy Club is a 'Queer party in Berlin'. Much as I'd like to claim I know this because I hang out there all the time with the cool people, in fact I just looked it up on Facebook. Tonight it's been sub-contracted as Drop Dead's entertainment supplier for the festival's front room, while electro label Fabrika Records hosts the back room. Talking of which, we'll leave Harry Merry to his plunking, and venture into the back room right now, where Petra Flurr is poised to entertain us.

Emoting tremendously over pounding minimalische elektro, Petra Flurr is a one-man speedfreak Kraftwerk, working up a sweat as he declaims with manic intensity while his beatz swirl beind him. He's a great frontman, busting his moves in a glam catsuit - but then again, he's not a frontman at all, because he's not actually fronting anything. There's no band, just a laptop propped up on wooden beer crates, upon which Petra Flurr prods hopefully between songs. But you know what? That's not a problem, because Petra Flurr's one-man show fills the stage, and I'd rather see some honest hardware at work rather than the conventional couple of mime-artists pretending to play keyboards in the background.

Noisy Pig

Every time I've visited Berlin over the last few years, I've seen flyposters all over town advertising the doings of Noisy Pig. I gained the vague impression that Noisy Pig was some sort of anarcho punk band, because....well, the posters looked that way. But when Noisy Pig arrives on stage in front of me, he turns out to be a man in a sheet with a crown on top, like he's king of the ghosts. So, not an anarcho punk band after all, then.

Or maybe he is, in a way, because once Noisy Pig gets out of his ghost costume he certainly gets his punk on. Off he goes, bouncing and gesticulating in front of big screen images of himself while whacko electro resounds. He's like Klaus Nomi's delinquent little brother, cutting loose as a one-man multi-media mash-up, the human eye of his technology storm. At intervals, Noisy Pig bounces over to a minimalist drum kit and lays some real-time crash and bash over his tumbling electro, but behind the spectacle and the mayhem lurk some rather nifty pop tunes. Noisy Pig's multi-media mash-up works on multi levels, too.

Our next selection in the back room is Die Selektion. Now here's a conundrum. At which point does supercool minimal electro become plain old bouncy-bouncy EBM? I would suggest that point occurs round about the location of Die Selektion.

The vocalist gives it the full-on treatment, throwing shapes with the vigour of an aerobics instructor while barking at us like a drill sergeant. His colleagues in the background hunch over technology, while the beat gets bangin'. It's actually quite a novelty to see this stuff done by a young and cool-looking band. It's not like I've done a survey, or anything, but most EBM artists I've seen tend to be middle-aged and rather portly. But the uncomfortable fact is that Die Selektion end up sounding a bit like any old EBM outfit to me. So let's beat a hasty retreat into the front room, where something slightly more interesting is about to kick off.

Die Selektion / Trans4Leben

Historically, Drop Dead has never booked many contemporary British artists - understandable in a way, since during the festival's deathrocky incarnation there weren't many appropriate UK bands to book. But now, with Drop Dead going all art-damaged and shifting its base to Europe, you'd think the UK would be a prime source. After all, when it comes to art-damaged artists, we've got plenty of contenders. And now that the Atlantic Ocean is no longer in the way, the logistics just got a whole lot easier.

But, running my finger down this year's Drop Dead band list, I can only find three acts that have any UK connection. Even that's a stretch, since one of those UK acts is the Legendary Pink Dots - based in Amsterdam these days. Another sort-of UK act is actually located in Berlin, while the third is a collaboration between a Spanish art/noisemaker based in London, and an Italian singer of experimental opera. All the art-damage that's happening in the UK right now - the stuff you'd think would be right up Drop Dead's alley - isn't represented.

It's the Italian-Spanish UK-ish outfit that we're about to see now: Jose Macabra and Ernersto Tomasini, together tonight as Trans4Leben.

Trans4LebenJose Macabra peers intently at a laptop screen. Music swells. Sometimes it's almost-orchestral, a mantra of synthesized strings. At other times it's a minimal sweep and bleep. And occasionally, it all builds into a shifting, shuddering wall of noise, like approaching bulldozers just behind the wall.

There are no actual tunes - at least, not as The Beatles would recognise them. But what we do have is Ernesto Tomasini, all in white like a recently-interred Egyptian mummy, with a cowl on his head like the Mother Superior, and strange protruberances swelling under his costume like the sex organs of a space alien. I don't think The Beatles would recognise any of that, either. Not unless they'd taken a lot of acid.

Ernesto Tomasini lets out a majestic, frightening, other-worldly operatic wail. He keens and croons, sending his voice spiralling around the room like an unquiet spirit. He stands in front of the flickering back-projection, striking attitudes as if an unholy alliance of Grace Jones and Maria Callas is fighting over his soul.

He's a bizarre but commanding presence - and yet the sheer strangeness of the spectacle doesn't detract from an unexpected emotional pull. There's some weird transendence at work here. This collaboration, more performance-art than mere recital, between an experimental noise-generator and a left-field opera singer has produced something strangely, indefinably, moving.

DJs take over after the bands. Drop Dead has an 'open end', which means there's no curfew, no official finish time. The club stays open until the last revellers stagger off home. But I think it's time to make our excuses and leave. We've still got five days to go. Let's pace ourselves, OK?

Trans4Leben

On to Day 2 of the Drop Dead Festival here.

 

There are apparently no websites specifically for Trans4Leben. These links are for Ernesto Tomasini: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Die Selektion: Website | Facebook

Noisy Pig: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Petra Flurr: MySpace | Facebook

 

Drop Dead Festival: Website | MySpace | Facebook

For more photos from the Drop Dead Festival,
find the bands by name here.

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