Nils Frahm & Ryan Vail
Sunday 28th September 2014 – City Hall, Belfast
To close this year’s Red Bull Academy Weekender in Belfast, local fans were able to catch a breathtaking exhibition of music by German auteur and prodigy Nils Frahm, all for the mere sum of five pounds. As far as grand finales to these kinds of events go, you couldn’t ask for a much better performer to top the bill, and, in the beautifully majestic surrounds of Belfast’s historic City Hall, an audience no larger than about two hundred were treated to a magnificent display of what can happen when the subtlety, skill and patience of classical music is married with the boundary-pushing possibilities and innovations of contemporary electronic music.
But, before Frahm’s sublime main event, attendants were able to enjoy a thirty-minute showcase of subdued electronica courtesy of a local on-the-rise duo from Derry. This act, going under the name of its vocalist Ryan Vail, and performed with Katie Cosgrove (don’t be fooled by the moniker – Ryan Vail is a two-person project), opened proceedings in their usual two-piece configuration, performing a number of songs from the recent Grow EP. Along with the title track from that offering, ‘Fade’ and ‘Gone’ formed the basis for a brief set of scratching guitars, down-tempo electronic beats and gossamer-thin, whispered vocals. The pair’s low-key, moody sound palette offered up an atmospheric and interesting prelude, which didn’t jar or vie with the style of the main act. The two didn’t seem particularly fazed by the event or the challenge in warming up such a virtuoso performer as Nils Frahm, and they steered through their short set with style and poise (a promising moment for their upcoming shows – you can see them for free at the Black Box on October 16th from 10 pm). They’re one of the more exciting things to come out of Northern Ireland in recent years (as are a number of the artists on their Belfast-based label, Champion Sound), and are well worth keeping an eye on.
Anyone who’s familiar with Frahm’s work (and if you’re not, make sure you check out his album Spaces, released towards the end of last year) will know that his live performances often make use of a variety of kit (spanning various instruments, appropriated objects, and electronic production methods channeled by a number of sound engineers), and this show was no exception. Though I’m certainly no boffin when it comes to spotting every bit of gear out there (as I quickly realised when I scanned through Aphex Twin’s list of equipment for recently-released Syro), Frahm’s visible set-up seemed to consist mainly of a modulated synthesiser, an upright piano and a grand piano. This doesn’t cover every instrument used throughout the show (and yes, he did use toilet brushes as percussive objects, beating them down on exposed piano wires, for the song Toilet Brushes), but it was these three keyboard interfaces which really made up the heart of the performance. Praise should go to the team of sound engineers on hand for both artists’ sets. They can often be an overlooked part of these kinds of shows, but both teams handled the sound dynamics of each performance skillfully, ensuring a highly impressive quality of sound throughout (even during the notably loud passages and drone-like distortion notes at the beginning of certain songs), with no obvious technical glitches.
His set consisted mostly of the work from Spaces, with each track lasting for quite some time and filling up his hour an a half slot with only about six or seven different songs. His opener, the epic Says, provided those new to Frahm’s sound with a pretty essential sample of his oeuvre and unique cross-genre style, building delicately as it does for nine minutes towards its enormous, sweeping crescendo. He then went on to work through a number of the less all-embracing, on the whole gentler pieces from his last album, including, in this respect, the misleadingly-titled More. Said and Done and Toilet Brushes stood out as particular highs in the performance, although every track was of such a high standard, that picking out highlights may be doing his show something of a disservice. Frahm explains how he broke his left thumb at the time of writing You, joking: “sometimes I’m not sure if it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, or the most sentimental piece of shit I’ve ever written”. The sheer emotive power of this stripped-back, more delicate number, contrasted with something more experimental and production-heavy like An Aborted Beginning, gives some idea of the range this artist’s live sets tend towards.
Following a standing ovation, Frahm returned to the stage on the top floor of the City Hall to perform one last number in front of the already-captivated audience. “This is good for our future relationship”, he jokes breezily before settling down again for the encore. His stage persona, in fact, is quite at odds with the emotional depth, meditative patience, extraordinary elevation and totality of his musical output. Frahm appears calm and relaxed, yes, but also playful and confident (and in no way gauche or apprehensive with the English language), without over-egging the pudding in his brief asides to the appreciative crowd.
It’s true that the language of music journalism can be more often than not a language of hyperbole, superlatives and spurious comparisons. Writing up this piece so soon after the event, I should probably tread carefully with what I say, but I would be confident in the horse I’ve backed when I say that Sunday night was one of those performances that many of the eventgoers will remember for a long time not only as awe-inspiring, but truly special.