see all the photos from this concert here

Swann Danger
(With a side order of Das Ich)
Pagan Love Songs, Bochum
~ review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Some things can only happen in Germany. 

Here we are, strolling out of Bochum railway station, having arrived in town to see the Sixteens and Swann Danger play at the Pagan Love Songs club. And we walk straight into a full-scale festival, taking place in the streets of the city. The Bochum Total festival is a varied, and mostly mainstream affair which features a huge variety of bands playing everything from skatecore to Irish folk. So far, so familiar: from time to time, events of a similar nature take place in the UK, and, no doubt, everywhere else. What's unusual about the German version, however, is the presence of a goth stage. 

The schwarze szene is big enough in Germany to be included in otherwise mainstream music events, and here in Bochum there's a full-scale stage sponsored by the mysterious Schattenreich organisation - which seems, as far as I can gather, to be a record label and online TV station. The name (freely) translates as 'Empire of Shadows', which at least leaves you in no doubt about the goth-ness of the operation. From a UK viewpoint, the whole thing is surreal: it's as if a mainstream festival in central London invited Resurrection Records to put together a goth stage featuring the likes of VNV Nation and Inkubus Sukkubus - an idea so fanciful in the context of the UK scene that it would immediately end up in the 'It would never happen' file. But here, things are different. On stage as we arrive, a bright red Gollum is shrieking and gurning at the crowd. This is Stefan Ackeremann, lead shouter with Das Ich. And sure enough, the band are in full effect, doing their EBM wardance right in the middle of the street in the afternoon sunshine in this neat and agreeable town. Only in Germany!

Now, Das Ich have not exactly been my favourite band ever since a fateful day in 1998 when they unceremoniously pulled out of a full-scale tour of the UK and Ireland at three days' notice (and with a frankly feeble excuse), leaving many promoters - including me - in the lurch and out of pocket. For this reason, I find it hard to greet the band's presence in Bochum with boundless delight. Nevertheless, I'm prepared to give 'em a few songs, just to see if their musical vision impresses me, even if they will never be on my Christmas card list. 

Essentially, what Das Ich do is toughened-up EBM, with harsh, shouty-shouty vocals. They do it very well, there's no doubt about that - all the right buttons are pressed, all the right moves are made, and the crowd lap it up with great enthusiasm. But it's very generic stuff. Much of the band's identity comes from their whacko outfits (Bruno Kramm, on keyboards, looks like a cross between a clown and a cardinal) and the scrap-metal sculptures scattered around the stage. Close your eyes to block the visuals, however, and what you're left with is a fairly standard array of EBM beats 'n' chants. This, of course, is a popular style in the more cyber-ish end of the goth scene, and certainly Das Ich never fail to pull big crowds - that was precisely the reason why I was prepared to put on that London gig in '98. But it's not a noise that excites me overmuch. Today, after three or four songs have thumped past, it all starts to sound like the same-old, same-old, and it's quite a relief when the set draws to a close. There's more to come: Qntal and ASP are scheduled to follow Das Ich on stage, and most people are clearly keen to stick around for them. But we're here for a different gig. It's time to head off to Pagan Love Songs for the Sixteens show. I can't help wondering if anyone else in the festival crowd is planning to do the same - or whether the Sixteens will end up playing to an empty venue, while Bochum Total soaks up the audience they might otherwise have attracted. We shall see.

The main streets of Bochum are scattered with impromptu festival-related goings-on. Fairground-style attractions and street performers: there's even a busking drummer. Away from the centre, things are uncannily quiet, with only the hum of an occasional passing tram to break the hush. The Pagan Love Songs club itself is on the outskirts of the city, and requires a train ride to the outlying station of Bochum-Langdreer West, where the loudest sound is bird song, and the surrounding streets are weirdly empty. I don't know if this bizarre silence is because the entire population of Bochum has decamped en masse to the festival, or whether it's always as quiet as this round these parts on a Saturday evening. Maybe everybody's been abducted by aliens. But it's hard to believe that Pagan Love Songs - which I'd always imagined was located in a bustling, neon-lit city street - is actually here, in this hushed suburb. After wandering around for a while wearing comedy 'Have we come to the right place?' expressions, the Zwischenfall club (the venue which hosts Pagan Love Songs once a month) finally appears, along with smattering of gothed-up punks. So, we're in the right place after all.. 

The audience trickles in. The Bochum Total festival has indeed siphoned off quite a lot of the usual Pagan Love Songs crowd. When Swann Danger take the stage there's only a handful of punters in the venue to see them, but that doesn't stop the band from giving the performance their best shot. And, right from the start, a surprise. I have seen Swann Danger referred to in such terms as 'shoegazing' and 'dreampop', descriptions which, frankly, didn't fill me with boundless joy, since they create the impression that the band are soft and fluffy ethereal-bunnies, with all the substance of sea mist. Fortunately, in real life Swann Danger prove to be a much more gritty and hard-hitting proposition, and it doesn't take many songs before I come to the conclusion that I rather like what they do.

There are just two people on stage, playing guitar and bass, plus a plywood box full of electronics. From these simple ingredients the band conjures a swirling mass of layered sound, as thick as soup and boiling with heavily-treated chords and effects. It's dark and psychedelic, without - fortunately - going anywhere near the hey-man hippy-dippy zone. Swann Danger are far too focused and spiky for that. On vocals, Cynthia Mansourian, looking like Debbie Harry's cooler sister, sings with a restrained intensity before breaking off to wrench sheets of mangled noise from her guitar. On bass, Andy Zevallos generates ominous low-down rumbles, like an approaching thunderstorm, and then hunches over the plywood box to work mysteries with electricity. It's a strangely compelling noise, and despite the fact that the band is only a two-piece, a strangely compelling visual spectacle, too. There's no rock 'n' roll grandstanding, no 'Hello Bochum!' jolly-ups - just two intense people making intense music. It works, and it's good. 

The Sixteens are intense, too, although in a slightly different way. If Swann Danger are intense in a cerebral, inside-your-head kind of way, the Sixteens are more like the manic loony who sits next to you on the bus. With synthesizers. The band have reduced themselves to a duo since I last saw them in New York - tonight, only the core members of Kristen Louise and Aaron Larsen are present - but as if to compensate they've racked up the energy levels and go stomping and seething into the set as if the spirit of Marc Bolan is fighting with the ghost of Fad Gadget for possession of their psyches. Wait a minute, Marc Bolan? Yes, indeed - how else do you explain those glittery stilettoes with which Kristen, fronting the band with assertive confidence, is attempting to stamp the stage into submission? Meanwhile, ensconced behind assorted items of hardware, wires, and personal mobility aids, keyboard-controller Aaron frowns at his equipment with alarming concentration. That's when he's not hooting at us through an oboe. We're a mighty long way from the conventional stylings of rock 'n' roll, that's for sure. 

And what do they sound like? Like a fight between rival gangs of mutant washing machines on the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Old Europe...cunningly choreographed and set to a disco beat. You can trace the influences of ancien-regime electronica and outer-limits post-punk in the Sixteens sound; I'd be willing to bet their record collections are stuffed with the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Klaus Nomi. But the band build on their influences with the teetering brickwork of their own ideas, and the result is music that sweeps all before it in a psyched-up ramshackle rush. Their sound is taut and abrasive, but the beats are always nailed down. Even in their most out-there moments, the Sixteens aren't afraid to give us a beat we can dance to. Sure enough, the audience - which is still small, although a few extra people have now trickled in - plucks up its courage and starts a random bop, encouraged by Kristen's own strange gyrations on stage. She alternates between keyboards, snare drum, and sundry effects pedals, while striking mutant-vogueing poses and ripping out her take-no-prisoners vocals all the while. Her between-song remarks are as gloriously odd as the music. 'Look at this,' she says, as she removes a key from the keyboard in front of her. 'It's like my teeth are falling out!' The band shudders and clangs and hoots and wallops to a conclusion - the set doesn't come to any structured finish, it just ends unexpectedly, as if the clockwork has suddenly run down. The audience seems to be impressed and bemused in equal measures. Me, I reckon we've just experienced a fine demonstration of art-punk surreal disco. 

Wouldn't you know it - practically as soon as the Sixteens finish, the crowd starts to arrive. It seems the Bochum Total festival has now packed up for the night, so a large number of the people who we saw digging Das Ich earlier on have now made their way up to Pagan Love Songs for a night of clubbing. It's a shame they've missed the bands, but that couldn't be helped. A strange quirk of the Bochum licensing laws means that live music at Zwischenfall has to stop at the illogically early hour of 11pm, supposedly to prevent the club's neighbours being disturbed by the noise. The DJs, however, are free to make as much noise as they like until the early hours. It seems officialdom considers the racket made by a DJ spinning CDs to be perfectly acceptable, while the racket kicked up by live bands is deemed 'disturbing'. Nope, I can't work that one out, either (although, in a perverse way, I'm relieved to discover that it's not only the UK which suffers from such bizarre regulations). But this does mean, of course, that in situations like tonight, when it might have been better to put the bands on stage later and thus get a bigger crowd to watch them, the logical adjustment to the schedule just can't be made. 

Still, the later part of the night's entertainment proves to be pretty good in itself: Ralf Thyssen, who is the co-proprietor of Pagan Love Songs with his brother Thomas, gets on the decks and keeps the dance floor moving with a very fine stack of schwarze szene tunes, taking in sussed selections from the past and the coolest of the new. It's obvious, as I sit in a corner near the dance floor, listening to the sound punch out of the PA and watching the dancers make shapes in the lights, that here's a DJ who is genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the music he's playing. That's more of a rare thing than it should be these days, and it's easy to see why Pagan Love Songs has established a name for itself that's known worldwide. The crowd that opted to watch those big name bands on the festival stage earlier today might have had a good time, but this club, tucked away in an obscure Bochum street, is where the real cutting edge is kept sharp.

see all the photos from this concert here


Swann Danger:

Pagan Love Songs:

Zwishenfall, the venue which hosts Pagan Love Songs:

The Bochum Total festival: