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Berlin Festival 2013: Bloody hell

The Unsound Festival may be in Poland. But the Pitchfork Stage at Berlin Fest allowed a more literal take on the idea.

Image for Berlin Festival 2013: Bloody hell
Photo by Used UniverseA Bloody Valentine for a Savage World.

Strauss, your cruel, cockeyed captain, here. I’m typing this missive with the lugubrious tones of Björk in the background, adding some much-needed glamour to Berlin Fest (after all, Damon Albarn likes to come across as a regular bloke in denim with an acoustic guitar. And a horn section. And a gospel choir. And a lot of mid-tempo tunes. No wonder that, according to an unreliable bartender, he popped into 8mm Bar post-performance last night). A quick peek showed her to have found a better anti-aging formula than the monkey hormones Albarn injects directly into his cheeks: a big metal globe covering her head. Like Albarn, she’s also reifying the suffering that pop music pretends toward by dragging a choir with her, but I’ll let Deputy Editor Rachel deal with the the socio-economic paradoxes inherent in the circus that is post-Capitalist entertainment in the next blog post. And if she doesn’t, she’s fired. And there better be jokes. In the meantime, let me go through this bag that was handed to me and dozens of teenagers on my way into Tempelhof: Condom. Check. Chocolate-flavored cigarettes. Check. Axe Body Spray. Check. Energy drink sporting a logo resembling a Cholo tattoo. Check. Baggy of Clearasil. Check. Invitation to the end of the world. Pending.

Or to put it another way, “What?” You’re going to have to read a little louder, as My Bloody Valentine aged my ears to the act’s collective years. Yes, they’re geezers now, and leader Kevin Shields is no less persnickety, stopping no less than three songs to fiddle with this or that. For some reason, he didn’t follow the natural course by grabbing the soundman for the Pitchfork stage and repeatedly grinding his face into one of Shields’ artisan effects pedals. Since mid-day yesterday, I had been hearing concerned grumblings that the sonic black hole that is the Pitchfork stage would render MBV limper than Eno when he was conceiving ambient music, and a couple of folks have told me they even begged off buying second-day tickets for that very reason. I had tested the waters earlier with Savages, probably the hippest act at the Festival and the results, as with their music, was mixed. Although considered a post-Horrors’ proxy for producer Geoff Barrow, the band is tight, super-London and really quite pro, with shaky-handed singer Jehnny Beth giving off the sort of speedy, kohl-eyed narcissism that was created to propel rock ‘n’ roll though, as with White Lies — who performed earlier on the main stage — there can be a preciousness to her lyrics of self-immolation that strikes of the student (White Lies’ Harry McVeigh offers “In My Dream/I’m Dead” while a Jenny monologue shyly declared “I’m gonna look around and make sure I’m not surrounded by cunts”). Also, both bands should just hold their heads up and admit that they love U2’s War, particularly prominent in White Lies’ martial drummer Jack Brown and Savages’ angular guitarist Gemma Thompson, though she seems to have come close to the Edge through P.I.L.’s Keith Levene.

Savages went hot and cold, often within a single song, but the shrill, unpredictable tenor of the Pitchfork stage, emphasizing the rhythm section which included EXBERLINER interview subject, bassist Ayse Hassan, suited them more often than not and I preferred the performance to their debut album. Steeling myself for MBV, I consumed some vegetarian food sold by a religious cult and approached the performance area as their first song grew louder in my ears, the wafting of youthful memories. Of course, as with youth, the closer you get to those memories, the crappier they appear.

MBV was not crappy, far from it. But the sound in the hangar made me appreciate why it took Shields two decades to mix their new album. After awhile, one had to accept that there wasn’t going to be any tonal tidal wave and, instead one concentrated on the shape of the descending song structures and the continual Vegas fills of Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drums. This didn’t stop the middle-aged ad agency types in front of me from tripping balls and petting one another, making the sporadic lunge for my graying chest hair. Occasionally, those harmonics would come through, as on the much-anticipated, paradigm-changing “Soon,” where Shields and singer Bilinda Butcher’s guitars merged like the Everly Brothers. Of course, those guys don’t get along either.

But it wasn’t only MBV that brought the heavy metal. Even Ellie Goulding ended her set with some shredding guitar that became something of a political litmus test. If you thought it was on tape, you were obviously a sexist. If you believed it was her very own flying fingers, then a Feminist. Turned out it was the work of her lead guitarist, while Goulding played rhythm alongside, sharing the credit. Rather apt for Berlin Festival.