Afterthoughts: Nils Frahm live at the Barbican

Nils Frahm’s music is not known for its good humour. Moving from delicate, softly intoned piano studies to sweepingly ambient synth work, his sound is characterized by a kind of wistful beauty that at best, is moving and highly emotive, but at worst, can be dimly sentimental and monotone. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that his stage presence is not a serious one. Hovering around his impressive, keyboard-heavy set-up on stage at the Barbican last Friday, he cheerfully engaged with the audience, cutting a sprightly figure in his green beret, smiling gleefully and cracking wise about the tendency of musicians to make the audience wait for an encore (Frahm instead chooses to spend not more than a minute by the side of the stage, quick to return) and the questionable timbre of his pipe organ.

Nils’ performance was unsurprisingly dominated by his recent album, All Melody. If you’re aware of the story behind the new record, you’ll know it was inspired by and conceived in a purpose-built studio constructed by the artist in Berlin’s historic Funkhaus complex. Judging from the stage set-up, it seems that Frahm’s brought half the studio on tour – two pianos, a harmonium, and an array of synthesizers, desks and effects boxes are bedecked in wood-panelling and arranged in a formation of two open squares, between which Frahm energetically alternates as his compositions unfold. As with the record itself, the live rendition of All Melody is inconsistent. Pieces like ‘Human Range’ and ‘All Melody’ drift past forgettably, punctuated by two regrettable additions to Frahm’s selection of sounds: sampled choral vocals, and a glitchy, MIDI-controlled pipe organ, both of which fail to blend into his usual sonic palette. Compositions like these feel cluttered and directionless, lacking both the warmth and presence that they exuded in recorded form, and the precision and immediacy of his earlier work. There are moments of inspiration in the newer songs, though. Opener ‘Sunson’ is Frahm’s first foray into properly rhythmic, dance music-territory, and makes use of Frahm’s analogue drum machine and delightfully distorted synthesizers, crafting a brilliant simple but remarkably effective exercise in tension and release that sounds immense in tandem with the Barbican Hall’s pristine acoustics.

Nils Frahm

There were enough expressive moments like these, in which Frahm’s clearly genuine excitement and passion shone through, to save the concert from being the two hours of meandering, agreeable prettiness that it could have been. As is to be expected, the solo piano pieces were a highlight – ‘Forever Changeless’, a delicately simple number from the new record, was peppered with enough minor improvisations to give it a new life on stage. “Familiar” and “Hammers” had the audience rapt, and were without doubt the most engaging moments of the night. It’s undeniably more entertaining to see Frahm lovingly coax emotion from his favoured instrument than to watch as he skips around the stage, pushing faders and buttons. Part of that is no doubt due to the venue – the more electronic tracks would have been received better in a club, or at least a standing venue, not seated comfortably in a concert hall. Despite the inconsistency, Frahm’s set truly came into it’s own during the encore, when he’d finished showcasing his restless electronic experimentations and settled down to what he does best. Pieces like “Ode”, “More” and the particularly stunning “Our Own Roof” served as reminders that though his musical ambitions may have broadened, his true skill still remains in his ability to conjure breathless beauty from the keys of his piano.

Words: Matt Mullen

Featured Images: Tom Howard

For more info and dates of Nils Frahm’s All Melody tour check here.

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