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Smiling towards ecstasy

img  Tobias Fischer
article image

I'm late and confined to the back of the room. From where I'm standing, I can't see the faces of the audience, but something tells me they're all smiling. Later, after I've managed to secure a better spot during the second set of the evening, I can actually confirm that suspicion, as I glance into row after row filled with excited looks, glowing cheeks and people banging their heads as though they're watching a death metal gig. Right now, however, my impression is foremost shaped by a palpable emotional charge flowing from the performers to the visitors and back again and a sense that the packed house would blindly follow the trio in front of them to whatever fascinatingly alien place they'd take them next - quite aptly, quite a few of the formation's track- and album-names delineate obscure places such as the galactic "saturn bar", mysterious "black hills" and the "big deep". And yet, as one is being swept along and away, these bizarre places suddenly seem perfectly natural and inviting, a result not just of the border-defying music, but the location it is being performed at as well: The Exploratorium, a cultural space in Kreuzberg dedicated to the study and practise of improvisation, doesn't have an elevated stage and places the band at the same level as the audience, creating an almost chambermusical feel and an even stronger sense of bonding.

As late as I may be, I'm instantly locked in. I could easily find myself a seat, but at the speed at which things are moving, I wouldn't want to miss a single second. For a band so deeply concerned with aural exploration, Konk Pack are an astonishingly visual spectacle and even the deaf could get a kick out of their performance: three bodies twitching and bouncing in sync as though an electric current were running through them. The breathless emotional intensity is as remarkable as it is bewildering: If Rock n Roll is a feeling rather than a genre, then this is as Rock n Roll as it gets; yet you won't hear a single distorted guitar chord. If improvisation is understood as a process of arriving at decisions in the moment, then Konk Pack are improvisation at its most archetypal; still, the music flows with a confidence and certainty that suggest premeditation and planning. Watching them play live submits you to a wealth of these paradoxes: There is a lot of tension and release, but there is just as much patience. Hands are flying over guitar strings and analog synthesizer knobs in wild movements, still there is always time for analysis and reflection. And it is right in the moments of passion – momentous outbursts of raw drum power, tempestuous electronics and gut-wrenching guitar manipulations – that the trio are possibly at their most organised and focused. It is through these paradoxes that the music attains its immediacy despite its experimental nature. It is through these paradoxes that it makes you want to stand up and dance.

Still, Konk Pack are capable of a lot more than just oscillating between the extremes of loudness and quietude. As Thomas Lehn tells me after a rapturously received encore, what everyone in the band appreciates isn't just how much their interaction with each other has evolved over fifteen years of playing together, but also how their interaction with their materials constitutes a direct reflection of the events that have taken place over this time span. Indeed, every single element of the show has a direct musical purpose. If Roger Turner is placing tiny cymbals on his drums or scraping a concave metal piece with a fork, then it's not to please the eye, but because he's realising a clearly defined sonic image in his mind. And if Lehn is brushing over the sideboards of his synth with his fingers, it's not to wilfully experiment, but to create deep, resonant bass vibrations perfectly in tune with the output of his combatants. There is a telling moment in the first instances of the second set, when Tim Hodgkinson is working with tiny pieces of metal carefully placed between the strings of his table top guitar. The pieces are giving off a heavenly shimmering sound, as he's plucking and rubbing the strings, infusing the music with an otherworldly beauty. After a mere two minutes, his motions get more violent, however, and they fall off again, never to be replaced – their magic having been savoured, their moment has passed.

Of course, to arrive at such a degree of freedom, there needs to be some form of coordination at least of an unspoken kind. Within the group, this role seems to be assigned to Turner, whose drumming works both as a pulse and a pillar around which Lehn and Hodgkinson weave their burning threads. His style is equally infused by a rejection of established forms, as by an apparent love of jazz and a cunning ability to not just add 'color' to the music, but to also constantly propel it forward and hold the different pieces of the narrative together. No one in the room seems to be enjoying this more than him - in the moments of highest intensity and concentration, he closes his eyes to completely immerse himself in the flow for a few bars and it's then that you realise: He, too, is smiling.

By Tobias Fischer

Photo Credit: Claudia Schmacke

All Konk Pack albums have been released by Cologne-based label Grob. An excellent, musically diverse start into their discography is their latest release, The Black Hills, containing recordings from a tour through the USA and Europe in 2007 and 2008.

Homepage: Exploratorium Berlin
Homepage: Konk Pack
Homepage: Thomas Lehn
Homepage: Roger Turner
Homepage: Tim Hodgkinson
Homepage: Grob Records