25th February | Colston Hall
Photos: Hannah Rooke
Everyone should go to a Nils Frahm gig at least once in their lives. Whatever the opposite of easy listening is (and it’s definitely not uneasy listening), that’s what Frahm delivers, through his ambient techno-classical compositions.
Humans are made to be challenged. If we do not respond to challenge, then we are static, possibly even regressive. At two hours straight through, a Frahm show is a test of bladder (which many people failed). It’s a pleasant test of whether a modern audience can just shut up and listen (I think we passed). The hypnotic and mesmeric tunes are a test of concentration. They can be simultaneously wondrous and gripping, yet also trance-like, leading to potential House of Lords-style micronaps (it wasn’t just me – I spotted other culprits).
Another curious spectacle is just one man operating so much kit. There are nine or ten keyboards of different ilks, from the standard Roland synth to the customised Steinway grand, arranged in two U-shaped pods. It’s potential prog overload. Frahm has the tools to go ‘full Wakeman’, but mercifully refrains.
Whereas a standard classical pianist will be side on and seated, there are times when he plays with his back turned, which is an uncommon gig experience. Side on, he is often standing, and gyrating to the beat he has created. His hands are occupied and his feet are firmly planted; this does mean that his gyrations are pelvic, giving us the unexpected phenomenon of a man in his mid-thirties humping some keyboards. There’s an organ joke somewhere in that set of images.
At many a standard gig, you have the band quite close by, staring out at you, like they’re part of the room you’re in. Watching Frahm, you’re very much aware of the fourth wall, as if you’re looking into his world rather than being in his world, quite like watching Sam Rockwell in Moon. As he builds his layers of Michael-Nyman-meets-Orbital, it’s apt that he’s at The Piano and located within The Box.
It’s a box from which he emerges between songs, when he gives the audience the polar opposite of the intensity of the music. He’s light-hearted, ironic and self-deprecating, mocking his own composition (“basically C Minor on repeat for six minutes”), alluding to Spinal Tap before one song (“just checking that the volume is set to eleven”) and telling us “this is my last song, which means it’s not my last song: it’s the song before the encore. I will go behind the curtain over there for a few seconds and then come back to play another one.” Calling his album All Melody shows a sense of dry self-reference in itself.
His richly-textured compositions can lure you into a sense of pleasant immersion, before hauling you out of the recesses of your consciousness with some rapid-fire keyboard battering, as on ‘Hammers’, the best-received tune of the night. Early track from All Melody, ‘Sunson’ made a strong case for listeners to queue at the end to buy his 2018 release and get him to sign it, which they did. ‘Toilet Brushes’, which involves a bristly bog-brush battering of the strings of an expensive piano, was Frahm encapsulated in one song. It was playful, thoughtful and experimental. You could try it at home, but remember to ask the piano owner’s permission first and maybe consider wielding a brand-new brush.
Maybe the opposite of easy listening is complex listening. Maybe there’s such a thing as ornate listening. Whatever it is, the upstanding and raucous applause for Nils Frahm from the Colston Hall faithful at the end of his set suggests that there’s a hugely appreciative market for it.