I may have missed it, but perhaps there was some backlash to Berlin instrumental heavy proggers Rotor after their last album – some kind of, “Yeah, but there’s no way you can do that live,” that caused them to issue Festsaal Kreuzberg (Elektrohasch) in response. Okay, probably not, but either way, if there was any doubt to the natural feel of Rotor’s latter day studio output – thinking particularly of 2007’s 3 and last year’s ultra-progressive 4 – the live album certainly puts it to rest. A solid 45-minute set recorded in their hometown at the venue for which the album is named on Nov. 14, 2009, Festsaal Kreuzberg affirms the chemistry that has developed over the last decade-plus between the three members of Rotor. The nine tracks draw exclusively from 3 and 4 and sound crisp and clear but still definitively live, and the whole of Festsaal Kreuzberg has an organic flow that matches well the band’s balance between progressive structuring and riff-based heaviness. Fans and followers of Rotor who’ve never had the chance to see them live probably won’t find the whole of the experience replicated here – never having seen them (yet), I can’t say for sure either way – but for an instrumental band who has always shown it’s the music that matters, the music continues to be what matters on Festsaal Kreuzberg.
Although 4 was still months away from being released at the time this show was recorded, more than half the material comes from it in a five/four split with songs from 3. They open with “Drehmoment” from 4, the chugging riff of which builds and crashes with stylistic nuance, opening finally into a groove that’s a fitting launch point for Rotor’s set. One of 4’s overall strengths was its sense of atmosphere that came through even its heaviest moments, and Festsaal Kreuzberg loses some of that sensibility – being comprised of different material presented in a different order, it would have to – but the live energy is a more than fair replacement, and the audience rightly cheers as Rotor dives headfirst into the winding groove of “Hart am Wind,” from 3, which also precedes the title-track from that album. “Hart am Wind” breaks momentarily into a cleverly positioned quiet moment, seeming to come to an almost complete rest – though the bass and guitar are miraculously congruous – before picking back up with its heaviness. The momentum built carries through “3,” which was untitled on the album itself but appeared third on the track listing as it does here, and if there’s one frustrating aspect to Festsaal Kreuzberg, it’s that Rotor affect such a heady vibe that one really has to work to not be completely hypnotized by it. The fuzz bass and drum interplay beneath the guitar solo at the end of “3” is jazzed out in its intricacy, but the overarching groove remains paramount. Easy to miss, in other words, but worth not missing.
“Karacho/Heizer” from 4 is somewhat more unassuming, but features some nice bell work on the drums anyway and a loose feel to its ups and downs, and “An3R4” makes for an interesting inclusion since it was one of two songs on 4 to feature guest vocals (the other was an Obsessed cover of “Neatz Brigade”). In its instrumental form, the near-rockabilly propulsion comes forward, and each snare hit seems to be punctuating the movement of the guitar and bass. Rotor, at the center of their set, are more than warmed up by this time, and remarkably tight in their execution, which, really is something that could just as easily have been said about the beginning of Festsaal Kreuzberg as about the funky “Transporter,” which builds bass on top of its drum intro and finally includes psychedelic guitar lead work before shifting into Rotor’s deceptively complex instrumental play. “Transporter” provides one of Festsaal Kreuzberg’s most satisfying payoffs, and the well-positioned, shorter “Klar Schiff” (the shortest song at 2:19), speeds the show into what will be its final phase, with “Derwisch” and “Die Weisse Angst” closing out with some of Rotor’s most potent constructions to date.
The cymbal work is a huge part of what makes the difference in “Derwisch,” providing extra adrenaline in the song’s first-half apex, which it repeats later toward the end. “Die Weisse Angst,” which caps Festsaal Kreuzberg as it also capped 4, is more atmospheric and darker, but no less effective. It’s Rotor’s most ambient moment here, and the contemplative beginning ranges so far from some of the band’s other excursions as to be comparable to a more heavily rhythmic Earth, but the direction proves more of a linear build, making Rotor’s final statement among their most engaging. For a song that, at the time of this show, wasn’t even released, “Die Weisse Angst” is met with marked approval from the Berlin crowd, and it’s more than a minute of slowly-faded audience noise that ultimately brings Festsaal Kreuzberg to its finish. Any live album is a potentially tricky proposition, and an instrumental one all the more, but what Rotor show on these tracks is that as nuanced as their albums have been, it’s the level of execution in the live arena as well that’s led to their name so often being included on the list of European heavy rock forerunners. Again, I can’t say how Festsaal Kreuzberg compares to seeing Rotor live, but if the album does anything at all, it makes me that much more excited to find out.
Tags: Berlin, Elektrohasch, Germany, Rotor