When Aphex Twin announced his first German show since 2009, Berlin’s often apathetic concert-going crowd went briefly rabid. Fans and scalpers alike snapped up thousands of tickets in 24 hours. Some joked that second-hand tickets had become Berlin’s new cryptocurrency. An international contingent of AFX acolytes canceled their plans to accommodate this one-off performance. After the announcement in May, the pandemonium cooled to a simmer, until a few weeks before the show when Funkhaus, the controversial former GDR broadcasting center, released a wave of poorly-received announcements regarding the show’s logistics. At the core of this article is the ongoing dispute over Funkhaus’ role in the Berlin music scene. Some view it as a swollen capitalist dirigible, begging for a pop. Others champion the venue for its unorthodox ethos and consistent concert calendar. There seems to be little consensus among Berliners, thus I aim to provide the interested reader with fodder for both arguments.
As Aphex Twin is the vehicle for this inquiry, let’s delve further into the specifics of the show. After a 13 year hiatus from the Aphex Twin project, James returned in 2014 with the universally acclaimed album Syro. Since then he’s been on the offensive, releasing music with greater frequency and dipping his toes back in the live music circuit.
The vast majority of Aphex Twin’s performances in the last two decades have been at large, relatively impersonal festivals. He’s played Germany thrice since the millennium: twice at Melt Festival (2006 and 2009), which regularly hosts 20,000 guests. And once in 2003 at the iconic Volksbühne in Mitte. Needless to say, securing Aphex Twin for a one-off venue show was significant in itself. As a music fan in my mid-20’s, seeing Aphex Twin in my lifetime was anything but guaranteed. I, for one, was excited.
But of course, this sentiment was not universal. Public contention began with the relatively exorbitant 70 € price tag. Fans grumbled, but routinely paid 100-200 € on the second-hand market. Then, a seemingly sourceless rumor spread across the internet like a daisy chain. Fans were horrified at the proposition that James would be playing a “DJ set” rather than a live show. Given that DJing is one of the most nebulous terms in music, the claim confounded most fans and prompted a huge ticket sell-off. The show was, in fact, some sort of live/DJ composite. James played off a set tracklist while warping sounds through a maze of modular synths and filters. This has been his set up for a few years now.
So the claim was essentially baseless, but it wasn’t long before fans fixated on a new worry: Funkhaus’ cashless payment system. As with the first false-alarm, this issue struck me as fairly straight forward if you took the time to read Funkhaus’ statement. At the risk of boring you with fine-print tedium, I will delve briefly into the specifics of the payment system.
Essentially, if you linked a credit card to your ticket, Funkhaus would preload 50 € onto
Regrettably, this is a classic example of Funkhaus making an earnest attempt to be progressive, only to face widespread discontent. At the equally divisive People Festival in August, concert-goers were asked to see artists at random, without the benefit of a lineup. While some were satisfied (myself included) many were outraged to miss their favorite artists in exchange for more forgettable bands. At recent Funkhaus performances docents loudly reprimanded me for taking notes on my phone. They claimed that phones would disrupt the concert experience. I would posit that their confrontation was more disruptive than a music journalist taking notes. Anecdotally, my friends described a New Years Eve club experience where patrons were refused water. Among musicians, Funkhaus is gaining a reputation as the most enterprising venue in Berlin. Among fans, there’s much less consensus.
As one Facebook user posted:
This alludes to several of the issues endemic to the Aphex Twin performance. The bar was swamped, the show felt oversold, and bathroom lines were consistently 40 minutes long, leading to mass urination around the entire complex. I should also mention that the show was held in the “Shedhalle”. Unlike every other space in the former broadcasting studio, this area was not built for optimal acoustics. Rather, it’s an old loading bay for oversized trucks. Though the sound was clear from where I stood, many criticized the aural features of the venue.
But let’s concentrate for a moment on the music itself. With a show predicated on hype and conflicting information, it’s easy to neglect the centerpiece. Aphex Twin was preceded by Paradox, a pioneering 90’s drum n’ bass artist who seems chummy with James. For 90 minutes the shedhalle flew back in time. Breakbeats came fast and furious and I felt for a moment that I was listening to the Matrix soundtrack. Much as it was interesting to hear one of Richard’s contemporaries plugging away on a drum machine, the set felt a little obsolete and grew stale after 30 minutes of uninterrupted DnB.
Paradox left the stage and agitation pulsed through the audience. People pushed forward, filling every solitary gap in the crowd as 11 massive LED monitors came to life on stage. Dudes with ponytails rushed around, toting cables by the armful and tinkering over a pile of electronics. Snippets from old 50’s movies panned over the speakers, describing everything from the cosmos to LSD. Eventually, Richard D. James joined his pony-tailed minions to arrange the mountain of circuitry, sending waves through the crowd.
By the time the Aphex Twin logo flickered across the massive screens, critics were silenced and the crowd held its breath. Around me fans alternately gyrated or nodded off, pupils like manholes, the MDMA screaming out of their pores. People were not taking any chances tonight. Many had taken out neural insurance to guarantee the show would live up to the hype. When James finally played the opening strains of Current Value’s “Dead Communication”, the audience sighed in communal relief. From here AFX launched into a 2-hour, take-no-prisoners set that shuffled through big room, jungle, and ambient textures. Highlights included a rework of Bicep’s “Orca” and AFX’s own “Vordhosbn” played at 75% speed.
The final hour of the performance vies for the most manic sensory experience of my life. A thundering 32-on-the-floor beat erupted from gossamer synths and razor sharp leads. All the while, a veritable armada of lasers passed over the crowd, nearly obscuring the massive screens which distorted fan’s faces in real-time. The logistical inconveniences were a distant memory. As he left the stage, Richard D. James triggered a sonic onslaught of oscillating bass. For fifteen minutes, the audience resigned themselves to tinnitus and strobe lights peeled back eyelids in a rush of severity. The drug-addled patrons around me mimed submachine guns and bazookas and the comparisons were warranted.
When the dust settled, people laughed and hugged and held hands as they made for the doors. As far as I was concerned, the show had entirely negated whatever snafus may have occurred earlier. And yet, the torrent of vitriol aimed at Funkhaus had just begun.
One user wrote on the Facebook page:
“I pity everyone who thinks s/he had a great show and this sendesaal-concert-turned-into-a-warehouse-rave was worth the money. I’m afraid you never had the chance to be at an actual great show. the sound was a mess and the rest: well…”
This more or less summarized sentiment on social media after the show. I was shocked to see so many people tearing the concert to shreds. In an effort to better understand the situation, I reached out to one of Funkhaus’ managers. He spoke with the condition of anonymity.
Regarding the cashless system he said:
Fair enough. People in Berlin use bathrooms for drugs. However, I’ve never been a venue in Berlin where the bathroom shortage was so severe. Unless Berlin goes sober sometime soon, it’s probably best for Funkhaus to plan their events accordingly. Hopefully, this isn’t the last word on this issue.
And then the matter of overcrowding. Estimates online quickly skewed towards the absurd. One user posted, “Officials say it has been 122.000 People”. But according to the manager, the area is zoned for 9,800 people and after guestlist, there were 8,600 present for Aphex Twin. He blamed the lack of space on the stage, which he claims was 3 times larger than it was supposed to be.
Finally he addressed the fact that Aphex Twin appeared on the bill with five other artists, which some accused of diluting his performance into a rave:
Possibly I’m a pushover when it comes to investigative journalism, but I was more or less satisfied. The manager confirmed that this was only the fifth event in the shedhalle and the first of this stature. This is a venue in a new incarnation, feeling out its role in the music scene and making ambitious strides both musically and technologically, even if the results happen to be mixed.
Perhaps it’s because I hail from a relatively provincial mid-sized city in the U.S. (sorry Denver), but Funkhaus’ concert calendar has consistently impressed me. I went to my first event in November, 2017 and since then I have seen no fewer than 14 shows at the former broadcasting centre. Sometimes I’ve wondered if their booker has a direct link to my Apple Music account. The artists they announce are eerily similar to those on my “most played” playlist. From Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith to The Necks and Venetian Snares, musicians whom I never dreamed of seeing are piling into Funkhaus with celerity. At the end of the day, Berliners love to complain. I’m not negating the fact that Funkhaus is experiencing some serious growing pains but if they take audience feedback seriously, I’m confident that it can become the superlative venue it strives so hard to be.