bowie_blackstar-H151026152736All of music has lost some of its luster today. David Bowie died at the age of 69. Suddenly, the album he released, just a few days earlier, on his birthday no less, makes a little more sense.

“★” (pronounced “Blackstar”). It’s tempting to listen to “‘Heroes'” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” now, but play that album in his memory instead. It was a brilliant example of his continued vitality in music. Today it just got more vital with this new layer of resonance. It’s a twist of fate that Bowie must have foreseen considering it turned out he was battling cancer for the past 18 months. Only Bowie could have pulled this off, so kudos to him on his way out of this mortal realm. His last great trick in rock ‘n’ roll.

To repeat his achievements would be redundant, so let’s leave that to the other obit writers. Just jump through our David Bowie tag to understand how important he was to this blog (as soon as I get the vinyl, expect a review for “★” with what is now a clearer perspective than most reviews out there).

No, today this writer will share something more personal. How and why I credit my love of David Bowie’s music for kicking off my writing career.

It began in ninth grade, at a school in the Kendall suburb of Miami called Arvida Middle School. It was 1987. My English teacher, Ms. Stinson, was a wide, round-faced black woman, who was the most intimidating instructor I had in that grade. I remember that classroom being very quiet, and if there were any bullies and smart alecks in that class, they must have stayed quiet too.

One day, we were assigned books to read and then present to the class. Ms. Stinson had a list of famous names on a sheet of paper she passed out to the class, and we were to pick from the list who we wanted our presentation to be about. I sat toward the back of the final row in class, having to pick from the leftovers. I got Janusz Korczak’s book Ghetto Diary. I never heard Korczak’s name until this assignment. Needless to say, I did not feel invested in this topic. I remember struggling to get into the book, which we had to check out from our school’s library. I don’t think I ever read the entire book, just skimmed through it looking for some distinctive bits to regurgitate in class.

Some days later, when it came time to head to the front of the class to stand by Ms. Stinson’s desk, I was rattled with nerves. I had barely a notion how to pronounce my subject’s name, much less any recollection of anything I gleaned in his book. It’s a closed off memory as to what exactly happened. Maybe students laughed at my stuttered, unsure pronunciation of Janusz Korczak, maybe all I could recall from the book was when Korczak spoke with God, as he headed off to a death camp. I might have failed to answer any questions that my teacher asked after that “presentation.” It was a haze and remains so to this day. I just remember how scary Ms. Stinson seemed.

Well, she frightened up until the end of class. Sometime soon after the botched presentation, she pulled me and a few other students aside who didn’t do too well on our presentations to offer us a do-over. This time we could pick the topic. She said to bring a book into the next class featuring a person we wanted to discuss. I had been reading Nicholas Shaffner’s The British Invasion: From the First Wave to the New Wave. I still own that book:

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I brought it to class the next day and showed her the section on David Bowie. “You want to do David Boowie?” she said, mispronouncing his name but with a smile. I didn’t correct her. She suggested I play some of his music to the class during my presentation. The ease I felt after playing the opening part of my cassette of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture dissolved any stage fright. My curiosity of what Bowie did during that fateful 1973 concert where he appeared as an alter ego in bright orange hair, the brashness of his backing band, The Spiders From Mars, flowed out as I schooled my classmates on Bowie.

At that age I had a pretty clear grasp of who Bowie was and what he meant in rock ‘n’ roll history. I hardly had to cite my source. At about 15 years old, I learned I could be an authority on David Bowie, and I would later go on to review several of his releases for local music publications. Because Bowie’s music over the years was so diverse, featuring influences from Little Richard to Neu!, he opened my musical interests wide, as well.

Bowie’s image, especially in the early ‘70s, played a great part in converting fans. Many speak of seeing him on the BBC show Top of the Pops doing “Starman” in a jumpsuit with that orange mullet and cozying up to his guitarist Mick Ronson. But I got into Bowie via his clean-cut Let’s Dance era via MTV, around 1984. As a young teen, I had Space Oddityonly cassettes and no large-form, gatefold albums to be overwhelmed by the images of him as Ziggy, which was then also used to sell earlier albums like Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. His image, which was so important to his career then, was reduced to surreal, small, square portraits on cassette covers, which had no inner art.

It was a strange way to get into Bowie: almost purely through his music and only his enigmatic cassette covers to guide the way (there was no YouTube back then, and I went to the library to look at music history books to find pictures of early Bowie). As I traced Bowie back through his back catalog via tapes bought at a local record shop with allowance money, I mostly latched on to the small, weird musical bits like the whooshing, oscillating intro of “Station To Station,” the strange little organ fills that gave “After All” a weird bounce, the muffled, layered, chugging guitar that hardly relented below “Joe the Lion.” I would have never sought out the music of Brian Eno, King Crimson or Faust were it not for David Bowie. I could have never appreciated the music of BauhausSwans or Deerhunter without having taken apart the music of Bowie all those years earlier. He did his duty, and I will miss him till the day I die, too.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

KRAFTWERK 3D Der Katalog 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Kunstsammlung NRW Düsseldorf 2013

There is no room for cynicism at a Kraftwerk performance. The quartet from Düsseldorf may not play “live,” but they sure put on a hell of a show. The other night they played back-to-back shows featuring a comprehensive set list of their hits at the Gusman Center’s Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. What’s made this tour like no other in Kraftwerk’s history is that the images projected on the screen behind them are in 3D.

It may have been the trick necessary to finally put the audience’s focus on the music. The shadow of music history sometimes clouds how purely interesting the music of Kraftwerk is. A lot has been made of their contribution to electronic dance music, sampled by everyone from New Order to modern hip-hop artists. But why Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, the art school duo who started Kraftwerk, became so influential is hardly ever really picked apart by the mainstream media (see something like this for that). To be reductive:  It’s in the incessant minimalism that much of their early improvisation veered off into that made their music interesting. It later became a formula for them to perfect, dropping such practical instruments like flute and electric guitars for homemade drum machines.

When the group kicked off the night with “Numbers,” two dudes tried to stay up after the standing ovation in the center part of the orchestra seating. People yelled at them to sit down. “We’re gonna dance, man!” The cold, spare, slowed down take on the Computer Love (1981) track defied such a silly idea, and before the cut took off, the two guys had given up. This was a sit down show where the 3D visuals demanded being soaked in. Everyone wanted a clear view of the visuals, and Kraftwerk immediately delivered. Behind the four gentleman in their signature black grid onesies and their nondescript keyboard/synth/computer podiums, a wall of green undulating numbers waved like a techno sail powering a musical journey that would be like no other.

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tate Modern

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tate Modern

When representing objects, the digital graphics often looked like something composed on a Comodore 64, an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s, and early on, the images maybe too often focused on literal transcription of the minimalist lyrics sung by Hütter, the only original member of the group that was on stage that night. But that’s also part of Kraftwerk’s shtick: they compose music that also reveals the rough edges of technology. The more primordial, the more revealing. At the same time, it highlights the humanity of their music, from dreams of outer space (“Spacelab”) to the joys of driving toward the horizon (“Autobahn”) to the desire of a simplified human connection (“Computer Love”).

To Hütter’s left was Fritz Hilpert then Henning Schmitz and finally Falk Grieffenhagen, who is largely known as the one responsible for synching the 3D images with the music (see this article). You didn’t really think all four are playing keyboards? (take a look at their setup for a peek behind the curtain). Enough cannot be said about Grieffenhagen’s musical contribution, his shifting of images to the music often garnered the loudest, most ecstatic cheers from the audience. What he does is musical. This is a production, a light show with music digitized from the analog tapes that are manipulated on stage with Hütter, who co-wrote most of these songs, doing most of the musical lifting, playing melodies on a keyboard and often singing through the filter of a vocoder that makes his voice sound robotic to meld with the mechanical music. Kraftwerk have no pretense when it comes to what they do. Even the spaceship dashboard of “Spacelab” has a cheap graphic of a reel to reel. The analog is digital. That’s Kraftwerk.

KRAFTWERK Burgtheater Wien 2014 TEE

KRAFTWERK Burgtheater Wien 2014 TEE

Speaking of “Spacelab,” that was a genuine highlight of the show. On several occasions the spacelab came hurtling through the giant screen and many members of the audience could not help from reaching out to see if they could touch it. In a wry bit of pandering there was also a map on-screen during “Spacelab,” highlighting Miami with a marker, and another image closing the song showing the outside of the venue with a digital UFO touching down outside.

Kraftwerk indeed wanted to take the audience on a virtual journey, and the simple graphics and the cheap paper 3D glasses did the trick. During “Autobahn,” the quartet looked like a group of dashboard ornaments cruising the digitized version of the 1974 album art. They also did the complete 20-plus minute track, which prompted several moments of applause from members of the audience who thought the song had finished already. But it was never a dull track, even without Schneider’s original flute bits. There were cuts to an old time in-dash radio that emitted floating musical notes that got cheers, and the teases of the motorik rhythms that came and went were ebullient.

KW glasses and ticket

This was a show to get lost in the ethos of what is Kraftwerk. They don’t need new music (they haven’t released an album since 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks). They have perfected what they are, keeping a staid catalog alive with this reinvented vision (no wonder Hütter wants to see the group’s catalog reissued on blu-ray with 3D functionality). Even if they couldn’t dance, the audience released themselves to the vision of Kraftwerk, and it was even easy for this cynic who prefers the organic surprises of real instruments.

Hans Morgenstern

The tour continues thus:

October 2 Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA
October 3 Wang Theatre, Boston, MA
October 5 Masonic Temple Theatre, Detroit, MI
October 7 Northrop, Minneapolis, MN
October 9 Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, Kansas City, MO

Kraftwerk then head to Europe in November. To see all those dates, visit this link: You can also purchase tickets for the remaining U.S. dates and Europe via that same link.

The Goldenvoice invited Independent Ethos to the 8 p.m. concert for the purpose of this review. They also provided the images used to illustrate this post. All photos are copyright Peter Boettcher for Kraftwerk except the glasses and ticket; that’s the writer’s.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Inherent Vice posterIt sounded like staid material in 2009 for author Thomas Pynchon when he set a detective story called Inherent Vice in 1970, a time when Flower Power had faded, in Los Angeles, a city in the state that once defined the hippie movement. But Pynchon focuses on creating a marvelous morality tale with great humor and witty layers of experience, perfect for the author known for his postmodernist writing. The time period captures a mythic moment in American history. Ideas of utopia and slogans like “make love not war” that once defined a generation had been overshadowed by the hedonism of Woodstock, the horror of the Kent State shootings, the quagmire of Vietnam, not to mention the Manson murders, which are often referenced in the text. The post-war product of the baby boom were coming of age into an era of idealism and were then suddenly hit with disillusionment. Look up the definition of the phrase “inherent vice,” and it seems a perfect title for a book seeking to examine the transition between the ideal 1960s and the grim reality of the early 1970s.

Now director Paul Thomas Anderson has adapted Inherent Vice, becoming the first director to take on Pynchon, an author whose works have often been called “dense” or “complex.” Working for the first time from a novel instead of an original script, Anderson takes Pynchon’s story and enriches it. After his amazing 2013 movie The Master (The Master harnesses cinema’s power to maximal effect), the auteur once again takes on another mythic era of America to offer another superficial take on the cultural landscape that actually shrouds a compelling tribute to people looking for purpose in the face of nihilism.


Also for a second time in a row, Anderson is working with arguably the greatest American actor of the 21st century, Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective with a serious marijuana habit. Sporting momentous mutton chops to rival Hugh Jackman’s in the X-Men flicks, Phoenix gives Doc an endearing bumbling character that sometimes feels like a tribute to Jeff Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski. Tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to intervene in the looming kidnapping and institutionalization of her current lover, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), by his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), Doc finds himself soon over his head. The story twists and turns as more people enter the picture and Doc takes notes in his little pad with big letters like “paranoia alert” and “something Spanish.”

Throughout the film Doc suffers beatings and uncalled for detentions at the hands of his hippie-hating nemesis LAPD Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a marvelously intense Josh Brolin). As the film’s most dynamic character, Bigfoot is not just a straight-edge policeman with a disdain for hippies. He also fancies himself a renaissance man who moonlights as a bit actor on TV shows and even the real estate commercials for Wolfmann that slyly lampoon hippie speak while celebrating it. Wearing a bad Afro wig and sunglasses, he tells Doc, “INHERENT VICERight on” from a TV screen before — in a moment of magical realism referring to Doc’s high — his face fills the screen, and he says, “What’s up, Doc?” At every turn, Bigfoot tries to undermine Doc or even arrest him. However, he is also an ally, like a big brother beating on a younger sibling. Though married with children, in a sly, comic dramatic twist, the film later reveals Bigfoot hardly has any love at home, and he and Doc have a bond that eclipses their differences. It’s one of the greatest relationships you will see in the movies this year, and it gives this byzantine comedy its warm heart.

The film features voiceover narration by Sortilège, (a pleasantly benign Joanna Newsom), a friend of Doc’s who provides the first cue in how this film presents its themes through its characters. The film opens with a stationary shot down the nondescript alley to Doc’s beach shack he calls home. The title card reads, “Gordita Beach, California. 1970.” It appears to be sunrise and the only thing on the soundtrack is the sound of the surf. Then there’s a cutaway to a woman’s face backlit by brilliant sunlight. As if born of the California sun, a golden glow shrouding her blond head of hair,INHERENT VICE Sortilège sets up the film’s story. She says Shasta “came along the alley and up the back stairs the way she always used to.” It’s a surprise visit after over a year-long absence from his life. Though Shasta’s entrance harkens to the past, somewhere around 1968/69, this is not the same woman. She arrives a changed woman “all in flat land gear … looking just like she swore she would never look.” While Sortilège appears in a halo of light, Shasta sneaks in and emerges from the nocturnal shadows with a whisper.

Things do change in this world, as Sortilège notes after Doc and a friend join her to share some pizza and beer. She gets vibes that Doc’s mind is racing about the unexpected visit of Shasta, a former intimate who had transformed in a way he never anticipated, so she recommends he do a little change. “Change your hair, change your life.” When he asks her what he might do with his hear, she suggests, “follow your intuition.” Then there’s a smash cut to a close up of Doc’s face with his hair in twists to enhance the curls of his already curly hair.

Change and surface presentation are a big part of Inherent Vice. Everybody is someone else below the surface or in a state of flux — well, maybe everyone except our protagonist Doc. It’s a role that won’t stand out much for Phoenix, which is a shame because he is terrific as a man caught in stagnation yet hoping for some connection. Some will find the developments in Doc’s case confusing as characters enter and leave the narrative. Though other characters come in and out of the picture, there is always somethingINHERENT VICE unforgettable about them. Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife) plays Doc’s alert secretary, a very aware being never short observation. Owen Wilson plays a musician lost in his own myth, and there’s even Martin Short who plays a dentist with a coke habit, a taste for young, runaway girls and nefarious connections to a drug cartel called “The Golden Fang.” I’ve left out about seven to 10 other import recurring characters. But it doesn’t matter. As the film falls further down a rabbit hole of narrative that will confuse many hoping to keep the story straight, the viewer should keep in mind that this is a detective story with a pothead hippie as the protagonist.

Beyond dialogue and characterization, as ever with Anderson, he never misses a chance to define his characters visually. Though The Master had an intensely measured pace and a precise mise-en-scène, consistently shot with an exquisite and meticulous quality by Mihai Malaimare Jr., Anderson has called back Robert Elswit to photograph his vision, and the result is not only wonderfully INHERENT VICEevocative of ‘70s era TV and movies but also speaks to the film’s themes of the unknown change ahead. Much of the camera movement is handheld, and many scenes are shot against the light. On the other hand, there are scenes deeply saturated by shadow and darkness, especially as the film barrels through some more nerve-racking moments for Doc, as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble with more dangerous characters, from Aryan brotherhood bruisers to drug dealers connected with The Golden Fang.

As ever with Anderson, the music is brilliantly curated. The choice early in the film to not use some tired, overly familiar pop song from the era but an underground hit by the Krautrock band Can is inspired. I don’t say this because I’m a big Krautrock fan. The song, in this case “Vitamin C,” though not entirely accurate to the era (it was released in 1972) has deeper resonance because it represents a new form of music born of a need to revolt against the establishment, even if it came about in Germany. It also helps that it’s a good tune, abstract yet catchy, involving enough standard rock instruments and a chirpy organ to be cool but quirky.


Anderson has also once again hired Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to provide a score for the film. Greenwood provides a fantastic, sometimes romantic soundtrack that’s very aware of the era it’s representing, a sort of mix of Neu!, Soft Machine and Ennio Morricone. His music either features strings and oboe or quietly grooving rock instruments. It’s spacey sometimes, and other times it’s pastoral. As with the more subtle, earthy camera work of Inherent Vice, the music, from songs to score, is not as intrusive as it was in The Master. As great as the score for that film was, Inherent Vice is a movie concerned with a different tone, after all, something much lighter and less intense. Again, it all fits the theme of flux and an obscured core defying clear comprehension, reflective of the era and the people struggling in it.

Much as I love the deliberate, controlled artistry of The Master, even more so than this loose-limbed film, Anderson proves he is in terrific control of his approach, and it serves the story and it’s deeper concerns very well. Inherent Vice actually features some of the most hilarious moments in an Anderson film since 1997’s Boogie Nights, another film where Anderson explored the dark side of the 1970s. Both films tangle with humor, from slapstick to witty dialogue and an ironic sense of discontent not really apparent to the film’s characters. It’s ironic, but it all culminates with great affection for the film’s hero and even his nemesis, Bigfoot. They are this film’s terrific beating heart. Change is inevitable, just go with that flow and enjoy the ride… man.

Hans Morgenstern

Inherent Vice runs 148 minutes and is Rated R (expect drug use throughout, graphic sexuality, cursing and several violent encounters). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Jan. 9. Warner Bros. provided a DVD screener for awards consideration last year.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cover artSome of the best things that have come of this blog have been immaterial experiences. This is a labor of love and not-for-profit. Beyond the interviews, early film and album previews are the like-minded interactions with independent artists. Once in a while an incredible discovery arises. Thanks to interaction with members of the legendary Krautrock band Faust, their collaborators and fans, a couple of interesting albums I would have never otherwise have heard have appeared on my radar.

This morning it was a thing unabashedly called Kösmischen Hits! by a duo called Couvre-Feu from France. But the influence is undeniably German, as revealed by the title of the opening track: “Viva Düsseldorf!” It sounds like the best parts of early Kraftwerk and Neu! had been placed in a blender. A pulsing motorik beat is augmented by repetitive guitar lines, constantly shifting in sound by effects. It builds to a freak-out level as screeching electro solos and more repetitive melodies pile on. All the while the beat just goes steadily on.

The creativity and indulgence in all that’s Krautrock is shamelessly on display across the first half of Couvre-Feu’s instrumental album, created from improvisations. But it also has a freshness that will appeal to fans of Kraut-influenced artists like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. The second track, “Ammoniac,” brings to mind the duo’s collaboration on Evening Star.

The final track, “Part of a diagram for Alpha Centaury,” has a decidedly more experimental side and carries on for almost as long as the first four, more bouncy, tracks do altogether. It indulges in phases and noise, meandering through moments of drone but mostly deconstructing any craft to the strangest sounds to repeat and pile up and then veer away from in surprising left turns. There are enough shifts in tone that also make it the most dynamic track on the record, and quite possibly the most interesting.

You can stream the entire album for free just below, and visit the band’s bandcamp site for a free download and link to their blog (get to following them for upcoming information on a limited edition cassette release of Kösmischen Hits!).

Another decidedly more experimental release I heard about via the same source came out last year, but I have not forgotten it. I’ll add another post about something called “Normal Music,” a collaboration between a Brazilian experimental artist and an avant-garde Serbian musician, tomorrow.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A three-hour-plus sci-fi experience, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), seemed to have existed as mere legend in the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as it has rarely screened since its debut on German TV in 1973. The fact that it focused on virtual worlds within computers added to a brewing interest over the years, as it seemed to foretell the current age we live in. More prescient than ever, it is finally making the rounds at art house cinemas across the US.

However, as prophetic as this film seems to be, this ain’t no Matrix or Blade Runner, two films I have read it often compared to. Casual Fassbinder fans or world cinema fans and especially fans of the Matrix should be fairly warned: This is Fassbinder at his most sluggish.* World on a Wire’s pace may present nothing short of a challenge for those accustomed to the “bullet-time” shooting of today’s sci-fi. The long pauses the actors seem to take between sentences, as if everyone must ruminate before saying the next sentence, is a Fassbinder stylization that can certainly grow weary over a few hours.

First screened in two parts on German TV (Part One is 105 minutes while Part Two runs 107 minutes), the theatrical experience puts both together for a runtime of three hours and 32 minutes, and the action develops slow, as strange, incongruous mysteries continue to pile up in the narrative. A man vanishes from one moment to the next, practically in front of the eyes of our hero, setting him off on an odd wild goose chase to get to the bottom of the disappearance. By the same token, falling equipment can crush a woman as our hero speaks with her, but he can still carry on with his stroll with nary a change on his face. Throughout the movie people walk through scenes with mostly blank looks. Women especially act like vapid mannequins. It’s as if Fassbinder made the movie not just for another time but another dimension of humanity.

The protagonist is a buff computer engineer in his mid-thirties. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) comes to head the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor, Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) dies following what seems a nervous breakdown. The Simulacron, a giant computer (this was made in the seventies when data was stored on tape, after all), simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units.” These artificial people are given all the characteristics of humanity excepting the notion of the Simulacron, so the world “above” exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units “below.”

Corporations want in on the government project to simulate and therefore foretell future scenarios and bank on them. Stiller resists, however, showing concern for strange goings on like that sudden disappearance of his associate, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny). He soon begins to wonder, is he in control of a simulated world or part of one? At the core of this question, is whether reality, or existence for that matter, is re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on computers to make decisions. Are we in fact giving up free will by investing in a computer-centric world? It’s an appropriate question in this contemporary time.

The result is at times prophetic, though often meandering and a bit indulgent. This is indeed Fassbinder in his element, and those who miss him will celebrate the restoration of this film. Those unfamiliar his style should be prepared to know a little something about his unique filmic flourishes, and how this film might fit in with the renaissance of the science-fiction film genre, a genre otherwise unexplored by Fassbinder.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi movies had just become something more than cheap, escapist camp during this period of movie history. 2001, which followed a script written with sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, truly opened the genre to philosophical questions. In 1972, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky offered Solaris, adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, as his response to Kubrick’s movie. Though 2001 and Solaris are held up as some of the greatest works of serious science-fiction cinema, World on a Wire became forgotten. There are probably many reasons for this. Fassbinder was much more prolific than either Kubrick or Tarkovsky, which meant World on a Wire was sort of lost in the shuffle of his output. Fassbinder would also not become appreciated as a serious filmmaker until practically after his death.

It is a shame that World on a Wire, based in Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 American novel Simulacron-3, languished for as long as it did, as Fassbinder dives into the implications of alternate realities with aplomb. He certainly tries to raise the film to the higher level of sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, even if the results do come across as a bit uneven. One factor maybe that Löwitsch had been drunk throughout the filming. “[He was] never not drunk,” according to Ulli Lommel, who played both the journalist Rupp in the movie and worked on the film’s art direction while also taking the assignment as Löwitsch’s “chaperone” (ibid).

Knowing Fassbinder, his acceptance of such behavior from his lead, a regular of his films, should come as no surprise. If punk rock has an equivalent in cinema, it might have been Fassbinder. He embodies the spirit of the German New Wave of the sixties and seventies, which famously included Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, as he jumped into film making despite his rejection from the Berlin Film School. He seemed to make films as a primal desire he could not keep at bay. His movies were raw works driven by an unstoppable desire to create, hence resulting in such messy, passionate works such as World on a Wire, which can still show a very literate knowledge of mise-en-scène and cinematic technique. With World on a Wire, Fassbinder even seems to give a nod to Kubrick with the presence of classical music during some scenes and the sometimes indulgent use of a tracking camera.

As it was rarely screened until now, most Fassbinder fans will only know World on a Wire as a sort of lost gem from the prolific director who only stopped making movies after he died at the age of 36 mixing illicit drugs and sleeping pills. He still managed to direct more than 40 films over the course of 16 years of film directing, some with epic run times.

Despite an enfant terrible reputation, Fassbinder also had a highly attuned insight into humanity, particularly of his peers of post-war Germany. He was not afraid of criticizing his countrymen, and did it ever piss them off. However, as he is dealing with an alternate reality in World on a Wire, the people populating the film maintain an enigmatic quality. A true sense of humanity does not come until the movie’s very last scene. This is not the incite-worthy Berlin Alexanderplatz (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), released in early 1980. Germans protested in the streets during the broadcast of his famous 15-hour television series, which he adapted from Alfred Döblin’s German novel that captured Germany between two World Wars. A thoughtful tribute to the mini-series, which had a theatrical release in the US in 1983, by contemporary German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) can be found here. Tykwer notes the protests alleged a dissatisfaction in the quality of sound and images, but below it all was a painful exorcism of the dark German spirit.

In comparison, World on a Wire seems like a tamer work in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It offers some quirky, if uneven qualities. As already noted, the acting varies, and many characters, especially the women, seem to populate the film as if in a trance. There’s on off-putting inconsistent use of zoom outs and zoom ins. It features a strange soundtrack recalling 1956’s Forbidden Planet, of occasional and oddly timed electro/synth stings and noise, punctuating certain actions. At times, these cues appear at arbitrary moments, adding to the movie’s off-putting surreal quality. It’s as if this movie indeed came from not only another time and place but an alternate universe.

As opposed to Berlin Alexanderplatz, World on a Wire must have baffled viewers upon its first broadcast on West German television more than angered them, leading me again to think of another reason this movie sort of languished at the back of Fassbinder’s filmography. It was just too ahead of its time. But nowadays with virtual reality, the Internet and role-playing games like the Sims, World on a Wire could very well be easier to comprehend. A millennial view would probably take for granted some of the film’s then idiosyncratic notions. For instance, living a simulated life inside a computer. In fact, the incongruously dressed people at a party around an indoor pool, some just standing, most barely moving, could be seen as a field of Avatars awaiting commands from their users. Quirks like that give the film a special, almost surreal atmosphere coupled with a prophetic air. Though Fassbinder did not invent the Sims, he indeed seems fascinated about the multi-dimensional aspects of such a world. Users of the Simulacron can peer into it with black and white monitors set up around the computer, though to interface with it, they must don helmets, the design and idea of which seem to foretell the virtual reality trend of the nineties.At the start of the film, we are introduced to this alternate future during a meeting of officials with vested interests in the Simulacron. Vollmer soon confronts secretary of state Von Wielaub (Heinz Meier) with a handheld mirror and tells him: “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Von Wielaub huffs and puffs angrily at the seeming affront, but it is a truth not only functional in alternate reality but life in general, a testament to the philosophical aspects of this movie.

Throughout World on a Wire, mirrors and reflections on glass offer continual signposts for meditating on Vollmer’s revelation. But the truth of what is actually going on in the movie does not reveal itself to Stiller until the very end of the film’s first part, though, as already noted, Fassbinder drops incongruous little clues throughout that are sometimes unsettling and other times more subtle. I would rather not spoil what Stiller learns at the end of this first half of the film, as some might figure it out on their own, very early on, and if you can glean a guess from earlier scenes where this is going, the film might already begin to feel a bit tedious.

But something that does make the unfolding action more interesting throughout is realizing that the World on a Wire at stake is a fear of losing the self, an idea that certainly also looms large today in a different sense from what it meant in the cold-war era that produced this movie, just over the Berlin Wall. The central mystery at the film unfolds at the pool party just after Lause tells Stiller, “Do you know what fear is?” A glass falls, Stiller turns away, distracted. He then looks back to find Lause has vanished. Stiller then becomes obsessed with Lause’s sudden disappearance, and no one seems to know who Lause is, despite his seeming closeness to Simulacron from the outset. Could Stiller’s sense of reality be falling apart? Appropriately enough, the institute where he works, has a psychologist on hand to take care of any doubts in the minds of their people. Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck) tells Stiller he understands why his nerves might be frayed and reminds him of a key part of his job on the Simulacron project: “You can add or delete people at will. This leads to feelings of guilt, depression and fear.” This is testament to today’s world of alternate realities that people constantly participate in with such nonchalance. What are we doing to our sense of self on such interactive platforms such as Facebook? It is only after Stiller seems to make the ultimate sacrifice at the film’s very end that he makes the joyful, simple declaration: “I am. I am.”(Read about the poster artist’s process: here)

Janus Films has undertaken the film’s distribution, so expect a Criterion Collection release, according to a close source at the studio. As can be expected by such participants like Janus and Criterion, known for some of the best film and DVD restorations in the medium’s history, the picture quality of World on a Wire is amazing. The well-timed cinematic release has already played a handful of cities, and MBC will screen it in HD. Framed in 4:3 ratio for television and shot on 16mm reversal film, which does not exactly offer the finest grain image, New York’s Museum of Modern Art worked with Juliane Lorenz, the director of the RWF Foundation, and Michael Ballhaus, the movie’s cameraman, to produce a new 35mm print, which is also now making the rounds to a select few cinemas (three-and-half-hours of 35mm makes for a lot of 45-pound canisters). It had its debut more than a year ago at MoMA.

Where I live, World on a Wire will hit the big screen thanks to an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, from Friday to Tuesday, July 29 – Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. each night (the theater’s director, Dana Keith, assured me to expect an intermission between the film’s two parts, for those that might need a break). Other screening dates across the US, including some in 35mm can be found here, and do not be afraid to write the distributor a line to ask about a nearby screening in your town (see their email address at the bottom part of the film’s official homepage).

*Allow me one note on the title theme, the gorgeous, listless instrumental, “Albatross” by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, which makes a great musical accompaniment to this equally indulgent review:

Though the film is filled with an odd array of burbles, squawks, hums and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg as well as diagetic classical music, this choice of music for the title sequence, which does not appear until the end credits of Part 1 of World on a Wire reminds me of the music Neu! would make if they were more chill. With its softly strummed guitar and the whine of a slide guitar, the piece sounds like Krautrock on Hawaiian holiday.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I have seen many live shows in my years appreciating alternative music, including some loud ones. Ever since EMF left me in so much pain at the Cameo Theater in Miami Beach back in the early nineties that I had to leave the show before the first encore ended, leaving my ears ringing for a week, the ensuing years of damage to my ears has continued with barely noticeable side effects. In other words, more often the not, I leave live shows with little, if any, ear ringing, as all those little hairs inside the ear were mostly wiped out by a damn one-hit-wonder.

Friday night at Miami’s Vagabond, however, Crocodiles worked voodoo on my eardrums with their appropriately spooky, dense pop rock, leaving my ears ringing into the next morning. Not that it gives me something to celebrate, it just offers some insight into how loud this band was. Adding to the surreal quality of the music, the five piece of three dudes and two gals from San Diego, dressed in mostly black and made little effort to connect with the audience just a foot from the stage beyond offering a whoosh of music played at maximum volume. It was an assault on an audience that ate it up with abandon, particularly the gyrating young women who flanked either side of the stage decked out in their finest ironic hipster outfits, at times rubbing up on each other. Despite a fine sampling of what only Miami can offer in a female audience,  lead singer Brandon Welchez, hid behind classic Ray Bans and posed on stage with swaggering but distant cool. He said nothing to the crowd except “Apocalypse!” and “Doomsday!” ahead of the following day’s prediction by some Christian fundamentalist minister who has built a religious empire on the idea that May 21, 2011 would mark the arrival of the rapture.

On to the music and a little on how it translated live: The loudness was not all to the band’s benefit, as a lot of the band’s catchy quality disappeared in the white noise of the volume. However, it allowed for an aural hallucinatory experience as only the loudest music can, and I can appreciate that. However, the price you pay for droning noise is a loss in dynamics that chased more than one audience to the patio to listen to Alex Caso spin the “weird stuff.”

The experience of Crocodiles live is quite different from listening to their newest album Sleep Forever (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on The opening track, which you can hear in the video uplaoded to YouTube below, translated particularly nice live.

Whereas “Mirrors” opens the album with a looping almost Krautrock-like drone with a drum machine and quietly swelling feedback, as keyboards noodle out an entrancing melody, live it becomes a whole other beast. Alianna Kalaba beats the skins in an entranced state doing a decent Klaus Dinger (of Neu!), while keyboardist Robin Eisenberg breaks out a droning high-speed organ melody. The mouth-open expression of guitarist Charles Rowell as he choked his instrument for the decorative feedback and the closed-eyed stillness of bassist Marco Gonzalez, showed they were into the din, too. Welchez added to the bombast by picking up a guitar for the song. It was a nice five-minute exploration of entrancing rhythm and noise, but for the band to truly live up to Spacemen 3 comparisons would have demanded a little more self-indulgence.

It was moments like that which best suited the loudness of the show, and it was best experienced with full attention, hence my lack of usual videos that accompany my live reviews. Though I never made a video of “Mirrors” that night, there is a great full live show by the Crocodiles at a music festival in Germany here. “Mirrors” starts 15 minutes in, so you can have an idea of its live translation.

I also might fault the sound to the venue. The opening act, West Palm Beach’s the Band in Heaven voiced their concerns, as they struggled with the sound throughout their set. On stage, the lead singer protested about an hour’s worth of sound-checking for a shoddy end result (not his words verbatim), and he also assured the audience the trio sounded better on CD, offering audience members a free CD for the taking.

Despite the sound issues, I stand by my personal experience of enjoying the short set of psychedelic-influenced dream pop produced by Crocodiles during a set that ended way too soon. I was able to video one song, one of their poppier moments called “Hearts of Love,” thanks to my friend Kristen who leant me her camera and uploaded the video on YouTube (it actually sounds better on YouTube than it did live, as the camera must have one heck of a smart microphone). Watch it here:

Crocodiles’ only up-coming live date is in their home state of California, according to their blog page:

June 5, Oceanside, CA @ 94.9 Independence Jam

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Casiokids, a group of independent musicians from Norway, have been taking the persistent road to gaining recognition outside of their native country. As covered in the first part of this interview with singer and founding member Ketil Kinden Endresen, the band spent 2010 in 18 different countries, performing over a hundred shows.

Last week, leaning against the bar at the BackBooth, an Orlando Club hosting the band’s debut performance in the city, Endresen spoke about his band’s influences and plans to release an album before year’s end. Casiokids were there as a support act to Portland-based Starfucker, their US labelmates on Polyvinyl Records.

Endresen noted this marked Casiokids’ first visit to the southern states of the US, out of eight times his band had toured in the US. The two bands would later head off to Jacksonville and then to sold out shows in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Philadelphia. Their combined powers also sold out their final tour stop together: New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, which is scheduled for today.

Though partial credit for the sell-out dates is definitely also due to the amazing Starfucker*, this does mark quite an achievement  for a band that features songs sung in their native language of Norwegian. Endresen noted that Casiokids have gained their popularity, though still a bit obscure, while staying faithful to their native language, and they have done well enough that it has become the members’ primary source of income.

Moshi Moshi Records, a UK-based record label, released “Gront lys i alle ledd” b/w “Togens hule” in 2008. “The first single we did was called ‘Gront lys i alle ledd,'” said Endresen, “which means ‘Green Lights On All Levels,’ and it was the first Norwegian language pop single released in the UK.”

Though he is quick to offer translations to his song titles and even some of the band’s lyrics, Endresen said fans should not hold their breath for any lyrics sung in English. Via a follow-up email after our meeting in Orlando, Endresen stated, “We have no plans on recording songs in English for the new album. I still feel that using my Norwegian tongue is the best way of keeping our sound original and personal.”

Research on the band revealed at least one article that noted the band sings with a made-up language, not unlike Sigur Ros. Actually, as Endresen described it, his lyric writing is not quite as elaborate as that. “The lyric is in Norwegian,” he noted, “but seeing as we have so much harmony vocals, what we like to do is just play around using sounds of voices in parts of the song that are more about the melody and not the words, so there will be a lyric to all the songs, but sometimes we do some choruses or some harmonies without the words just because it kind of sounds better sometimes.”

Via email, he noted some songs that are typical examples of such “nonsense” lyrics. “Some songs have parts that are just there for the melodies and harmonies, like the chorus in “Det snurrer” and the end of “Togens hule”, but most of the songs have lyrics to the singing.”

Both songs feature melodic, “ya, ya, ya, ya, yas,” which stand out particularly in “Togens hule,” which is an instrumental save for Endresen singing those ya, yas. With “Det snurrer,” a remake of the Swedish band Familjen’s “Det snurrar i min skalle,” the song actually features some ya, yas that were never in the original song, but added on as an extra layer of melody.

Endresen noted that the music often comes before the lyrics. “We usually very rarely start with the vocals,” he said. “It’s something that comes very much later, so in the beginning you’re bound to play around with the vocals as an instrument, as often a lead instrument, and even when I do the lyrics, I end up keeping parts of the song that maybe I just improvised at the beginning … just because I got the right sound, we got the right harmonies, and then we, instead of removing that, we build on top of that. I find that fun to use— that immediate impulsive experimentation with vocals, as well as using it with words.”

This method shows in the strong melodies within Casiokids’ instrumental songs, such as “Fot i hose,” a piece that actually made the rounds to a variety of countries thanks to its association to Electronic Arts’ FIFA 10 soundtrack and its use as transitional music in the UK sitcom “Friday Night Dinner.” Here’s the band’s video for that track:

In part 1 of this profile, Endresen noted his affection for Krautrock, and he compared some of his style of singing to Can’s early vocalist, Kenji “Damo” Suzuki, whose singing style grooved along with the band’s playing above anything else. “I guess [it’s] the same as Can does,” Endresen said. “This Damo Suzuki, the Japanese vocalist they had for what I think are like the best albums: Future Days and Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, those three albums. He did the vocals for that, and it’s a mixture of psychedelic words and just playing around, improvising with your voice, and I think that’s the way we make songs.”

Though one might not expect to hear Endresen singing in English anytime soon, he does light up when considering collaborations, especially with African-based musicians. His band can appreciate Anglos mixing it up with African musicians. They did end their concert in Orlando with a recording of a song from Paul Simon’s famed 1986 fusion album of western pop rock with South African pop music, Graceland (it might have been the hit single “You Can Call Me Al,” I can’t recall exactly).

From the mid-eighties, into today, Endresen appreciates that mixture of music. “Damon Albarn, he’s co-writing with Tony Allen [the drummer who worked with Fela and is credited as one of the founders of Afro Beat] and he produced Amadou & Mariam, and I think he did a really tasteful job with those people,” Endresen said.

Endresen truly beams at the idea of collaborating with African musicians, especially after his time spent in Lagos, Nigeria researching the legacy of Fela. “We have considered it,” he said. “Especially after me and Geir’s trip to Lagos to do this documentary. We have contacts with musicians in the scene down there, so it’s definitely been something that’s been on our minds.”

But even in general, Endresen enjoys collaborations, and it shows in last year’s release of their first US release Topp stemning på lokal bar (support the Independent Ethos by buying the vinyl on Amazon through this link). “With this album that is out in the US right now, there are certain collaborations with other musicians like Familjen and with James Yuill. He’s an English artist, and we definitely want to do more of that. I think it’s just an exciting way of bringing our friendship with musicians a step further because when we tour so much we meet the same people, and we play with a lot of the same people in different festivals. It’s just an exciting idea to do more, do more collaborations, and we’re definitely going to do that in the future.”

One group Casiokids have been famous for collaborating with is not a music group at all but a visual one. Digitalteateret are actually behind the video for “Fot i hose” above. They also worked with Casiokids on many live shows featuring shadow puppets and animal costumes. Though it has been several years ago since those shows were a consistent thing for them, those performances went over so well, the band continues to be associated with such theatrics.

Actually, the majority of those shows happened in the band’s native Norway. “Like three years ago, when we didn’t tour so much, and we were also involved in visual projects, we collaborated with a theater group called Digitalteateret or Digital Theater, and they did shadow puppetry and life-size puppets,” said Endresen. “When we did shows with the theater group, they at one point did animal costumes in the show. I remember they once had this massive, six-meter tall orange monster creature that was held up by two people using a parasol.”

“In the tour we are on now, and the last couple of years, we’ve toured so much in very limited spaces,” Endresen continued, “and it’s been difficult both economically and practically to do the visual projects that we had done in the past on our live shows.”

He did clarify that the work with Digitalteateret is far from over, and they have revisited collaborations since the image above was taken in 2008, but this was the early years of the band, and their sound was distinctly different then, with Endresen not even daring to sing. The group’s 2006 debut, Fuck Midi on the Norway-based Karisma Records, featured only one song with properly sung vocals (by a French singer). Otherwise, according to Endresen, the album included sampled conversations the band made of friends talking and some of the melodic, nonsensical singing noted earlier, with the band mostly noodling on Casio keyboards and sometimes augmented by horns.

“We have done it since,” Endresen said of the theatrical performances. “In the beginning our music was very atmospherical and loose and improvised.”

He explained that there is a distinct difference in the music they perform when it comes to the more visual, theatrical shows. “When it became more dancey and direct, we’ve found that it would be better to use the visual elements on like separate projects from playing live shows,” he said.

But then, that also does not mean that dance and visuals are mutually exclusive in their shows. “Only like a month ago we did a dance project in Norway in three electronic festivals there, together with two dancers, and last year we did kid’s theater performance together with Digitalteateret in Norway, and we have done workshops for kids and we are just continually excited to do new projects like that.”

So don’t always expect a fancy, theatrical show when you see Casiokids, though the potential of grander type performances in the future still exists. The momentum behind the band is there as is the infectious quality of the music— even back in the more experimental Fuck Midi. Here’s an early music video from that album for “Bagamoyo,” featuring the shadow puppetry by Digitalteateret:

*A 2-part profile on Starfucker will appear in this blog in a few days, as they continue on their lengthy US tour before heading for a UK tour.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)