Electronic. Experimental. Pioneering. Eclectic. Humorous. Niche. Unique. Acquired taste. Quirky. Arty.
Does that help? To an extent it probably does. But add another few important descriptors to that list.
Shy. Studio bound. Publicity avoiding. Aloof, even?
Where to start with Yello? For me it goes back to 1988 on the Isle of Man. As you might expect (weird), or not (much more likely). With a bunch of good mates, we’d just seen 3 days of the best tarmac rallying you can imagine. This guy called Snijers had popped over from Belgium in his BMW M3 seeking European championship points. He’s never going to beat the established Brits and Irish who’ve dominated the event for years – surely he had no chance against the likes of Jimmy McRae? And yet there we were watching this M3 dance over the roads of Man – perfectly placed, power sliding spectacularly, pushing the limits at every opportunity, flying flat and landing squarely ready for the next bit of aggressive driving. To win by a margin of over 30 seconds on a debut on the island is unprecedented. Have a look at this YouTube video to get a flavour.
We turn up at the massive prize giving ceremony venue and the podium placed cars are in the room, arranged in front of the stage. The lights go down and we’re treated to a 4 minute highlights video on the big screen – 4 minutes of incredibly aggressive yet controlled and spectacular driving from Snijers in the BMW. Those of you who know Yello will have guessed where this is going – the backing track was “The Race” and I guess the whole atmosphere and spectacle meant I was hooked on Yello from then onwards.
Fast forward somewhat across the decades since 1988 and I’ve a fair collection of Yello albums – mostly from that period onwards. Boris Blank and Dieter Meier have been working together on the Yello project on and off for 38 years at the time of writing. Quite some career. Based out of Switzerland, they’re a niche band in the UK – their new album launched in September 2016 did pretty well by Yello standards, peaking at number 84 in the chart. They have a very loyal but thinly spread fan base across the globe. In 2013, you can read what we did at the Scalford Hifi Show when we played a Yello DVD all day on a loop with a projector and a Sony / Linn / Rotel / Mission based system. It drew praise and disdain in fairly equal measure, to be fair – but fun to do something different at the show.
Its often not long before a Yello track is played when I’m sitting down in front of the Musings system. It helps that the music is produced with great care and attention to sound quality. My 15 year old daughter’s caught the bug too – we both really looked forward to the new album this year.
So 38 years, and yet never a live show. There’s some debate about that “fact”. Apparently they played in Zurich a good few years back, but its unclear if there was anything “live” about the performance, beyond the vocals. Either way, they’ve never done a real “gig” and most of us expected it would never happen. Boris is now 64 and Dieter 72, so what are the chances?
Rumours of a new album kicked off in mid-2015, and would be their first together since Touch in 2009. That’s how long this loyal fanbase has to wait! The album was “coming soon” for a very long time. Then suddenly, this summer, a few rumours started circulating about a couple of one-off gigs, late in 2016. Seemed implausible to impossible. And why would they do it after all this time? A couple of old guys on stage behind synths – what kind of show would that be? But its never straightforward with Yello – their videos are often quirky, use interesting and contemporary techniques and they apply as much attention to this and the album artwork as they do to the music. May be this could work. May be it would never happen.
Bang! It happened – I can’t remember which way around it happened, but I think it was the gig announcement first, then the definitive release date of the new album – to be called Toy. As you can imagine, the excitement about the gigs set that tiny corner of t’internet that concerns itself with electronic music on fire. But no clue as to location, number of gigs, was it a tour, etc. etc. Shortly the information came clear – 2 gigs in Berlin. That was it. How could I resist? Then it became clear that the dates were in the school holidays. I spend quite a bit of time with my son who’s also into cars and we go mountain biking together but here was a chance to spend some time with my daughter which would be great. We even managed to get tix to the first of the 2 live gigs. Making it a weekend (we’ve never been to Berlin before) flights and hotels were sorted.
When Yello released the first single from the Toy album – Limbo – the video was filmed in a concrete former power station building in Berlin called Kraftwerk – some might find that a little ironic. Its all very robust, industrial, brutal and with the fog and lighting in the video it created a very atmospheric backdrop, and this was to be the venue for the gig. Mixed feelings about that. Standing, in an old power station, pretty unusual way to go about it. How the gig would be staged, what tracks would be played, would the venue work – all of these things were hot topics of on line discussion. After the first 2 gigs were sold out – 2 more were added, one before the one we had booked so ours was no longer the first gig. The new first gig was to be seated which I initially thought would be better, but it turns out I was wrong about that one.
The Toy album was released and it’s a fantastic piece of work – musically and physically, particularly in the CD format which is a small hardback book of images, lyrics, artwork etc. Musically I find 80% of it very listenable and there are 4 outstanding tracks – 30,000 days, Dark Side, Blue Biscuit and Electrified II. It bodes well for the gig as there’s bound to be a good few new tracks on the set list. Guest vocals from Malia (who collaborated with Boris Blank a few years ago to create the excellent Convergence album) and newcomer Fifi Rong from London complement the music very well and contrast starkly with Dieter Meier’s robust bass ramblings.
Berlin is a great place for a visit, but we’ll not concern ourselves with the rest of the city here. Let’s get on with the gig. My 15 year old daughter’s first experience of a proper rock/pop event, and an interesting place to start. Let’s also cut to the chase – this evening was a fantastic experience – I really did have concerns about “never meet your heros” and would the whole thing work as a concept and would it feel like a live gig, given the very electronic nature of the music. So how come it was such a great experience? People, music, visuals, atmosphere, buzz, anticipation, seeing something that you never thought would happen, sharing the experience with my daughter who was equally thrilled, it all gelled together so well.
The gig and the use of the venue was extremely well thought through. After meeting up with some fellow concert goers in a bar 2 mins walk from the venue, we discussed what we thought the gig would be like, if we needed to be in early or not, etc. Information before hand has been distinctly sketchy, although it was very clear that doors open at 7pm and the band would be on stage at 9pm. We headed round the corner and entered the anonymous looking building through what looked like a side door. No grand venue entrance or branding here. Adds nicely to the sense of mystery and anticipation.
|Specially commissioned beer glasses contributed to making a gig into an event -|
Kraftwerk is split into 2 levels. Entering on the ground floor we found a few of the usual things you expect – a bar with overpriced beers and a merch stall with overpriced t-shirts, beanie hats and some signed vinyl albums. Beer was served in plastic glasses unique to the event – combining the latest Yello logo with a graphic of the TV tower of Berlin – a nice touch. But really we were already into the gig. Arranged all around the lower floor were large old skool CRT monitors, playing classic Yello videos and there were instrumental Yello tracks washing around the venue. This, combined with the stage smoke and shafts of light cutting through, had already created the atmosphere and it was still 90 mins before the start of the show. We mingled downstairs for a while, then made our way to the performance area on the upper floor. Here the sheer scale of the building became clear – the place is massive – a high roof supported on rugged concrete pillars, the original gantry cranes still up there to add to the authenticity. Again the lighting up here was clever, emphasising the vastness of the space, creating long dark shadows and the choice of background music was dark, bass driven and of the menacing variety. Large cut-out areas in the floor allow views to the gathering area below and the gentle fade changes of colour in the mist were very effective.
|Downstairs amidst the videos and the mist|
|Looking down into the pre-gig gathering area|
|Looking towards the stage - here you can see the old factory cranes still suspended from the ceiling|
|Looking away from the stage into Kraftwerk's vast space|
The stage is at one end of the hall and has a vast array of electronic “stuff” arranged in a horseshoe to the right, but we also get a clue about the approach tonight – there are 2 drum kits on stage and there’s clearly going to be a good few people up there with Boris and Dieter. As a backdrop there’s a vast screen of the type normally seen at big sporting events. 20 minutes or so before 9pm, a tiny blurred yellow set of letters appear on the vast screen – and they’re rotating as individual letters. Over the 20 minutes the letters gradually get larger – soon its clear that the 5 letters are YELLO – they rotate as individual letters and their place within the word – sometimes spelling OYELL, LOYEL etc. And they become clearer too. At pretty much exactly 9pm they are fully resolved and fill the complete screen. Backed by the intro to the track Takla Malan, this is a great way to build up the intro and grab the attention of the crowd.
|A view of and from the desk|
A long long wait (decades!) finally ends as “Magma” plays and the band emerge onto stage. Boris takes up station behind the horseshoe of gear and Dieter takes centre stage. The first full tracks are "Do It" and “The Evening's Young” and there’s a hint of stiffness on stage – this is only the second night and to start with, that shows. Dieter spends the evening reading his lyrics from a prompt, Boris looks like he’s playing perhaps a lead melody over the top of the rest of the electronic sounds. That might sound like it wasn’t going to be a good night, but that’s not the case. The visuals behind the stage were spectacular – mixing clips from classic Yello videos, new patterns and graphics, vivid colours and well matched to the mood of each track. But what really brought the performance to life, for me, were 2 things – the live musicians and the extension of the light show into the entire arena.
With 2 drummers and kits and a lead guitarist to the left, a trio of backing singers right of centre and a 5 piece horn section arranged to the right, their playing and on-stage animation and activities brought life and enthusiasm to the gig. And by about 3 or 4 tracks in, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere on stage – everyone seemed to get relaxed into their roles and from that point on, it really looked like the whole ensemble were enjoying what they were doing. And its fair to say the audience followed suit – standing became the right way to arrange a Yello gig as the tracks ramped up in pace and familiarity.
|Brass section gets animated|
What about the building? The robust “architecture” worked well for this gig. The lighting techs did a great job of lighting the whole environment – shafts of light piercing through the mist, emphasising the size of the venue and adding to the feel of some of the more ethereal and moody tracks. Sequenced to work with the music the lights switched between low level mood colours, seemingly random dancing and chasing around the building in sequence. This all underpinned by the openings in the floor that exposed the floor below and emphasised the space even further.
There’s some brief introductions to songs and a little banter from Dieter – most of it in English, some in German, and a warm welcome to the gig. But in the main, the focus is on the music – a set list which blended some early tracks, some greatest hits and, of course, a number of tracks from the new album “Toy”. Dieter’s largely spoken vocals were well delivered at the right time and I didn’t notice any fluffing, if any happened. Each track from the “Toy” album was played pretty much as per the studio version, the older tracks get a little new flavouring or twists, but they were all very easily recognised and comfortingly familiar. Like most of the audience, we talked and sang along with the lyrics, but luckily for those around us, the PA easily drowned out my bad singing. There’s been quite a bit of discussion of the setlist – quite a few were looking for more of the “classic” tracks and, inevitably with such a long back catalogue, it was impossible to cover everyone’s favourite track. Here’s what Boris and Dieter chose to run with:
Pre-show background: Intro to Takla Makan
Magma during walk-on
The Evening Is Young
Electrified II (with Malia)
Cold Flame (with Malia)
Kiss The Cloud (with Fifi Rong)
Lost In Motion (with Fifi Rong)
Starlight Scene (with Malia)
Tool Of Love
Si Senor The Hairy Grille
|Visuals for "Time Tunnel" - Boris Blank just visible behind his rig on the right|
The boys were joined on the stage by guest vocalists Malia and Fifi Rong to perform songs from “Toy”. Malia was introduced to me through the “Convergence” collaboration with Boris Blank – she has a fabulously smokey smooth jazz voice that works so well with Blank’s very sophisticated tunes and soundscapes. On that album is a track called “Smoldering Ashes” which is a smooth melodic and dark song. For “Toy”, Yello have re-worked the track into a more electronic, rhythmic vibe – renamed it "Cold Flame" - and I have to say I prefer the original when listening at home. But on stage in a live setting, the "Cold Flame" version worked very well indeed – a real drive to groove along to. Fifi Rong is a very young artist from London who is starting to make way in the music business. Her vocals are a contrast to Malia, skilfully applied to exactly the right music flavours by Boris, a sound that’s more ethereal, spooky if you like. Both ladies added significantly to the success of the evening and performed flawlessly – they added to the visuals too with spectacular clothing and Rong’s extreme eyelashes! The camera work was great here too – blending close-ups of the singers over the top of the main video / graphics showing on the big screen at the back of the stage. Its worth mentioning the horn section here too – they really contributed to the tracks you would expect – adding impact, dynamics and a visual aspect to the music.
|Dieter is joined on stage by Malia|
|Visually and vocally, Fifi Rong stunned the crowd|
The sound wasn’t perfect – using the now common curved arrays suspended from the ceiling either side of the stage and then at 2 further points down the length of the venue. We were positioned just right of centre, about 20 rows back and mid-way between the stage side arrays and the first set of reinforcements down the length of the hall. There was plenty of power and all the hard surfaces of the venue didn’t, for us at least, give an empty echoing acoustic, thankfully. The music was a touch muffled – it could of done with more clarity and slam – and for some of the tracks the vocals could have been higher in the mix. It wasn’t bad, it worked better than I expected given the type of venue, but I’ve heard better and much much worse of course.
Given that the track “The Race” hadn’t been part of the main set, it was pretty obvious what was going to feature in the encore – which, equally obviously, was demanded by the audience. But there was another treat first – something which seems to have been added compared the first show. Boris launched a smartphone app a few years back called Yellofier. It’s worth looking up, but I always thought it was a toy rather than a way to produce music. So the boys brought a smartphone on stage, plugged it into the PA and took us through developing a track, supposedly “live”. I suspect the creating of the track probably was “live” but seems to have been a repeat of creating an existing track to show how that can be captured and then developed. I say this because what followed on from the basics of the track was a fully developed version that really bounced along and got the audience animated again. Dieter vocalised over the top in his familiar style. Good fun.
And so to the final track of the night – of course, “The Race”. More great visuals mixing parts of the original video with new content, the audience in motion and joining in with the choruses. Part way through, the track backed off a little and Rush, Push, Cash was skilfully inter-weaved with The Race as Dieter introduced the whole 15 piece band. “The Race” was a great (if predictable) way to finish the show – great stuff.
|Yellofier - live|
|Taking a bow|
Then back downstairs to the free aftershow party – glasses refreshed and we revisited the CRT videos and listened to the tracks being spun by the DJ in the dark misty and atmospheric venue. Here Malia, Fifi and the backing singers mingled (maybe some of the musicians too, but I didn’t see them myself) with the crowd, posing for photos, signing autographs etc. A really nice touch and so refreshing to see band members making themselves available.
And there’s further good news. As the Berlin gigs worked so well, Yello have announced that they’ll take the show on the road. Its not clear what that means, but I think we can expect a small number of gigs in a very select number of cities worldwide. Plus, Yellosphere at the Ministry of Sound in London on 24th November 2016 - an evening of electronic music with Dieter and Boris playing some of their classic tracks and some recordings and visuals from Berlin. With the 3rd and 4th gigs being recorded, there's hope for a DVD in the near future too.
If you make a bit of effort, as we did when going to Berlin, and get dressed up in something appropriate and unique for the gig, you might just get a round of applause on entering the gig, pictures with the guest singers, a chat with the album cover photographer, a chat with the band's sound / mastering engineer, and if you're extremely lucky, the chance to go backstage to meet the band. An excellent weekend became something to exceptional and treasure for a long time to come...
The power station's control room (and, indeed, the rest of the Kraftwerk venue) where we met up with Dieter and Boris, is featured in the Limbo video: