CHAI. Photo by Evgenia Gapon.
Fall has settled in Germany’s capital, but the criminally early sunsets and encroaching winter coziness didn’t hamper the air of uplift at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival Berlin. In fact, the atmosphere proved perfect for hearing experimental techno, Japanese electro-pop, indie R&B, and the many other genres that were showcased across several of the city’s premiere music venues. Here are a few highlights we caught this year:
Hemlocke Springs - Zenner, Wednesday, November 1
“Sometimes, I feel like a piece of shit, and I just have to sing it out,” announced Isimeme Naomi Udu, otherwise known as Hemlocke Springs, before sliding into the funky electro-pop of her self-deprecation anthem “pos.” The crowd clearly felt differently, blissfully chilling in the palm of Udu’s hand. Wearing a black-and-blue tie-dye dress and Ginger Spice hair, she beckoned us into a world where love is fleeting, Casios are a girl’s best friend, and life is played like one of those 8-bit video games Melissa Joan Hart used to make on Clarissa Explains It All. The joy in Hemlocke Springs’ music is infectious, even when juxtaposed against lyrics about insecurity and loneliness. Watching her perform is like seeing the shy kid in class nail the lead in the school musical. At times, Udu barked or screamed into the mic for emotional effect, the lyrics garbled in a burst of post-teenage angst. But as a young Black woman in 2023, Hemlocke Springs isn’t about basking in frustration so much as beckoning us to a place beyond it.
CHAI - Zenner, Wednesday, November 1
The evolution of Japanese four-piece CHAI from scrappy pop-punks to city-pop torchbearers is one of the most satisfying about-faces in recent rock memory, and the panache and excitement they brought to their opening-night headline set at Zenner was impossible to ignore. In outfits that could only be described as “pink luchador Easter bunny from outer space,” they launched into songs at breakneck speed, with choreography halfway between Devo’s robotic herky jerks and the polished poses of pop idols. The band sounds bigger and tighter than they did in their DIY early days, mixing bits of raucous older material in with the visions of neon-lit midnight karaoke that populate their 2023 self-titled album. The high-octane deliveries of twin sisters and frontwomen Mana and Kana emphasize the music’s sly feminism: beneath all the pastel glitter and kawaii lies a punk-rock criticism of Japan’s patriarchal society and standards for female beauty.
Ghostly Kisses - Zenner, Thursday, November 2
Ghostly Kisses—the apt moniker of French Canadian singer-songwriter Margaux Sauvé, joined live by her partner Louis-Étienne Santais—didn’t so much take to the stage as simply materialize there, surrounded by dry-ice fog and the eerie glow of Edison bulbs. Sauvé is extremely soft-spoken, her slight Quebecois accent lilting over the crowd’s hush. But as soon as the band’s wispy electro-pop begins to take form, her presence becomes magnetic. Ghostly Kisses find plenty of surprises within the bounds of their simple duo setup: on “Such Words,” Sauvé caresses her violin under a single spotlight; “Carry Me” is a disco banger that manages to assert its groove while remaining light as a cloud. Two covers get the biggest reactions of the night: the Cranberries’ “Zombie” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” the latter presented with almost as much melancholy as the original.
Hagop Tchaparian - Zenner, Thursday, November 2
In Berlin, it’s rare to see a set as hard as Hagop Tchaparian’s as early as 9:30 p.m. You could almost feel the electricity crackle through Zenner’s cavernous main room as the British-American producer set up in complete darkness, the audience awaiting his heady mix of club music and traditional West Asian instrumentals. He pummeled the crowd relentlessly for 90 minutes, an experience more akin to peak hours at Berghain than anything else witnessed this week. Headbanging within inches of his fader, Tchaparian gave a furious litany of textures–space-laser synths, metallic beats, spine-tingling horns–drawn primarily from his 2022 debut album Bolts. Rhythms built and then broke down to nothing, a pace far removed from the typical crowd-pleasing techno set, which nonetheless drew the crowd into frenzy. Caught between air-raid sirens and machine-gun drum blasts delivered at ear-splitting volume, we were happily at the mercy of Tchaparian’s whims.
Water From Your Eyes - Zenner, Friday, November 3
Water From Your Eyes kicked off their first-ever Berlin show ever with an explosion of feedback and noise, jarring enough to make you jump out of your skin. Over the last several years, they’ve slyly positioned themselves as one of Brooklyn’s most promising bands, a mantle that in indie-rock history has been no small feat to claim. At Zenner, they quickly proved why: electrifying post-punk, skull-rattling noise rock, and art-pop freakiness all sat side-by-side with an air of carefully controlled chaos. Singer Rachel Brown’s deadpan delivery of stompers like “Barley” swayed the audience to and fro as if the entire room was set up on hydraulics, and Nate Amos’ guitar solos tumbled around like dirty clothes in a washing machine. Songs ended abruptly, mid-note, with yet more feedback swelling in lieu of stage banter between them. Brown stalked the stage, with an air of affability that somehow persisted despite the wraparound shades they never removed, while Amos stood stoic under a mop of bleached-blond hair behind them. If there’s still such a thing as distinctively New York cool, we were witnessing it.
MorMor - Silent Green Betonhalle, Saturday, November 4
Descending into the industrial catacombs of Silent Green Betonhalle always feels a little odd. After all, the site is a former crematorium, and a small graveyard still sits on the premises. Fortunately, Toronto’s MorMor offers an antidote to any spooky vibes with a hook-filled blend of indie rock and R&B that could soothe even the jumpiest concertgoers. MorMor drew a crowd of hardcore fans, with the first several rows openly requesting favorites and singing the choruses back to him. At one point, beset with a technical issue that tied up his band for a moment, he transitioned into a solo version of “Get Away,” capturing the crowd’s attention with just his smooth tenor and reverb-drenched guitar. When the band kicked back in, they sounded newly urgent, seemingly energized by the moment of impromptu intimacy.
Mykki Blanco - Silent Green Betonhalle, Saturday, November 4
There was already an atmosphere of community in the air when Mykki Blanco took to the stage at Silent Green Betonhalle: we were all ready to voice our collective frustration at the current state of the world, and Blanco was to be our fearless leader. As if to underline that vibe, Blanco began the performance in the middle of the crowd, urging us to form a circle around them. Part street preacher, part ballroom emcee, they delivered sermons in staccato verses over thundering beats. They’re fond of interpolating bits of other songs in between their own, chewing up “Mr. Sandman,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and “The End Is Not in Sight,” and spitting them out with a knowing grin. At one point, they threw white roses into the audience—either a reference to the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement or a happy coincidence. “If feeling powerless has become repetitive, it’s time to feel something else,” they repeated like a mantra throughout the show, to rapturous applause each time. When they climbed back into the crowd to close the set, leading us in a cathartic dance-along to thumping techno, it was clear that we’d witnessed not just a hip-hop show, but a masterclass in Black, queer liberation.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork