Darkwave in Poland: Antimatter, Tranquilizer, and Nonamen

Antimatter in Zurich

Even without the financial constraints, infrastructure limitations, and amount of planning necessary to an endeavor such as a multi-act national concert tour, putting together three musical artists who complement each other artistically is a very delicate enterprise. For the promoter, it’s a matter of striking the right creative balance and requires sensitivity, intuition, and a fair amount of psychology. For example, while it may seem obvious to put bands of the same genre together, too MUCH similarity between them can breed fatigue over the course of a four hour concert. There is actual science behind this – relative key and time signatures accompanied by analogous instrumentation and sound choices causes restlessness in even the most attentive audience members. But conversely, of course, too much diversity will leave everyone annoyed. As an extreme example, people generally don’t wish to see, say, a jazz trumpeter, a country singer, and a death metal band in one sitting, if you know what I mean.

The key to a successful show is finding artists who share a similar spiritual aesthetic, and overall mood, with distinctive and individual yet complementary sounds. The music of all three of these artists possesses the kind of melancholy that can be vaguely described as “gothic”, or, to be more genre specific, darkwave, because their songs tend to reflect introspection and/or emotional upheaval. But that’s where the similarities end. There is a shared gothic sensibility, but none of these bands, or the vast majority of the audience, resemble the black-clad clichés of yore – you know, the kind you see in old Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees videos.

Over four shows during the last week in May – in Łódz, Bielsko-Biała, Wrocław, and Szczecin –headliners ANTIMATTER (from Liverpool) were joined by Gydnia’s TRANQUILIZER and Kraków’s NONAMEN for a dark musical journey that allowed each artist the chance to shine. It was a rare moment of musical serendipity.

This was Antimatter’s second trip to Poland since the release of the excellent The Judas Table album last fall, but guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Mick Moss has always been effusive in his praise of this country, so it’s no surprise that they’re back. With a few differences, the set list overall was similar to that which was played at Rotunda Club in Krakow last October, but time on the road has honed the band into an even tighter and more powerful unit.

A bit of history;

Although started as a side project with (progressive metal band) Anathema’s Duncan Patterson, Antimatter has been solely Mick Moss’ baby since 2004. The current live band consists of various musicians who have worked with him over the years, and they’re all stellar, especially guitarist Dave Hall. His mastery of the EBow, as well as ability to go from gorgeous violin-like fluid lines to screaming wah-wah shredding give his playing a panoramic sonic palette that is as versatile as it is impressive, and, in the months since I last saw them, he’s grown into an excellent backing vocalist as well as onstage foil to Mick’s very British humility.

There are many disparate influences at work in Antimatter’s music; while the early albums had more of a triphop vibe with lots of female vocals (think Portishead or Zero 7), nowadays that type of electronic ambience and rhythm are more integrated with art rock, prog, metal, folk, shoegazer, a dash of classic british pop, and even grunge, all while never wandering too far from that darkwave sensibility mentioned earlier. The lead vocals are handled completely, and masterfully, by Mick.
On paper, the mix of different genre might sound like it wouldn’t work, maybe even like a bit of a mess. Instead, from so many different elements, Moss has constructed something both wholly original and emotionally moving, and onstage it comes alive with an intensity, energy, and heaviness that is often overwhelming.

But while the music tends to the dark and dramatic, the mood of the band and crowd is joyful. Fresh from a concert filming (for a DVD release later this year), after 15 years of work, Moss deserves this kind of victory lap. The last two albums (the aforementioned The Judas Table and 2012’s Fear Of A Unique Identity) reveal an artist who has truly found his artistic voice, and firmly establish a singular sound and superior songwriting and arrangement ability. By his own admission, he’s currently weighing at least four different projects before plotting his next move, so it’s a good time to celebrate a catalogue of six excellent studio albums, and onstage that jubilation transforms the sometimes nihilistic themes of the songs into something euphoric.

Although most of the set is dedicated to the last two albums, every period of the band is represented, all the way back to a much heavier “Over Your Shoulder” from the 2001 debut album Saviour (which is always greeted as a “greatest hit”). The set climaxes with the intense metallic crunch of the instrumental “The Parade” (kind of a prog metal take on The Beatles’ coda to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”) leading into a darkwave-styled cover of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine”, where Dave Hall once again utilizes the EBow to brilliant effect, perfectly recreating Rick Wright’s original synth lines. But the old saying that “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings” comes true –well, sort of (I’m not talking about anyone’s girth of course) – when they encore with an epic “Stillborn Empires,” complete with faux-opera vocals via the prerecorded Jenny O’Connor studio track. It’s the perfect conclusion to a perfect set.

There are various “scenes” in the Polish underground, and it’s not hard to find followers of punk, or metal, or progressive rock, or jazz – in fact, if you’re a musician, there are definite benefits to being part of a chosen subculture, as identification with one usually comes with a built-in audience. What makes Tranquilizer special is that they truly sound like no one else and do not easily fit any convenient category. With last year’s full length debut Take A Pill, and the recent 10ö8 EP behind them, they are about to begin recording a new album, and, based on the set from the tour’s first night in Łódz, their already unique sound and approach is about to go to new and even more powerful places.

The growth in terms of musicality, stage presence, and just plain gravitas over the mere half year since I first witnessed Tranquilizer onstage is nothing short of astonishing. The music is full of light, dark, and shades in between, and brings the late 1980s / early 90s electronic ethereal gothic dream pop of artists like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and This Mortal Coil into the 21st Century by utilizing a combination of live instruments and modern technology.

Luna Bystrzanowska has an otherworldly presence that casts an irresistible spell over the room with a voice that is both delicate and commanding. Drummer Konrad Ciesielski plays with a sympathetic touch that can conjure a jazzy triphop mood one minute and evoke the athletic heroics of Keith Moon the next. That would be a rare diversity in any musician, but is perhaps even more surprising considering that he’s primarily known as the timekeeper for thrash metal band Braindead.

The highlight of the Tranquilizer set (and possibly of the entire night) was “1”, performed as a duet with a surprise guest vocal appearance from Mick Moss. The blend of his rich baritone with Luna’s contralto was sheer bliss – a moment that sent shivers down the spine, and was reprised each night of the tour. I truly hope they get the opportunity to record together someday.

Tranquilizer will be back in Krakow, and all across Poland, this autumn on a tour with the excellent instrumental band Tides From Nebula. It is absolutely a show not to be missed.

Kraków’s Nonamen were performing in an acoustic format sans rhythm section at these shows, which necessarily exaggerated the folkier elements of their brand of progressive folk metal. Playing in guitar/violin/vocal duo and trio combinations, the stripped down arrangements of songs from the band’s 2014 album Obsession, particularly “Shall I Go?” and “Emily”, wisely put the focus on the strong vocals of Edyta Szkolut.

But it’s new violinist Marta Rychlik that most impresses with a clean tone and advanced technique that could only come from the classical world – she also plays with the Sinfionettia Cracovia – but she appears to be equally at home summoning the passion of the best mountain fiddlers if that’s what the song requires. She may well be Nonamen’s secret weapon going forward.

Three fantastic sets from three very different bands on four nights across Poland. The commonality is that these are all true artists, driven by the need to express themselves creatively and add beauty to the world, without fear of failure or commercial considerations.

The art itself is the incentive. As it should be.

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