Nils Frahm’s dominant mode is the eyes-closed fantasia: immersive, rapturous, sentimental. That goes for his post-classical solo-piano work, which is indebted to both Keith Jarrett and George Winston, as well as his surging electronic pieces, which translate the grammar of classical minimalism into the language of techno. His music favors fluid lines and wistful melodies; even when it throbs, it prizes beauty, lyricism, and elegance.
But on stage, the German musician is also a showman. Surrounded by keyboards and machines—grand piano, upright piano, harmonium, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, toy piano, Roland Juno-60, Moog Taurus, Roland SH 2, analog drum machines, and tape delay units—he is a mad scientist of MIDI/CV converters, a flat-capped conductor of hammers and pan pots and LEDs. Sculpting sine waves into controlled whirlwinds, he straddles his gear, arms akimbo, lunging from station to station: hammering out Rhodes arpeggios with one hand and toggling sequencer parameters with the other, then shifting to the Yamaha grand in the space of a beat, all while finessing his delay chain, triggering pipe-organ samples, and keeping his drum machines in check. There are moments of stillness, too, but at their peaks, his shows are athletic feats as much as they are opportunities to get lost in sound.
Frahm’s showmanship was on full display in December 2018, when he set up at Berlin’s historic Funkhaus—a former East German radio headquarters, where he keeps his own recording studio—for four consecutive nights of performances. He played in the round, a castaway on a small island of gear, by turns manic, melancholy, and mild. Tripping With Nils Frahm, which boils down choice moments from those four nights into a 76-minute album, is more polished than his 2013 live album, Spaces, a compendium of two years of live performances. That collection acknowledged both spontaneity (“Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone”) and the constant possibility of failure (“An Aborted Beginning,” an ambient dub sketch that peters out after 94 seconds), but on the new one, he and his passel of gear are a well-oiled machine.
The album, split between delicate solo piano pieces and billowing, groove-driven electronic improvisations, is largely drawn from his 2018 album All Melody and its outtakes collection, All Encores. What might be most surprising is how faithful his live renditions are to the original studio recordings. Without seeing it—something possible in an accompanying concert film, which includes 11 minutes’ worth of extra music—it can be hard to imagine how Frahm manages to do so much with just two hands. In “Sunson,” he juggles slow-motion techno with Mellotron counterpoints, cascading pipe organs, and the occasional Rhodes melody; “Fundamental Values” makes room for ambient pulses, Windham Hill-like piano solo, operatic vocal samples, and a heart-in-mouth climax whose double-time percussion is reminiscent of Autechre’s “Lost.” The crowd-pleasing “All Melody” stretches the original’s nine and a half minutes to more than 14, drawing out the tension inherent in his tumbling arpeggios. Sprawl is par for the course. Five of the album’s eight songs are more than 10 minutes long; “Fundamental Values” takes a four-minute album cut and blows it up to more than 14.
The sound throughout is gorgeous. Frahm is serious about his gear—he owns 11 Roland RE-501 Chorus Echoes, and uses five of them on stage—and that obsessiveness translates into truly incredible sound: sumptuous, nuanced, enveloping. He favors instruments with striking visceral sonorities, and he knows how to get the most out of the contrast between them. Some of the album’s most electrifying moments happen when he turns the sampled sounds of a pipe organ into an icy cascade of staccato tone bursts. But a nagging sense of sameness nevertheless settles in over the course of the record. “All Melody” and “#2” amount to a 25-minute set of theme and variations; the arpeggios and steady pulse of “Sunson” feel cut from the same cloth, and “Fundamental Values” reprises ideas from all three. The album’s most rewarding stretch is “My Friend the Forest” and “The Dane,” a pair of related solo piano pieces where he strips away the bells and whistles and lets his harmonic sensibilities shine.
Even here, though, Frahm’s fondness for ornament occasionally gets the better of him. Where “My Friend the Forest” is spare and patient, his soloing in “The Dane” turns cloying. There’s an occasionally claustrophobic air of deep feeling in his neo-romantic melodies. Pushing forward in needling eighth-note phrases, his solos can be a little too insistent, his cadenzas too lily-gilding. Listeners suspicious of overt emotional cues might find these portions of his music manipulative in their insistence upon feeling just one type of way.
The album’s loveliest moment is its simplest: The closing “Ode - Our Own Roof” is spare and delicate, like snowfall under a single streetlamp. Dialing back some of the excess—and the seriousness—might go a long way toward letting Frahm’s music breathe. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Frahm cited the influence of Andy Kaufman, the consummate showman, and espoused the musical properties of the $1 Ikea toilet scrubber. In the concert film, there’s a brief interlude where Frahm uses just such a pair of white plastic brushes on the inside of the concert grand: drumming on the struts and the strings, eking out a booming rhythm before a tongue-in-cheek finale of bristles scratchy-scratching against mic heads. To be sure, this is Frahm in peak entertainer mode, but in sonic terms, it’s also a welcome contrast—an acknowledgement that there are sensations beyond reverie; that even rhapsody requires the occasional reprieve.
Buy: Rough Trade
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