Electric Brixton, London
8th April 2017
I’m at a gig, but everybody else here seems to be at a club night. For them, Soulwax are a dance act, whose ground zero was 2005’s Nite Versions, a remix/reworking of their 2004 album, Any Minute Now; for me, a fan of 1996’s Leave the Story Untold and 1998’s Much Against Everyone’s Advice, Nite Versions is the point at which the remixing took over. The Belgian Dewaele brothers, David and Stephen – plus original member Stefaan Van Leuven, three drummers (one ex-Sepultura) and an idiosyncratically stylish geometric and monochrome stage set – do seem to acknowledge their ongoing metamorphosis, as tonight’s rendition of ‘KracK’ falls somewhat between the Any Minute Now original and the Nite version; it’s lower in pitch than the latter, and heavier, but nowhere near as crunchy as the original.
Even before Nite Versions, Soulwax were eminent remixers and, in the Dewaeles’ 2manydjs guise (in which they relentlessly tour), mashup remix/DJs extraordinaire; the latter’s live shows – production sets in which they spliced together a huge variety of rock, electro, dance, hip hop and other pop classics – introduced the accompanying animated ‘musical films based on the record sleeves’ visuals that formed the twenty-four one-hour mixes in the Radio Soulwax internet radio show and free app. Apparently that nearly bankrupted them, but it the result was commendably and enjoyably innovative and inventive.
Meanwhile, the As Heard on Radio Soulwax compilations – collections of shows done for various radio stations across Europe – were highly sought after, especially the ones they they couldn’t get the clearances for and thus couldn’t officially release.
As the 2manydjs shows were properly an experience, so are these ‘Transient Program for Drums and Machinery’ shows: the concept is so polished that they recorded the new album, From Deewee, in one take.
If the fact that all the modular synths, samplers, occasional guitars, drums and vocals are live isn’t enough, the tightness of the drummers is a revelation, especially on ‘Is it Always Binary’ and ‘Missing Wires’. It’s all delightfully analogue; the sheer joy of the crowd at the energy and the imperceptible yet soulful rhythmic variations created by the three drummers alone is visceral.
Stephen Dewaele’s vocals – not very strong on record to start with – get even more lost within the mix tonight, but vocals (and lyrics even more so) seem incidental to Soulwax’s remixes and live shows; they’re not an essential part of the song form, and not treated as such. This is a shame, as they are often poignant (as in ‘The machine has taken all your cash / All the fun is happening somewhere else’ in ‘Masterplanned’), but where they do have power, it’s as an iconic motif – ‘There’s so much bullshit coming out of your mouth’ from closing number ‘Goodnight Transmission’, for example, or the repeated spoken lines ‘Part of the weekend never dies’ and ‘It’s not you, it’s the E talking’ from the Nite version of ‘E-Talking’.
From Deewee isn’t strictly the Dewaeles’ first new material since Any Minute Now; they wrote and produced all sixteen tracks on the soundtrack to last year’s Belgian film Belgica under fictional band names. ‘Inward’ by Noah’s Dark, the only track from that album played tonight, is – in the brothers’ own words – ‘apocalyptic yet danceable’, and – intentionally, yet ironically – sounds like a cover version.
Tonight leaves me conflicted; I’m despondent that Soulwax aren’t the pop/rock/indie band they were in 1998, but euphoric that they’re the successful, unique electronic experience they are now. Their late 90s slightly off-kilter charm is still there somewhere in the new stuff; amid the loops and beats and arpeggios and gurgles, the downbeat and understated ‘Trespassers’ has some of the trademark chord changes – and feeling – I fell in love with back then.
My heart mourns the guitar riff from ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’, the earnest beauty of ballad ‘When Logics Die’ and the rest of the lyrics of ‘E-Talking’ (surely ‘Rockstar paid me well to lie’ is a lyric too good to drop?), but my head wouldn’t want Soulwax to change any part of the exquisite whole of tonight’s show.
Photos: © Steve Dawson (top), © Jill Faure (bottom)