23rd February 2019
Covenant - “Fieldworks Tour” 2019 - Special Guest: Empathy Test
With the beginning of the New Year Swedish-German synth wizards COVENANT have embarked on their “Fieldworks” tour. Not in support of a new album, as some may have happed when the tour was announced months ago, but to feature a brand-new EP which is only available at the shows.
As special guests COVENANT brought along the London-based Synth Pop youngsters of EMPATHY TEST who skyrocketed in popularity in the electro scene over the last two or three years. Last but not least thanks to constant touring including many festival gigs and lots of support slots for bands like MESH, VNV NATION, DE/VISION or AESTHETIC PERFECTION. And of course there’s the music! Their ethereal, melancholic take on electronic Indie Pop, which rather reminds on 1980s sci-fi films like Blade Runner than following suit of big names like DEPECHE MODE, and the distinctive, yearning vocals of singer Isaac Howlett, EMPATHY TEST stand out in the synth scene and certainly have struck a chord of many people. After a number of EPs, EMPATHY TEST released in 2017 not just one but two debut albums at the same time, ‘Losing Touch’ and ‘Safe From Harm’. Their approach to releasing and distributing music is just as unusual as the music itself, so it’s no surprise that a forward-thinking band like COVENANT invited them to their “Fieldworks” tour. http://www.empathytest.com / http://www.facebook.com/empathytest
Music & Performance
As usual, singer Isaac Howlett brought along drummer Christina Lopez and Sam Winter-Quick on keys for the tour, as his studio partner and EMPATHY TEST founding member Adam Relf rarely is part of the live line-up. A little parallel to COVENANT, who have with Joakim Montelius a studio-only member as well. Quite clearly EMPATHY TEST attracted a few fans of their own to the Kulturfabrik in Krefeld as the enthusiastic welcome when the band appeared on stage gave away. Starting with the relatively new songs, ‘Holy Rivers’ and ‘Incubation Song’ from last year’s EP, EMPATHY TEST played a nine-song set which just got better and better. Probably knowing that a tour package like this will prompt a few fans to see more than one show of the tour, EMPATHY TEST mixed up the setlist a little compared to previous nights. ‘Vampire Test’ and ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’ made it on tonight’s set due to requests from fans, as Howlett indicated, while the epic ‘Demons’ and ‘Losing Touch’, title track of one of their debut albums, are EMPATHY TEST live staples already, as the glowing crowd reaction proved.
Benefitting from the lush and elaborate light system COVENANT brought along for the tour the performance also looked great and despite the dreamy, introspective nature of their mostly mid-tempo music EMPATHY TEST did a great job as an opener. “We give you a false sense of security before COVENANT will come out and smash your brains”, Howlett joked, mocking ironically at the rather moony and alluring nature of his own band’s sound. No need for playful modesty, EMPATHY TEST truly stands out and the only way I can see for them in the near future is upwards!
01. Holy Rivers
02. Incubation Song
03. Bare My Soul
04. Burroughs & Bukowski
05. Seeing Stars
06. Vampire Town
08. Losing Touch
09. Safe From Harm
Total: 8.8 / 10
Founded in 1986 in Helsingborg, Sweden, and debuting with the album ‘Dreams Of A Cryotank’ in 1994, COVENANT have been trailblazers for intelligent electronic music for decades already, and in the early 2000s they were heralded together with VNV NATION and APOPTYGMA BERZERK as the “big three” of a new movement called Future Pop. Well, Future Pop is a thing of the past by now but COVENANT have never hesitated to move on. Initially COVENANT was some sort of pact between childhood friends Clas Nachmanson, Eskil Simonsson, and Joakim Montelius. Nachmanson was the first to break the deal when he left in 2007 to focus on his day-job and family, and Montelius has refrained from tour activities for years already while remaining a substantial part of the studio work. So it’s up to singer Eskil Simonsson to tour with the help of HAUJOBB’s Daniel Myer on synths and percussion, Daniel Jonasson of DUPONT fame and more recently Andreas Catjar.
All of them, and in particular Daniel Myer, also have contributed to writing and producing new material, and this is specifically true for the new ‘Fieldworks: Exkursion’ EP. COVENANT love a strong leitmotif and symbolism for new material, and the ‘Fieldworks: Exkursion’ 5-track EP is no different here. Each of the five COVENANT contributors created a track, based on field recordings they made while travelling the world. The result is very, very experimental and has nothing to do with their Future Pop anthems such as ‘Call The Ships To Port’ or ‘Dead Stars’. It was going to be pretty interesting how COVENANT would bring this concept to the live stages but the boys promised to play a handful of hits and fan favourites, as well. Of course! http://www.covenant.se / https://www.facebook.com/Covenant-OFFICIAL-156626197713557
Music & Performance
I have to admit that I looked forward to the concert with a bit of uncertainty as in the last few years COVENANT live did not have the same impact on me as it once used to have. Back in the days I was a huge fan and would go great lengths to see them live multiple times per tour and once even flew over from Germany to Barcelona to see them. It’s hard to pinpoint why but in the last few years it wasn’t the same level of excitement anymore. Maybe it’s just me growing older, perhaps it is Joakim Montelius I sorely miss in the live line-up, and probably it’s a multitude of reasons. However, it was COVENANT’s gig at the E-Tropolis festival in 2017 I found kind of disenchanting. To me the whole thing sounded just all wrong, and that I seemed to be the only one who felt that way in the middle of a celebratory crowd didn’t help much, either. So the big question before the Krefeld show was: Will my faith be restored?
But let’s start from the beginning. And the night in Krefeld began with the field recording of today, a sound collage which COVENANT apparently prepare for each individual gig as an intro. It slowly merged into the classic ‘Feedback’, an old fan-favourite from their second album ‘Sequencer’. A promising start, although the sound at the Kulturfabrik still left a bit to be desired. ‘Like Tears In Rain’ and ‘Bullet’ followed and demonstrated that those who came for the big hits were also to be catered. Daniel Jonasson is not part of the team on this tour, so singer Eskil Simonsson was backed up by Daniel Myer on the left hand and Andreas Catjar on the right, both with lots of gear on the racks around them. Behind the band were huge x-shaped LED bars and big illuminated ventilators which gave the show a very industrial-looking light show. In fact the unusual light installation was a massive wow factor, kudos to light engineer Rico Münzer for the amazing work!
Track number four of the night was ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’, a twitchy and tense track from the new EP which turned out to be pretty hypnotic live. With ‘Speed’ another classic followed, and while this infrequently played song would have made me go bananas some years ago I was still a little underwhelmed this time. I can’t say that it was the band’s fault really, it was simply the way the live sound was mixed! The vocals were way too loud in the mix while the synths and beats didn’t have the punch they deserved. I’m sure it must seem pedantic and nit-picking but I simply can’t deny that the way the live sound is being mixed was a major reason why I didn’t enjoy COVENANT live as much as I should back then at the E-tropolis, and since then. What’s the point of producing sophisticated, super-cool electronic music when it’s degraded to background tootling for the vocals in a live setting?
Yes, that’s probably a bit too harsh, but I’m sure you get my point all the better for it. I’m sure most people are even not aware of such details. They either wonder why the performance doesn’t have the same impact as they hoped for, or they simply have a party anyway. And the folks in front of the stage certainly did have a great time! Daniel Myer and Andreas Catjar did a great job behind their racks, let songs flow into each other and added little improvisations here and there. A pity that their efforts were a little lost to your ears if you didn’t pay closer attention. Or maybe it is just me. Anyway, COVENANT continued to deliver a set that is certainly a fan’s dream on paper but occasionally lacked the impact it should and could have. It was great to hear the rare ‘Atom Heart’ live and a brilliant surprise to get ‘Helicopter’ live for the first time in 15 years. However, Simonsson's singing mixed so dry and dominant in the sound did not exactly underline his strengths.
‘False Gods’ is Daniel Myer’s contribution to the ‘Fieldworks’ which saw him doing the vocals as well and him and Catjar banging the shit out of their drums towards the end of the track while Eskil Simonsson took care of the keyboards. Actually that was the highlight of the show to me, the new songs really sound great live although many people rather came to hear the well-known hits. With ‘The Men’ and ‘Ritual Noise’ they got what they craved for, and these songs also finished the main set before Eskil returned for an unplugged version of ‘Happy Man’ to start the first encore, which was finished by the crowd pleaser ‘Call The Ships to Port’ - in a way COVENANT’s ‘Enjoy The Silence’; it never fails to raise the roof at their shows. The band came back a second time to perform ‘Lightbringer’, seemingly an unplanned extra song and Daniel Myer had to wait a little until his band mates managed to get back on stage. Myer did the lead vocals again for this one, as usual, and his energetic stage presence made clear what I missed during some parts of the show.
So I left the Kulturfabrik with mixed feelings, and while I’m still a fan of COVENANT’s studio work their live performances don’t ignite the same excitement at times. But again, that’s probably just me. Or probably not, as the back of the venue cleared noticeably during the encores already.
01. Today’s Fieldworks Recording (intro)
03. Like Tears In Rain
05. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
06. Speed (Club Version)
07. Dies Irae
08. Atom Heart
09. False Gods (feat. Daniel Myer)
10. 20 Hz
11. Go Film
12. We Stand Alone
13. Improvisation / Das Nibelungenlied
15. The Men
16. Ritual Noise
17. Happy Man
19. Call the Ships to Port
Total: 8 / 10
All pictures by Daniela Vorndran (http://www.vorndranphotography.com / http://www.facebook.com/blackcatnet)