Review by Michael Sibbons

So, “who’s Carl Craig?” I hear you ask. Heralding from Detroit, Carl Craig is a music producer, considered one of the most influential names of the Detroit techno scene. “And the synthesizer ensemble? Explain that one”. OK. This one is going to take some more explaining… First off there’s an album; Versus, which Carl Craig did in collaboration with Les Siècles Orchestra; a French orchestra and classical pianist Francesco Tristano (although tonight Kelvin Sholar took the piano), the progeny of a concert in 2008, it had the intention of bringing club music to classic concert halls. It was this album that tonight’s setlist was from. Now, the synthesizer ensemble replace the orchestra. It’s quite hard to bring an orchestra on tour as you can probably imagine. So US Techno producer, a grand piano and four synthesizers. Anyway don’t let the strange sounding jumble put you off, it’s an aural pleasure, and that’s all that should matter.

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I discovered Carl Craig Presents Versus Synthesizer Ensemble at last year’s SW4 (2017) whilst milling around seeing who was on each stage. They were so good, I caught the beginning of their set, then had to head main stage to shoot someone… and ended up bringing back the other photographers from the press pit!

Performing tracks from Versus, the performance was a sell out and stunning both audibly (easily one of the best sounding gigs I’ve ever been to) and visually (just not from a photographic standpoint). Rather than a classic rock performance where the artists are illuminated by spots, classic where the entire stage is lit or dance relying on a fancy light show. The group were in an almost darkness (there were some lights) and behind them was projected films and timelapses of Carl Craig’s home of Detroit.

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Playing long tracks broken by shorter tracks in between, in the occasional breaks in the set, Craig was telling the audience about his career, things like when growing up he would score his own music for films like Blade Runner in the basement. He also said he took a lot of inspiration from the 80’s Britpop groups like Heaven 17 and Human League and of course not forgetting Germany’s Kraftwerk. I’m not sure if the performance was supposed to have audience participation but there was a quite a bit of shouting from various members of the audience during these bits. Definitely not heckling though, he did name check many of his industry friends in the audience, so they could have very well been them.

During the performance of Domina (my now favourite track), Martin Luther King Jr’s speech; ‘I have a Dream’ was mixed over the top, apt as a couple of days prior before marked the 50th anniversary of King’s death. The power of the music (the bass/piano line) along with the power of one of the most important speeches ever made gelled very well together.

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Another highlight of the evening was the inevitable encore. Rather than the usual, oh let’s play these songs we ‘forgot’, Craig introduced each member of the group, who mainly had a jazz background and let them just freestyle it on their respective synth (or in Sholar’s case, a piano) to a standing ovation from the crowd. Naturally as expected they were all very talented musicians in their own right, and was nice to see them quite happily demonstrating their own individual talents.

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This was my first time at the Barbican. One of the few London venues I haven’t done and from the pictures beforehand one of the smartest. I genuinely wasn’t sure if there was a dress code… especially as this was more of a music performance then the classic gig (for the record: shirt/jean combo is fine). The Barbican itself as a structure is really cool, there was a lake upstairs you could go sit around in between the support and the main act… and a martini bar… Now the theatre itself is pretty big but the acoustics, especially on the lowest level where I was, are brilliant, probably even rivalling The Royal Albert Hall.

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Carl Craig and his Synthesizer Ensemble were supported by Paper Dollhouse. They were interesting, watching it felt more like a modern art show I probably wasn’t the target audience for, but the majority was cool electro beats moving towards a more prog rock sound (think the opening of a Pink Floyd track). Like Craig and Co they performed in pretty much darkness (for any photographers reading this, I ended up having to hit ISO 25600 (I’m usually comfortable to 3200) over the two acts) with somewhat trippy abstract projections on the screen behind them to watch rather than the artist performing. I watched Annihilation on Netflix a few days prior and I’ll be honest the sound and visuals reminded me of that.

Carl Craig and his Synthesizer Ensemble was better then I remember them, which is really saying something considering how good I thought they were at SW4 the year prior. As I mentioned earlier this was one of the best sounding gigs I’ve ever been to. Yes listening through a pair of quality headphones in good, but you will never, ever beat music performed live. I really hope I get to enjoy them live again one day.

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Anyway, go on Spotify and find the album, or head to YouTube and stick on an entire concert and just listen. Have it on whilst you’re working, in the car, as you lay there in bed and just enjoy it. I really struggle to describe the sound apart from amazing, if you call yourself a music fan, do yourself a favour!

Setlist:
Enter The Darkness
Darkness
Coding Sequence
Sandstorms
Error in replication
At Les
You are my best and only friend
Desire
Coding Cycle
Domina
Coding Cycle (Reverse)
Technology
C-beams in Glitters
Clear and Present (Jam)

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