Sulphur Sonic Festival

Mannheim, Germany, August 30th, 2003

by Frank Gingeleit
Photographs by Britt Neuhaus and Frank Gingeleit

Uploaded to Aural Innovations: September 2003

I was skeptical in the beginning when I read in my local newspaper that there would be a new festival the next weekend - a free concert with local bands that consider themselves as the local underground, and the declared objective of this festival would be to give evidence against the music industry. What a chance when it would work or even would be a success! But would it work? To give international readers a bit of background information, Mannheim, Germany had played an important role in the classical period of music (the so called Mannheim School associated with the name of Stamitz) and again in the Seventies of the last century when there were no less than four progressive Rock bands from this town that received international attention and are still known to many up to the present day (Nine Days' Wonder, Kin Ping Meh, Tritonus, Twenty Sixty Six and Then). Times have changed in the meantime. There are still musicians in Mannheim, some of them even have contracts with major companies, but their relevance is mostly restricted to Germany or even to the region around Mannheim. A few months ago two things happened almost at the same time: the foundation of a so called "Pop Academy" (with Professor (!) Udo Dahmen, drummer on two Kraan Albums in the late Seventies, as its director and Tim Renner, the boss of Universal Music Germany, as a member of the board) and the cornerstone ceremony for a building to host new companies related to music (labels, music publishers, distributors, a recording studio and rehearsing space for bands) supported by public money given by the European Union for regions that are not so very well off economically speaking. When this happened the above mentioned local newspaper declared Mannheim, Germany one of the musical world capitals to be mentioned together with London or New York City in the future... From then on you could read about new "world stars" from Mannheim in this paper every couple of days - usually unknown a few miles away and forgotten the other day (it's quite alright that a local newspaper features and supports local bands but they're overdoing it every now and then). So, when this paper announced this new festival enthusiastically I told Jerry, the editor of Aural Innovation, that I'd certainly be there and try out my new camera but that I'd not be sure whether he'd receive an article... But as you see, there is an article, and this does not only mean that the festival was quite a success but that at least one of the local bands and one solo artist were heavily knocking at the door of the global underground that night.

The festival took place on the Neckar river embankment (if you might know the Neckar river from Mark Twain's travel reports, this part of it is rather an industrial transportation route than what Twain described as even more exciting than the Mississippi river at his time) under a railway bridge to shelter the stage and the audience from rain, and - yes - the day started quite cold and rainy, and there was a moment when the organizers were almost going to cancel the whole thing. During the afternoon the weather got a bit better but was still visitor deterring - when Britt, who took the daylight photographs for this article, left at 6:30 p.m. there were about 200 people gathering around the food and beverage booths with almost nobody in front of the stage. The idea of the festival was a free concert with just eating and drinking to pay for all the costs, there was no recognizable "admission", whoever walked along the river embankment was welcome, there was no security service and no police showed up, not even to say "hello". The only limit set to the festival by the local authorities was that it should end by midnight, which in fact was quite unlikely for German authorities who usually ask for a bulk of filled out application forms for anything. The organizers were a group of people around Norbert Schwefel, the founder and leader of the band "Schwefel", which means "sulphur" - his label is named "Sulphur Sonic" and gave the name to the whole festival. Schwefel brought out their latest release "Mystifer" a couple of weeks ago and the festival was designed as their release party with and for friends and guest musicians.

The festival started with a band called Elektro GŁnther (in German you have the association of a small town shop for electro stuff), a five piece group with some really strange sounds and very anarchic lyrics, but it was a family like atmosphere on stage, the pic's showing a duet of the lead singer and a kid in the audience, and everybody had fun during their set. Next were Mann beisst Hund ("man bites dog"), a duo in the style of a British Post Punk Pub Rock band; all drumming came from a tape and sounded quite realistic - maybe their regular drummer was on vacation - followed by The Swinging Nuts, who played some sort of an all time favorite Rock show, with everything that a good Rock show needs, nothing really new but worthwhile to listen to. The scenery changed a bit when it got darker and with it changed the music. Next were the Multi Relax Foundation who play something like modernized British Beat music of the late Sixties, where "modernized" does not mean that they would use drum loops or things like that. Everything was handmade and some elements of their show reminded me a bit of the Mandra Gora Lightshow Society, emphasizing their Beat feel rather than the freaked out spacey thing.

The whole festival changed completely when Schwefel got on stage. In the meantime a crowd of about 700 people had gathered around the stage, and this show was different. All bands before them had shown a very likeable amateurishness, gifted musicians but they recognizably are making music during their leisure time. With Schwefel you've got the kind of musicians who would fit any full professional band with a major company contract with respect to their musicality and instrumental control. Their rhythm section had changed since I saw them playing about two and a half years ago, now coming with Christian Marley on bass guitar (a founding member of Schwefel more than twenty years ago who has returned to the band) and Gabriele Zintel (aka Tara G. - attentive regular readers of Aural Innovations might remember her from my review of the 2002 Finkenbach Festival, where she was playing with a band called "Space Hobos") on drums. In this band Tara was able to exhibit her skills fully and together with Christian they formed a marvelous backing band for Norbert Schwefel on vocals and guitar and Thomas Hinkel on synthesizers, Fender Rhodes and varied keyboards. They started with some tunes from their previous albums, among them some Eighties' club hits (at least in Germany) and led over to a selection of tunes from "Mystifier", their recent album and - besides the attempt to promote underground music as a whole - the "reason" for the whole festival. As "Mystifier" is a very subtle and special album (see the link to an album review at the bottom of this article), the band concentrated on the more Rock style tracks adding lengthy instrumental middle parts to some of the tunes that are rather short on their album versions (again, see the album review for further specifications). During a part of the show Leroy Hartmann and Verona Davis, also to be heard on "Mystifier", were on stage as background singers. Verona Davis is quite well known in Europe due to her collaboration with Vaya Con Dios and the Stereo MCs. Especially with her appearance the show got moments of "world class" although the band had to struggle with sonic problems (the PA as well as the stage monitoring) - but, hey, it was live, open air, under a bridge, and how the band as a whole was getting along with these difficulties was impressive and very professional.

Last on stage that night was Horacz Bluminth, aka Martin Buchholz. There is space music by human beings, and there is music that seems to be composed and performed by genuine aliens. Horazc's music is of that latter kind. To give you an idea of what he's doing: imagine some of the piano based film music for French art movies by John Cale and above this - well, some sort of supra-human and supra-natural vocals in an invented language and efx'd in a way that you can't tell whether it's really performed by only the one person to be seen on stage with moving lips and a microphone or whether there's a 50 piece choir hidden behind the stage. All this is performed with the help of equipment that fits on an ironing board (!), a Yamaha e-piano, a small stage mixer and a handful of effect tools. The result was simply outrageous, and I cannot imagine that more than just a few in the audience had ever heard something like this or could even imagine that there might be music like this. But, though it was almost unbelievable, this show clicked incredibly well with a stunning and grateful audience (some of Horacz's music is available on CD and there's a link to a review at the bottom of this article).

There are at least two reasons for me to write this article. One reason is to introduce some of the current representatives of the Mannheim local underground to the "global underground", especially Schwefel and Horacz Bluminth. The other reason is to tell about a handful of people with an idea, with courage and the strength to stand unfavorable circumstances who achieved an unexpected and rather improbable success. When Norbert Schwefel came onstage again to bid the audience goodnight he could already announce next year's follow up... Fluctuations included there were about 1000 visitors, and according to the applause and their happy faces they really enjoyed this event. So, musicians and festival organizers among Aural Innovation readers, go there and spread festivals like this all over the world... Am I too optimistic? Maybe I am, but imagine a summer with not only commercial big stadium festivals with almost the same bands playing on each of them but with a multitude of small independent festivals with few bands, some hundred visitors and with the possibility of almost intimate encounters with the musicians, no police, no admission fee, no security personnel, no barriers... just music, talks and having a good time together. Wouldn't this be nice?

CLICK HERE to read reviews of three Schwefel releases.
CLICK HERE to read the review of Horacz Bluminth's "Marsch Obskur" CD.

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