You don’t have to be a Delphic oracle to know that the nerve-shattering scream of small children, loudly reverbed by row houses as you and a friend walk past a Polish pre-school, is probably a bad omen. Even as we heard it we knew that tonight could be fated for horror and dysfunction. As it turned out, we were only half right.
The place we’re heading for is Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s own Studio B, and the event we’re here to see is the New York City debut of the Field (nee Axel Willner). For those of you who haven’t heard the album yet, From Here We Go Sublime kind of sounds like house music for the spacecraft Discovery in Kubrick’s 2001. Imagine yourself as a jogging astronaut or a giant space-fetus floating over the earth with earbuds on and you’ll get a good sense of what Willner’s brand of dance sounds like. The guy with me is an old friend, call him Paul. Paul is a sickeningly brilliant IT professional who, by general consensus, looks like a bored Cossack taking a brief reprieve from raping peasant women and raiding the Caucuses. Dance clubs and techno are to Paul what restraint and compassion were to Pol Pot, so mostly he’s just along for the ride here. I mention him because by the time the night was through, even he managed to have a good time.
The show starts well enough with deejays Scott Mou and Brian Degraw. Studio B isn’t a large space, but it has a sound system that could probably level Estonia, and Degraw seems well on his way to milking it for every watt until said sound system, along with all the stage lighting, suddenly cuts out.
Okay, don’t panic. Probably just a power surge. Things will be up and running in a few minutes.
Fast forward about three hours, when Kate Simko is doing her damned best to manage what sounds like eight channels of sound routed through a jury-rigged single channel, while every employee but the bartenders are still scrambling to bring the full house system back online. They never would, and as far as Paul or I could tell, it wasn’t really the venue’s fault, either. Shit happens, especially on Brooklyn’s seemingly pre-Hellenic power grid. All I could think of doing through all this was walking up to Willner, shaking his hand, and offering him an ironic “Welcome to New York.”
Speaking of Willner: We never get to talking but I see him often enough (we’re both chain-smokers, apparently). From what I can gather he seems like the shy and generous type, and not the kind of prima donna to walk out on a show if the sound isn’t perfect. I even catch him signing autographs mid-set, which speaks to a certain decency and grace.
Willner doesn’t start till about 1:30 a.m., but as soon as he does we all mostly forget the sound issues. I say mostly because although the surrogate system the folks at Studio B rig up is satisfying in the lower registers, any higher-end sound immediately hits a wall of distortion. On the album, “Sun and Ice” is about as rich and luscious a techno song as you are likely to find anywhere, but over an ad hoc system it just sounds grotesque. Ditto for “From Here We Go Sublime,” which against all expectation kicks off the set rather than concludes it. The highlight of the evening for all involved seems to be Willner’s high-impact remix of Annie’s “Heartbeat,” which even over a ruined system can still apparently detonate a dance floor.
Listening to the album, it’s difficult to reckon some of these songs to a club environment, but somehow they all work. I can’t even imagine how great this would’ve sounded if Willner had a fully operational system to work with.