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Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (live at The Barbican)

7 April 8018

Stranger ThingsThe Netfix TV series Stranger Things has been the go-to visual experience for all things retro 80s in the last couple of years. Set in the town of Hawkins, various supernatural and sci-fi events set off the young protagonists in the search for the truth. The series mixes Steven Speilbergesque science fiction with a dash of 1980s horror and gore, sort of like Brian Yunza meets John Carpenter. This visual style spills over onto the series soundtrack that mixes the odd classic song from the era with the composed work of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of electronic band S U R V I V E.

Tonight Dixon and Stein are doing two performances of part of their score to two lots of audiences. Both performance times will last about seventy-five minutes, and I am at the first of these shows. The audience is made up of mainly fans of the programme, with a few electronic a fans like myself thrown in for good measure. The venue fills up to capacity and it’s hard to imagine what people are expecting from this evening. The notes for the event say that no visuals from the series will be used during the performance, which makes the couple sitting next to me give out an audible groan as they read it.

There is semi-circle of synths onstage and what looks like some form of scaffolding between the performers and the audience. Already the stage is in gloom, so it makes it difficult for even for me to make out what equipment is being used: I think one is a Prophet 6 (which then later I find out is true), but it’s hard to tell what the others are. Two men appear, slightly illuminated, from the side of the stage and the house lights go down. I move down to the front to get some photos.

Dry ice billows out over the audience and Dixon and Stein begin to play in total darkness. In fact they play the entire set that way with different strobe-type lighting from the scaffolding lighting up between them and the audience. This brings back to me tales of Tangerine Dream and Fripp and Eno playing concerts entirely in the dark. You have no real idea what the performers are doing as they are only shadows on stage. The other photographer says to me “This is a fruitless exercise”, and puts his camera away. Not good for photos, but great if you want to immerse yourself in the music – so I head back to my seat.

Tonight Dixon and Stein mainly play a selection from the second series of Stranger Things. This lurches between atmospheric drones that play like a cross between Karlheinz Stockhausen and early Klaus Schulze, to melodic sequencer pieces reminiscent of 70s and early 80s Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter’s soundtrack work. The music is not played as separate pieces, but one long suite that carries you off into different dimensions of the series story arc. “Descent Into The Rift” particularly sticks out as a dark brooding piece where your mind’s eye can imagine the many monsters waiting in the Upside Down realms. “Walkin’ In Hawkins” has splashes of arcane melodies, while “Eleven” has a touch of melancholy and esoteric despair about it. At times the beats sound as if they are lifted from The Human League’s Reproduction or an early John Foxx record, and this adds to the synthwave vibe of the score and is not too dissimilar in style to bands such as Waveshaper and Code Electro.

Visually, the light design by MFO works very well with its white and red strobe effects blinking out of the dry ice, giving the proceedings the look of a horror version of Blade Runner. As the set draws to a close, both Dixon and Stein saunter off stage, waving a couple of times at the audience as they disappear into darkness again.

In a strange way, it has to be one of the most understated performances I have ever seen. But the lack of visuals really meant you could concentrate totally on the music and let it conjure up your own visions. So in away the music was both a soundtrack and also a lengthy piece that you could just enjoy, and wallow in its atmosphere without the constraints of the visual accompaniment of the series.

-Gary Parsons-

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