BirdPen’s concert in the Rotonde at Botanique for the promotion of their new album All Function One (2021) reflected their own idea of what guitar player Mike Bird claims progressive rock should do – prevent us from staying stuck in a rut, and encourage us to progress through music.
BirdPen was created in 2003 by Dave Pen, who’s also the singer and guitar player of legendary alternative rock band Archive, and his friend Mike Bird. The band self-defines as makers of progressive rock, mixing elements from alternative guitar rock, electronic music and kraut rock. They’re back in Brussels for their European tour promoting their 6th album issued in 2021, All Function One.
The album features themes like loneliness and hopelessness, and takes up a critical stance towards recent developments in our globalised society. It is particularly critical of the crushing role of social media in our lives and of the rise of misinformation. What is striking is that both men had finished the album before the world stopped turning in the spring of 2020 and we were all forced to live our social lives on our screens. All this has caused many music critics to call All Function One a visionary album, as if BirdPen (after their 5th album There’s Something Wrong with Everything) had sensed the coming of a new phase in our increased isolation and reliance upon technology.
It’s 8PM on a sunny Sunday evening and people are flowing into the Rotonde, the smaller concert hall of the Botanique venue in Brussels. The Rotonde is, as its name indicates, a round, dome-shaped hall with seats arranged in half a circle. The audience primarily consists of middle-aged spectacled Belgians with a glimmer of nostalgia in their eyes. Some younger people came alone, sitting cross-legged on the wooden steps of the Rotonde. The atmosphere is very quiet and a little bit stuck up – almost no one feels lively enough to stand.
The opening act is Hansel, a south Belgian band who issued their album of dreamy instrumental post-rock Sultana in 2021. Their music sounds like the theme of a fairy-tale villain (contrary to the image of the little sweet-toothed boy from the Grimm brothers’ Hansel & Gretel), with strong, slow-paced drumbeats that resemble the sound of an evil giant’s footsteps. They’re doing a great job at shaking us up from our lazy Sunday haze, but this is mainly due to the shattering loudness of the music. I notice one woman covering her ears and I desperately look for my earplugs in the near dark. After thirty minutes, Hansel stops playing and people lightly cheer, seeming almost relieved.
At 9PM sharp, BirdPen silently arrive on stage and start playing “Blackhole”, the sixth track on their new album. Pen (suitably) greets the audience singing “hello blackhole”, and it seems as if the performers picked up on the generally uptight atmosphere of the room. They look a little shy and avoid eye contact with the audience, who are still mainly sitting. A male drummer and a female bass/violin/synth player and background vocalist accompany the two guitar players, who occasionally turn to the back of the stage to play the synth. My expectations as to the stage appearance were quite high because BirdPen value visual production – many of their videos are eclectic pieces of art. Yet aside from a few vertical neon tubes, and a fake owl and crow looking over us there was not much to write home about.
Musically though, Pen’s vocals stimulate the dreamy corners of our consciousness. Some people start cheering spontaneously and we gradually start forgetting how stiff we really were. But it’s when the band moves on to play one of their older songs, “Into the Blacklight” (2015), that something magical happens. Bird and Pen exchange a look and we see Pen opening up and starting to show his performer-side (Bird is, I believe, a reserved person and seems to focus on playing and getting into a sort of live-concert-trance). The tune ends in a rhythmic bassline played by the female musician and the energy of the artists flows into the audience. We’re now ready for one of the catchiest songs on the new album, “Flames”. Pen really has this deep and raspy voice whose power you can’t prevent from getting to your soul. I realise I’m not the only one who’s thinking this because a woman from behind me screams “we love you” after Pen officially greets us. Thankfully, he loves us back and is happy to be in Brussels again.
One of the highlights of the concert is when Pen grabs his tambourine and encourages us to clap on the rhythm of “Changes”, the ninth track of their new release. He’s at the height of his performance and manages to make a connection with the audience, even doing a little – highly appreciated – tambourine dance while people frantically clap. They then start playing one of their best-known tracks, “Off” (On/Off/Safety/Danger, 2008), with Pen switching between the synth and the tambourine. Thanks to the shape of the Rotonde concert hall, you get this unsettling effect that some sounds seem to be coming from behind you, which makes the experience even more thrilling.
After a little false note from Pen on “Otherside” (All Function One, 2021), which feels like a tiny spot on an otherwise perfectly clean sheet, we’re in for another peak moment of the performance. The band start playing “Seat 35”, a song also featured on All Function One in which Pen expresses his fears of dying on an airplane. Bird plays the guitar seamlessly and when I look around me, I see people engrossed into the music with their eyes closed, listening to Pen singing he “hopes he’ll see us again and can’t help feeling it’s the end”.
In the two next songs, “Modern Junk” (All Function One, 2021) and “Oh So Happy” (There’s Something Wrong with Everything, 2018), the guitar and drums sound a bit too loud compared to the vocals. But with “Natural Rewards” (There’s Something Wrong with Everything, 2018), the balance is struck again. After the encore, Bird and Pen look at each other and cunningly exchange a smile. You can see that they’ve been waiting for this moment the entire night. They play “Only the Names Change” (Global Lows, 2012) with an extended acoustic ending while the audience dances and jumps around.
In a 2014 interview for the Franco-German TV channel Arte, Pen said that progressive rock was about not being afraid to make simple music, to build up intensity while playing two notes for four minutes in a row. Intensity is certainly what the band achieved in the second half of the concert. Even though almost all the songs they performed were live debuts, they managed to entangle a non-alternative audience in their powerful alternative electronic rock and meaningful, critical and expressive lyrics. Isn’t that progressive?
There are still tickets available for their concert at Reflektor in Liège on 25 June. Go see them!