Review: Sensoria 2016 (I)

Sensoria 2016 has just hit town in style. As ever, they look to stage the eclectic and the unique, so what could be better than hooking up with Sound on Sound to jointly host the UK’s very first Synthfest. Just why no-one has thought of gathering the country’s synthesiser fans together under one roof before is surprising, especially given the attendance of over 600 people. And of course, where better to celebrate electronic music in all its forms than here in Sheffield. I spotted Phil Oakey in the crowds, so they must have been dong something right. The main hall at the Octagon was filled with more blinking lights, strange noises and knobs to twiddle than anywhere I’ve ever been, as the manufacturers and owners of all variety of synthesisers showed off their devices. From big names such as Korg, Yamaha and Moog to some guy adapting electronic toys to make weird sounds, it was all there.

In between all this there were talks, demonstrations and seminars to keep even the geekiest of nerds happy, whilst still being entertaining and accessible to those with only a passing acquaintance with these weird and wonderful devices. My favourite session was led by Ian Helliwell, who has written what must be the definitive tome on British electronic music before 1970. Until I heard him talk, I would have thought there wasn’t much happening back then, outside the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but how wrong I would have been. Hobbyist and professionals were making electronic sounds, often in complete isolation from one another, and without Ian’s efforts would still be undocumented and unrecognised. He’s written and published a book, Tape Leaders, and made a documentary to try to bring the spotlight onto some of these long forgotten pioneers of synthesised sound.

To finish the day off, we all adjourned to the Corp’s small gig room, Local Authority, to watch Blancmange. The 80s synthesiser band, that is. Not a plate of wobbly milk-based pudding. Neil Arthur and Steven Luscombe were the core of the band, and made music from 1982 to 86, but recently they’ve started recording again. Neil has lost none of the dynamism and power of his voice over the years – if anything he sounds stronger now than he did when I was dancing to Living On The Ceiling in Turn Ups back in 1982.


If there was an era in music that still excites me today as much as it did at the time, the music from Germany in the seventies and eighties takes some beating. Groups like Kraftwerk, Can, NEU! and Tangerine Dream still play through my headphones on a weekly basis, and whilst it’s still possible to see some of them (or not, if you fell foul of the City Hall booking system which crashed last week when Kraftwerk tickets went on sale), it’s hard to recapture the sheer energy of those early recordings. So it was with a little trepidation that I went to see Michael Rother on Sunday night. He was briefly a member of Kraftwerk, and then went on to form NEU! and Harmonia, both seminal bands of the time. I need not have worried. His show was stunning. With only a drummer and a guitar player at his side he totally captivated the audience with a selection of solo works and music from his Harmonia and NEU! days. As expected, a performance of Hallogallo was greeted with the loudest cheer of the night, and, in Michael’s words, ‘could have gone on all night’. We had to wait almost an hour before he played it, but we all knew he would. It’s driving beat and psychedelic, trippy guitar sounds had the whole place dancing. Like all of the music tonight, the instrumental jams could have gone on for ever, but they were expertly reined in by Michael Rother, whether he was playing guitar or giving one of his synths a good twiddle. Excellent and exciting stuff.

Even the support act was interesting. French electronic act, Colder, made their only UK appearance this year, and although their low key approach to electronic dance music works well on record, for me they struggled to get over the subtlety of this successfully on a live stage.

As is always the case with Sensoria, my eyes and ears were opened to something I’d never have discovered without this amazing festival. Sparklehorse are a band I’d heard of, but knew little about. After watching the documentary, The Sad And Wonderful World Of Sparklehorse, all that changed, and I had to go home and listen to them. In reality, Sparklehorse is the music of Mark Linkous, who tragically took his own life in 2010. Sad and wonderful summed up both his life and his music, but like so many creative musicians, he struggled to make the music he really wanted to. We heard in the film about how he wrote the songs fully formed in his head, and then tried to get something recorded which approached the sounds he first heard when he wrote them. His album It’s A Wonderful Life was acclaimed in the film as being his best work, and I’d urge you to give it a listen.


So half way through the week and Sensoria has delivered yet again. I’ll update this blog as the week draws to a close, but so far, everything has lived up to expectations and more. Bring it on…


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