Review: Nils Frahm, O2 Academy Birmingham

Nils Frahm O2 Academy Birmingham credit Ellie Koepke

Nils Frahm serves up a flawless performance and a stiff middle finger to the corporate agenda in a stunning Birmingham debut.

A frosty Wednesday evening and certainly not Nils’ usual haunt. Yet the anticipation in the air is electric. A dense crowd quickly gathers, packing out the room’s central expanse that lays in the shadow of an impressive stage setup.  

Carefully illuminated, the composer’s signature gear is purposely presented for all to see: a Roland Juno-60, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron M400, and a grand piano feature alongside other analogue and digital modular equipment.

As the lights finally dim, Frahm emerges on stage acknowledging the audience with a courteous bow and a casual demeanour topped off with a wry smile and flat cap.

Image: Sam Wood

Now sat, back turned, curled over the Mellotron, the first melodies trickle out over faint whispers and shuffling bodies. The creaking of the mechanism is very much a part of the composition giving way to a sombre intro that builds, incandescently, into the dance orientated “Sunson” – much to everyone’s delight. 

It’s clear, even from early on, that the artist knows his demographic. The performance meanders between self-reflective solo work and densely layered electronica. Sustenance for long-standing followers and new converts alike.   

Extended renditions of “My Friend the Forest” and “Because This Must Be” reflect the virtuosity of a dedicated performer, with moments of raw, stripped back intensity acting as a primer for more spills. 

Titular track “All Melody” reveals a far more animated state (and a joyous introduction of arpeggiated woodwind!). Jostling between synths, FX pedals, and sample pads, Frahm’s busy stage presence is intoxicating to watch. 

Despite the intentional distortions and digital manipulation of sound in tracks like “#2”, the composer Neo-Classical/IDM creations always remain impossibly organic; testament to years of refined programming and electroacoustic experimentation. 

In fact, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is actually being performed live at all.

Frahm had teased earlier in the evening – through one of his many whimsical interactions with the crowd – that he had a “little announcement to make about the O2 (Academy Group)”.

“I think O2 is a bit broke” he says, “it seems, maybe, that they just want to own anything that seems a bit cool”. Further criticism follows; talk of inflated charges, disingenuous corporatisation of music, unfair treatment of artists and their fans. This is not just a jab at the O2 but a fiery revolt against the actions of big business in the music industry:    

“… and they want 25% of merchandise… so here’s a fun fact, we’re going to sell it on the street from our van around the back!”

Image: Ellie Koepke

Nothing like an impassioned (and comically delivered) speech against the corporate agenda to win the respect of your audience – not that there was anymore left to win. In what could have been a disastrous fall out had only served to bolster the integrity of the show. 

Entering the final moments of the performance Frahm gives a meta breakdown of how the night will end citing that “the encore is some last century shit”. This tongue in cheek to and fro has been present for the duration.

The predetermined ‘encore’ is a frantic medley of key flourishes, ambient textures and euphoric build ups. “Says” eases in with ethereal grace, the emotion of every key, the impact of dizzying crescendos seemingly felt by every soul in the room. It really doesn’t get much better than this. 

Drumming out a percussive rhythm on the inner tendrils of the grand piano, the performance comes to an artfully abrupt end. Bowing as he started, hand on heart, the love for his Birmingham turn-out is all too apparent.

The booking is a bold move from Birmingham promoters Leftfoot and This Is Tmrw, but it’s paid off in spades. With a stage full of vintage instruments, each carrying a story, soul and personality, and a performer with such flair and infectious likability, the experience has been unforgettable. A rarity in today’s saturated climate.   

And for the record – yes, the back alley merch van claim was legit. 

Words: Kristian Birch-Hurst


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