31st May 2017, 8:20pm CET: Pictures frontman Maze Exler calmly puts down his guitar, reaches on top of a nearby amp and picks up a cigarette. He lights it but the flame doesn’t last for more than five seconds of his wandering around. He flicks his lighter again and this time the flame takes. He wanders over to the microphone in the centre of the Huxleys Neue Welt stage and slowly begins singing. We already knew from Ole Fries’ guitar intro exactly what it was going to be.
Exler stands without a guitar for the only time in Pictures’ half-hour set supporting Paul Weller with his immaculately trousered legs a shoulder width apart and his back arched slightly away from the crowd. He looks naked and vulnerable, a far cry from his initial confident showmanship and panache. The song is Save My Heart, the hidden highlight of Pictures’ debut LP released in February, nestled away as the penultimate song. Halfway through, Exler briefly turns his back on the audience to face drummer Michael Borwitzky. Exler wipes tears from his eyes. He turns and hurls his unfinished cigarette into the pit between audience and stage: “No matter where you’re coming from, no matter where you’re going to,” a subtle lyric change, “I’m gonna change your life”. I didn’t take pictures of this. It was too intensely captivating. I felt like a voyeur on Exler’s soul-bearing. It was awkward but beautiful, you couldn’t look away. If the audience had all known the band’s backstory, there would not have been a dry eye in the house.
Cut to 2006: The German grunge band Union Youth, fronted by Exler, or Maze Valentin as he was then known, with among other stage-names ‘Bowy’ (guess who) on drums, is dying. They had seemed on course for big success, even looking as far as America to search for a record deal. However, this never came and the band petered out as so many with promise and ambition unfortunately do. Originally formed in 2000, they split up after six years and a few albums. Out of music, Exler’s heroin addiction claimed the next ten years of his life. It even threatened to derail Pictures’ initial progress after their 2014 formation until Exler got the help he needed and got clean prior to Promise’s release.
So when he sings “I’m gonna change my life… I really mean it,” you know he really does mean it.
Back to the present: Pictures are making up for lost time, although it feels nothing like a reformation of Union Youth – this is different. For a start the music is up-tempo indie rock. Energy is the word of the day. Bassist Markus Krieg leans back, holding himself like he’s playing Guitar Hero. Borwitzky keeps beat like his life depends on it, like there is nothing other than the kit. I have never seen a drummer hit quite so hard while maintaining a smile on his face. Fries pokes at his guitar like a hyperactive schoolboy after a bottle of Coke and a bag of M&Ms. Then there’s Exler. He struts around, more often than not leaving most of the heavy guitar lifting to his co-songwriter Fries, with his distinctive voice never grating but giving his lyrics a lucid honesty. Without the accent it would be hard to believe they are written in his second language.
Pictures started their set with Promise’s first four tracks. Here I Come provided a rocking introduction and mission statement, followed by the title track which has gained the most exposure thus far. Fall, next, was slightly more mellow than Here I Come, but allowed Fries to exhibit some excellent guitar work nonetheless. “Jesus Christ!” beamed Exler as he looked out onto the fans after a particularly warm ovation. Album opener Down Under the Hill gave Exler perhaps his best vocal workout. Fries put in a valiant effort on backing vocals. Alas, he didn’t quite match Dorothea Münsch’s exploits on the album but gave a more than passable performance.
Exler received praise from some of the front row Mods for his jacket, the same one he wore for the excellent Vevo Dscvr session of album track Let the Music Shine. And tonight’s rendition was also superb. You may think on first listen that Exler’s bored, melancholic delivery of the line “oh my god I’m so excited” has been confused somewhere, like one of the album’s only other lines lost in translation, in Emily, where Exler claims he doesn’t want to “irrigate” his love with the poor girl (?!) But this is not the case. Let the Music Shine is as much about anxiety and vulnerability as pleasure. A slow burner, initially I wasn’t keen but it is now one of my favourites from the album.
I wondered how the hell Pictures were going to equal or better the emotional rawness of Save My Heart. And, of course, they didn’t. But what they did do was close the set with a superb double header. First came album track Love which led into an extended version of Promise’s final track, Love’s Reprise. The overlaid voices on this were replaced by guitars and drums, with Fries really coming into his own, delivering a superb display. The energetic final song of a gig is one remnant from the Union Youth days. The ground shook as all four members poured every last drop into their performance, leaving nothing behind.
And then it was over. Krieg played the last few notes with his bass guitar held aloft. All acknowledged the applause and cheers. But as if to emphasise their work ethic and the effort it took to get another shot, before long they were, to a man, back on stage, marshalling their roadies and clearing their gear away themselves.
The repeated comparisons of Union Youth to Nirvana are gone, and I could hear perhaps some Oasis influences in the heavier, more layered tracks of Pictures’ excellent album. The band are spread out geographically across Germany. If it is true that familiarity breeds contempt then this working relationship seems to be perfectly balanced. The fascinating formation of Pictures and specifically Exler’s challenging journey has led the band to feature in a German language documentary premiered this year at February’s Berlin Film Festival entitled Könige der Welt, translated variously as ‘We Were Kings’ or ‘Kings of the World’.
Well, Könige der Welt they are not yet, but Pictures are well on their way to making good the second time. Like the metaphor of Exler’s cigarette, Pictures have been relit. Whether they can keep burning this time is anyone’s guess, but if they do the results could be brilliant.
Maze Exler – Vocals, Guitar
Ole Fries – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Markus Krieg – Bass
Michael Borwitzky – Drums