The Membranes in Tallinn: A Neutrino Walks Into a Bar…

by Karolis Vyšniauskas
Credits for the pictures go to Evert Palmets and

Apologies to my Lithuanian readers who don’t understand the language –  all two of you. This review will be in English so people in Estonia and everywhere else would be able to read it, too.

An influential UK punk rock band releases their first album in 16 years. That is big news in itself. But for The Membranes, one of the post-punk pioneers, this was just a starting point.

Last Friday they flew to Tallinn to collaborate with Sireen – the Estonian women’s choir. The band’s frontman (and the great music writer) John Robb saw Sireen singing at Tallinn Music Week, was amazed by their voices and invited the choir to play together. In the beautiful Kino Sõprus, the oldest cinema in Estonia today, the band and the choir together performed songs from The Membranes’ new album Dark Matter/Dark Energy.

It’s a dark concept record in which The Membranes go into the unknown territory. They sing about the universe, photons and supernovas. They ask what will happen to our bodies after we die. These are the questions that only scientists at CERN may know how to answer properly.

Lucky for us, we had one of them in the audience that night. Umut Kose, the CERN scientist who specializes in neutrinos and loves rock music gave an hour-long interview to Robb before the gig. He explained the complexity of the universe, starting with its smallest particle – a neutrino.

A few years ago it was discovered that neutrinos may travel faster than the speed of light, therefore they can go backwards in time. Soon it was proved that no, actually, they don’t. But Twitter jokes like “Hipsters liked neutrinos before they arrived” or “A Neutrino Walks Into a Bar…” with all its variations were already here.

“Neutrino is a very small particle, but a very big personality. Neutrinos are anti-social and schizophrenic,” said Kose. He raised his finger. “Guess how many neutrinos are passing through my finger right now?” he asked. No one was right. Because the number was just too big to handle: 3 trillion.

3 trillion. Every second.

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From all the things that Kose tried to explain to us, the people who know the difference between noise rock and krautrock, but not necessarily between a neutron and a neutrino (no, they are not the same), one fact stood out. “96 percent of the universe is still unexplained. It is dark,” he said.

During the event, ironically titled “The Universe: Explained” we learned that basically we know almost nothing. The majority of our world is still a mystery to us. That felt a bit depressing, yet somehow liberating.

But we do know how to enjoy music. “We just explained the universe scientifically. Now we will explain it musically”, said Robb. The images of galaxies appeared on the huge cinema screen behind the band and the choir. The concert had started.

Dark Matter/Dark Energy is an impressive album but the collaboration with Sireen turned it’s songs into something even more powerful and cinematic. The album’s hit “Do the Supernova” sounded more destructive than ever, the haunting “In the Graveyard” actually sounded as if we were in the graveyard. It’s not often that you hear gloomy post-punk accompanied by 20 singers. God it was scary.

The band and the choir had only one rehearsal before the show. They came from different countries and from different music traditions. The whole idea of them working together may have looked a bit odd on paper. But in reality it sounded as if the band and the choir were meant to play together.

And they will do it again. After the show Robb said that he is planning to bring Sireen to Manchester to play the show there. The only issue is traveling and accommodation but he promised to take care of that.

The Membranes may have not explained the universe that night. But they created the unprecedented collaboration between science and music, between post-punk and chamber choir, between British and Baltic musical traditions. They performed dark songs, but this was one of the brightest music events that I have ever witnessed in the Baltics. 3 trillion neutrinos were dancing around happily.

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My interview with John Robb (in Lithuanian)
The Membranes Official
Sireen Official
Louder Than War, the music website edited by John Robb