A sharp expulsion of air hisses out, as singer Blixa Bargeld forces the nozzle of a gas jet to the microphone, and the sound is immediately whipping round the cavernous 3,000-crammed Columbiahalle, set free, like some Ariel, and EinstÃ¼rzende Neubauten are back. Starting as they mean to go on: "Ende Neu", a song of new beginnings and transformations, is a practice implied in the band's very name. This is their home-coming concert, their 20th birthday party, and Neubauten look an impressive sight aligned at the front: Alexander Hacke and Rudi Moser beating out a stern percussion on petrol cans; the improbably named Ash Wednesday fleshing out structures on his keyboards; NU Unruh - with Bargeld, the only remaining member of the original Neubauten - caressing a metal pipe into giving up its sonic secrets; Jochen Arbeit grinding his guitar into action.
That these great, primal beats are heard at all is nothing short of a miraculous will to live. Formed out of the very wasteland fabric of Cold War Berlin, the first years of Bargeld and his alchemists were fraught. They had chainsaw accidents on stage; fire storms at times complicated matters, as did the pneumatic drills once deployed to rock the foundations of venues. These days, danger and Neubauten have a different relationship, but the risks of an increasingly subtle sound - as evidenced by their new album, Silence is Sexy - shows. For all its inherent power there's an immense spirit of incandescent beauty in their urban soul. They can overwhelm like no other band today.
But the risks remain. Berlin is fast changing and the longevity of the music played in the evening's three-hour set demonstrates their persisting relevance. It's also an event of great emotion: it's simply impossible to be unmoved when Neubauten begin working as a great, rhythmic engine, forging the beats that fire older pieces like "Headcleaner", "Interimsliebenden" or the dazzlingly urgent 10-minute "NNNAAAMMM", with its mantra, "The song sleeps in the machine". Those who may think of Neubauten as a noise band would be surprised at the subtlety and precision that occupies each step of this concert. It shows itself most readily in songs like "Sabrina" or "Stella Maris" or, during a 15-minute interval, on "Pelikanol", during which the vocalist alone improvises a piece about the sensory memory of a brand of glue smelling of marzipan and bitter almonds. That Bargeld, tonight chatty and visibly touched by the occasion, can hold an audience so enthralled says much about his innate presence and authority.
A string octet lends a shimmering presence to "Redukt", by which time Bargeld and Hacke are barefoot, feeling the rhythms through their soles. If this a measure of how far Neubauten have travelled in 20 years, it's a good one, for it demonstrates an unfailing commitment to the experimentation and intelligence that has seen them through. Here's to the future.