Ether column, March 2007

This month’s column previews two concerts at the Arena, a fine medium-sized venue in the third district. Running under the banner “Love music, hate fascism”, this former slaughterhouse has carved out a niche for itself as a reliable purveyor of alternative entertainments, and has a large courtyard where open-air gigs are held in summer.

Unlikely to be much in the way of summery vibes, though, at the welcome return to Vienna of John Cale. Now pushing 65, this remarkable musician retains every ounce of the tense creativity that marked his earliest work in the mid-1960s. Growing up in a small town in Wales, Cale moved to New York when the music scene there was on the verge of a period of intense innovation. He took up the viola and joined forces with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young in the Theatre of Eternal Music, an experimental ensemble that focused on the hypnotic musical properties of the drone. From there it was a short step to the Velvet Underground, where Cale’s radical dissonance was the perfect foil for Lou Reed’s more pop-wise sensibility. Cale’s musical and vocal contributions to the first two Velvets records were significant, but in 1968 he was deplorably forced to leave the band due to Reed’s control-freak tendencies. Since then he has pursued a prolific solo career, releasing around 15 studio albums as well as numerous collaborations and works for film and dance. His solo work is characterised by a restless intelligence, with passages of great elegance and refinement jostling for space with snarling aggression and spare, controlled atonality.

On his last visit to Vienna in February 2006, Cale warmed up the rather sterile Birdland atmosphere with a slew of songs from his extensive back catalogue and a sprinkling of Velvets classics for good measure. Here in the more relaxed surroundings of the Arena, he’s sure to deliver a powerful and committed performance.

A week or so later, Austrian alt-rock outfit Naked Lunch hit the Arena on the Vienna leg of an extensive tour of Austria and Germany. Formed in Klagenfurt in 1991, Naked Lunch have a turbulent history. Founder member Georg Trattnig died of an alcohol-related condition in 2000, while his co-founder Oliver Welter lived rough for a time after the band had been dropped by two successive record labels. Meanwhile, the band’s studio burned down before they had finished work on their fourth album. That record, Songs for the Exhausted, was not released until 2004, three years after its completion; but it became their breakthrough album, trading indie bluster for wintry electronica. Holding fast to the ‘less is more’ principle, their new record, This Atom Heart of Ours, is a collection of understated songs which should appeal to fans of Mercury Rev’s plaintive melodicism. Like Cale, Naked Lunch are survivors, their continued presence an illustration of the virtues of bloody-mindedness and persistence.

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