Ether column, October 2006

Two very different purveyors of modern American rock come to Vienna this month. First, Pere Ubu, who have been creating a unique, uncategorisable noise for over thirty years. Formed in 1975 and sporadically active ever since, they have undergone numerous line-up changes but have always centred on the larger-than-life figure of frontman David Thomas. The band is named after the main character in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, a forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd – and there is indeed something absurd, yet strangely compelling, about Ubu’s music. It’s a blend of raw, punkish textures, scything electric guitar and jagged, angular discordance, with liberal bursts of feedback hovering around Thomas’s high-pitched, desperate-sounding voice.

The band’s first album, The Modern Dance, was immediately hailed as a classic upon its release in 1978, but its follow-up, Dub Housing, is often cited as their best. Later albums were poppier and sometimes uneven, but never lost the essential element of Thomas’s agitated creativity. Often seen onstage wearing a large red apron and playing an accordion, Thomas comes across in live performance as a mixture of circus clown, street ranter and fairground barker.

Thomas has a bewildering array of projects under his belt at a time. He recently reformed his pre-Ubu proto-punk outfit, Rocket From The Tombs, and has a long-standing solo project, the Two Pale Boys. His “improvisational opera”, Mirror Man, was premiered in London in 1998 and has since been performed around the world. He has acted on London stages and lectured at American universities. But the group context of Pere Ubu has always been the main platform for his wayward, unpredictable talent.

Rock critic Greil Marcus wrote: “Thomas’s voice is that of a man muttering in a crowd. You think he’s talking to himself, until you realise he’s talking to you.” Vienna has the chance to hear what Thomas is talking about when Pere Ubu play the Szene on the opening night of their European tour.

Later this month, Midlake plug into the Flex’s awesome sound system for an evening of leisurely indie pop. As fresh and relaxed as Ubu are weathered and craggy, Midlake débuted in 2004 with Bamnan and Slivercork. That album’s appealing synthesised textures immediately marked the band out as producers of whimsical, lo-fi electronica, recalling the more psychedelic elements of outfits like the Flaming Lips but adding their own distinctive layer of unhurried pastoralism.

Their recently released second album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is a seductive amalgam of 1970s mellow moods (Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young) and contemporary mope-rock from the likes of Radiohead and Coldplay. As such, it represents something of a backward step from the quirky originality of its predecessor. Still, with their delicate, affecting and hopeful songs, it would certainly be unwise to write Midlake off just yet.

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