Einstürzende Neubauten, Vienna Arena, 18 April 2008

Talking about this concert with friends on the way home, it became clear to me just how important Einstürzende Neubauten were, and remain, in my musical journey. There’s a parallel of sorts with Throbbing Gristle, whom I was very excited to see in Krems last year; after seeing them, I wrote that “I simply needed to see these four people onstage, and acknowledge the infinitude of their influence on so much I have thought, done, heard and written over the last twenty years of my life.” Which is all well and good, but of course I never saw TG first time around, and there is an inevitable element of nostalgia, of repeating something that’s already been done, about TG’s recent activities. (I felt exactly the same about the Van der Graaf Generator and Dead Can Dance reunions, for all the joy they brought me.)

Neubauten, on the other hand, have never gone away. I remember my first acquaintance with them very well. In early 1984, at the age of 15, I had recently graduated from Smash Hits to NME as my musical reading matter of choice. I read an article by Chris Bohn about their legendary concert at the ICA (yes, I do realise it wasn’t a proper Neubauten gig), the account of which I found impossibly vital and thrilling. Not long after, my late, deeply mourned mother took my brother and me on one of our occasional shopping trips from sleepy Salisbury to the teeming metropolis that was Southampton. Once there, I made a beeline as usual for Virgin Records, which was at that time a dark, slightly intimidating place, nothing at all like the “Megastores” that came later. Somewhat surprisingly, given that there was little in my record collection at the time except for the complete recorded works of Gary Numan and Pink Floyd, I made straight for the ‘E’ section and was awestruck to discover therein the spidery scrawl of Neubauten’s unutterably strange name and the unsettling blankness of their stick man logo flecked with blood. The record was called Strategies Against Architecture Vol.1. I bought it, took it home and played it, and I’ve never felt the same about music since. A full three years before I discovered Swans, who were to become even more important to me, Neubauten showed me that music could be unconventional, atonal and still somehow beautiful.

Of course, Neubauten have changed markedly since that time, but their art remains as fresh and immediate as it has always done. Last Friday’s sold-out concert at the Arena in Vienna was an illustration of how they have matured into a lean and reflective entity. Their music is tremendously focused and directed; it sounds entirely like folk music to me, wholly European in its directness and simplicity. It’s still sonically devastating, though, with Unruh and Moser’s jagged rhythmic arsenal set implacably against Hacke’s wall of bass noise and Arbeit’s shimmering textural guitar. As for Blixa Bargeld, he is a colossal stage presence, whether intoning his trenchant lyrics, using his voice as a pure sound source or even presiding, like a genial game-show host, over a bizarre Cageian chance exercise in which the group members pick cards out of a bag giving them instructions on how to play.

So there we are – Einstürzende Neubauten, after twenty-eight years, as powerful as ever, and now raising smiles as well.

Paul Lebrecque/Primordial Undermind, Vienna Subterrarium, 4 April 2008

My second concert in as many nights was about as underground as gigs in Vienna get, literally as well as metaphorically. Subterrarium is a cellar accessible only via an unmarked wooden door. Cold, damp and somewhat lacking in the comfort department, the place more than compensates for these deficiencies through the warmth of the welcome it extends and the commitment and dedication of those who perform there. Having played host last December to the reportedly excellent acid folk group Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Friday night saw an appearance by Paul Lebrecque of inspired free folk aggregation Sunburned Hand of the Man, in collaboration with Vienna’s own space rock heroes Primordial Undermind (see last month’s column).

This curtailed evening began with a brief solo spot by Lebrecque. Alternately plucking and bowing his banjo, he was a picture of concentration, lost in rapt contemplation of his instrument. Overtones and half-formed melodies radiated outward from Lebrecque’s playing, forming a strange yet compelling blend of old-time Harry Smith folk and almost raga-like atmospheres.

Almost immediately, Lebrecque picked up his electric guitar and was joined onstage by the PU crew. Together, the six of them started up a loose, flowing improvisation that began quietly and unfolded beautifully. I was unimpressed by PU frontman Eric Arn’s initial fiddling with his acoustic guitar (there’s only one guitarist in the world who should be allowed to hold anything other than a plectrum or slide to a set of guitar strings, and that’s Keith Rowe), but once he quit the tricksiness and actually started to play the thing properly, his contributions were rich and varied. Elsewhere, the combination of slipping slide guitar, tumbling bass, thunderous cello and drums, and spacey electronic effects coalesced into a wild and engrossing whole.

All too soon, it was over. The guerrilla nature of the performance space turned round and bit the group on the backside, as first the drummer was told to keep it down and then the entire group was forced to stop playing at 10pm, due to the disturbance they were causing to the residents upstairs. A great shame, as to these ears they sounded like they were just getting underway. I unfortunately missed the last “proper” Primordial Undermind gig at B72 in March, so have yet to hear them play a full electric set. I suspect it will be worth the wait, but their next gig is also at Subterrarium in June, so I may have to wait a while longer.

Marissa Nadler, Vienna Gasthaus Vorstadt, 3 April 2008

I’ve written at some length about Marissa Nadler‘s bewitching music before (see here, here and here), so I don’t have a huge amount to add by way of reviewing her first Vienna concert last week. Just to say that the show, in the very pleasant and welcoming surroundings of the Gasthaus Vorstadt, was a stunningly effective performance, giving tangible flesh and blood to the rich and sinister carnality of her songs.

Much of the unearthly power of Nadler’s three LPs comes from the treated, reverb-heavy yet still angelic quality of her voice. I’d expected her to take a starker approach to singing live, but in the event the stage set-up allowed her voice to be treated as on record, since she had three separate microphones lined up in front of her. Presumably each microphone had been calibrated in such a way as to provide different levels of echo and reverb. During the set, Nadler flitted gracefully between them, allowing her to vary the timbre of her voice as the songs required. That voice is a thing of rare beauty, all forlorn radiance and strange, unsettling ululations.

Meanwhile, Nadler’s guitar playing was stunningly fluid and ornate, vivifying the dreamlike cyclicality of her myth-steeped texts. Her choice of cover versions was unerring: as well as Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”, included on her recently released third LP, she also gave sombre readings of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer”. It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear her transform the songs of these three grizzled veterans into anguished expressions of abject purity.

Ether column, March 2008

The last time Mark Eitzel played in Vienna, it was to 30-odd people at the Chelsea on a wet Sunday night. Those lucky few witnessed a typically quixotic solo performance from Eitzel, delivering his intense songs in a seemingly casual but, in fact, incredibly crafted and passionate way. This month Eitzel is back in town with his group American Music Club, on the back of a new album, The Golden Age. While he probably doesn’t care all that much, I certainly hope for a larger audience this time. Eitzel is a knotty and intractable performer, self-deprecating to the point of embarrassment. For the most part, his songs lack identifiable choruses and hooks. But his voice is an instrument capable of truly wrenching displays of heartfelt emotion, and cuts through you with deadly precision. His group’s blank, neutral name speaks as eloquently of their music as The Band’s did of theirs; AMC inhabit the wide open spaces of American rock, with the guitar and rhythm section framing Eitzel’s searingly honest, confessionally driven lyrics.

Great double-header at B72 this month, with Japan’s Up-Tight and Vienna’s own Primordial Undermind presenting an evening of out-there psychedelic rock. Up-Tight lay down thick layers of guitar-heavy drones, their squalling mantras of noise building into a blissful cacophony that evokes prime-era Velvet Underground or Spacemen 3. And like the Velvets, Up-Tight are also partial to the odd eerily melancholic ballad, providing the listener with occasional respite from the sonic onslaught. Primordial Undermind are an equally bracing proposition, with long, spacey jams navigating the listener into the kind of inner headspace explored by pre-Dark Side Floyd. After 15-odd years of existence in America, leader and guitarist Eric Arn relocated the group to Vienna in 2005. Since then, they have released their sixth album Loss of Affect and continued to mine a richly creative seam of trippy, clangorous music.

Finally, gifted American folk singer Marissa Nadler makes her Vienna début early next month. “Folk” is a barely adequate term for what Nadler does, however. Her recently released third album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, pulsates with a haunted Gothic spirituality, its songs resonating with a deeply unsettling power and grace. Nadler plays acoustic guitar with all the glowing richness of Leonard Cohen or Bert Jansch, while the rapturous imagery of her lyrics chimes perfectly with the angelically pure beauty of her voice. “Oh what a day to dance with you,” she sings, “oh what a day to die”, summing up her songs’ swooning and radiant conflation of love, sex and death.