Bulbul/Carla Bozulich, Vienna Rhiz, 27 May 2008

The last concert of a very Rhiz-y month for me. For this one the Austrian group Bulbul were joined onstage by American singer (and occasional Bulbul collaborator) Carla Bozulich, who is in the middle of a European tour with her own group Evangelista and played at the WUK the following evening. This was an unannounced appearance by Bozulich, although I had been tipped the wink from various sources. And although her appearance wasn’t advertised in advance, it wasn’t entirely under wraps either. The Rhiz had the evening billed as “Bulbul plus surprise act”, while Bozulich’s website listed a “secret show” on this date. Guys, if you tell people you’re playing a secret show, it’s not a secret anymore. If they’d wanted to do the secret thing properly, they would have made no mention of it at all rather than being all coy about it. But that would have been less annoyingly teasing.

Anyway, the concert itself was pretty entertaining. Bulbul have passed me by up until now, although P. tells me that they play regularly in Vienna. And this was confirmed by the existence of a loyalty card which was pressed into my palm as I entered the Rhiz. Cute marketing ploy: go to four Bulbul gigs and get into the fifth one free. (I would have thought a limited CD-R or something would have been a more appropriate reward for such loyalty, but let that pass.)

The music was hard to pin down: angular, splintery rock with lots of distorted guitar, pounding bass and busy drumming. This was very much a Bulbul gig, not a Carla Bozulich gig: as far as I could tell, all the songs were theirs, not hers. But her contributions on vocals and effects-heavy guitar were raw and expressive. There were also two moments of diverting theatrical business. At one point, first Bozulich and then the guitarist and bassist decided to mount an onslaught on the sanctity of the drums. Each grabbing their own drumsticks, they carried out a delirious improvised raid on the kit, falling over each other in the process. Later, Bozulich brandished a sheet of paper containing some lines of verse, which H. told me later were the words to a Viennese drinking song. Holding out the microphone and encouraging audience members to recite the words, she initially got a couple of deadpan spoken recitations. She struck lucky, however, with the third – a girl who was not only happy to sing the words but (after some initial reluctance) was persuaded to join the group onstage to sing them. Both incidents reinforced a view of Bulbul, and indeed of Bozulich herself, as refreshingly unaloof and persuaded of the will to connect and communicate.

Fine photos by David Murobi here.

Explosions in the Sky, Vienna Flex, 25 May 2008

A rare visit to the Flex for me to see the American post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky, and another illustration of how concert-going in Vienna so often confounds one’s expectations. By no stretch could this group be described as well known, and their music is hardly the stuff of runaway commercial success. Yet the place was absolutely rammed to the ceiling.

Such situations bring out both the best and the worst in the Flex. On the one hand there was a heady atmosphere and, heck I’ll admit it, an extraordinary number of stunning girls in the audience. On the other hand, the awkward layout of the place meant that unless you were near the front – as I was not – the visibility of the group onstage could only be described as diabolical.

These hindrances meant that I wasn’t able to concentrate on the music as much as I would have liked. One might have expected the Flex’s legendary sound system to have mitigated these factors and compelled close attention, but there was surprisingly little sonic oomph to the proceedings. It just wasn’t loud enough.

No doubt Explosions in the Sky are tired of being compared to Godspeed You Black Emperor, but they do rather ask for it. The music sounded to me like GYBE without their core elements of burning injustice and maze-like intensity. There were plentiful fine moments, but the quiet/loud dynamics seemed rather stilted and predictable. And given that they were playing to such a large audience, I felt the group allowed the quiet passages to go on for too long when they should have been laying waste to the place with the thrilling eruptions of sound of which they are clearly more than capable. On more than one occasion they were in the midst of some white-hot crescendo which fizzled out just as it was getting under way. A case of too much sky and not enough explosions.

Fennesz, Vienna Rhiz, 22 May 2008

The 10th birthday celebrations continue at the Rhiz until the end of May. Last Thursday saw one of the enduring heroes of Viennese electronica, Christian Fennesz, give a rare home town concert as part of those celebrations.

As J. said, watching someone play at the Rhiz is almost like watching them play in your living room. Both in terms of the size of the physical space and the atmosphere the place instils, there’s something about the Rhiz that inspires great loyalty and affection. In this case, Fennesz’s performance was highly unassuming yet strangely moving. No doubt this emotional response was due in part to the fact that, unlike most other people working in the field of electronic music, Fennesz actually plays an instrument, and plays it well. Yes, I retain for the most part a preference for instrumental virtuosity over the point-and-click and knob-twiddling approaches; sue me.

What was so great about Fennesz, however, was the way he combined these two approaches and made the resulting whole sound utterly right and natural. Rich and animated, his silvery guitar tones floated over pulsating drones and disorientating sub-bass frequencies. Playing solo and then in tandem with Vienna DJ Dieter Kovacic (dieb13), Fennesz showed that the electric guitar could be recontextualised without losing any of the visceral pleasure associated with its deployment as a rock instrument.

Six Organs of Admittance/Primordial Undermind, Vienna Planet Music, 18 May 2008

Planet Music – what a dump. The only concert hall in Vienna that comes close to the standard British model of ugly, smelly venues covered in sponsorship logos, with unfriendly staff and crap, overpriced beer served in flimsy plastic glasses. For years this place has survived on an unhealthy diet of heavy metal acts, tribute nights and battle-of-the-bands contests, with very rare exceptions such as the line-up we saw on Sunday night. Now it seems that the place is to close down – no great loss there – and its operations moved to the Szene Wien – ah, I knew there had to be a catch. The concern is that the avant-garde, alternative and world-y nights that are the Szene’s stock-in-trade will be edged out in favour of the kind of dreck that Planet Music serves up week after week. The city council and the Szene’s new management are making reassuring noises, saying that the overall utilisation of the venue will be increased and that the two kinds of programming can comfortably co-exist there. Well, we shall have to wait and see.

So this was my second and, thankfully, last visit to Planet Music (the first being to see Ani diFranco, many years ago). And it was a great gig, although the attendance was pitiful. Admittedly it was a wet Sunday evening, but if these two bands had appeared at another venue they would certainly have drawn a far larger audience.

After my last Primordial Undermind concert, a mostly acoustic affair at the Subterrarium, I had expressed a wish to hear them play a full electric band set. I was to have my wish granted sooner than expected, after they were announced as the support band to Six Organs of Admittance, whom I had already planned to see. This was one of those rare and inspired pairings that justifies the all-too-often redundant concept of the support act. PU were exceptionally fine, calling to mind the primitivist throb of Loop and Spacemen 3 while reaching out into areas of blissed-out drone and glide that were entirely their own.

Six Organs of Admittance were even more spectacular. This line-up of the group was expanded from the duo of Ben Chasny and Elisa Ambrogio that played a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival. Joining the two guitarists on drums, Alex Neilson worked tentacular rhythmic patterns into Chasny’s mesmeric riffing and Ambrogio’s squally undercurrents. Ambrogio’s playing was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to; apparently fighting to bring her guitar under control, she threw awkwardly angular poses as she attempted to wrench every last note from its seemingly unco-operative strings. (Regrettably she was wearing trousers on this occasion, thereby depriving us of the sight of her bending over in a short skirt as she played.) Chasny, meanwhile, produced wave after wave of hypnotically sparkling phrases, blending intuitively with Ambrogio’s grainier and more textured approach. When he stepped up to the microphone the effect was compelling, his autumnal voice bolstering the music’s uncanny atmosphere of charged, mystical energy.

Whitehouse, Vienna Rhiz, 8 May 2008

Over to the Rhiz for the second night in a row to witness one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse. If KTL represent one facet of contemporary noise – murky, lowering and insidious – then Whitehouse represent its obverse – seething, ferocious and even celebratory. And if the end of Whitehouse is also the end of the power electronics genre they singlehandedly birthed, then there is no finer way to mark those passings than with the kind of blistering performance they gave last Thursday.

Whitehouse have been an important part of my musical journey for around fifteen years. Unlike some of the other groups I met along the same path, such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans and Current 93, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I first made their acquaintance. I do remember going into the old Vinyl Experience shop on Hanway Street sometime in the early ’90s and asking if they had any Whitehouse albums in stock. The assistant reached under the counter and handed me a copy of the Another Crack of the White Whip compilation. Holding my nerve, I bought it and took it home. The furtive manner of this purchase, together with the rather unsettling Trevor Brown cover art and the sinister aura that I realised surrounded Whitehouse, led me to believe that I was now in possession of something unutterably clandestine. I wasn’t, of course; it was just a compilation album. And yet hearing the album for the first time, I found that its boldness and explicitness undermined the surface ugliness and brutality of the music. The music kept calling me back, seduced as I was by the sheer audacity of it and by the realisation that I was caught up in something I only wanted to experience, not to justify or explain.

To a greater or lesser extent, that wish for immersive, unmediated experience has governed much of my personal response to music over the years. In the case of Whitehouse, however, it’s always been the primary impulse. As if to illustrate the dichotomies at work, last week’s concert was frenetic, disorientating and above all highly entertaining. William Bennett spent most of the time staring impassively at his Vaio, a picture of “don’t f*** with me” serenity with his dark glasses and expression of scowling menace. Occasionally he would abandon his workstation to deliver a charged, suggestive lyric, his voice ramped up to peak levels and his microphone lead coiled around his neck like a noose.

The star of the show from a performance point of view, however, was Philip Best. In marked contrast to Bennett, Best seemed to want to spend as little time as possible behind his laptop. His array of movements and gestures was great fun to watch, from pinching his nipples to drenching them with saliva, from salaciously stroking the collaged pages of his lyric book to humping the amps at the back of the stage (which looked in grave danger of toppling over as a result). The overall impression was of a kind of deranged sexuality wholly in keeping with the graphic outpourings of Best’s lyrics. On Bennett’s rare excursions to centre stage, he and Best would interact hilariously, caressing each other and holding their arms aloft in a gleeful posture of rock-star triumphalism.

As for the music, it was exceptionally livid and abrasive. Surging treacherously from the speakers, the layered drones, rhythms and frequencies merged into a sublime totality of noise. What came over most strongly was how carefully orchestrated it all was. No improvisation, no taking chances; Whitehouse know how to manipulate an audience for maximum effect. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder and more delirious, they would make the merest adjustment and the whole edifice would become yet more frenzied and euphoric. It’s dangerously addictive stuff, the kind of live experience you don’t want to end. But end it now has, and whatever William Bennett and Philip Best decide to do in the future, music is a duller and more predictable thing now that Whitehouse aren’t around any more.

Photos by David Murobi here.

KTL, Vienna Rhiz, 7 May 2008

So the Rhiz is ten years old this month. It’s a great achievement to keep going a club/bar/venue (like a few other places in Vienna, the Rhiz never seems entirely sure of which it is, and is all the better for it) devoted for the most part to defiantly uncommercial electronic music, and to make a success of it. Hats off and happy birthday, then, to Herbie Molin, his collaborators and conspirators.

When I first arrived in Vienna I didn’t get to the Rhiz much, but I’ve been making up for it in recent months. There was the Nurse With Wound night last month, at which DJs Walter and Martin span a range of classic NWW sides and Colin Potter played a funereal live set. And now there’s the 10 Years of the Rhiz celebrations, with a slew of gigs taking place in May. The first of these, for me at least, saw the KTL duo of Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley play on a much smaller stage than the last time I saw them at the 2007 Donaufestival. What was so impressive about that concert was the way the group utterly dominated their surroundings, transforming the sterile Krems exhibition hall into a proper concert space through the crushing totality of the noise they produced (and also, it must be said, through the use of huge quantities of fog).

Last week’s concert at the Rhiz was all the more exciting for taking place in such an intimate setting, but was curiously underattended. I’m no authority on O’Malley’s principal project, Sunn O))), but from what I do know (and from the memory of their 2006 concert at the Szene at which Rehberg did a support slot; was that the evening that birthed KTL, I wonder?), I would have thought your average Sunn O))) adherent would have been ecstatic to see O’Malley do his massive drone guitar thing in a venue as small as the Rhiz. It’s not as though Sunn O))) and KTL inhabit dissimilar musical worlds, after all. And yet the place (which holds 100 people, tops) was not at all crowded.

In any event, the set was musically as well as literally blinding (the fog filling the room made the duo only sporadically visible, even from a few feet away). Coiled and hovering with malevolent presence, O’Malley’s agonisingly slow guitar reverberated around the room and invaded the listener’s very marrow. Rehberg, meanwhile, issued deep and obliterating drones from his Mac, forcing O’Malley’s guitar lines outwards in a mounting vortex of pressure. The music seemed to be searching for escape within the tight confines of the room and, finding none, turned in on itself; an afflicting and oppressive infiltration.

Acid Mothers Temple/Ruins/TV Buddhas, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 6 May 2008

Barely pausing to draw breath between the Donaufestival and the 10 years of Rhiz celebrations, I descended into the Stygian gloom of the Fluc Wanne for an event billed as the ‘Japanese New Music Festival’. This was a rather grandiose description for what was essentially a programme of solo and duo performances by the two Japanese musicians present (Makoto Kawabata of Acid Mothers Temple and Yoshida Tatsuya of Ruins), with a non-Japanese guest band (TV Buddhas) plonked somewhere in between. The possibility of more varied permutations was scuppered due to the absence through sickness of the third member of the troupe, Tsuyama Atsushi.

Despite the slimmed-down line-up, Kawabata and Tatsuya presented an extremely wide variety of sonic approaches; closing the eyes, one could easily have believed that there were more than just two people onstage. The evening began underwhelmingly, though, with a rather Fluxus duo performance during which the two men used bottles, vegetables and other unconventional “instruments” as sound sources. Clever, I sighed, and waited for the actual music to begin. And begin it did, splendidly so, as Tatsuya performed a solo drums set filled with complex, progressive textures. Don’t ask me how he did it, but the percussion was accompanied by guitar and keyboard sounds, all of which were somehow triggered by the drummer in real time.

Next up, Kawabata took the stage for a solo guitar set. The guitar was initially bowed, offering up clouds of extended drones that shifted and coalesced beautifully into each other. A simple folkish pattern was then sampled and looped, creating a sparkling basis from which Kawabata brought forth dense clusters of electric activity.

The evening then took a somewhat surreal turn. A space in front of the stage was cleared, and TV Buddhas set up their stall in the round, facing down the audience at the same level. A male/female guitar/drums duo, TV Buddhas bore a certain family resemblance to the White Stripes, but it quickly became clear that they were able to reach far deeper into the well of inspiration than that blighted couple. The group’s set hovered adroitly between rock and noise, often teetering on the brink of freeform workouts before being hauled back into the realm of disciplined, focused activity. With the guitarist and drummer both a matter of inches away from the audience, their playing reached out easily and made an immensely favourable impression.

Rounding off the night in fine style, Kawabata and Tatsuya joined forces again for a fast-paced, frenetic and gloriously loud set as Acid Mothers Temple. A brisk walk home from Praterstern and the evening was done.

Tortoise/Naked Lunch, Donaufestival, 3 May 2008

These pages are backed up because there has been so much going on lately. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Backtracking…

My second and last visit to the 2008 Donaufestival was a far more positive and pleasant experience than the previous one had been. The evening opened at the Minoritenkirche with Universalove, a film by Thomas Woschitz with a live soundtrack by Austrian alt-rockers Naked Lunch (for more on whom, see my March 2007 column).

This event was marvellously engrossing from start to finish. The film was a collection of thematically linked stories focusing on love and relationships, each of them quietly eloquent in its own way. The accompanying music was no mere incidental backdrop, but a series of emotive, quietly devastating songs that informed and commented on the narratives. The main musical impetus came from the percussion, with the two drummers standing centre stage and bashing out beautifully immersive and textural rhythms. The wintry and plaintive vocals, meanwhile, contributed an air of dark melancholy to the film. This highly impressive collaboration was an indication that the somewhat jaded live soundtrack genre still has the potential to mesmerise.

One minor gripe: the seating arrangements in the Minoritenkirche were bizarrely ill thought out. Despite the fact that the event was very well attended, the organisers for some reason decided to lay out only twenty or so rows of seats in front of the stage, leaving the rest of the church as standing room. Having arrived fairly early, I was lucky enough to grab a seat, but it looked to me as though the majority of the audience was left to stand uncomfortably around. Why the entire church couldn’t have been given over to seating is utterly beyond me. This was a film, after all.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, a similar thoughtless disregard for the needs and comfort of the audience saw Tortoise come onstage at the absurdly late hour of 1.30am, by which time I had already been bored stiff by the wearisome sermonising of Ursula Rucker and the stilted meanderings of Xiu Xiu. Anyway, Tortoise were fantastic, insofar as I was able to stay awake and listen to them. Their last record It’s All Around You may have been a tepid approximation of former glories, but onstage the combination of the two drummers (again) with the jazzy guitar and vibes remains as potent and telepathic as ever. Kaleidoscopic, fresh and startlingly original, Tortoise music is pretty damn irresistible; but it would have been good to take it in through eyes and ears that weren’t pleading for some downtime.

Satan Mozart Moratorium, Krems Donaufestival, 1 May 2008

This year’s Donaufestival was a much more low-key experience for me than the stellar programme that was served up last year (which, lest we forget, included Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle, Will Oldham, KTL, Six Organs of Admittance, Larsen, the Boredoms and many others… has there ever been a better festival line-up, anywhere?). There was no way the organisers could have topped that this year, and in fairness they didn’t even try. This year’s festival concentrated heavily on theatre and performance art, with a strong showing of newly commissioned works. Inevitably, therefore, the musical side of the programme took something of a back seat.

In fact, the first show I saw this year was a performance piece, Satan Mozart Moratorium by Jean-Louis Costes and Paul Poet. And I rapidly wished I hadn’t bothered. Like the fool I am, I only ventured to see this effort because of an “article” in the crappy Vienna “newspaper” Heute which described its “scandalous” content in lascivious detail. You pillocks, I thought, it’s only you who think it’s a scandal, no-one else is bothered by it in the least. Anyway, I made the effort to go because I was hopeful of some testing actionist-style engagement from the performers. Boy, was I ever mistaken.

Before the performance began, the audience had to sign a disclaimer. I’m not sure exactly what I was signing, but I do know that it partly involved confirming that I understood I was about to witness a pornographic show and, more worryingly, that no liability would be assumed for any dry cleaning costs incurred as a result of watching the show. That done, we were escorted round the back of the building to an anonymous hall and kitted out with pacamacs, presumably to protect us from all the literal and metaphorical debris we were about to be confronted with.

I have to confess to the reviewer’s cardinal sin here – N. and I left well before the end. But we had seen enough to know when we had backed a loser. This was a loud, arch and orotund show in which the three actors bawled at the tops of their voices in between prancing mostly naked around the performance space, twisting themselves into contortions, throwing grapes at each other and capering pointlessly among the seated and cowering audience. The narrator at one point exhorted us to “f*** your children”, an unnecessarily antagonistic statement even without the knowledge of the horror of Amstetten which emerged the following day. But you didn’t need to be a parent to find this piece tiresomely and tediously one-dimensional. Like many of the audience, we voted with our feet and left early. One of the crew members filmed our departure, probably thinking to himself “ha, another couple of wimps who can’t cope with this fearlessly confrontational, transgressive piece.” But that wasn’t why we left at all. We left because we were bored rigid and we knew we would have a better time at the bar.

Ether column, April 2008

It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Lower Austria, to follow the exceptional line-up of last year’s event. However, there are still plenty of worthwhile performances on the schedule at this most stimulating of festivals. The pick of these has to be the visit of American group Tortoise, who will grace the stage with their slinky and graceful instrumental music. Tortoise are often described as ‘post-rock’, a label which, like many such categorisations, has a kernel of truth at its core. In the early 90s, a time when rock music was in thral to Britpop and grunge, Tortoise emerged playing a music that seemed determined not only to sidestep but to supersede those essentially retrospective approaches. Incorporating elements of jazz, easy listening and dub reggae, Tortoise music achieves the rare feat of appealing to the listener’s head and feet at the same time.

Two evenings later, Connecticut’s Magik Markers drop by in support of their recently released album Boss. The Markers are an unruly noise-pop duo consisting of drummer Pete Nolan and singer/guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, who doubles as the life and music partner of Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny. Joining Chasny on stage for a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival, Ambrogio demonstrated a glorious ability to shred the hell out of her electric guitar with blasts of intelligent, well crafted noise, mirroring much of the Markers’ previous output (which consisted of one ‘proper’ studio album and a long series of self-released CD-Rs). Boss, however, sees a strong redefinition of the Markers’ approach. It’s a remarkably diverse set of songs, with Ambrogio’s seductive voice reaching out over Nolan’s fiery percussion and occasional contributions from producer (and Sonic Youth veteran) Lee Ranaldo on guitar and glockenspiel.

Back in Vienna, German experimental rock pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten return as part of an extensive European tour. It’s incredible to think that Neubauten have been active now for almost 30 years, without in all that time losing any of their freewheeling and churning creativity. Having weathered numerous line-up and label changes over the years, the Neubauten of 2008 are a lean and reflective proposition. They have long ago abandoned the more challenging extremes of their early incarnations, in which hollow-cheeked frontman Blixa Bargeld would howl dementedly over an eviscerating percussive attack fashioned from scrap metal and building tools. The unconventional instrumentation remains, but Bargeld has matured into a songwriter of rare acuity, his texts (in both German and English) replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Musically, Neubauten combine elements of central European folk and out-there rock, powered by the spidery progressions of Bargeld’s guitar and by NU Unruh’s self-constructed rhythmic arsenal. Their life’s work is to capture the essence of the untranslatable German word Sehnsucht, fusing tenderness, longing, regret and destruction.