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.

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