Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Vienna WUK, 22 June 2008

To the WUK last night to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Mr Oldham had a few things to contend with, principally the searing heat (even in the late evening) and the Spain-Italy match being televised outside. But he and his polished band took it all in their stride. Perhaps too much so, for this was a gig annoyingly light on the blinding inspiration that made the early Palace records, and Oldham’s debut under the BPB name I See A Darkness, so utterly essential.

The country-ish twang that has been a part of Oldham’s musical vocabulary for years has gradually made its way to the forefront of his sound. His current sound is defined at least as much by Ruby Kash’s violin and her feathery vocal harmonies as it is by Oldham’s distinctively quavery voice. Equally prominent in the mix is the slinky percussion of Michael Zerang (also to be seen in a somewhat different environment as one of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet). As a result, the songs shuffle amiably by without evoking much of the sense of darkness referred to in the title of Oldham’s 1999 masterpiece, or the death’s head skull on its cover. Moments of drama and clarity abound, but all too often the songs just stop, as if they can’t be bothered to lift themselves to new heights.

Oldham is a watchable but rather awkward performer. Looking like an old-time American preacher with his impressively bushy beard, he throws striking poses with his guitar and sings directly to the audience with oratorical zeal. Between songs, however, he becomes humourless and taciturn. The most he ever says to the audience is when he introduces Zerang, saying something like “the most reliable friend is synthetic” and guffawing loudly to himself at this baffling statement. The moment contributes to an impression of distance and diffidence that the music, for all its fine and arresting qualities, is fatally unable to dispel.

Esbjörn Svensson 1964-2008

Just a quick note to mourn the passing of Swedish jazz pianist Esbjörn Svensson, who has died at the appallingly young age of 44. I saw EST twice, once at the Barbican in London and once at the Dome in Brighton. They were awesomely strong both times, with Svensson’s piledriving piano leading the jazz trio into wholly unexpected and joyful places.

Svensson did a huge amount to bring jazz to a younger and wider audience, using the framework of the rock concert to make jazz sound fresh, raw and accessible. His trio were pretty damn unique, and he has left us far too soon.

Bob Dylan, Vienna Stadthalle, 10 June 2008

A very frustrating and only sporadically entertaining concert by Bob Dylan at the Stadthalle. Dylan, of course, is one of the most important figures in the entire history of popular music, and is worthy of attention for this alone, if for nothing else. But this gig was, sorry to say, rather flat and uninspired.

My principal objection was that there was precious little musical inventiveness or passion in evidence. The band were competent enough (although the less said about Dylan’s keyboard playing the better), but very little attention was paid to the shape of the sounds being produced. Most of the songs sounded like generic boogie rock; they trotted along in a wholly predictable manner without coming close to anything resembling drama, intensity or crescendo. I wasn’t expecting Godspeed You Black Emperor, but I kept wishing that more of an effort had been made to surprise and shake up the audience, to nudge them out of their comfort zone somewhat. But it wasn’t to be.

I wouldn’t have minded this absence of creativity so much if Dylan had managed to surprise me lyrically, but on this score too I was to be confounded. This, after all, is one of the greatest lyricists in the history of popular music, with a boundless gift for ecstatic and moving wordplay and imagery. But, despite the Stadthalle’s reasonable acoustics, I was able to make out practically nothing that was being sung. Dylan’s default singing style, live far more than on record, is a kind of nasalised slur that changes pace, timbre and intonation apparently at will. It’s not a pretty sound, frankly, and along with the lumpen nature of the arrangements it more or less stymied my enjoyment of the show.

I did very much enjoy the look of the thing. The band were decked out in identical grey suits, except for Dylan himself, who really looked the part in a black suit with red piping and black stetson. In keeping with the occasional splashes of banjo and pedal steel guitar, there was a notion of old-time America there that was rather affecting. The evening nudged uncomfortably close to cabaret, though, due largely to the audience’s unnerving habit of applauding the slightest movement or vocal flourish made by the taciturn performer. For my own part, I applauded loudly at the end of one of my favourite Dylan songs, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, was rather intrigued by the dark swing of “Workingman’s Blues #2”, but was otherwise distinctly unimpressed.

Primordial Undermind, Vienna Einbaumöbel, 6 June 2008

Now here’s a funny thing. Primordial Undermind were originally planning to play the Subterrarium last Friday, but due to some kind of booking mix-up they had to find an alternative venue. The place where they – and I – ended up was the Einbaumöbel, an unassuming little place under the arches on the Gürtel. This event was billed as a ‘1968 party’, which sounded as though the evening was intended to take on the properties of an authentic late ’60s ‘happening’. Sadly I was born too late to be a flower child, but I’ve always said that if I had a time machine, late ’60s London would be the time and place I’d want to visit more than any other. So maybe last Friday was my chance to be transported back to the era of psychedelic experience, with the Einbaumöbel as the UFO Club and PU as Pink Floyd.

In the event, the venue was a little more mundane than that, with just a few streamers hanging from the ceiling and not even an oil-based light show to convey the hoped-for sense of blissed-out abstraction. Primordial Undermind, however, were on stunning form. Led by the ecstatic currents of Eric Arn’s guitar, the group twisted and shuddered through 90 minutes of dense improvisatory rock. As an ensemble, PU were beautifully intuitive, with the cello (which, sadly, often got lost in the general maelstrom of sound), bass and drums all contributing to the sense of pulsating, directed purpose.

Ether column, May 2008

The main event this month is a series of concerts to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Vienna’s leading venue for experimental electronic music. Herbie Molin and Christof Kurzmann founded the Rhiz club in 1998, at a time when Viennese electronic musicians were in the midst of a tumultuous burst of creativity and were bringing worldwide attention to the city. The Rhiz was, and remains, central to the more cerebral end of this activity, exemplified by the challenging laptop improv put out by the Mego label. It’s fitting, therefore, that the proprietor of Mego (now known as Editions Mego), Peter Rehberg, should be appearing at the Rhiz this month as part of the anniversary celebrations. As well as making solo records under the name Pita, Rehberg has worked with many of the world’s top names in avant-garde and improvised music. At the Rhiz this month he showcases his latest project KTL, a collaboration with Stephen O’Malley of drone metal group Sunn O))). The gig is likely to be rib-crushingly loud, especially in the tight confines of the Rhiz, all of which should make for a pleasantly disorientating live experience.

Such a warning/recommendation could equally well apply to the following night’s appearance by the legendary English electronic noise pioneers Whitehouse. The Rhiz is hugely fortunate to be hosting one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse, who have been a constant and nagging presence in underground music for a staggering 28 years. Having weathered numerous line-up changes over this time, the core duo of William Bennett and Philip Best are disbanding the group to concentrate on solo projects, leaving behind a legacy of fearsome, hostile and aggressive music. The early Whitehouse records were bleak, harrowing affairs, consisting of a barrage of high-pitched frequencies and juddering low-end drones over which Bennett would scream the occasional lyric laced with goading obscenities. The group’s disturbing iconography, replete with imagery of serial killers and sexual sadism, won them few friends in the supposedly tolerant music scene, but they developed an international following and inspired a generation of lesser noise musicians. Their concerts, which they described as “live actions”, were intensely confrontational events that occasionally erupted into physical violence.

Over the years, Whitehouse’s art has matured into an acute and invasive form of psychological inquiry, with Bennett and Best pouring forth dense clusters of unsettling personal questions and blasts of haranguing profanity. Musically, they have abandoned the dual high/low frequency assault in favour of a livid, complex and dangerous sound, characterised by monstrous synth noises and deranged, clattering percussion. (Much of this shift can be traced to Bennett’s recent interest in African rhythms, which will form the core of his forthcoming Afro Noise project.) Live, Whitehouse are great fun, revelling in rock star poses and laying down a compelling and highly original form of electronic harshness. One of the most important and original groups ever to come from the UK, they will be sorely missed.