Colin Potter: And Then; Colin Potter & Paul Bradley: Behind Your Very Eyes; Jonathan Coleclough/Bass Communion/Colin Potter: s/t

Here’s a trio of droney CDs featuring Colin Potter, best known as the principal co-member (along with Steven Stapleton) of Nurse With Wound for studio work. Potter is also head honcho of the ICR label, and owns the IC Studio in Preston where many recent albums by NWW and other artists have been recorded.

On the solo release, Potter presents five longish tracks. The one-word track titles are taken from a cryptic utterance printed on the inlay and the CD itself: “Before it was inside… but now it is outside. Next will come examination and all will be revealed. Finally, however, nothing is certain, and then?” This frustrating riddle, reminiscent of the gnomic texts printed on the covers of Hafler Trio albums, is all Potter is prepared to extend to the listener by way of meaning or explication. Fortunately, however, there is plenty of textural variety to keep the listener interested. “Before” kicks off with a series of atmospheric windswept rattles and clatters, which are soon wiped away by a looming industrial-strength drone. This thing shifts and pulsates uncannily; it sounds organic and breathing, despite its electronic origin. Towards the end, the piece moves back outside where it began, to a hostile external environment.

This listener was utterly floored by the next piece, the stupidly titled “…”, which is a very different beast from anything else on these three albums. The track is infectiously rhythmic, sounding like a damaged music box as it arcs through 15 minutes of electronic restlessness. What makes it really special, though, is the sense of claustrophobia it conjures. As the beats pile up, they reinforce a palpable sense of tension and of a search for release. This is an object lesson in intelligent dance music. Elsewhere, “Next” has a woozy late-evening feel to it, with soft enveloping drones layered over night-time sounds and gradually becoming more and more grandiose and expansive over the course of its 20 minutes. There’s an immense architectural flair at work here, an intuitive understanding of shape and proportion, which only falters during the rather lumbering and tentative “And”. Rounding off the CD, “Finally” is another wispy, organic dronescape with a shimmering metallic heart.

The collaboration with Paul Bradley is a more homogeneous affair, with four lengthy drone-based pieces. Overwhelmingly dark and malevolent, the lack of tonal variety becomes oppressive after a while. “Cavity” is nightmarishly filmic, evoking images of hunt and pursuit, while the slightly less gloomy “Decline” sounds almost liturgical, as though striving to fill a cathedral with its resonant organ tones. This is music that demands to be played loud, engulfing the listener in its lowering sheets of sound.

The third album in this batch is something of a mixed bag. It’s essentially a remix CD, in which Potter, Jonathan Coleclough and Bass Communion (better known as Steven Wilson, the frontman of neo-progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree) take turns to remodel material by each other. It’s curious, but very pleasing, to note that someone as deeply immersed in the genre of progressive rock as Wilson can also turn his hand, in a committed and convincing fashion, to the slow, Rothkoesque tropes of dark ambient music. On the opening track of the first disc, “Passed”, mournful percussive sighs float around disembodied organ sounds and skeletal beats, evoking a huge sense of loss in twelve unhurried minutes. At twice that length, on the other hand, “Yossaria” outstays its welcome with a queasy, repetitive brass figure and an extended sub-Floyd workout of clattering clock and typewriter effects (at least, that’s what they sound like to me). The insistent, nagging buzzes of “Raiser” begin to irritate, until they are carried away on a warm bed of silvery drones and warm, echoey beats.

The whole of the second disc is given over to “Epidural”, a vast canvas of delicately shifting patterns featuring celestial, Garbarek-esque saxophone from Theo Travis. This piece is a starkly beautiful, minimalist symphony, with the constantly shifting and pulsating vibrancy of the sax hovering ethereally over deep sub-bass drones. The sax bows out as the piece nears its end, leaving only low end rumbles and faint traces of static.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

The Sound Projector 17 out now

The 17th issue of Ed Pinsent’s incredible Sound Projector magazine is out now. To this 172-page monster I’ve contributed reviews of albums by Mary Hampton, Sharron Kraus, Cultural Amnesia, Pita, Eyes Like Saucers, the Weird Weeds, Gregg Yeti, Lonesome Jonesome, The Doozer, Sara Lowes, Steven R Smith, Virak and Nad Spiro. Buy a copy and help reassert the primacy of the print medium!

Since the 17th issue is now out I have added the reviews I wrote for the 16th issue to this website.

Peter Brötzmann/Michiyo Yagi/Paal Nilssen-Love, Alter Schlachthof, Wels, 9 November 2008

Another eye-opening, ear-cleansing evening of free music in Austria. The appetite of this country for this kind of music never ceases to astonish me. Here we were in a small, unfashionable city on a wintry Sunday night, with the streets pretty much deserted. But you walk to the Alter Schlachthof and suddenly you are in the middle of, what, 300? people, all of whom have paid a not insignificant sum to be there. The upstairs and downstairs bars are both lively and animated, there are well stocked record and CD stalls, then you walk into the hall and you find it is full to capacity with people listening attentively to two people making abstract sounds on a viola and a double bass. And that’s only the first of four full-length concerts this evening; all the others will be equally well attended.

One of the things I like about living in central Europe is that free jazz and improvisation are not regarded here as way-out, avant-garde, experimental or difficult musics. The people here just take this stuff in their stride, and that includes the music of Peter Brötzmann, who played in Wels in a trio with Michiyo Yagi on koto and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I’m running out of superlatives to describe Brötzmann, so let me simply state that he was as intense as ever. Nilssen-Love, whom I had not seen play before, was a ferociously inventive drummer, while Michiyo Yagi was a total revelation on the koto. Together the three of them made a beautiful and utterly inspired racket.

Making a Szene

As regular Vienna rock and pop concert-goers will know, there are few better places to experience live music in this city than the Szene Wien. This year, however, has seen a change of management and a clash of cultures at the Szene that raises questions about the city’s commitment to alternative forms of artistic expression.

Over the past 20 years or so, this 500-capacity hall in the far-flung environs of the 11th district has established itself as the most reliable and respected medium-sized rock venue in the city. The Szene received a shot in the arm in 2000 with the extension of the U3 eastbound to Simmering. Before then it was a pain to get to by public transport, requiring a lengthy journey on the snail-like tram 71. But even in those days audiences would make the effort to get there, attracted by the friendly alternative vibe of the place, the excellent acoustics in the hall, the simple but reliable home cooking available at the bar and the large unkempt garden at the back. Above all, though, people went to the Szene because of the music, an eclectic mix of indie rock, avant-garde noise, world music, hip-hop and reggae. The Szene was controlled from City Hall and given generous levels of funding which allowed its defiantly uncommercial programming to continue. And the city operated a light-touch policy, enabling the local management team to concentrate on building a remarkable level of loyalty and goodwill among audiences.

One kind of music that was rarely heard at the Szene was heavy metal. However, fans of this eternally unfashionable genre were happily catered for across town at Planet Music in the 20th district. Even more of a challenge to reach by public transport than the Szene, Planet Music was by any standards a dingy and unattractive place – the only venue in Vienna that conformed to the British model of ugly, smelly halls covered in sponsorship logos, with unfriendly staff and crap, overpriced beer served in flimsy plastic glasses. For years the place subsisted on a diet of metal gigs, tribute nights and battle-of-the-bands contests, with occasional forays into alternative rock and pop. Those few exceptions were invariably poorly attended, unsurprisingly so given Planet Music’s image and reputation. When experimental folk pioneers Six Organs of Admittance played there earlier this year, no more than 50 people turned up; had they played at the Szene instead, the place would have been bursting at the seams. Ironically, these two diametrically opposed venues were set on a collision course.

Back at the Szene, the city funders were getting worried. Audience numbers were down from 32,000 in 2004 to 27,000 in 2007, a decrease of 15%. Only 44% of the Szene’s available nights were being utilised. Hard commercial realities were beginning to intrude, and in May 2008 the city took drastic action. They brought in the Planet Music management team, led by experienced music industry insider Josef “Muff” Sopper, to run the Szene. Under Austrian employment law, the new management would have been obliged to retain the Szene’s existing staff for a period of time; however, the existing staff chose not to work with the new management, and instead resigned en masse. Planet Music the venue closed down (a loss that few will mourn) and transferred its operations to the Szene.

As a result the Szene’s programme is changing significantly, and with it the character of the venue. There has been an influx of heavy metal and local-type gigs at a venue that rarely used to book them. The City Hall and the new management undertook not to abandon the Szene’s existing style of programming, insisting that the utilisation of the venue would increase to 80% and that alternative/world/indie gigs would be retained alongside the kind of gigs that were previously the stock-in-trade of Planet Music. As Alfred Wihalm of Planet Music points out, the programme for the rest of 2008 is split roughly one-third each way between alternative/indie/experimental, world/ethnic/reggae and hard rock/metal gigs. And certainly the new bookers of alternative and world music, Wihalm and Claudia Köstl, have a wealth of knowledge and experience in their respective fields. But the alternative and experimental music schedule contains fewer internationally recognised names than it did before the takeover, an ominous trend given that autumn is normally a very busy time for high-profile touring bands from the US and UK. Some of those artists are instead appearing at the WUK in the 9th district, a venue that seems to be raising its game in response to the changes at the Szene.

Quite apart from the apparent marginalisation of avant-garde and alternative music signalled by the takeover, it is the manner in which it was carried out that has upset many. A petition calling for the old Szene team to be reinstated has attracted 3,700 signatures, a remarkable number for a minority issue of this kind. Vienna-based photographer David Murobi, one of the signatories, points out that there was no open competition for the management of the Szene – the city handed the job to Sopper without giving anyone else a chance to apply for it. Alfred Wihalm says that Planet Music never wanted the old Szene team to resign, and in fact expected to retain their experience and expertise in running the venue. As well as being entitled to keep their jobs for a certain period (an entitlement they chose not to take up), the old team were offered jobs elsewhere within the city’s entertainment arm.

Murobi adds that the appointment of Sopper, who also runs the Gasometer venue and the annual Donauinselfest, further feeds an undesirable monopoly of music booking in Vienna. After the ill feeling generated by the takeover has died down, people will be looking carefully at the programme of the Szene to see whether Planet Music sticks to its promises not to sell out the special character of the venue. The problem for the new management is that in taking over the venue, they are faced with the daunting task of measuring up to public expectations based entirely on the standards set by the previous team. The new management faces a difficult challenge in trying to convince Vienna’s concert-goers that the future of the Szene is in safe hands.

(This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Ether.)

Ether column, October 2008

The autumn gig-going season gets into full swing this month. Silver Mt Zion (or, to give them their full name, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band) kick things off with an anguished howl, playing for the first time in Vienna since their appearance at the 2006 Donaufestival. From Montreal, Canada, SMZ began in 1999 as a side-project to the legendary post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, allowing some members of that group to explore song-based music with a more stripped-down feel than the sprawling instrumental epics in which GYBE specialised. With GYBE in semi-permanent hibernation, however, SMZ has become a group in its own right, while their music has taken on something of the epic quality of the parent band. SMZ’s songs are long, intense and emotionally devastating; the seven members often sing in unison, their lyrics telling of personal hurt and political injustice, Meanwhile the extended line-up of guitars, strings and drums creates powerful dynamics of tension, release and crescendo.

Those in search of a more “entertaining” evening out could do worse than to check out Bermudan singer-songwriter Heather Nova. A gifted and beautiful performer, Nova has always been way more popular in Europe than in North America; their loss is our gain. Over six albums and supported by relentless touring, she has perfected a blend of rockish swagger and bruised sensitivity. Her tremulous warble of a voice is equally at home with soaring ballads and crunchy chord progressions. Unlike many of her contemporaries Nova is no waif-like minstrel, but a songwriter who takes the familiar idioms of rock, pop and folk and infuses them with a beguiling sense of mystery and abandonment.

Come with me now to Brooklyn, New York, where The Hold Steady are blasting out their infectious brand of classic American rock for a new generation of audiences. Singer and lyricist Craig Finn has made no secret of his liking for the wordy storytelling of Hüsker Dü and Bruce Springsteen, while fans of the Pixies should also find much to admire in the dense weave of guitar textures that the five-piece band lays over Finn’s rousing and confident voice.

Finally, there are not many cities that would give part of a major music festival over to a composer specialising in lengthy solo violin pieces. But Vienna is no ordinary city, and this year’s Wien Modern festival will be enriched by three concerts featuring the innovative avant-gardist Tony Conrad. Best known for his ’60s collaborations with minimalist guru La Monte Young, Conrad also made an album with Krautrock legends Faust and in recent years has composed many works for solo amplified violin. His music explores, to often mesmeric effect, the transcendental properties of the drone.