Psychic TV, Vienna Rhiz, 25 May 2009

By some way the worst concert I’ve attended in a long while, this evening confirmed that whatever Genesis P-Orridge’s gifts may include, music isn’t one of them. As a performance artist, ideas man and prankster, he’s second to none; but stick him on a stage and ask him to come up with an evening of interesting sounds, and he will inevitably struggle. Fair enough, he’s never claimed to be a musician, but in the past at least he had the nous to surround himself with people who were able to give musical shape to his crazed visions and insights. In TG it was primarily Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson who came up with the music, while on the early Psychic TV sides Christopherson was joined by Alex Fergusson and others. Psychic TV have been through many incarnations since then, of course; but none of them have come close to recapturing the stark, uneasy beauty of those first two PTV records, and it certainly wasn’t recaptured on Monday night. Someone described the group as sounding like the worst parts of the Velvet Underground combined with the worst parts of Spacemen 3, which neatly summed it up for me.

What the paying audience was presented with was a group that basically consisted of a plodding, fuzzed-out guitarist, a flailing and approximate bassist, a drummer of stunning ineptitude and P-Orridge’s disagreeable caterwauling over the top. The lyrics, insofar as they could be discerned, were trite and drenched in bathos. There was nothing at all to hold the attention, and this, combined with the steadily rising temperature inside the Rhiz, made a sojourn outside in the fresh air outside not only desirable but practically essential.

David Murobi paid much greater attention than I did, and his fine photos of the evening can be seen here.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 May 2009

A stunning evening of molten free jazz and way-out Improv from the ever reliable Brötzmann and his largest, most diverse configuration. Over two hour-long sets, the saxophonist led his group down a maze of glorious soloing and bravura ensemble interplay. Never letting up, always reaching for higher and more dangerous territory, these guys took your breath away.

Without any need for prior planning, the ten gifted musicians knew instinctively when to come together and when to step back to let in other members of the troupe. This is the magic of group improvisation – that wonderful blend of intuition, togetherness and respect.

Brötzmann’s co-stars, for me, were his regular collaborators Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (both on saxes) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The two reedsmen proved themselves the German’s equal with their ferocious blowing; Vandermark took a particularly fiery solo with no-one but Nilssen-Love for company, while Gustafsson’s relentlessly physical approach was perhaps underexposed. As for the Norwegian percussionist himself, his face told a story of formidable effort that was reflected time and again in the awesome power of his playing, including a fierce double-headed drum interlude with the more undulant approach of Michael Zerang.

It wasn’t all plain sailing; I could certainly have done without the irritating presence of trombonist Johannes Bauer, whose entire demeanour radiated smugness and self-satisfaction. But his solo interventions were thankfully brief. Other than that Bauer was part of a brass section that, when it was not tussling spiritedly with the reeds, laid down a slew of brisk and imaginative patterns, bolstered by Fred Lonberg-Holm’s whizzy, effects-heavy cello work.

Now twelve years into its existence, the Chicago Tentet is a group at the height of its powers. Brötzmann may be the nominal bandleader, but there was precious little evidence on Saturday night of him shaping and controlling the music to any great extent. Which is as it should be, of course. In the mysterious, elemental world of free improvisation, meaning and inspiration come not from individuals but from the spaces and the traces between them.

Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 27 April 2009

A highly smile-inducing evening at Porgy & Bess, courtesy of the previously unknown to me Steven Bernstein and his band of fine musicians. These guys played with boundless verve and enthusiasm, balancing infectious melodies with well-chosen blasts of dissonance that prevented the whole thing from lapsing into jazz formularity. The usual large and appreciative P&B audience kept the group running at full tilt, but in truth no such encouragement was needed, since Bernstein proved himself to be a consummate bandleader who urged – and received – great bubbling cauldrons of sound from his bandmates.

At the heart was Bernstein’s mastery of the slide trumpet, an instrument looking (and sounding, for that matter) like a cross between a normal trumpet and a trombone. Nimbly avoiding both the braying honk of the former and the queasy lurch of the latter, the slide trumpet led Sex Mob in all kinds of crazy directions. Following close behind came Briggan Krauss’s saxophone, casting fiery post-Ayler skronk into the spaces left by the agile rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen. With Bernstein conducting through spirited flurries of motion and gesture, the stage was a hotbed of delirious, pulsating energy.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 3: Spiritualized

Not only the concert of this year’s Donaufestival, but the concert of the year so far. I used to follow Spiritualized religiously, but hadn’t seen them for several years – not from any loss of interest, but simply because I hadn’t been able to make any shows. This superb performance reminded me of what I’ve always loved about Spiritualized – the sweeping sense of drama, the sensory overload, and the unique and ecstatic blend of avant rock, gospel and systems music.

I’m always banging on in these pages about how important it is for the performer to communicate with the audience between songs, but this show was an illustration of a different kind of communication – less tangible, perhaps, but no less real. Jason Pierce said precisely nothing to the audience all evening, but I never wished he had done – indeed, to do so would have broken the spell. No words were required, since the whole experience is utterly overwhelming for the eyes, ears, heart and mind.

Most of the songs begin simply, with a modest chord sequence, vocal line or melody to draw the listener in. It’s never long, though, before the mantric repetitions, the guitars, the gospel singers and the drums kick in and burrow straight into your skull. The stage lighting, so often meretricious, is crucially important to the overall effect, the blazing strobe lights in particular forming a visual correlative to the crushing totality of sound.

Standing impassively at stage left, the director of these wonders is a deceptively nonchalant figure. His voice can seem colourless on occasion, yet it has a desperate quality to it that renders his texts unbearably moving and thrilling. And it only takes the merest nod or signal to his bandmates for this holiest of rackets to be unleashed – a shatteringly vivid and powerful live experience.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 2: Butthole Surfers, Black Dice, Goblin

The second of my three evenings at this year’s Donaufestival was by some way the weakest. I made it over to the Minoritenkirche in time to catch the set by Goblin, J’s favourite reunited Italian progressive horror film soundtrack artists. I tried to like them, I really did, but I found myself somewhat dispirited. Maybe I was at a disadvantage in not knowing the films from which most of the pieces were taken, but then again if the music required the presence of the moving images that originally accompanied them, those images could perhaps have been projected onto the screen behind the stage. In fact there were indeed plenty of images projected onto that screen, but they were all of the still variety and didn’t really add much to the music (J. reckoned there were technical goblins, er gremlins, which prevented the full multimedia experience from materialising).

In any event, the music signally failed to hold my attention, consisting as it did of widdly prog with lots of guitar and keyboard solos. In other words it was a pale shadow of the music of Genesis, a group which I will be forever grateful to my brother (S., are you reading this?) for introducing me to. In the past few years I’ve grown to love Genesis more and more (up to and including 1980’s Duke, naturally), as much for the verve and warmth of their extended instrumental passages as for Peter Gabriel’s and, yes, Phil Collins’s dramatic vocal interventions. Anyway, to these ears Goblin were like a poor man’s Genesis, their weak and pedestrian melodies a chore rather than a pleasure.

Back in the main hall later in the evening, both Black Dice and headliners Butthole Surfers proved similarly appeal-resistant. Black Dice were reminiscent of no less an authority than Beavis & Butthead – a bunch of chancers making an ill-formed and directionless racket because it was, like, rilly cool to do so. The incessant rhythmic nodding of the bloke on the right, presumably intended to signal some kind of Dionysian abandonment, was profoundly irritating. As for the Butthole Surfers, their twin-drummer assault was astonishing, but other than that the whole thing was just too swampy and aggressive for my tastes.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 1: Sonic Youth, Fennesz, Heaven And, No Neck Blues Band

It’s taken me far too long to get around to writing a report on this year’s Donaufestival, so here’s the first of three recaps of the nights I attended. In general there was plenty more to enjoy this year after the fairly disastrous line-up of the 2008 event. The headlining acts were mostly of a high standard, reflected in the news that the festival’s director has had his contract extended for a further three years (due in large part, no doubt, to the fact that a record 13,000 people visited this year). Crucially, the headliners – people like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Spiritualized – were the kind of artists who walk that tricky balancing act between creativity and commerciality; they attract relatively large audiences, yet are able to do so without compromising their artistic integrity. (I wish I could say the same for Antony & the Johnsons, the festival’s single biggest draw this year, whose appearance on weekend 2 I had no desire to see.)

It’s more the second-tier acts that the festival has to work on now. With one or two honourable exceptions, there seemed to be a gaping hole in the middle of most evenings, with not much to entertain those people who were waiting around until 11.00pm to see the main act. One of those exceptions would certainly be the No Neck Blues Band, who had the unenviable task of being the first group to play on the main festival site on the first evening. They carried it off with great verve, though, creating a loose yet compelling weave of instrumental textures and the odd bit of Fluxus-style tomfoolery. Funnily enough NNCK were the first group I ever saw at the Donaufestival, at the old Korneuburg site in 2006 (review), so it was good to get reacquainted with them. The blond college boy-type percussionist, who on that occasion stripped naked and smeared himself with fake blood, was comparatively restrained this time, climbing very athletically up the lighting rig in order to suspend a cello from the ceiling. Meanwhile the spectacularly bearded frontman was busy winding a long reel of string around various instruments onstage – a nice visual correlative to the increasingly meshed and vexatious music.

Later on in Halle 2, all this detritus was cleared away in order to make way for a MacBook and an electric guitar –  a sure sign that Fennesz was in the building. The Austrian laptop musician played a blinding set, issuing simple chords and riffs on the guitar and then subjecting them to all manner of treatments and manipulations. The results were vivid, colourful and entirely engrossing. Electronica guys like Fennesz and Peter Rehberg are often accused of taking the easy option, of somehow not being ‘real’ musicians, but there’s an awful lot of brow-furrowing going on when they stare into their laptops. Forming a marked contrast with the blank looks of most rock musicians, this level of concentration is an indicator of the care and creativity that go into electronic music-making of this quality.

Over in Halle 1, I caught a brief snatch of Heaven And, a pleasantly noisy rock/improv unit who reminded me (in a good way) of ’73/’74-era King Crimson. Having impressed the Sonic Youth-hungry audience enough to win an encore, they then rather ballsed it up by coming back on to play a slow, quiet and searching piece.

No chance of Sonic Youth themselves doing anything quiet or searching, though. Do they actually have any slow songs in their repertoire? If so, we certainly didn’t hear any of them tonight. This group, about whom I have always remained agnostic despite their impeccable avant credentials, came on and proceeded to blast their way through a set of jerky, spasmodic numbers that were each about as short as Kim Gordon’s skirt. It was a lot easier to admire than to enjoy, if I’m being honest. No shortage of energy, for sure, but precious little of the close-your-eyes-and-be-transported transcendence that the finest rock music has to offer – and which I was to experience in excelsis two nights later.

Tori Amos, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 6 May 2009

Now here’s a throwback to a past time. Tori Amos was someone I used to see a lot when I lived in London in the early 90s; I remember one particularly spellbinding evening at the Shaw Theatre on Euston Road, and another at some posh West End theatre or other when she was supported by the Divine Comedy, whom I was seeing for the first time (another artist I loved in the 90s who has sadly lost their way). Little Earthquakes was a devastating début, and Under The Pink even better for being both richer and stranger than its predecessor. But that was it for me. Boys For Pele began a downward spiral into eccentricity and impenetrability, as Amos wilfully chose to leave behind the qualities of fragility and desolation that had pushed her first two records towards greatness; and I lost interest.

Around seventeen years, then, since I first made Tori Amos’s acquaintance, it was time to catch up with her again in Vienna. This was one of those promotional showcase events, a concert intended for future broadcast and not really open to the public, for which the audience is made up of competition winners, industry parasites and suchlike. When I found out it was happening, I made a few enquiries but drew a blank ticket-wise. It was a great pleasure, therefore, to turn up at the Radiokulturhaus, go straight in and claim one of the precious few empty seats; thanks very much, FM4. (Would such an act of simple generosity have occurred at a comparable event in London? I rather think not – without a ticket, I wouldn’t have been allowed within a half-mile radius of the theatre.)

What a lovely venue is the Radiokulturhaus. The acoustics for tonight’s concert were just perfect, pin-sharp and crystal clear. The set itself, however, was frustratingly brief at around 45 minutes. This seems to be the standard length for these showcase events, but I have no idea why; having secured the presence of a major artist in an intimate setting, it would seem daft to let them get away with playing for less than an hour. The length of the radio broadcast itself might be restricted, sure, but there’s no reason why the artist can’t carry on and give a longer show than is actually broadcast.

As for the performance, it pretty much confirmed why Amos and I had parted company. The solo piano configuration was, of course, the perfect setting, temporarily banishing my memories of seeing Amos sing “Cornflake Girl” with a lumpen backing group and sickening quantities of flashing and swivelling lights. But the songs I was unfamiliar with – which understandably formed the backbone of the set – traded starkness and limpidity for recondite lyrics and tentative, not-quite-there melodies. A brief flash of autobiographical recollection led into a reading of the old standard “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, which was ravishing but not exactly acute.

Only the last two songs provided glimpses of Amos at her mesmerising best. “Silent All These Years” was as painfully self-aware as ever, its tumbling melody framed by the luminous beauty of her voice. And “1000 Oceans”, a new song to me, held me rapt with its haunted imagery of flight and homecoming – an intense and magical valediction.

Pita, Vienna Rhiz, 21 April 2009

This was a rare and all too brief live appearance by hometown hero Peter Rehberg, effortlessly demonstrating the warmth and emotional empathy that, in the right hands, can come out of laptop music. Standing impassively on the small stage of the darkened Rhiz, Rehberg focused intently on his Macbook, occasionally glancing over at a second machine to his right. The music began with slow, tense accretions that gradually uncoiled into an expansive dronescape, thick percussive stabs adding to the sense of foreboding. Before long, though, the epic third track from Rehberg’s epochal 1999 Get Out album came surging through the speakers, crushing everything in its path with its juggernaut melody and sense of delirious abandonment.

As the scouring blast of that extraordinary piece ebbed away, Rehberg continued to issue pulverising drones, networks of rhythmic patterning and the occasional desolate strand of melody. After half an hour it was over, and this most self-effacing, yet fiercely creative of musicians closed his laptop and left the stage.

Ether column, April 2009

After a rather underwhelming line-up in 2008, the Donaufestival returns to top form this year with a stellar list of attractions that make a night or two along the Danube a highly enticing proposition.  You should know the form by now: every year for two weekends in late April and early May, the sleepy town of Krems is transformed into a setting for cutting-edge music and performance art.  Major concerts take place in the exhibition hall near the centre of town, while smaller events happen in the Minoritenkirche, a ten-minute stroll through the beguiling streets of Krems and its next-door neighbour Stein.  There’s a strong satellite programme of exhibitions, theatre and club nights as well.  The festival is easily accessible from Vienna, since the organizers are savvy enough to run buses to and from Krems every night, with the last bus home not departing until the final band has played their last encore – which is, however, often as late as 3am.

As for the artists performing this year, my personal pick would be British space rock heroes Spiritualized. More or less a vehicle for Jason Pierce, who likes to go under the name J Spaceman, Spiritualized have perfected a rapturous and intoxicating blend of garage rock, gospel, blues and systems music.  Pierce’s recovery from a life-threatening illness last year has lent a new urgency to his blissful meditations on love, desire and addiction.  Other highlights of the first weekend include New York avant-rockers Sonic Youth.  I wrote about them the last time they were over here, so let me just note that as well as a Sonic Youth concert, there will also be a bonus performance by Mirror/Dash, a SY side project consisting of lead singer and guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon.  Finally on weekend one, it would be remiss of me not to give a shout out to the Butthole Surfers, a bunch of sickoes from Texas who fuse shock rock antics with a chaotic mishmash of avant-garde, hardcore and psychedelia.

The pace barely lets up on weekend two, with the biggest attraction being a set by dark cabaret act Antony & the Johnsons. Having fallen in love with Antony’s first album at a time when few others had heard it, I’ve gradually become disenchanted with his histrionic style of singing.  Better by far to check out Stereolab, possibly the world’s only Anglo-French Marxist rock band [sadly they cancelled their appearance], or the fetching female folk duo Cocorosie.  I’m also very much looking forward to a rare DJ set by Aphex Twin.  One of my most memorable evenings of music ever was a concert by this innovative electronic musician, held in an old London prison with people in huge teddy bear suits bouncing dementedly around the dancefloor.  The Donaufestival may not be quite as way out as that, but it’s getting there.

Naked Lunch: Universalove, Vienna Gartenbaukino, 17 April 2009

It was an unexpected pleasure to see Naked Lunch again, reprising the excellent live soundtrack performance that they premiered at last year’s Donaufestival. Not much to add to my review of that event, except to say that Thomas Woschitz’s film Universalove now seems even more like a major work, its glancing and resonant plotlines balanced by a considerable emotional pull. And the music is really quite stunning, with its angular and relentless percussion bolstered by haunting guitar work and the parched croon of Oliver Welter’s voice.

After 18 years of existence, Naked Lunch still seem to be practically unknown outside of Austria and Germany. Doubtless this isn’t a situation they’re happy with, but I’m tempted to say that they’re too good to be allowed out anywhere else.