Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Vienna Arena, 25 January 2011

The return from a lengthy hiatus of Godspeed You! Black Emperor was both completely unexpected and incalculably welcome. Like many others, I suspect, I had assumed we would never see them in active service again, especially since sister project A Silver Mt Zion has taken on more and more Godspeed-like properties in its most recent records. I should have had more faith, for here they were, all eight of them (wasn’t it nine before?), once again forming themselves into a loose semi-circle and pounding out the most beautiful symphonies for the end of the world.

I saw Godspeed at least twice in London, I think, before they disappeared in 2003 or so. I remember very well a gig at the Embassy Rooms, a short-lived and now defunct basement venue on Tottenham Court Road (later a strip club, I believe). Later, after my fellow accountants had discovered them, I saw them at the Royal Festival Hall as well; I recall the gig starting late due to their delayed arrival on the ferry from Dublin, or was that some other group? Whatever the facts of the matter, it’s clear that not much has changed chez Godspeed since those early days. They’re picking up where they left off, essentially, which is something that the most successful reunions (Van der Graaf Generator, Swans) have taken pains to avoid doing. But when the place you left is as noble and thrilling as Godspeed’s was, you can be forgiven for them wanting to return there.

What we got at the Arena, then, was well over two hours of disciplined, multi-layered and engrossing music. Forming the oceanic core of the group’s sound, the guitars, cello and violin would pick out an achingly sad melody, gather solemnly around it and shepherd it gradually towards the blinding light of crescendo, while the thunderous drumming blasted the whole spectacle into the kind of alternate and better reality you feel Godspeed know has to be out there somewhere, if only they could find it. For Godspeed are above all idealists and romantics, finding in post-industrial trauma and decay not the horrors that Throbbing Gristle found, but imagined correlatives for the good, the pure and the hopeful.

I’m sure Godspeed probably played most of their greatest hits tonight, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you what they were. Although I’ve listened to the albums dozens of times, I still have no idea what individual tracks are called; and although I recognized most of the pieces they played, I couldn’t identify any of them by title or tell you which album they come from.

My inability to retain such trainspotterish details doesn’t come as a big surprise to me, it must be said. More than any other group I know, Godspeed operate at a macro rather than a micro level, an approach restated by their steadfast refusal to acknowledge the audience with anything more than the most cursory of nods. Like Test Department (and I hereby call for a Test Department reunion in 2012), another large and faceless collective who used visual projections in their shows, Godspeed understand the seductive power and strength such anonymity bestows. And in deploying that anonymity in the service of such thrilling and beautiful music, Godspeed evoke a timely reminder that all is not yet lost.

Home Service reunite, world says “Who?”

The news that Home Service are the latest group to hit the reunion trail has not exactly set the blogosphere on fire as yet. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions on the websites of those involved and the festivals where they’ve already announced they’ll be playing this summer, there’s been practically no reaction at all, which makes a brief note here all the more imperative.

Why do Home Service matter? Simply because they are one of the finest folk rock groups England has ever produced, right up there with Fairport Convention and the Albion Band. Their slim recorded output may not stack up against those groups’ in terms of quantity, but in Alright Jack and their music for The Mysteries they produced two of the key texts of the genre. And the history and line-up of Home Service is completely tangled up with those of Fairport and the Albion Band in any event. Thankfully, that history is recounted in useful detail here, so I don’t need to go over it again. The point is that Home Service represent the continuation and full flowering of the best record the Albion Band ever made, 1978’s Rise Up Like The Sun. The creative mind mostly responsible for that masterpiece was not Albion Band mainman Ashley Hutchings but Derby singer-songwriter John Tams, one of the unheralded geniuses of English music. Without wishing to devalue the contributions of anyone else, it was Tams’ work as singer and musical director, plus the superbly eloquent electric guitar of Graeme Taylor, that made Rise Up Like The Sun such a massively ambitious yet successful record.

And, needless to say, it was Tams and Taylor who carried that success into their next group, Home Service. The only occasions on which I ever saw them were three visits to the National Theatre in 2000, when they were the house band for Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries. I am so, so glad I made the effort to go to all three of those mystery plays (albeit in the wrong order, and not all on the same day – which would have been completely overwhelming). Together, they represent by far the most memorable and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. These were promenade performances, with actors and audience mingling together on the floor of the theatre, and by the end of each play everyone was dancing together to the joyous sound of Home Service, who were playing somewhere above on the balcony.

I wish I could give more of a flavour of those three wonderful evenings, but there is hardly anything to prove that they ever really took place. The plays were never filmed, but the original 1985 production, of which the 2000 production was a revival, was filmed in its entirety and broadcast on Channel 4. Those precious tapes have, however, disappeared somewhere into corporate limbo. Never commercially released on VHS or DVD, they may once have been traded among enthusiasts, but the arthouse film website of which I’m a member currently has no copies circulating. There is also, or at any rate there used to be, a CD available of Home Service’s music for the trilogy.  It’s well worth getting hold of, but it comes nowhere near capturing the ecstatic beauty of Home Service at full tilt.

At any rate, the reunion of Home Service has to be one of my most anticipated musical events of 2011. I can’t see them coming to play in Vienna, nor anywhere else in continental Europe for that matter, so a trip to England is definitely on the cards for sometime this year.

Peter Brötzmann & Fred Lonberg-Holm, Vienna Blue Tomato, 21 January 2011

Peter Brötzmann turns 70 this year, but despite this milestone is showing no signs of easing off on his famously prodigious work rate. In the spring he’ll tour once again with his Chicago Tentet; no Vienna date for that massive big band this time, alas, but then again we were rather spoilt by the three-day Tentet-fest that took place here last November. In the meantime, here he was in a duo setting that was new to me, with American cellist (and Tentet member) Fred Lonberg-Holm. Sounding unlike any Brötzmann gig I’ve ever seen before, it proved a fascinating face-off.

What Lonberg-Holm brought to the party was a somewhat cerebral avant-garde sensibility that marked him out from Brötzmann’s usual collaborators from the worlds of jazz and improv. The cellist spent much of the time crouched low on his chair, reaching down to manipulate his arsenal of effects boxes. He also exhibited a fondness for extended techniques such as manipulating sticks which he had placed between the strings of the cello. Other sections sounded more composed, flowing, romantic even, while at odd moments Lonberg-Holm also showed himself not to be averse to a bit of fuzz-heavy rocking out as well.

Brötzmann responded to this variety of approaches with his customary adroitness and sympathy. Switching from tenor sax to tarogato in the first set, then to alto for the second, he graciously allowed the cellist to set the agenda for the music and was at times unusually restrained as a result. I got the impression that Brötzmann’s playing was vexed by its surroundings, struggling to work itself free from the structures imposed by Lonberg-Holm. As a result, the German’s signature volcanic eruptions were slower to come than usual. When the moment called for it, though, Brötzmann didn’t hesitate to reach deep inside and produce a solo of staggering incandescence and vitality. He’s still the master at 70, and if anyone is insolent enough to ask how long he can continue like this, these words (taken from a 2000 interview) should provide all the answers they need:

If I said at the time and if I still say it today, that we’ll just play until we drop, it’s not because we’re heroes. We have to. There isn’t much else for us to do but to carry on playing. You don’t make a fortune playing this kind of music. I just hope that I’m aware of it when my head and my body aren’t fully there anymore and that I can afford to say, Brötzmann, that was it – the rest I’ll keep to myself.