Donaufestival 2011: Ben Frost, John Cale, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Nadja

My one and only visit to this year’s Donaufestival kicked off in the Minoritenkirche with a fine performance by Ben Frost, accompanied by pianist Daniel Bjarnason and the Krakow Symphony Orchestra. For this event Frost proposed a meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, with video projections created by the absent Brian Eno. Not having seen the film in question, I have no idea as to how either the music or the visuals related to it. The music itself, though, was beautiful: slow, thick melodies that resonated with exceptional clarity around the atmospheric old church, accompanied by Frost’s heavily treated guitar and Bjarnason’s unnervingly calm pianistics.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, John Cale was a severe disappointment. This was a straight-up rock and roll set that evoked none of the dark phantoms I normally associate with Cale. If it’s true, as J. claimed, that you can tell what kind of state Cale is in by the way he goes about “Heartbreak Hotel”, then I should have known the game was up from the way he opened the set with a tiresomely bouncy version of this old chestnut. The briskly competent band were augmented, entirely unnecessarily, by a gospel choir and horn section, while Cale himself was inadvisably clad in a kilt. There were no Velvets songs, no viola and no mystery. It could have been a bar band up there, and I frequently wished it was.

After that ordeal, it was a relief and pleasure to make the acquaintance of Wildbirds & Peacedrums for the first time. The Swedish trio cast a vivid late-night spell with their heady mix of out-there vocals, propulsive drumming and atmospheric washes of Hammond organ. In fact, that dreamlike Hammond-percussion sound put me in mind of another Swedish group, the irresistible Sagor & Swing (and weren’t they supposed to be reforming?). Strange, then, that the organist seems not to be a core member of the band, who generally consist of Mariam Wallentin on vocals and Andreas Werliin on drums. Rounding off the night, Nadja’s slow-moving, heavily treated guitar and bass drones brought an ominous edge of menace and dissonance to the proceedings.

A final tip of the hat to Lucas Abela’s Vinyl Rally installation around the corner from the second stage, a truly inspired and dotty piece of work. A winding racetrack had been set up with hundreds of old LPs covering its walls and floor. A remote-controlled car, which punters were able to control by turning a separate steering wheel, was placed on the racetrack. The car had a camera fitted to its front, the view from which the “driver” could see on a screen in front of him as he attempted to steer the car through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the racetrack. I’m not sure about this, but I think the car was also fitted with some kind of audio pickup so that bits of noise were picked up from the grooves of the LPs as the car drove over them. It was a brilliant idea. And no, I didn’t have a go on it.