Efzeg, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 17 June 2012

In one of the most pitifully attended concerts I’ve ever witnessed in Vienna, last weekend saw a deserted Porgy & Bess play host to the first gig in seven years by electroacoustic improvisation quintet Efzeg. The meagre turnout was probably inevitable, given that it was a hot Sunday night and that this music is not exactly a crowd-puller at the best of times; but it was also unfortunate, since what we had here was a reunion gig (oh, how I do love reunions) by a group containing some of Europe’s leading exponents of the electroacoustic genre.

I missed Efzeg the first time around, of course, which makes their 2012 reformation all the more pertinent. I’ve long admired guitarist Martin Siewert’s work, though, having seen him play both with avant rock unit Heaven And and in a trio with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and turntablist and Efzeg member dieb13 (Dieter Kovacic). Kovacic, meanwhile, turns up in Swedish Azz with Gustafsson, who was a guest at Heaven And’s last Vienna gig. You get the picture.

In marked contrast to those previous, bracing encounters, Efzeg are all about duration, the lengthy accumulation of sonic detail. During the concert, I found myself in an unfamiliar, somewhat disquieting mode of listening. I’m not used to the kind of patient unfolding of sounds that Efzeg present us with; years of close attention to free jazz and improv have conditioned me to enjoy, perhaps even to expect, a succession of thrilling events. Such expectations are clearly not part of the EAI aesthetic. The closest I’ve come would be the few AMM concerts I was lucky enough to see in London in the 1990s, before the deplorable schism that led to founder member Keith Rowe leaving the group. Come to think of it, Rowe’s tabletop style of guitar playing is clearly a direct antecedent of Siewert’s, although Siewert often plays in a more conventional style as well. Anyway, what AMM taught me, and Efzeg reminded me of, was the importance of concentration and close listening as a means of situating oneself within a musical environment.

That makes the whole thing sound like some kind of bloodless sonic experiment; nothing could be further from the truth. Over the course of two longish sets, the group’s four instrumentalists proposed a layered approach in which the saxophone, guitars and turntable each traced their own paths before coalescing into a pulsating and vertiginous wall of sound. The amiable Boris Hauf’s spare, astringent sax was bolstered by the quietly flickering guitar of the studious figure next to him, Burkhard Stangl. On the other side of the stage, Siewert was in abstract tabletop mode for the most part, occasionally exploding into fractured power chords. Next to him, dieb13 was to be seen thoughtfully looking through his records before deciding which one to play next, their soft drones adding layers of snowy interference. Meanwhile, visual artist and fifth member Billy Roisz was using the group’s audio as input for her analogue visual feedback projections. Constantly evolving in response to the shifting textures of the music, Roisz’s bold grids and insectoid patterns provided a hypnotic visual correlative. Taking the music and the visuals together, the overall effect was of a mysterious and unresolved entity stubbornly resisting capture. I sincerely hope the group continues to play live, despite the depressing lack of interest shown in this outing.

Codeine, Vienna Szene Wien, 30 May 2012

Of all the groups to reform in recent years, Codeine must have been one of the least likely to do so. When I first saw the announcement, I simply assumed that it must have been another band using their name. But, of course, there can only be one Codeine. The story goes that the original line-up of vocalist and bassist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw were persuaded to reunite for some live shows by the Numero Group label, to mark the unlikely release of a colossal Codeine box set. There are no further shows planned, and no new material, which is probably just as well.

I never saw Codeine during their original incarnation in the early 90s, but I quickly fell under the spell of their two LPs, Frigid Stars and The White Birch. As a Swans fan, I detected something of Swans’ unremittingly gloomy muse and fondness for sledgehammer percussion in Codeine, although Codeine were sparser and more interested in exploring space and texture than Swans ever were. What I liked most about the records was the grinding sense of bleakness that pervaded every aspect of Codeine, from their anaesthetized name to the austerity of the White Birch cover, from Brokaw’s (and, later, Doug Scharin’s) dispassionate thud to Immerwahr’s cracked pleadings. This was music that knew it had nowhere to go, and was in absolutely no hurry to get there.

Codeine played live in Vienna three times during the 90s, and Immerwahr told the Szene audience how much they had enjoyed their previous visits. (In a further quirk, the cover of the Barely Real EP is a photo of the Upper Belvedere.) Eighteen years since the last of those, Codeine played a spellbinding set that dwelt heavily on the frozen isolation evoked by their past. Immerwahr intoned spare, haunting texts in a hesitant voice laced with caution, mixed low down to blend in lugubrious harmony with Engle’s stark strumming. Brokaw’s percussion, meanwhile, dictated the funereal pace at which the concert unfolded.

Brokaw, Engle and Immerwahr seem like genuinely nice guys, not above chatting at length to fans at the merch table both before and after the gig (this was the first time I’ve ever seen all the members of a headlining group work their own merch table, by the way) and with many a smile and a nod to each other onstage. There was the faint trace of a smile on Immerwahr’s face, too, as he introduced the evening’s final song, the tender and strangely moving “Broken-Hearted Wine”. Acknowledging that many of the foregoing songs had dealt in unutterable pain and sadness (I’m paraphrasing), he hoped that this last one would send us home with some good cheer in our hearts. Since the song in question went “you can come on over, cry on my shoulder and drink broken-hearted wine”, it could only offer a moderate amount of comfort. But by that time Codeine had given so much that it hardly seemed to matter at all.