Ether column, December 2009

If you’re tired of the usual New Year’s Eve party locations, or you don’t much fancy having firecrackers thrown in your face by children on Stephansplatz, why not head over to the Rhiz for a special end-of-year show by Bulbul? This fun-loving Austrian trio are a regular fixture on the Vienna live circuit, bringing home the point that there’s nothing like frequent gigging if you’re a band that wants to get noticed. Fresh from his triumphant appearance with Jandek in October, drummer Didi Kern will be joined by Raumschiff Engelmayr and Derhunt (possibly not his real name) for an evening of angular, splintery rock with lots of distorted guitar and pounding bass – the ideal way to wave goodbye to the old year and say hello to 2010.

My final recommendation of the year also goes to an Austrian group, The Scarabeusdream. The duo from Burgenland serve up an electrifying mix of keyboards, drums and screamed-out vocals. Pianist Bernd Supper approaches the keyboard like he’s fighting with it, standing up to play and hammering relentlessly down on the keys, while drummer Hannes Moser’s engagement with his kit is similarly deranged and physical. The group’s début album Sample Your Heartbeat To Stay Alive showcases their aggressively minimalist approach to great effect.

Ether column, November 2009

Another cracking month for concerts. Top of the list is the visit of Six Organs of Admittance, playing in the grimy surroundings of the Kleine Halle at the Arena. Six Organs is more or less guitarist Ben Chasny, joined by various collaborators for both live and studio work. Chasny tends to get lumped in with the “weird folk” crowd, which is actually not a bad shorthand for his uncanny and hypnotic blend of acoustic guitar-driven, mostly instrumental music. Calling to mind mystical Eastern ragas alongside the primitivist fingerpicking style of the late John Fahey, Six Organs music sparkles with melodic invention. On this tour, Chasny will be joined by electric guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, whose playing is as thrilling to watch as it is to listen to, and Alex Neilson, one of the most gifted and inventive drummers of modern times.

Moving right along, there’s an unmissable evening of free jazz and improvisation at the excellent Blue Tomato club this month, featuring two of the key figures in the genre. American saxophonist Ken Vandermark is a workaholic who spends most of his life on the road. His fierce and passionate playing effortlessly combines the swinging Fire Music style of Albert Ayler with the more abstract European style of Peter Brötzmann. Like most free jazz musicians, Vandermark has a list of collaborators as long as your arm; he’s one of those who believes in improvisation and ad hoc groupings as essential elements in keeping the music fresh and vital. On this occasion he’ll be joined by the awesomely talented Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love, sticksman with The Thing (see the March 2009 issue of Ether), Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and too many others to mention. This kind of duo concert, with two musicians facing up to each other onstage with no preconceived notions of what they are going to play, represents for me the perfectly symmetrical essence of free improvisation.

And rounding things off, a very different kind of duo, KTL, the guitar and laptop pairing of Sunn O))) mastermind Stephen O’Malley and Vienna’s very own Peter Rehberg. O’Malley is the master of the drone guitar, playing pulverizingly loud sub-bass frequencies that resonate deep within you. Rehberg, meanwhile, coaxes all manner of hectic and crystalline sounds from his laptop. As well as being a formidable presence with their own records and concerts, KTL have often created music for dance and theatre pieces. It’s a natural move for them, therefore, to make film soundtrack music. As part of this year’s Wien Modern festival, they’ll be performing their own score to the classic early Swedish silent horror film, The Phantom Carriage, live as the film is shown.

Ether column, October 2009

There are some wonderful concerts coming up over the next few months, none more so than the one this column is about – a unique occasion, the first ever appearance in central Europe by the American singer and musician Jandek. In case you’re wondering “who?”, let me tell you his fascinating story. Over the past 30 years, Jandek has released about 50 albums of strange, unearthly folk/rock/blues music. The albums come from a PO Box in Houston, Texas, and are never accompanied by any kind of biographical information. In all that time, Jandek has never given a single interview or made any kind of public statement. Until 2004, he had also never played any concerts or appeared in public. In that year, he surprised quite a few people by playing a short, unannounced set at a festival in Scotland, and since then he has evidently caught the touring bug, having played about 40 shows mostly in the US and UK.

Those 50 albums, taken together, represent a serious and intriguing body of work. At first listen, the music is alien and offputting. Jandek sings in a raw, pleading voice, and his guitar playing sounds untutored, as though he has only recently picked up the instrument. The lyrics are rambling, free-associative and often disturbing (sample lines: “I got my knife/If you want to breathe, baby/Don’t paint your teeth”). On some albums, Jandek plays harmonica and piano; other players include a female vocalist, a second guitarist and a drummer, all of whom are similarly untutored and, needless to say, unnamed. Others just consist of Jandek’s voice. The music sounds like it’s been recorded in a room at home, not in a studio. It has been aptly described as “sounding like the music found on an unlabelled tape left in a deserted house.”

The covers of the albums are an important part of the Jandek mythology and tell their own, fractured story. Many of them look like carelessly taken snapshots. Some of them show Jandek at different stages of his life (he’s in his mid-60s now), although until he began playing live, no-one could actually be sure that the man on the covers was the man playing the music. Others show the interior or exterior of houses, presumably where he was living at the time; the curtains in the windows are always tightly drawn.

Every one of Jandek’s shows is different, ranging from solo acoustic guitar to piano recitals and noisy, free-form rock. Sometimes he performs on his own, but more often than not he finds musicians from the city he is performing in and produces a concert of music especially written for each performance. For his Vienna début, he’ll be joined by two of the finest musicians from Vienna’s thriving avant rock/improv scene: Eric Arn of Primordial Undermind on bass and Didi Kern of Fuckhead and Bulbul on drums. The unexpected is to be assumed…

Ether radio show

Earlier this month I was very pleased to be asked to be the guest and play some music on the Ether radio show on Vienna’s Orange Radio. You can listen to the show here. These are the songs I played:

Bruce Springsteen, “Surprise Surprise” (from Working on a Dream, 2009)

Current 93, “The Descent of Long Satan and Babylon” (from Thunder Perfect Mind, 1992)

10,000 Maniacs, “These Are Days” (from Our Time In Eden, 1992)

Tindersticks, “Buried Bones” (from Curtains, 1997)

Sagor & Swing, “Äventyr i alperna” (from Orgelplaneten, 2004)

By the way the show I appeared on last year is still online – link and playlist here.

Ether column, July 2009

As usual the gig schedule is a bit thin over the summer months, although there are still a few events worth checking out, most of them outdoors. I’m going to devote my whole column, however, to just one of these. If you go to only one concert this summer, it should be the one by Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who makes his second visit to Austria within a year when he plays at the open-air festival site at Wiesen in Burgenland. Many will by now know the story of how Cohen’s former manager plundered his retirement fund to the tune of $5 million, forcing him to play concerts again at the age of 74. But if money was the original impetus behind Cohen’s return to live work, it’s nevertheless clear that he’s caught the touring bug again, having played more than 100 concerts in Europe, North America and Australia over the past year.

With a recording career stretching back over 40 years and a series of acclaimed novels and poetry collections to his name, Cohen is the only serious rival to Bob Dylan for the accolade of greatest poet in popular music. His earliest records were sparse and bleak, his folkish guitar the sole accompaniment to devastatingly sad and haunting meditations on love, death and spirituality. The lyrics, shot through with rapturously poetic imagery, were half-spoken, half-sung in a sepulchral baritone that perfectly reflected the gravity of the songs. Gradually Cohen began to expand his instrumental palette, augmenting the ever-present female backing vocals with strings and woodwind and situating his music deep within the central European folk tradition. This may account for the fact that Cohen has always found audiences in Europe to be more receptive to his work than those in his native North America, where in the mid-80s he was unable even to land a record contract.

1988’s I’m Your Man was a landmark album for Cohen, in which he traded guitars for synthesisers and drum machines and dropped the overtly religious imagery that had in favour of a flat, humorous and conversational language. Some long-time fans were disgruntled, but Cohen had the last laugh as he found a new generation of audiences who welcomed him in his new combined role of jester and prophet. Often unfairly dismissed as an arch miserablist, Cohen had in fact been introducing humour into his work since the early ‘70s. Now, though, he seemed convinced that the only way out of the political and spiritual crises facing mankind was to laugh in the face of them.

Cohen’s two sold-out shows at the Vienna Konzerthaus last September were truly inspirational affairs, filled with his unique poetry, wisdom and grace. A field in Burgenland may not be quite such an alluring location, but Cohen and his immaculate band are sure to stamp their indelible magic on the evening in any case.

Ether column, June 2009

For the first and probably last time, I’m going to recommend in this column a concert at the enormous Ernst Happel Stadion in the Prater – the kind of venue that normally makes a mockery of everything that is enjoyable about going to see live music. But if there’s one performer who can stand onstage in a cavernous football field and make it seem like he’s playing to you and you alone, it’s Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen is an utterly mesmerising live performer, straining every fibre of his body in relentless pursuit of the unshakeable conviction that it’s his responsibility to give the audience the night of their lives. Unfairly dismissed by many as a hokey and clichéd songwriter, Springsteen’s magic actually consists in a tender and heartfelt exploration of emotions that resonate so powerfully with lived human experience that they take on qualities of the pure and sacred. Rich in drama and sure in characterisation, the songs take inspiration from the deep American mythos of the car, the girl and the open road – all of which are seen as routes out of no-hope, dead-end jobs and communities steadily losing their humanity under the baleful influence of the military-industrial complex. Often overlooked and misunderstood, indeed, is the burning sense of rage and social injustice in Springsteen’s work – “Born in the USA”, for example, is emphatically not a patriotic song – but the songs never preach, instead telling grounded stories of hardship and loss. Thanks to the glorious orchestrations of the E Street Band, moreover, the music is far from being generic American rock; its swelling organ and saxophone riffs, and Springsteen’s own scything guitar work, form the perfect accompaniment to the emotional humanity at the core of the man’s worldview. In concert Springsteen is funny, warm, likeable and generous: an inspirational phenomenon everyone should witness at least once.

Ether column, May 2009

When I was 13 years old and just getting into “proper” music for the first time, most of the kids at my school were huge followers of heavy metal, in particular the short-lived phenomenon known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. As a quieter and more bookish type (don’t laugh), I was the only person I knew of that age who worshipped instead at the altar of electronic music, in particular the German group Kraftwerk. I’m tempted to say I had the last laugh, for while the NWOBHM quickly floundered, Kraftwerk are still a formidable proposition. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that their rare concert in Austria this month takes place at a dance music festival, since Kraftwerk are still more often thought of in terms of their supposed “influence” on hip-hop and techno than their own music itself. Kraftwerk music is possessed of a shimmering, crystalline beauty, the simplicity and urgency of their melodies utterly beguiling. Although founder member Ralf Hütter is the only one left from the classic Kraftwerk line-up, in this case it hardly matters, since the individual personalities were long ago subsumed into a group identity that represents itself onstage in a stunning multimedia show including, at one point, the appearance of the legendary Kraftwerk robots. Impossibly dry and funny, at times sinister yet strangely hopeful and touching, Kraftwerk are the sound of the future turning back in on itself.

Just sneaking in under the wire this month is a welcome return to these shores by experimental drone metallers Sunn O))). Although the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have played with a bewildering variety of other artists, their strongest music undeniably emerges from their work together as Sunn O))), a group originally conceived as a tribute to Earth, another band in this field. Yet in recent years Sunn O))) have outstripped Earth with their dark, mysterious and resonant music, which consists of deep, agonisingly slow guitar lines played amid a welter of feedback and the occasional anguished vocal. Live, they present an intriguing spectacle, playing at deafening volume, dressed in long, hooded robes and filling the room with industrial quantities of fog that add to the ritualistic aspect of the performance. Arrive early to catch the support slot from Vienna laptop maestro Peter Rehberg aka Pita, who plays with O’Malley as KTL.

Finally, I could hardly end this column without mentioning another Vienna concert by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, this time performing with his celebrated Chicago Tentet in the elegant surroundings of Porgy & Bess. This awesomely talented and expressive big band is now at the height of its powers, merging the delights of way-out jazz and free improvisation into an extended and delirious whole. Not to be missed.

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.

Ether column, March 2009

Not much doubt in my mind about the concert of the month (although work commitments mean that I can’t be there, annoyingly) – an evening of blistering free jazz courtesy of The Thing, aka Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Swedish bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten. Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that both Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love are frequent collaborators of the titanic German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Gustafsson in the all-reeds trio Sonore, Nilssen-Love in various group formats. Together with Haker-Flaten they walk the precipice between free jazz, out-there rock and garage punk. Gustafsson channels the spirit of Fire Music legend Albert Ayler in his inspirational sax playing, while Nilssen-Love attacks his kit with savage ferocity and the bassist anchors the whole edifice with his rock-solid pizzicato work. Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Blue Tomato, The Thing will surely blast the roof off the place.

If The Thing represent modern European free jazz at its most extreme, saxophonist Paul Dunmall is an example of the kind of dedicated, unsung musician thrown up by the British free improvisation movement. Where Brötzmann and his ilk picked up the sound of American free jazz and took it even further out, Dunmall was part of a British scene that went in the other direction, towards abstraction and relative quiet. Best known for his membership of Mujician, a quartet led by the formidable English pianist Keith Tippett, Dunmall appears in Vienna with a trio that is effectively Mujician without Tippett, i.e. accompanied by Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin on drums.

Intriguing evening in prospect – at least for those with good German, which counts me out – at the WUK this month, as Einstürzende Neubauten mainman Blixa Bargeld reads from his new book Europa Kreuzweise: Eine Litanei.  As an attempt to answer the question “what does it mean, to be on a non-stop concert tour for two months?”, the book describes the monotony of movement, interrupted by restaurants, readings and meetings. As I noted in my preview of Neubauten’s last Vienna appearance in April 2008, Bargeld is a lyricist of great skill and acuity, his texts replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Between Neubauten activity in recent years, he has given solo vocal performances under the title Rede/Speech, in which he treats his voice with a variety of foot pedals and effects equipment. Expect this not to be a standard book reading.

Ether column, February 2009

A mixed bag of artists for you this month, all of them testifying to the enduring power of the song. First up is waif-like Austrian singer Marilies Jagsch, whose concert at the Haus der Musik is promoted by the Vienna Songwriting Association – the people behind last November’s excellent Bluebird Festival, at which she also played. Faced with the unenviable task of playing support to Okkervil River, Jagsch acquitted herself with great strength that night. There’s a palpable sense of intensity and desolation to her songs, which she writes and sings in English. Sounding not unlike British singer-songwriter Beth Orton, Jagsch plays delicately wrought acoustic guitar and occasionally bursts forth with passages of powerful dissonance. Songs from her long-awaited debut album Obituary for a Lost Mind are sure to get an airing.

The Tiger Lillies are an unusual three-piece group from London with roots deep in cabaret, gypsy music and French chanson. They’re best known for their music for the opera Shock Headed Peter (based on the German children’s book Struwwelpeter), on which their humorous yet nightmarish songs provide a suitably creepy soundtrack. In 2003 they followed it up with another successful project, The Gorey End. A collaboration with revered string group the Kronos Quartet, this was an adaptation of macabre stories by the American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey. Revelling in the bawdy traditions of vaudeville, the Tiger Lillies have a gift for transforming the places they play – in this case, the sorely atmosphere-lacking Szene Wien – into pleasantly disreputable cabaret dens.

Anne Clark is also British, although like many artists of her ilk she has found larger audiences for her work in continental Europe than in the UK. Less constrained by the dictates of fashion, and with a considerably less oafish media to contend with, European audiences are more receptive to Clark’s diverse and experimental range of styles. A poetic songwriter and gifted pianist, Clark’s output ranges from dance music and torch song to more elaborate orchestral pieces. Most often, though, she half-speaks, half-recites her lyrics to a stinging electronic accompaniment that places her within the European dark wave tradition. She has collaborated with the likes of John Foxx, the former leader of Ultravox, Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column and Martyn Bates of Eyeless In Gaza – all, like her, mercurial songwriting talents whose work rarely attracts the attention of the mainstream. Having just released her first album in twelve years, The Smallest Acts of Kindness, Anne Clark is assured of a warm and enthusiastic welcome in Vienna.