Einstürzende Neubauten, Geneva Alhambra, 2 February 2018

Three years ago I travelled to Munich to see Einstürzende Neubauten play at the Haus der Kunst, a concert that coincided with the opening of an exhibition on German post-punk music at the same location. I never got around to reviewing the concert, nor did I write about the group’s appearance at the 2017 Donaufestival in Krems, one of the last concerts I saw in Austria. In truth, though, there wasn’t much difference between those appearances and Neubauten’s show last month in Geneva, so this review can stand equally as a review of those earlier two as well.

At first sight there may seem something disconcerting, maybe even safe, about the idea of a group of arch iconoclasts like Neubauten apparently treading water for the past few years, but it’s a notion that doesn’t bear very much scrutiny. In the first place, this bout of touring comes in the wake of 2014’s Lament, the soundtrack to a site-specific performance that is as emotionally affecting a piece of music as Neubauten have ever put their name to. And in the second place, 2016’s heavily ironically titled Greatest Hits compilation, around which the group’s current show is based, is very much of a piece with the tendency to self-mythologization that has characterized Neubauten’s approach over the past 37 years.

It’s become a truism, in critical writing about Neubauten, to bemoan their apparent move towards the mainstream, to complain that the sonic terrorism of their earlier years has gradually given way to a more conventionally musical approach. But to these ears, the most striking thing about latter-day Neubauten is the almost unbearable tension that they generate through their use of both conventional and home-made instruments, lurking menacingly beneath the surface and frequently erupting into states of discord that are every bit as violent and destructive as the early records and performances with which the group achieved such notoriety. This tension is inscribed deep in Neubauten’s music, from the starkly beautiful melodies that linger tellingly through their songs, to Jochen Arbeit’s miraculous shimmering guitar work, the sinister clank of NU Unruh’s percussive arsenal and the monstrous bass of Alexander von Hacke, all of it woven together by singer and lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s ferociously clever texts.

It’s not perhaps widely known that Bargeld has some help these days in delivering his lines, which is hardly surprising given how formidably dense and allusive they are. Bargeld’s guilty secret, which could readily be divined from the front-row vantage point I claimed at both Krems and Geneva, is that he has a screen at the foot of his microphone off of which he reads the lyrics, controlled by means of a little clicker in his hand. On the face of it there’s something unsatisfactory about this practice, sitting ill as it does with the assumed extempore nature of live performance. Nevertheless it’s a practice I’m happy to endorse, given that Bargeld’s texts exhibit all the characteristics of what Barthes called jouissance: a text that “imposes a state of loss, that discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language…

If Barthes, that arch deconstructionist, were around today, he would no doubt be amused by the idea of a group whose very name celebrates the notion of collapse, and who title their long-running series of compilation albums Strategies Against Architecture. And what these concerts showed was that jouissance – a blissful state of discomfort, disorientation, crisis and loss – continues to dwell threateningly inside the group’s music. Forever on the brink of collapse, constantly shifting between beauty and danger, Einstürzende Neubauten remain as compelling and essential as ever.

Concerts of 2017

This blog is in hibernation, but I’m making a quick return just to note the eight (why eight?) concerts I enjoyed most this year:

1. Peter Hammill, Café Oto, London (actually three concerts, but impossible to pick one)

2. Richard Youngs, Cave 12, Geneva

3. This Is Not This Heat, Cave 12, Geneva

4. Einstürzende Neubauten, Donaufestival, Krems

5. Michael Nyman Band, Schauspielhaus, Zurich

6. Schlippenbach Trio, AMR, Geneva

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Arena, Geneva

8. Felix Kubin, Cave 12, Geneva

Felix Kubin, Geneva Cave 12, 4 May 2017

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since moving to Geneva has been the discovery of the music venue Cave 12. At first sight a close relative of the Rhiz in Vienna, on further inspection Cave 12 is actually outdoing the Rhiz these days in terms of its ability to attract some of the key names in experimental music. I’m still reeling from Richard Youngs’ extraordinary concert there in February, while performances by Peter Rehberg, Tyondai Braxton (which I never got around to reviewing; maybe some other time) and the late Mika Vainio weren’t too shabby either.

One key difference between those concerts and Felix Kubin’s appearance at Cave 12 in May was that the venue was absolutely packed out for Kubin, compared to the rather sparse attendance on the other evenings. Prior to the concert I was only vaguely aware of this guy’s work, thanks mainly to a Wire cover story a few years ago. But I’m very glad I took a punt on Kubin, since he gave one of the most enjoyable concerts of the year so far.

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Michael Nyman Band, Zurich Schauspielhaus, 10 May 2017

The music of Michael Nyman has really been getting under my skin these past few months, so when the opportunity came along to see him and his eponymous band in Zurich, it was a no-brainer to make the journey there from Geneva. This was my first visit to Zurich for thirteen years or so, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the meantime.

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Mika Vainio, Geneva Cave 12, 2 February 2017

Like everyone else who was aware of him and his work, I was deeply saddened by the death earlier this month of Mika Vainio. I didn’t know Mika personally, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1997, when Panasonic opened for Swans on their “final” European tour, for which I was the merchandise seller. This position meant long hours travelling in a big tour bus, time variously spent watching videos, chatting and sleeping (mostly the latter). Mika was a less frequent participant in these conversations than his Panasonic colleague Ilpo, but when he did join in, his contributions were always worth hearing. On one occasion, the conversation turned (how, I have no idea) to the topic of tenpin bowling. I expressed the opinion, which I still fervently hold, that one’s enjoyment of this game was hampered by its unnecessarily complex scoring system. Mika thought for a moment and then replied lugubriously: “It does not matter what is the score.”

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Thighpaulsandra, Vienna Rhiz, 1 April 2017

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I must have seen Thighpaulsandra live a few times around the turn of the millennium, during his tenure as a member of Coil. My recollection is hazy, but I definitely saw them at least twice at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the first time as headliners, the second time as support act to Icelandic also-rans Sigur Rós. According to Brainwashed, those concerts took place in 2000 and 2002 respectively. On the second occasion, I watched Coil’s excellent performance (which included the spectacle of two naked men covered in body paint walking up and down the aisles, handing out apples to the audience), but naturally had no interest in Sigur Rós. So I swiftly adjourned to the bar, where I remained for the entirety of the headliners’ set.

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Peter Hammill, London Cafe Oto, 2-4 March 2017

Peter Hammill seems to be slipping gracefully into semi-retirement. Although there is apparently a new solo album on the way, when the most recent Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, came out last year, there was talk of it possibly being their last album. What’s more, Hammill’s formerly prodigious concert schedule is certainly less full than it used to be. It’s been five long years since I last saw him play a solo concert, which (happily for me) was at my favourite venue in the world, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. So it was a no-brainer to make the trip over to London for this mind-blowing three-night residency at what must surely be the smallest venue he’s played in Europe for years.

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Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave 12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave 12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

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The Musical Box, Geneva Théâtre du Léman, 25 November 2016

Growing up in the late 1970s, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry between my younger brother S. and me, in music as in other areas such as sport. Whereas I, at the age of 11, was a hardcore Numanoid and Kraftwerk fan, the 10-year-old S. cottoned on at an early age to other electronic pioneers such as John Foxx and The Human League. (Not for us the dire worship of heavy metal that seemed to afflict so many of our peers at grammar school in Salisbury.) Even before that, S. was only nine when he first heard on the radio, and promptly fell in love with, Genesis’ breakthrough 1978 single “Follow You Follow Me”. At that age, and with pocket money a severely limiting factor, the extent of your appreciation for a band was measured by whether you merely bought the single or went the whole hog and shelled out for the album. If you were in the latter category, you probably hadn’t heard anything else on the album; but you were confident, based on your liking of the single, that there would be further stuff on there that you would enjoy. Thus it was that S. came home one Saturday afternoon with a copy of And Then There Were Three, if I remember rightly not only his first Genesis album, but the first album he ever bought.

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Swans, Vienna Arena, 22 October 2016

I never got around to writing about Swans’ last Vienna concert in 2014 or whenever it was, so this review can probably stand as a review of that one as well, especially since not much has changed chez Michael Gira since that time. Other than by exchanging Thor Harris for a new, nondescript and barely noticeable keyboard player, the group has declined to refine its approach from previous outings. The long, monotonous riffs, rudimentary songwriting and entirely predictable use of dynamics (The loud bit! The quiet bit! The loud bit again!) are all present and correct, testaments to the creative dead end into which Gira has steered himself since reactivating Swans six years ago.

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