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.

Antony & the Johnsons: Antony & the Johnsons

The first album by Antony and the Johnsons is a truly rare thing, a debut that doesn’t merely show promise but announces the arrival of a fully formed, major talent. It’s an extraordinary collection of modern torch songs, each one a perfect concentration of emotive vocals and vivid instrumental colors.

For bringing this beautiful creation to our attention, as for so much else, we have to thank David Tibet of Current 93, who was introduced to Antony in New York and, deeply affected by the then unreleased album, became his benevolent patron. The album appears on Tibet’s Durtro label… This is not the first time that Tibet has given prominence via his label to wayward, neglected talents; English folk singer Shirley Collins, Krautrockers Sand and (more dubiously) Tiny Tim have all benefited from his patronage. But these were essentially archival releases, intended to make available once again records from the past which would otherwise have lain dormant. Antony, on the other hand, is utterly of the present; and yet his songs have a dreamlike, yearning quality that equally makes them timeless.

Antony sings his baroque texts in a richly soulful voice that could melt the stoniest of hearts, while the Johnsons deliver an inspired soundtrack of strings, piano, woodwind and percussion. The music’s glorious emotional swell fortifies the listener even as the words tell unbearably of pain, death and atrocity. There is a dark anguish here that moves from nakedly personal confessions to tender elegies for lost friends and poetic meditations on the state of the world. Under Antony’s sorrowful gaze, this anguish assumes an overwhelming density, weighing down these songs tragically and unforgettably.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)