Concerts of 2011

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2011, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In chronological order:

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
2. Frode Gjerstad Trio with Mats Gustafsson, Blue Tomato, Vienna
3. Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Shelter, Vienna
4. Home Service, Half Moon, London
5. The Thing with Ken Vandermark, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. Glen Hansard, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
7. Peterlicker, Waves Festival, Vienna
8. Death In June, Ottakringer Brauerei, Vienna
9. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Stadttheater, Wels
10. Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo/Kent Kessler/Hamid Drake/Paal Nilssen-Love, Alter Schlachthof, Wels

Death in June, Vienna Ottakringer Brauerei, 27 October 2011

Another in an occasional series in which concerts I’ve been to are used as a pretext to recall formative experiences with the artist in question. This is not a live review but a reminiscence, an extract from an autobiography that will never be written.

I was never a big fan of John Peel. I listened to his show, of course, as so many British people did whose musical tastes ventured beyond the mainstream. I would listen in the dark, after my parents had said goodnight to me, with my head and the radio under the duvet so they couldn’t hear. Once I listened to the whole of Peel’s Festive Fifty, and I remember Joy Division’s chilling “Atmosphere” being number 1. That puts it at 1981, when I was fourteen. In general, though, I would only listen to the start of the show at 10.00pm, when Peel would read out a list of the artists he was going to play that night over the show’s dust-dry theme tune. Most of the names meant nothing to me, and I would turn off the radio and fall asleep soon afterwards.

Indie pop, Peel’s stock-in-trade, never did much for me, nor indeed did any of the other genres relentlessly championed by the man. One night in 1985, though, I heard him play a song that made an instant and deep impression on me. It was a slow, funereal tune, with frosty bugle calls that somehow evoked images of dark, snow-covered European forests. Delivered in a strangely distant, anonymous-sounding voice, the words added to the song’s atmosphere of mystery and desolation: “Your alleyway, your terror glistens with despair/Dead meat and error, the only crown I’ll wear/From the ashes of liars grow the flowers of hope/From the steeples and spires/Hang each tear from a rope.” I was mesmerized by this song, which Peel announced as “Come Before Christ And Murder Love” by Death in June. I went hunting for it in Salisbury’s record shops, and surprisingly found it (on 12 inch, no less) in a place on Fisherton Street. The cover, with its death’s head symbol and inverted rune and the complete lack of any information other than the artist and title, deepened the mystery still further. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had just received my introduction to the British post-industrial underground, or what David Keenan was to term England’s hidden reverse – a strand of music that was to become hugely important to me as the years wore on.

Keenan’s book scarcely touches upon Death in June, partly because they don’t really fit the book’s thesis, but also because Douglas P. did not wish to be interviewed for it. The omission is regrettable, since Pearce looms large in the story of Current 93 in their pivotal years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the reasons I’ve always cherished Death in June is that I was listening to them for a full six years before I even became aware of Current 93. It was only when I travelled up to London for my first Death in June concert, at the New Cross Venue in 1991, that I encountered Current 93, who were second on the bill (above Sol Invictus, about whom the less said the better). C93 were great that night, but DIJ were truly exceptional.

Over the next few years I saw Death in June play live several times. Concerts included Charlton House in London, a chance encounter in Prague (where I had gone for a week’s holiday, and happened to see a poster advertising the gig in the window of a record shop), the Powerhaus in Islington (during which Douglas P. had a glass thrown in his face by an audience member) and, for what I think was probably the final time until last week, the Camden Underworld, at which Pearce was joined for the encore by Patrick Leagas and Tony Wakeford for a fleeting reunion of the original line-up.

Throughout that time Death in June appealed to me on a number of levels: the lyrics, the music and the aesthetics and iconography employed by Douglas P. Clearly, the project was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which sound, text and visual imagery all inform and reinforce one another. The group’s early musical trajectory sees the first post-Crisis records shading into the dance-influenced Nada! and from there to what I regard as their twin masterpieces, The World That Summer and Brown Book. These two albums, for me, capture the essence of Death in June: dark clouds of acoustic guitar, emotive flourishes of brass, atmospheric effects, driving percussion and solemnly intoned texts evoking sacrifice, kinship and heroism. Drenched in sublime and dreamlike imagery, I found this whole approach to be remarkably seductive and powerful. On the mid-period albums But What Ends When the Symbols Shatter? and Rose Clouds of Holocaust, Pearce ditched some of that stylistic diversity in favour of a more unadorned acoustic approach, with a slight but appreciable loss of impact. 1998’s Take Care & Control was weaker still, and after that I bailed out completely.

It would be remiss of me at this point not to briefly address the issue of fascism which has bedevilled Pearce throughout his career. My position is clear: I am agnostic on the question of Douglas P’s political beliefs, for the simple reason that he has never, to my knowledge, made any kind of public statement regarding them. It is, I believe, a grave error to presume to know what those beliefs may be on the sole basis of lyrics, symbolism, iconography and whatever other props have been used to label Pearce as a Nazi. Death in June is not a political project; no ideological agenda is advanced and no critique is offered. It is this lack of critique that gives Douglas P’s detractors much of their ammunition. It is a dereliction of duty, the argument runs, to simply ‘explore’, ‘investigate’ or ‘be interested in’ the history and aesthetics of fascism without making one’s position on the matter clear. Indeed, the refusal to state a position is seen as tantamount to taking up a pro-Nazi position. In other words, if Pearce doesn’t explicitly come out against fascism, then given his use of Nazi and related imagery he must be a fascist himself. It should be clear by now that I regard this argument as without merit. I neither know nor care what Pearce’s political views are; they are irrelevant to the way in which I respond to the music of Death in June.

And so, finally, to Death in June’s two concerts in Vienna last week, part of what is being touted as their last ever tour of Europe. On the first evening there was a semi-private solo performance in a restaurant, at which I was lucky enough to be one of the 40-odd people in the audience. Pearce confessed that he had never before played in such an intimate space, and there were enough fluffed lines and hesitant moments to confirm that there were a few nerves going around the room. That said, Douglas P. was relaxed enough to play several requests, including one for “Come Before Christ And Murder Love”. You can probably guess where that one came from.

Any such butterflies were well and truly banished the following night, as Pearce was joined by percussionist John Murphy for a full-scale Death In June show in the unexpected but very attractive setting of the Gerstenboden, an upstairs hall within the walls of the Ottakringer Brauerei. For someone who claims not to enjoy doing concerts, Pearce certainly comes across as a striking and powerful performer. The intimidating Venetian mask is worn for the first few songs, while he and Murphy hammer out colossal martial rhythms on the drums, summoning an aura of blank, affectless cruelty that is never quite dispelled. Elsewhere, the cavernous sound of the twelve-string acoustic guitar forms the basis for Douglas P’s exquisite horrorstruck lamentations. The performance seems to exist in a grim alternative Europe where beauty and dignity mingle physically with slaughter and betrayal. This is the troubling paradox of Death in June.

Letter to The Wire, August 2006

Keith Moliné, in his article on Current 93, makes the sweeping statement that “within a year [of Swastikas for Noddy], a whole host of copyists had sprung up, strumming on acoustic guitars and intoning doomily about runes”. This is presumably a dismissal of Death In June, since it is, in fact, hard to think of any other post-Industrial outfits who were adopting similar strategies at that time. Moliné’s grasp of history is dubious, since DIJ were active well before the release of Swastikas for Noddy. Even David Keenan, no admirer of DIJ, had the good grace to acknowledge in England’s Hidden Reverse that Douglas P was the first member of Tibet’s circle who could actually play an instrument and that he wrote most, if not all, of the music for C93’s most enduring album. Moliné’s article is deficient in failing to recognise the crucial role of Pearce in C93’s move towards a folk-based idiom.

Current 93: All Dolled Up Like Christ, Death In June: Heilige!

Live performances by these two heavyweights of the World Serpent roster are frustratingly rare these days, in the UK at least, so the appearance of this batch of concert documents is to be welcomed. The Current 93 double CD was recorded at two concerts in New York in 1996, and sees an extended line-up of the group perform many songs from the back catalogue, including some rarely heard live. These concerts were clearly major events; the performances are lyrical and passionate, and the audiences respond with unbridled enthusiasm.

It’s strange how such simple songs can express so much. “The Blue Gates of Death” consists of nothing more than a voice, a simple strummed guitar figure and la-la backing vocals, yet it evokes unfathomable depths of anguish and sorrow. Elsewhere, restrained touches of violin and woodwind add colour and heighten the elegiac tone. A triad of nocturnes from the bleak Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre album is followed on the first disc by the exquisitely lilting A Sadness Song, and on the second by the manic pirouette of “Oh Coal Black Smith”.

Central to all of this is David Tibet’s remarkable voice, in which he delivers his mystical texts in tones ranging from the purest caress to the most fevered howl: an insidious, discomforting encroachment.

Tibet’s one-time ally Douglas P. has released Heilige!, his first peek over the parapet since being expelled from World Serpent. The military metaphor is appropriate, since Death in June seem to be abandoning their formerly ambivalent aesthetic in favour of an ever less equivocal stance. Unusually, Pearce appears unmasked on the front cover, sporting a soldier’s helmet and brandishing a wineglass engraved with the Totenkopf symbol. The inside picture has him wearing a gasmask and holding the wineglass waggishly aloft, toasting the album’s dedicatees: “to all those who fight in isolation.” It’s an empty slogan and a faintly ridiculous image, far removed from the seductive anonymity of earlier DIJ cover art.

A statement posted on the World Serpent website gave their side of the story: that the split was mostly over business conflicts, but that “there were also personal reasons, including political reasons.” The exact nature of these reasons is likely to remain a mystery, but World Serpent could with equal justification have cited musical reasons. Heilige!, a recording of a concert in Melbourne last year, is sadly lacking in imagination and creativity. Pearce and his cohorts Albin Julius and John Murphy appear content to trot out perfunctory readings of acoustic-based material, with barely a pause as one indifferently delivered ballad follows another.

The noisier, more martial pieces fare somewhat better. The massed percussive attack is still impressive, and the sound samples rich and evocative; but they are interspersed with insipid orchestral flourishes and Pearce’s doggedly artless phrasing. As the inevitable, over-familiar and quite possibly offensive “C’est Un Rêve” closes proceedings, the overall impression is one of stagnation and routine.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 7, 2000)