Mats Gustafsson & Didi Kern, Vienna Eissalon Joanelli, 20 January 2013

It’s not often that you get the chance to visit one of Vienna’s Eissalons in January, especially a January like this one when the snow is piled high in the streets and the temperature rarely rises above freezing point. Checking out Joanelli for the first time was therefore a welcome distraction from the usual Sunday night doldrums, even though Eissalon turned out to be something of a misnomer in this case, with little if any ice cream on offer.

What we got instead was a pulverizing set by saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Didi Kern, here to celebrate the publication of the latest edition of Philipp Schmickl’s excellent magazine The Oral. By my reckoning this was the first time the two men had squared up to each other onstage, although they appeared together as part of Heaven And back in 2010. Given their respective positions as key members of the avant/improv scene in Vienna and beyond the pairing couldn’t really disappoint, and of course it didn’t, with the brevity of the set (35 minutes or so) being the only letdown.

I’ve seen Gustafsson play multiple times over the past few years, but getting bored or blasé about his output is simply not an option. What’s more, it was a genuine thrill to see him play in a space no bigger than my front room, a setting that trumped even the Blue Tomato for in-your-face immediacy. The reedsman was in gleeful mood from the get-go, letting rip first on tenor and then on baritone sax, with huge thunderous riffs occasionally giving way to an arsenal of mad pops and clicks on the reed.

As for Kern, he kept Gustafsson on his toes (literally at times; the Swede’s nifty footwork is an aspect of his playing that often goes unnoticed) throughout with his ceaselessly inventive percussion. Compared to a regular Gustafsson foil like Thing sticksman Paal Nilssen-Love, Kern’s drumming is both more muscular and more playful, marked by an absurdist streak that can be seen to the max in his work with Bulbul. Whether whistling through his teeth, clattering various bits of paraphernalia on his drumskins or playing some kind of kazoo, Kern jumped into the rare lulls in Gustafsson’s blowing with evident humour. It was never long, though, before the drummer found some powerhouse groove and set about it with frantic urgency, leaving the saxophonist to animate it with the mighty force of his lungs. A staggering début by any standards, this meeting of two gifted musicians playing together for the first time made a compelling case for the enduring value of free improvisation. Let’s hope the two of them join forces once again before too long.

Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Vienna Rhiz, 11 January 2012

My first concert of 2012 was a quintessentially Viennese experience, being a loud, lengthy and largely improvised set for keyboards and percussion by two of this city’s leading musicians, held at that hotbed of experimental music, the Rhiz. The performance had a slight edge over the last time I saw this duo play at Shelter, since this time Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger sensibly refrained from introducing any guest musicians and did all the playing themselves. What resulted was an insanely dense black hole of sound that couldn’t help but suck in everything around it. (It was noticeable, by the way, how well attended this concert was compared to that Shelter gig in the summer. It’s depressing to think that this was probably because last week’s gig was more actively pushed on Facebook, and also because it was at the übercool Rhiz rather than the unfashionable, out-of-the-way Shelter. I don’t find out about gigs on Facebook and I also don’t go to a gig just because it’s at a certain venue, but maybe that’s just me.)

Kern’s drumming becomes more miraculous every time I see him play, from the dizzy interlocking rhythms he creates to the precision with which he limns vast areas of space and silence. Quehenberger, for his part, came over like some permanently distracted machinist. Looming over his synthesizer, occasionally firing a caustic glance in the audience’s direction, his seeming nonchalance and the fag drooping from the corner of his mouth were belied by the endless flow of trancelike analogue tones. More than once I was reminded of the stupendous 70s records of Tangerine Dream with their crystalline vistas of sound. The forceful presence of the drummer, however, served to push Quehenberger’s rippling melodies well away from ambient territory and into a clattering, visionary set of impulses. A stunning performance and a great way to kick off what promises to be a busy few months of live music in Vienna.

Some excellent photos of the evening by David Murobi here.

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

Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Vienna Shelter, 7 June 2011

Nice to catch a gig at Shelter again. I hadn’t been there for over two years, since checking it out for the Time Out guide, and was relieved to discover that nothing much has changed there in the meantime. Guinness and Strongbow are still on draught, the table football is still there and so is the pinball machine. Not that I was there to play retro games, since Kern and Quehenberger were lined up to make a holy, disciplined racket on drums and synths. And speaking of retro, it seems as though this duo have released their first album on cassette only in an edition of 99 copies which is already sold out. Spare copy, anyone? And maybe you could provide me with something to play it on at the same time. I still haven’t heard that Peter Rehberg cassette I bought a year or two ago.

This was the first time I had heard this duo. Quehenberger was new to me as well, although Kern was known to me from his work with Heaven And, Bulbul and Broken Heart Collector as well as his one-off appearance backing Jandek in 2009. On this occasion he dominated proceedings through an extraordinary barrage of polyrhythmic drumming. Switching with ease between forceful anchored rhythms and out-and-out free sections, Kern made the stage his own to such an extent that Quehenberger at times struggled to make his presence felt. The keyboardist kept things bubbling along nicely enough with attractive riffs and melodies, but Kern’s playing was so intensely fluid and total that there often seemed little room for a second instrument. On the other hand, the physicality of Quehenberger’s approach – playing as though hardwired to the keyboard, practically dancing to the insane reach of Kern’s percussive attack – came as a welcome antithesis to the stereotypical image of the immobile synth man prodding sullenly away.

For the encores the duo were joined by saxophonist Marco Eneidi, leader of the Neu New York/Vienna Institute of Improvised Music, the weekly free jazz blowout at which both Kern and Quehenberger are regular guests. Eneidi’s astringent blasts brought a vivid extra dimension to the music and seemed to lead the keyboard player towards harder, heavier modes of activity. With the warm textures of Quehenberger’s analogue synthesizers melting blissfully into Kern’s infinite rhythms, the duo’s navigation of inner space was as mesmerising as it was heroic.

Heaven And, Vienna Künstlerhaus, 15 December 2010

My last concert of 2010 neatly tied together a couple of strands from the previous two. Like Tortoise, Heaven And have two drummers; like Broken Heart Collector, one of them is Didi Kern. Kern’s presence in the line-up tonight no doubt came about due to the no-show of regular Heaven And drummer Tony Buck, although it’s unclear to me whether Buck has left the group for good or whether his absence on this occasion was merely temporary. Since a large part of Heaven And’s prior appeal rested on the churning impact of Buck and Steve Heather’s twin percussive attack, restricting themselves to just one sticksman for this concert was clearly not an option.

Heaven And impressed me enormously when I saw them at Nickelsdorf this summer, their pulverizing guitar-and-drums racket providing the Konfrontationen festival with an appropriately confrontational late-night finale. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those dizzying heights, it was only because of the sparse attendance and also because of the bizarre set-up of the performance space. In front of the stage was a standing area and, beyond that, a few rows of raked seating. The audience were always going to gravitate towards those seats, leaving a yawning gap between group and audience which was plugged only by a few stumpy pillars, whose only conceivable function seemed to be to rest drinks upon. Since no-one was standing anyway, they looked rather forlorn.

None of which prevented Heaven And from turning in an utterly convincing performance, with Martin Siewert’s regular and tabletop electric guitars blasting into overdrive against Kern and Heather’s constantly shifting patterns and Zeitblom’s relentless bass groove. And, of course, the group had an ace up their sleeve: a special guest appearance by Swedish (and surely, by now, honorary Viennese) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Tearing great strips out of the air with his awesome lung power, Gustafsson matched Siewert all the way for sheer audacity and verve; a rare and precious instance of white-hot rock and world-beating free improvisation, colliding and fusing in their own light and heat.

Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.


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, 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…

Jandek, Vienna B72, 14 October 2009

Several months of planning went into this, the first ever Jandek concert in central Europe, and I’m pleased to report that it was a great success. On a personal level, it was also a huge honour and a privilege to be able to bring Jandek to Vienna; after three years of concert-going there as a more or less passive consumer, it felt great to be a witness to something that I myself had helped to bring about.

Once Jandek himself was on board, the key task was to find the right backing musicians. This wasn’t so much of a challenge, in fact. Both Eric Arn and Didi Kern were well known to me; regulars on the thriving Vienna avant-rock/improv scene, they had proven time after time that they could not only play beautifully but could also adapt their respective styles to meet whatever needs the moment required, in the purest spirit of improvisation.

For me, one of the most exciting moments of the whole evening came before the group had even played a note. As I led Jandek from the backstage area through the audience and towards the stage, the audience moved aside to let him through; and there was a sudden sense of reverent expectation as this tall, striking figure, dressed all in black and with his ever-present Stetson pulled down low over his face, walked slowly and deliberately onto the stage.

The next ninety minutes passed in something of a blur, as Jandek, Arn and Kern proceeded to lay down some of the most tense, daring and original rock music I have ever heard. Having only met for the first time that day, the three of them made a virtue of their lack of familiarity with each other, playing with an awesome blend of looseness, openness and sheer narrative conviction. Arn, it seemed to me, was pretty much writing his own bass player’s rulebook as he went along. More often seen as lead guitarist with his own group Primordial Undermind, he transferred many of the extended techniques he brings into play with them – bottleneck slide, endless vertiginous runs up and down the full length of the neck – to the bass, with savagely entertaining results. (He also joined Jandek on lead guitar for one song, which sounded particularly brutal to these ears.) Kern, meanwhile, lit up the room with his questing, vital and ceaselessly inventive percussion. It’s always a pleasure to encounter a drummer who actually plays the kit, investing it with light, shade and myriad variations of timbre. Chris Cutler does it, Paal Nilssen-Love does it, and there can be little doubt that Didi Kern does it too.

As for Jandek himself, he gave as little away as you might expect. The last time I saw him, at St Giles Church in London in 2005, I came away with the distinct impression that I had seen a ghost, so evanescent and fleeting was his presence. For all that he played in Vienna with far greater aggression, there was still something eerie and spectral about his performance. More or less alternating between dirge-like vocal excursions and full-on instrumental freakouts, Jandek’s guitar work oddly sparkled, with the tones from his black Godin ringing and cavernous. Four new songs were played; I can’t quote any of the lyrics I’m afraid, but the vocals were pleading and anguished, set off against the deathly walk of the bass and drums.

Dark, turbulent and troubling, then. A concert like none I had ever experienced before, but all in a day’s work for Jandek.

Lovely photos of the evening by David Murobi here.