Letter to The Wire, May 2012

As a resident of Vienna and regular visitor to the Donaufestival, I’d like to comment on Jennifer Lucy Allan’s piece (The Wire 338). Jennifer is spot on regarding the various “madcap art projects” in which the festival specializes, but sadly its music programming has become increasingly uninspired in recent years. Since the high water mark of 2007, which saw an unparalleled gathering of key figures from the industrial underground (Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle and many more), each subsequent year’s line-up has led to feelings of bafflement and even stronger ones of déjà vu. Fans of Cocorosie, Antony, Laurie Anderson and Rhys Chatham will no doubt enjoy this year’s performances by those artists just as much as they did when the same people appeared two or three years ago, while fans of Ben Frost will be wondering why he is absent in 2012 having appeared both last year and the year before. I wouldn’t dispute the Donaufestival’s status as a prime showcase for oddball performance art, but when this year’s headlining acts include names like Hercules & Love Affair and Pantha du Prince (who?), it’s clear that director Tomas Zierhofer-Kin’s contacts book is looking rather thin.

Donaufestival 2011: Ben Frost, John Cale, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Nadja

My one and only visit to this year’s Donaufestival kicked off in the Minoritenkirche with a fine performance by Ben Frost, accompanied by pianist Daniel Bjarnason and the Krakow Symphony Orchestra. For this event Frost proposed a meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, with video projections created by the absent Brian Eno. Not having seen the film in question, I have no idea as to how either the music or the visuals related to it. The music itself, though, was beautiful: slow, thick melodies that resonated with exceptional clarity around the atmospheric old church, accompanied by Frost’s heavily treated guitar and Bjarnason’s unnervingly calm pianistics.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, John Cale was a severe disappointment. This was a straight-up rock and roll set that evoked none of the dark phantoms I normally associate with Cale. If it’s true, as J. claimed, that you can tell what kind of state Cale is in by the way he goes about “Heartbreak Hotel”, then I should have known the game was up from the way he opened the set with a tiresomely bouncy version of this old chestnut. The briskly competent band were augmented, entirely unnecessarily, by a gospel choir and horn section, while Cale himself was inadvisably clad in a kilt. There were no Velvets songs, no viola and no mystery. It could have been a bar band up there, and I frequently wished it was.

After that ordeal, it was a relief and pleasure to make the acquaintance of Wildbirds & Peacedrums for the first time. The Swedish trio cast a vivid late-night spell with their heady mix of out-there vocals, propulsive drumming and atmospheric washes of Hammond organ. In fact, that dreamlike Hammond-percussion sound put me in mind of another Swedish group, the irresistible Sagor & Swing (and weren’t they supposed to be reforming?). Strange, then, that the organist seems not to be a core member of the band, who generally consist of Mariam Wallentin on vocals and Andreas Werliin on drums. Rounding off the night, Nadja’s slow-moving, heavily treated guitar and bass drones brought an ominous edge of menace and dissonance to the proceedings.

A final tip of the hat to Lucas Abela’s Vinyl Rally installation around the corner from the second stage, a truly inspired and dotty piece of work. A winding racetrack had been set up with hundreds of old LPs covering its walls and floor. A remote-controlled car, which punters were able to control by turning a separate steering wheel, was placed on the racetrack. The car had a camera fitted to its front, the view from which the “driver” could see on a screen in front of him as he attempted to steer the car through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the racetrack. I’m not sure about this, but I think the car was also fitted with some kind of audio pickup so that bits of noise were picked up from the grooves of the LPs as the car drove over them. It was a brilliant idea. And no, I didn’t have a go on it.

Letter to The Wire, July 2009

Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.

A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 3: Spiritualized

Not only the concert of this year’s Donaufestival, but the concert of the year so far. I used to follow Spiritualized religiously, but hadn’t seen them for several years – not from any loss of interest, but simply because I hadn’t been able to make any shows. This superb performance reminded me of what I’ve always loved about Spiritualized – the sweeping sense of drama, the sensory overload, and the unique and ecstatic blend of avant rock, gospel and systems music.

I’m always banging on in these pages about how important it is for the performer to communicate with the audience between songs, but this show was an illustration of a different kind of communication – less tangible, perhaps, but no less real. Jason Pierce said precisely nothing to the audience all evening, but I never wished he had done – indeed, to do so would have broken the spell. No words were required, since the whole experience is utterly overwhelming for the eyes, ears, heart and mind.

Most of the songs begin simply, with a modest chord sequence, vocal line or melody to draw the listener in. It’s never long, though, before the mantric repetitions, the guitars, the gospel singers and the drums kick in and burrow straight into your skull. The stage lighting, so often meretricious, is crucially important to the overall effect, the blazing strobe lights in particular forming a visual correlative to the crushing totality of sound.

Standing impassively at stage left, the director of these wonders is a deceptively nonchalant figure. His voice can seem colourless on occasion, yet it has a desperate quality to it that renders his texts unbearably moving and thrilling. And it only takes the merest nod or signal to his bandmates for this holiest of rackets to be unleashed – a shatteringly vivid and powerful live experience.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 2: Butthole Surfers, Black Dice, Goblin

The second of my three evenings at this year’s Donaufestival was by some way the weakest. I made it over to the Minoritenkirche in time to catch the set by Goblin, J’s favourite reunited Italian progressive horror film soundtrack artists. I tried to like them, I really did, but I found myself somewhat dispirited. Maybe I was at a disadvantage in not knowing the films from which most of the pieces were taken, but then again if the music required the presence of the moving images that originally accompanied them, those images could perhaps have been projected onto the screen behind the stage. In fact there were indeed plenty of images projected onto that screen, but they were all of the still variety and didn’t really add much to the music (J. reckoned there were technical goblins, er gremlins, which prevented the full multimedia experience from materialising).

In any event, the music signally failed to hold my attention, consisting as it did of widdly prog with lots of guitar and keyboard solos. In other words it was a pale shadow of the music of Genesis, a group which I will be forever grateful to my brother (S., are you reading this?) for introducing me to. In the past few years I’ve grown to love Genesis more and more (up to and including 1980’s Duke, naturally), as much for the verve and warmth of their extended instrumental passages as for Peter Gabriel’s and, yes, Phil Collins’s dramatic vocal interventions. Anyway, to these ears Goblin were like a poor man’s Genesis, their weak and pedestrian melodies a chore rather than a pleasure.

Back in the main hall later in the evening, both Black Dice and headliners Butthole Surfers proved similarly appeal-resistant. Black Dice were reminiscent of no less an authority than Beavis & Butthead – a bunch of chancers making an ill-formed and directionless racket because it was, like, rilly cool to do so. The incessant rhythmic nodding of the bloke on the right, presumably intended to signal some kind of Dionysian abandonment, was profoundly irritating. As for the Butthole Surfers, their twin-drummer assault was astonishing, but other than that the whole thing was just too swampy and aggressive for my tastes.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 1: Sonic Youth, Fennesz, Heaven And, No Neck Blues Band

It’s taken me far too long to get around to writing a report on this year’s Donaufestival, so here’s the first of three recaps of the nights I attended. In general there was plenty more to enjoy this year after the fairly disastrous line-up of the 2008 event. The headlining acts were mostly of a high standard, reflected in the news that the festival’s director has had his contract extended for a further three years (due in large part, no doubt, to the fact that a record 13,000 people visited this year). Crucially, the headliners – people like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Spiritualized – were the kind of artists who walk that tricky balancing act between creativity and commerciality; they attract relatively large audiences, yet are able to do so without compromising their artistic integrity. (I wish I could say the same for Antony & the Johnsons, the festival’s single biggest draw this year, whose appearance on weekend 2 I had no desire to see.)

It’s more the second-tier acts that the festival has to work on now. With one or two honourable exceptions, there seemed to be a gaping hole in the middle of most evenings, with not much to entertain those people who were waiting around until 11.00pm to see the main act. One of those exceptions would certainly be the No Neck Blues Band, who had the unenviable task of being the first group to play on the main festival site on the first evening. They carried it off with great verve, though, creating a loose yet compelling weave of instrumental textures and the odd bit of Fluxus-style tomfoolery. Funnily enough NNCK were the first group I ever saw at the Donaufestival, at the old Korneuburg site in 2006 (review), so it was good to get reacquainted with them. The blond college boy-type percussionist, who on that occasion stripped naked and smeared himself with fake blood, was comparatively restrained this time, climbing very athletically up the lighting rig in order to suspend a cello from the ceiling. Meanwhile the spectacularly bearded frontman was busy winding a long reel of string around various instruments onstage – a nice visual correlative to the increasingly meshed and vexatious music.

Later on in Halle 2, all this detritus was cleared away in order to make way for a MacBook and an electric guitar –  a sure sign that Fennesz was in the building. The Austrian laptop musician played a blinding set, issuing simple chords and riffs on the guitar and then subjecting them to all manner of treatments and manipulations. The results were vivid, colourful and entirely engrossing. Electronica guys like Fennesz and Peter Rehberg are often accused of taking the easy option, of somehow not being ‘real’ musicians, but there’s an awful lot of brow-furrowing going on when they stare into their laptops. Forming a marked contrast with the blank looks of most rock musicians, this level of concentration is an indicator of the care and creativity that go into electronic music-making of this quality.

Over in Halle 1, I caught a brief snatch of Heaven And, a pleasantly noisy rock/improv unit who reminded me (in a good way) of ’73/’74-era King Crimson. Having impressed the Sonic Youth-hungry audience enough to win an encore, they then rather ballsed it up by coming back on to play a slow, quiet and searching piece.

No chance of Sonic Youth themselves doing anything quiet or searching, though. Do they actually have any slow songs in their repertoire? If so, we certainly didn’t hear any of them tonight. This group, about whom I have always remained agnostic despite their impeccable avant credentials, came on and proceeded to blast their way through a set of jerky, spasmodic numbers that were each about as short as Kim Gordon’s skirt. It was a lot easier to admire than to enjoy, if I’m being honest. No shortage of energy, for sure, but precious little of the close-your-eyes-and-be-transported transcendence that the finest rock music has to offer – and which I was to experience in excelsis two nights later.

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.

Tortoise/Naked Lunch, Donaufestival, 3 May 2008

These pages are backed up because there has been so much going on lately. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Backtracking…

My second and last visit to the 2008 Donaufestival was a far more positive and pleasant experience than the previous one had been. The evening opened at the Minoritenkirche with Universalove, a film by Thomas Woschitz with a live soundtrack by Austrian alt-rockers Naked Lunch (for more on whom, see my March 2007 column).

This event was marvellously engrossing from start to finish. The film was a collection of thematically linked stories focusing on love and relationships, each of them quietly eloquent in its own way. The accompanying music was no mere incidental backdrop, but a series of emotive, quietly devastating songs that informed and commented on the narratives. The main musical impetus came from the percussion, with the two drummers standing centre stage and bashing out beautifully immersive and textural rhythms. The wintry and plaintive vocals, meanwhile, contributed an air of dark melancholy to the film. This highly impressive collaboration was an indication that the somewhat jaded live soundtrack genre still has the potential to mesmerise.

One minor gripe: the seating arrangements in the Minoritenkirche were bizarrely ill thought out. Despite the fact that the event was very well attended, the organisers for some reason decided to lay out only twenty or so rows of seats in front of the stage, leaving the rest of the church as standing room. Having arrived fairly early, I was lucky enough to grab a seat, but it looked to me as though the majority of the audience was left to stand uncomfortably around. Why the entire church couldn’t have been given over to seating is utterly beyond me. This was a film, after all.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, a similar thoughtless disregard for the needs and comfort of the audience saw Tortoise come onstage at the absurdly late hour of 1.30am, by which time I had already been bored stiff by the wearisome sermonising of Ursula Rucker and the stilted meanderings of Xiu Xiu. Anyway, Tortoise were fantastic, insofar as I was able to stay awake and listen to them. Their last record It’s All Around You may have been a tepid approximation of former glories, but onstage the combination of the two drummers (again) with the jazzy guitar and vibes remains as potent and telepathic as ever. Kaleidoscopic, fresh and startlingly original, Tortoise music is pretty damn irresistible; but it would have been good to take it in through eyes and ears that weren’t pleading for some downtime.

Satan Mozart Moratorium, Krems Donaufestival, 1 May 2008

This year’s Donaufestival was a much more low-key experience for me than the stellar programme that was served up last year (which, lest we forget, included Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle, Will Oldham, KTL, Six Organs of Admittance, Larsen, the Boredoms and many others… has there ever been a better festival line-up, anywhere?). There was no way the organisers could have topped that this year, and in fairness they didn’t even try. This year’s festival concentrated heavily on theatre and performance art, with a strong showing of newly commissioned works. Inevitably, therefore, the musical side of the programme took something of a back seat.

In fact, the first show I saw this year was a performance piece, Satan Mozart Moratorium by Jean-Louis Costes and Paul Poet. And I rapidly wished I hadn’t bothered. Like the fool I am, I only ventured to see this effort because of an “article” in the crappy Vienna “newspaper” Heute which described its “scandalous” content in lascivious detail. You pillocks, I thought, it’s only you who think it’s a scandal, no-one else is bothered by it in the least. Anyway, I made the effort to go because I was hopeful of some testing actionist-style engagement from the performers. Boy, was I ever mistaken.

Before the performance began, the audience had to sign a disclaimer. I’m not sure exactly what I was signing, but I do know that it partly involved confirming that I understood I was about to witness a pornographic show and, more worryingly, that no liability would be assumed for any dry cleaning costs incurred as a result of watching the show. That done, we were escorted round the back of the building to an anonymous hall and kitted out with pacamacs, presumably to protect us from all the literal and metaphorical debris we were about to be confronted with.

I have to confess to the reviewer’s cardinal sin here – N. and I left well before the end. But we had seen enough to know when we had backed a loser. This was a loud, arch and orotund show in which the three actors bawled at the tops of their voices in between prancing mostly naked around the performance space, twisting themselves into contortions, throwing grapes at each other and capering pointlessly among the seated and cowering audience. The narrator at one point exhorted us to “f*** your children”, an unnecessarily antagonistic statement even without the knowledge of the horror of Amstetten which emerged the following day. But you didn’t need to be a parent to find this piece tiresomely and tediously one-dimensional. Like many of the audience, we voted with our feet and left early. One of the crew members filmed our departure, probably thinking to himself “ha, another couple of wimps who can’t cope with this fearlessly confrontational, transgressive piece.” But that wasn’t why we left at all. We left because we were bored rigid and we knew we would have a better time at the bar.

Letter to The Wire, July 2007

A pity that David Stubbs’ review of the Donaufestival (On Location, Wire 280) only covered the first half of the event, as some of the festival’s most essential moments took place over the second weekend. Most notably, there were two deeply emotive appearances by the renascent Throbbing Gristle. The first, a set of bruising, uncanny atmospheres in song, was unfortunately preceded by the distinctly underwhelming Alan Vega. Vega resembled a confused pensioner as he wandered around the stage, cantankerously bawling drivel in the audience’s direction.

The next night, the Boredoms gave a riveting percussion-driven performance, before Russell Haswell and Florian Hecker shook the walls with their juddering noise, hypnotically lit by a green laser beam. TG returned to perform their live soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s In the Shadow of the Sun, a slow and infinitely sad dream piece saturated with hypnotic imagery. TG’s soundtrack, featuring a dark and mournful choir, was a suitably plangent and sweeping accompaniment. Lastly, KTL‘s deep and pulverising drones rounded off the festival, sending us queasily into the Austrian night.