Ether column, April 2007

This month’s column is devoted to the Donaufestival, a series of concerts taking place in Krems over the last two weekends in April. The festival has established itself over the past few years as a reliable showcase for avant rock, free jazz and contemporary classical musics, but it has excelled itself in 2007 with a scarcely believable line-up of performers from the dark heart of underground music.

The first weekend is curated by the British “apocalyptic folk” singer and lyricist David Tibet. As the leader and sole constant member of the band Current 93, who are of course playing at the festival, Tibet has been a vital presence in the English post-industrial scene for over 20 years. Birthed in the mire of fallout from the late ‘70s electronic experiments of Throbbing Gristle, C93 pursued a similar path of tape loops and livid noise over several albums before Tibet fell under the spell of English folk spirit Shirley Collins and introduced a beguiling acoustic simplicity to his music. Lyrically, Tibet explores religious and mythological obsessions with texts rich in hallucinogenic imagery. Along the way he has formed networks and alliances with numerous like-minded souls, many of whom are also playing at the festival. The most notable of these is Steven Stapleton, the driving force behind the formidably strange Surrealist musical project Nurse With Wound. NWW make a rare live appearance at the festival, and the weekend also includes unmissable performances from fellow travellers Bonnie Prince Billy, Larsen, Six Organs of Admittance and many more.

The following weekend sees an equally astonishing coup for the festival – a pair of appearances by the legendary Throbbing Gristle themselves. Active between 1976 and 1981, TG were the originators of the style of music that came to be known as industrial. They were the fearsome product of Genesis P-Orridge’s Dada-influenced pranksterism, Cosey Fanni Tutti’s provocative sexuality and the electronic skills of Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson. Their records and performances were brutal and disturbing, mixing slabs of electronic noise and sinister pop atmospheres with an unheimlich morbidity that made them unlikely heroes of the British underground scene. They reformed in 2004 after 23 years, and since then have played only a handful of concerts. Their two performances in Krems will be radically different – the first a set of old and new material in quadrophonic sound, the second a live soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s film In the Shadow of the Sun. Elsewhere, Weekend 2 of the festival bulges with attractions such as Alan Vega, the Boredoms and the reformed Gang of Four.

Krems is just over an hour away from Vienna by car, or there are buses back to Vienna after the last act every night. So there’s no excuse for not heading out along the Donau for an evening (or two, or three, or four) of unparalleled sonic rush.

Donaufestival 2007

Wow, what a couple of weekends that was. Too much drinking, not enough sleep, a bit of sickness on the last night, but most importantly a whole load of incredible music at the Donaufestival.

Week one kicked off, for me at least, with the Friday evening show in Hall 1. Matmos held no interest for me, far too tricksy and glitchy, and Om didn’t really engage my attention either. But the rather sterile non-atmosphere of the hall was broken awesomely by Current 93, who gave a formidable performance with an extended line-up of the band (I think I counted sixteen people on stage). Musically, the thing swelled beautifully, with the deathly pace of the strings and guitars giving a veiled, doomy ambience.

The next day’s curtain-raiser at the Minoritenkirche was a quartet of C93-related acts: two hits and two misses. Pantaleimon bored me rigid, and “Little” Annie was just an irritant. But Simon Finn impressed with his powerful, committed songwriting, and Julia Kent‘s performance on the cello and loops was serpentine and gorgeous.

Everything fell perfectly into place back at the Halle later that night. Fovea Hex were lorn and lovely, Larsen were driven and compelling. Six Organs of Admittance – featuring Ben Chasny and a very cool girl in a very short skirt – abused their guitars effectively out in the lounge. Nurse With Wound – a band I never thought I’d see live – created haunting, massive structures, and their two songs with Tibet on vox were shuddering, berserk blasts of energy. Will Oldham rounded off this superb evening with a set of pure tunefulness and white-hot wisdom.

My first night of Week Two saw a set of uncanny, bruising atmospheres being created by Throbbing Gristle. I simply needed to see these four unassuming people onstage – well, three unassuming people and one unashamed exhibitionist – and acknowledge the immeasurability of my debt to them. The infinitude of their influence on so much I have thought, done, heard and written over the last twenty years of my life.

Preceding their livid set, Alan Vega was a tiresome nuisance, looking for all the world like a confused pensioner as he wandered cantankerously around the stage, hollering useless drivel in our direction. Bookending the evening, Zeitkratzer and Rechenzentrum were rather ho-hum.

Things came to a spectacular end on Monday, with the Boredoms making a holy and riveting percussion-driven performance. Phill Niblock was a necessary interlude (by this stage I was feeling decidedly queasy), before Haswell & Hecker bawled out the place with a set of juddering noise, hypnotically lit by a constantly flickering green laser beam. TG returned for their Derek Jarman performance, and this was a revelation. The film (In The Shadow Of The Sun) was a slow and infinitely sad dream piece, saturated with deeply resonant imagery. And TG’s soundtrack, including a dark and mournful choir, was suitably plangent and sweeping. last of all, KTL (Peter Rehberg and the bloke out of Sunn o) played a set of deep, pulverising drones.

A word about the Esel guys, whose amiable performances I witnessed at odd moments in the lounge. They were very funny, I have to say. The stuff about auctioning off artists’ relics (sample riff: “here is a pill from Fabrizio of Larsen. Fabrizio will suffer pain because he will not take his pill”) appealed directly to my sense of humour.

It’s still scarcely believable how this all happened so close to me, here in Austria this year. Never again am I likely to witness such an extensive and concentrated pile-up of musical moods and experiences. It was, well, life-affirming.

Donaufestival 2006

Went to the Donaufestival on Saturday night. This was the last night of the festival, held in the town of Korneuburg, half an hour away from Vienna by train. The venue was a building in an old shipyard on the bank of the Danube – very blasted-picturesque.

First up were the No-Neck Blues Band, one of those groups whose name I had often heard but had never previously listened to. Their set was pretty interesting. The barefoot Japanese singer created a great racket with various cymbals and metal objects strewn on the floor, and later had fun throwing a bunch of oranges into the audience. (Does this betoken a trend? I recall the two male ornaments at a Coil gig at the Festival Hall wandering naked around the audience handing out apples.)

Things did get a little unsavoury when the blond college boy-type percussionist stripped naked and threw most of his clothes into the audience before smearing himself with fake blood. But for the most part NNCK created a highly enjoyable freeform improvisational squawk. I can’t help feeling however that Sunburned Hand of the Man do it better.

Next were the Kammerflimmer Kollektief. They were a lot more considered but still managed to impress with a version of Terry Riley’s In C plus a bunch of shorter pieces. The saxophonist and double bass player kept things bubbling along nicely.

My main reason for going was to see A Silver Mt. Zion, and they didn’t disappoint. It was heartening to see Efrim engaging so warmly with the audience after hunching himself over his guitar so often with Godspeed. he’s not exactly Warren Ellis yet for between-song monologues, but he’s getting there. The harmonised vocals were deeply affecting, and the string section, guitars and drums were perfectly co-ordinated to form a huge firestorm of collective energy.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how popular ASMZ were (and I think the band themselves were a little taken aback by it as well). Every song was rapturously received and they played two lengthy encores, throwing the schedule for the rest of the evening out of kilter. So, a late finish and a 2am return to the city (thanks, Walter).

Going to concerts here is such a pleasure after years of suffering in London. Venues are well run, ticket prices are reasonable, security is unobtrusive, PA systems sound great, people are cool. Bring on more.