Earth, Vienna Arena, 2 February 2015

A quick look back through previous entries of this blog confirms that this was at least the third time I had seen Earth in Vienna. They turned up at the Szene in 2008 and the Arena in 2011, although I’m pretty sure I also saw them opening for Sunn O))) at the Szene in 2006, which must have been one of my first concerts since moving to Vienna. It must have been galling to play support to a group who started out as a tribute band to you, and I wonder what the current state of the relationship between Dylan Carlson and Stephen OʼMalley is like, since they don’t seem to associate with each other much these days. But I digress.

My review of Earth’s 2008 appearance noted that on that occasion they augmented their core sound with keyboard and trombone parts. I recall being somewhat nonplussed by these embellishments, so I’m pleased to be able to report that Earth have gone back to basics this time, with the ever-present Carlson on guitar and Adrienne Davies on drums joined only by Bill McGreevy on bass. Carlson picked out long, agonisingly slow guitar solos against the thunderous swoop of Daviesʼ drums, the length and funereal pace of these instrumentals contributing to an overall mood of sludgey defiance that I found perversely invigorating.

Looking wilder and more whiskery than ever, Carlson speaks only to introduce the songs and his fellow musicians. The titles of the pieces (“Even Hell Has Its Heroes”, “There Is A Serpent Coming”) have a pleasingly apocalyptic ring to them that adds to the doomy ambience hanging over the proceedings. Although seven or eight distinct songs were announced, there was so little tonal variation between them that they might as well have been played as one continuous piece. This is not meant as any kind of criticism, by the way. On the contrary, the longer the concert progressed, the more engrossed did I become by Carlson’s relentlessly single-minded pursuit of the perfect note and riff.

In fact, the way Carlson approaches the guitar suggests that he regards it as some kind of block. His playing resembles a sculptural process aimed at refining and stripping down the instrument to its bare essentials. Holding the neck of the guitar aloft, his gaze fixed on the fretboard, he patiently chisels away at it as though in search of some higher truth. Unsurprisingly, none is found to emerge; nevertheless, Carlson’s impossible quest for enlightenment makes for an absorbing evening.

Short Cuts 6: Sunburned Hand of the Man, Earth, Sabbath Assembly

Plugging a few gaps in the blog with brief reviews of shows I never got around to mentioning at the time.

Sunburned Hand of the Man, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 26 March 2011

Sunburned Hand of the Man seem to be shrinking. The first time I saw them, in Brighton in 2004, there were at least seven of them. Upstairs at the Fluc in 2006, they were down to four. And this time, they played as a duo of John Moloney on drums and devices and Paul Labrecque on guitar. Maybe next time they tour there’ll be no-one at all onstage, just their trippy films to stare at. Which would be a great shame, since even with this attenuated line-up, Sunburned’s long, dizzying jams were a massive pleasure.

Earth/Sabbath Assembly, Vienna Arena, 1 May 2011

Dusty guitar drones and low-end wallop from Dylan Carlson and group. On first acquaintance there’s something starkly beautiful about these dry, agonizingly slow instrumental pieces. But as the evening wore on I found myself wishing for more light and shade both in pace and in setting. The grinding repetition and lack of variation in the tunes gradually became very oppressive indeed.

Much more enjoyable were the support band Sabbath Assembly, a bizarre cultish collective (including the blond college-boy percussionist from No-Neck Blues Band, and I know what he’s up to) who have taken it upon themselves to sing “hymns” written by the Process Church of The Final Judgement, a 60s/70s religious group that worshipped both God and Satan. I remain unconvinced by the message but the songs themselves were highly entertaining, the psychedelic excesses of the vocals matched by the whirling, swirling demeanour of the group.

Ether column, February 2008

Regular readers of this column will know that I hardly ever recommend upcoming concerts by big name artists, on the grounds that they get quite enough publicity as it is without me adding to it. I’m happy to make an exception, however, in the case of Neil Young, who comes to Vienna this month as part of a very rare European tour. Young is a brave, stubborn and dauntingly creative individual who has been making music for over 40 years. Although he is Canadian by birth, his songs build into a mythic form of Americana, tapping effortlessly into both acoustic folk and electric rock forms. There are few more exciting sounds in rock than Young’s incendiary electric guitar playing, while as an acoustic guitarist and singer he catches a perfect note of desolate yearning. On this tour, Young promises to play two full sets, one acoustic and one electric, a combination which will showcase both sides of his awesome talent.

Two further concerts this month bring contrasting aspects of contemporary American rock to Vienna. Earth are a doomy guitar outfit led by Dylan Carlson, who was a close friend of Kurt Cobain and bought the shotgun with which the Nirvana singer killed himself. Their signature sound is best described as a slowed-down, drone-based form of Metal, although on their 2005 album Hex Carlson’s guitar style became markedly lighter and more countrified. Earth were last seen in Vienna in 2006, when they found themselves in the strange position of playing support to a band who were formed in tribute to them (the even more droney and Metallic Sunn O)))). This time, they deservedly take the stage as headliners, and their own support act is well worth catching – experimental guitarist and former member of Sun City Girls, Richard Bishop.

Finally, there’s an intriguing event at the Arena this month, the Maximum Black Festival. The story of how it came about is a good one. The Wiener Stadtwerke (the parent company of Wien Energie and Wiener Linien) wanted to use a piece of music by Canadian singer and violinist Owen Pallett, who records and performs under the name Final Fantasy, in an advertisement. When Pallett refused, the company went ahead and used an unauthorised cover version anyway. Naturally, Pallett was fuming, but he was placated by a remarkable offer from the WS – they would finance a day-long festival curated by him. And here it is – not only Pallett, but also juddering trio Deerhoof, idiosyncratic alt-rockers Frog Eyes, lo-fi noiseniks Dirty Projectors and, best of all, the pulsating guitar-driven mandalas of Six Organs of Admittance. Think about it – where else in the world would you find a public works company sponsoring a line-up like that?

Earth & Richard Bishop, Vienna Szene Wien, 24 February 2008

A very strong concert at the Szene Wien last night by American drone-metallers Earth. The music unfolded at a slow, rigidly controlled pace and barely deviated from it throughout, shaped by the funereal pulse of the drums and the colossal hum of Dylan Carlson’s guitar. Carlson spoke little except to introduce the songs, but he was an impressive onstage figure, looking like he’d walked in from a Tarantino film with his long moustache and slicked back hair. As a guitarist he was a picture of concentration, holding the neck high and gazing fixedly at the strings while playing with a surprising delicacy and finesse.

The group were clearly making an attempt to lighten their sound with the inclusion of keyboard and trombone patterns. Others may disagree, but I could easily have done without these embellishments; they were an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from the group’s perversely inspiring core sound. I also found myself wishing for slightly more thump from the drums. These reservations notwithstanding, Earth proved themselves to be an uncannily potent force.

Early birds had the good fortune to witness former Sun City Girl Richard Bishop on solo electric guitar. He’s an awesomely talented player, and it was great to see that his mighty technique never descended into empty-headed twiddling. Instead, the music swarmed hectically around the hall, with clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations.