Bill Orcutt & Eric Arn, Vienna Fluc, 24 October 2015

You’re never quite sure with the Fluc whether the gig you want is upstairs in the Fluc proper or downstairs in the Wanne. Going through the correct set of doors assumed particular importance on this occasion, since while one venue was showcasing an evening of avant guitar tunesmithery, the other was set to host a men-only strict leather fetish night. I wouldn’t have much fancied wandering into the wrong room by mistake, but fortunately the queue of fearsome-looking black-clad moustachioed types snaking halfway back to Praterstern tipped the wink that it was up the stairs for me.

In a way, this evening could be seen as an appendix to the Editions Mego 20th anniversary celebrations that took place in Vienna and several other cities earlier this year. Not only was headliner and Mego signing Bill Orcutt, now on his third release for the label, making his Vienna début, but label boss Peter Rehberg could also be seen spinning the discs up at the back. Completing the line-up was local hero and psych overlord Eric Arn, on a busman’s holiday from his day job fronting Primordial Undermind. In keeping with the theme of the evening, Arn left his electric axe at home and treated us instead to a short but compelling set of acoustic guitar inventions. Their ghostly traces and spiralling repetitions evoked pure and ineffable sadness, while for an unexpected cover of Rain Tree Crow’s “Every Colour You Are” Arn added cool, affectless vocals that effectively offset the trancelike quality of his playing.

Having sat and listened appreciatively to Arn’s set, Bill Orcutt cut a deceptively nonchalant figure as he shambled onto the Fluc’s low stage. It’s worth mentioning, for those who may be new to him, that Orcutt plays a standard acoustic guitar from which the A and D strings have been removed. The results are mesmerising, as the guitarist savagely deconstructs traditional approaches to the guitar with his fierce, livid playing. What emerges is some kind of eerie, shattered take on the blues, with Orcutt making occasional wordless vocal utterances while shooting angry sparks from his devastated guitar.

Orcutt had lost his capo at some point along the road, so he was forced to improvise with a small piece of card which he was able to jam between the strings and the fretboard. Such a minor distraction was no problem for the guitarist, who continued to play with a staggering level of intensity. I was very much hoping that he would play his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which has captivated me since I first heard it (there’s a wonderful film of it on YouTube, in which the camera never leaves the body of the instrument). And indeed he did play it in a medley with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, the two songs together describing a fractured and perilous vision of modern America. It’s a vision, moreover, that bleeds through all of Orcutt’s music, steeped as it is in turbulence and rage.

Faust, Vienna Szene, 23 September 2010

Incredibly, this was my first visit to the Szene for 2½ years – a fairly damning indictment of this venue’s generally shoddy programming since its takeover by Planet Music (for more on which, see here). It’s more than a little ironic, too, that this particular duck was broken by a visit from one of the two extant versions of Faust, this one being the line-up featuring two original members of the group, bass player and vocalist Jean-Hervé Péron and drummer Zappi Diermaier. Ironic, that is, because one of the reasons why the Szene’s current programming is so woeful is its over-reliance on ’70s relics, tribute bands and nostalgia-trip artists. Now, I realize this is a contentious point but watching Faust last week it occurred to me that they have become a simulacrum of themselves.

I was talking about the Faust schism before the concert with W., who knows much more about the tortuous history of the group than I do. When I put to him the crucial (to me, at least) question of which version of the group was the more authentic, he replied that they were both authentic. In my view, however, you can’t have more than one ‘real’ Faust (“I’m Spartacus!” “No, I’m Spartacus!”). Ultimately, if both of them are authentic, then neither of them are.

What we got last week, then, was a performance that ticked all the boxes of what a Faust performance should contain: a hypnotic motorik groove from Diermaier, chilling vocals by Péron and the requisite amount of diverting onstage business. An oil drum was roundly abused as a percussion instrument and brought into contact with an electric sander to make industrial quantities of sparks fly. This was all highly entertaining stuff, but it was unfortunately accompanied by too much of what the kids these days would describe as “meh”. There was rather a lot of aimless noodling and pointless axe heroics from the electric guitarist situated stage right. Péron and his female co-conspirator also let their vox and keyboards wander more than was strictly necessary. At one point they even gave a reading, for heaven’s sake, while at another the ivory-tickler came down from the stage onto the floor and proceeded to execute a low quality word painting on a sheet tacked to the wall.

Péron and Diermaier are figures of heroic stature, greatly to be admired for their dedication to keeping the mystery of Faust intact. The hulking Diermaier is an incongruous sight in his sandals, socks and orange shorts, but there’s nothing bizarre about the way he anchors the whole edifice with the miraculous forward motion of his drumming. For his part Péron is a malign and forceful presence, constantly breaking up the flow of the music with his arsenal of disruptive measures. And yet somehow the spark (excuse the pun) one expects from Faust, given their legendary reputation, was fatally absent.

A quick word on the opening act, the duo of Primordial Undermind mainman (and Jandek bassist) Eric Arn and Stefan Kushima. Their slot was mesmerisingly effective, all the more for being delivered on the floor of the hall rather than onstage. Arn drew huge waves of psychedelic riffage from his electric guitar, while the crouching Kushima flayed his devices mercilessly. The warped and tangled vortex of sound that resulted was a synapse-searing delight to behold.

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.

The Neu New York/Vienna Institute of Improvised Music, Vienna Celeste, 6 April 2009

This evening was just another example of how live music in Vienna has the capacity to constantly surprise and entertain. “The Neu New York/Vienna Institute of Improvised Music” is the peculiar name of a free jazz/improv blow-out session that takes place every Monday at the Celeste bar in the fifth district. The setting is surprising enough in itself: you walk along a quiet, nondescript street, find the bar, go downstairs and suddenly, as if this were the most normal thing in the world, find yourself in the midst of a hundred-odd people, all enjoying the wilfully unco-operative music, the deliciously tasty food available and the general atmosphere of relaxed bonhomie.

Curated and championed by American-born, Austrian resident saxophonist Marco Eneidi, the session consists of a changing cast of jazz and improv musicians who take the stage in various duo, trio and group formats to blast their way through short sets of music. It’s rather like munching your way through a box of chocolates – it doesn’t matter if you come across one that’s not to your taste, because you’re sure to find one that you do like soon enough.

On this particular evening – my first visit to the session, and hopefully not my last – I arrived in the middle of a fairly frantic piece of blowing by Eneidi, accompanied by an agile and vigorous drummer. (Apologies for not knowing the names of most of those who played.) The evening became even more engrossing when Susanna Gartmeyer came along on the bass clarinet, joined by two guitarists and a drummer for a superb slice of bone-crunching improv. Things did go slightly awry next, courtesy of a sub-Haino guitar abuser with a rote, uninspired drummer who bafflingly stuck to one snare drum and one cymbal for pretty much the entire turn, but quickly looked up again with a delightful and infectious workout for burbling analogue synths.

After that, Marco Eneidi returned for another serpentine flare-up on the sax, joined this time by Didi Kern behind the kit. Next up, a fidgety yet compelling improv for guitar, bass and drums, Eric Arn (of Primordial Undermind) peeling off wave after wave of arcing bottleneck slide runs from his acoustic. That was closing time for me, but not for most of those present, who carried on long into the night.

Primordial Undermind, Rhiz, Vienna, 24 February 2009

Another highly charged evening of out-there rock from the reliably energetic Primordial Undermind. Technical problems beset the early part of the set, but once they had been overcome, the group settled into a powerful groove and couldn’t be shifted from it. The set seemed slightly less frazzled than the last time I saw them, with the long, spacey freakouts taking a back seat to a more Velvets-y, garage rock sound. Eric Arn’s occasional vocals sounded a little flat and weedy to my ears, and I found myself wishing that there had been fewer of them. As a guitarist though he has few equals, his savage riffing and splintering solos leading the group into maze-like vortices of sound. Meanwhile, the whizzy analogue effects and the swirling abandon of the cello both added a unique dimension to this most singular of Vienna rock outfits.

Rhys Chatham, Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna, 28 November 2008

These pages are seriously backed up, so there’s only time for brief reviews of all the recent gigs, starting with Rhys Chatham at the Tanzquartier Wien (which is actually in the Kunsthalle). This was a fine evening of avant rock, with Chatham joined onstage by eight other guitarists (including Eric Arn of Primordial Undermind) and Bernhard Fleischmann on the drums. Together they made a fearsomely powerful noise which was, nonetheless, controlled and rigorous in its execution. Chatham’s instinctive understanding of crescendo and release was hugely impressive.

Primordial Undermind, Vienna Einbaumöbel, 6 June 2008

Now here’s a funny thing. Primordial Undermind were originally planning to play the Subterrarium last Friday, but due to some kind of booking mix-up they had to find an alternative venue. The place where they – and I – ended up was the Einbaumöbel, an unassuming little place under the arches on the Gürtel. This event was billed as a ‘1968 party’, which sounded as though the evening was intended to take on the properties of an authentic late ’60s ‘happening’. Sadly I was born too late to be a flower child, but I’ve always said that if I had a time machine, late ’60s London would be the time and place I’d want to visit more than any other. So maybe last Friday was my chance to be transported back to the era of psychedelic experience, with the Einbaumöbel as the UFO Club and PU as Pink Floyd.

In the event, the venue was a little more mundane than that, with just a few streamers hanging from the ceiling and not even an oil-based light show to convey the hoped-for sense of blissed-out abstraction. Primordial Undermind, however, were on stunning form. Led by the ecstatic currents of Eric Arn’s guitar, the group twisted and shuddered through 90 minutes of dense improvisatory rock. As an ensemble, PU were beautifully intuitive, with the cello (which, sadly, often got lost in the general maelstrom of sound), bass and drums all contributing to the sense of pulsating, directed purpose.

Six Organs of Admittance/Primordial Undermind, Vienna Planet Music, 18 May 2008

Planet Music – what a dump. The only concert hall in Vienna that comes close to the standard British model of ugly, smelly venues covered in sponsorship logos, with unfriendly staff and crap, overpriced beer served in flimsy plastic glasses. For years this place has survived on an unhealthy diet of heavy metal acts, tribute nights and battle-of-the-bands contests, with very rare exceptions such as the line-up we saw on Sunday night. Now it seems that the place is to close down – no great loss there – and its operations moved to the Szene Wien – ah, I knew there had to be a catch. The concern is that the avant-garde, alternative and world-y nights that are the Szene’s stock-in-trade will be edged out in favour of the kind of dreck that Planet Music serves up week after week. The city council and the Szene’s new management are making reassuring noises, saying that the overall utilisation of the venue will be increased and that the two kinds of programming can comfortably co-exist there. Well, we shall have to wait and see.

So this was my second and, thankfully, last visit to Planet Music (the first being to see Ani diFranco, many years ago). And it was a great gig, although the attendance was pitiful. Admittedly it was a wet Sunday evening, but if these two bands had appeared at another venue they would certainly have drawn a far larger audience.

After my last Primordial Undermind concert, a mostly acoustic affair at the Subterrarium, I had expressed a wish to hear them play a full electric band set. I was to have my wish granted sooner than expected, after they were announced as the support band to Six Organs of Admittance, whom I had already planned to see. This was one of those rare and inspired pairings that justifies the all-too-often redundant concept of the support act. PU were exceptionally fine, calling to mind the primitivist throb of Loop and Spacemen 3 while reaching out into areas of blissed-out drone and glide that were entirely their own.

Six Organs of Admittance were even more spectacular. This line-up of the group was expanded from the duo of Ben Chasny and Elisa Ambrogio that played a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival. Joining the two guitarists on drums, Alex Neilson worked tentacular rhythmic patterns into Chasny’s mesmeric riffing and Ambrogio’s squally undercurrents. Ambrogio’s playing was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to; apparently fighting to bring her guitar under control, she threw awkwardly angular poses as she attempted to wrench every last note from its seemingly unco-operative strings. (Regrettably she was wearing trousers on this occasion, thereby depriving us of the sight of her bending over in a short skirt as she played.) Chasny, meanwhile, produced wave after wave of hypnotically sparkling phrases, blending intuitively with Ambrogio’s grainier and more textured approach. When he stepped up to the microphone the effect was compelling, his autumnal voice bolstering the music’s uncanny atmosphere of charged, mystical energy.