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.

Current 93: Sleep Has His House, Faust

With Sleep Has His House David Tibet retreats even further into a hermetic zone of extreme introspection. Mortality has been a recurrent theme in Current 93’s work from the beginning, addressing this most unthinkable of subjects with a livid intensity. Now Tibet has written a moving song cycle in memory of his late father, and the private cosmology of the Current has never been more personally or painfully expressed.

The opening instrumental, ‘Love’s Young Dream’, sets the tone musically: plangent guitar chords that hang in the air unresolved, while the organic tones of the harmonium breathe heavily and sadly. This ominous overture slides into a brief burst of highly charged poetic imagery, with Tibet’s hypnotic half-sung, half-spoken delivery forming a slow, deadly incantation. The guitar and harmonium patterns recur here and throughout the album, giving the music a relentlessly sinister atmosphere.

Tibet’s voice continues the development begun on 1998’s Soft Black Stars, losing some of the manic quality expressed in earlier work and finding instead a lilting, lyrical tenderness in keeping with the sombre subject matter. The third song, ‘The Magical Bird in the Magical Woods’, is shot through with intricate shafts of recollected detail, while the voice fleetingly sounds a note of reproachful, reined-in anger: “But your gods made no sound…” Steven Stapleton, otherwise fairly restrained here, provides a typically haunted coda of treated sounds and tape manipulation.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Michael Cashmore to the album. He wrote all the music, except that of the long title track, and plays all instruments except for the harmonium (on which Tibet accompanies himself). As Tibet stated in an interview with The Wire, their meeting was a pivotal moment in the development of the Current’s sound, since Cashmore is able to enunciate on the guitar exactly the emotions that Tibet wishes to express in his lyrics. Here, his resonant strums and simple, restrained plucking provide the perfect backdrop for the sense of loss and regret that permeates the text.

The album’s terrorstruck centrepiece is ‘Niemandswasser’, in which the imagery approaches the delirious: corpses piled up almost to heaven, cottages covered in honeysuckle, trails of screaming horseflies. As the voice insists “we’re all dust”, a scouring wind blows. A short lullaby segues into the dreamlike, 24-minute title track, with its mantric refrain of “Have pity for the dead, sleep has his house” intoned endlessly into oblivion.

Faust is something else entirely, a single 35-minute piece inspired by a story of the same name (reprinted in the CD booklet) by Count Eric Stenbock. Stenbock, a member of the Estonian branch of a noble Swedish family, was a decadent writer in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Towards the end of his brief life – he died at the age of 35 from drug addiction and alcoholism – he was accompanied everywhere he went by a lifesize wooden doll that he believed to be his son.

The piece marks a return to the Current’s pre-Swastikas for Noddy mode: dark, mangled slabs of sound that form a genuinely disturbing picture of a mind in the throes of collapse. Steven Stapleton is a malign presence throughout, from the unearthly child’s voice that haunts many Nurse With Wound recordings to the endlessly vital and creative layering of sounds and textures. Tibet himself recites Stenbock’s secret history in a devilish, chattering whisper, bells chime softly and human souls wail and moan in a nightmarish chorale of agony and helplessness.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)