Lubomyr Melnyk & Fennesz, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 31 January 2016

Another of my sadly rare visits to one of my favourite venues in Vienna, the Radiokulturhaus. The comfort, intimate size and excellent acoustics of this space all combine to make attending concerts there a pleasure, while the programming is also adventurous enough to make it a fairly safe bet that you’re going to see someone interesting. Such was certainly the case here, as guitar and laptop wizard Fennesz trod the boards ahead of Ukrainian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk. The concert was sold out, no doubt mostly on the basis of Melnyk’s burgeoning reputation as the fastest pianist in the world (19½ notes per second, fact fans), but also in part because it was part of a festival promoted by a sugary soft drinks manufacturer whose logo was displayed prominently on the stage.

The majority of the capacity audience were certainly there to see Melnyk play what I believe was only his second concert in Vienna, but as far as I was concerned Fennesz was the principal draw. The last time I tried to catch him was on my birthday last July at Karlskirche; I was touched that he’d arranged such a generous present for me, but when I went to get tickets the length of the queue, snaking right the way around Karlsplatz, made me abandon the idea fairly quickly. No such disappointment this time, as Fennesz played a riveting, albeit much too short (only 30 minutes) set that was rich in dynamic shifts and quicksilver atmospheres. Those who contend that Fennesz’s concerts all sound the same probably aren’t paying close enough attention, since on this occasion the maestro’s silvery guitar riffs assumed a stature far mightier than I had heard before, while the beats or traces of beats that hovered with gossamer elegance around the stage were an intriguing move away from art-house formalism and towards a more bass-driven environment.

All too soon Fennesz was gone, giving way to an unannounced performance by Latvian singer Mionia. I took this unwelcome intervention as an opportunity to get some fresh air outside, and retook my seat in time for Melnyk’s recital. But there was to be no getting away from Mionia, who joined the pianist later on as vocalist for the sentimental song “I Love You”.

As for Melnyk himself, I was pretty underwhelmed for the most part. His heavily touted language of “continuous music” never transcends the remarkable virtuosity with which it is delivered, and remains fatally unemotive and uninvolving. Consisting largely of note clusters played with mind-numbing repetition that coalesce into clouds of treacly harmony, it lacks both the emotional heft and the conceptual rigour of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, both of whom it occasionally brings to mind.

Melnyk is an engaging, yet somewhat rambling speaker. His lengthy introductions to each piece bring valuable context and insight to his work, but unfortunately tend to outstay their welcome. Much the same could be said for the work itself, whose durational quality has the potential to make considerable psychological impact on the listener, but which ends up dissipating into what sounds very much like New Age mysticism. There was nothing particularly mystical, though, about the way Melnyk hastened to the foyer after the concert to flog his extensive catalogue of self-produced CDs.

Peter Rehberg & Fennesz, Vienna Grelle Forelle, 19 December 2014; Peter Rehberg/Stephen O’Malley/Bruce Gilbert, Vienna Grelle Forelle, 26 June 2015

I never got around to reviewing the last concert I attended in 2014, which consisted not only of Peter Rehberg’s first solo appearance in more than five years, but also the world premiere of Fennberg, a.k.a. Rehberg and Fennesz, as well. (I was, sadly, not in Vienna at the time Fenn O’Berg, a.k.a. Rehberg, Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke, played at Porgy & Bess in 2001, part of which was recorded for posterity as “A Viennese Tragedy” on the trio’s second album The Return of Fenn O’Berg. Legend has it that the track was so named because the audience on that occasion was so pitifully small.) Now is as good a time as any to rectify that omission, since last week Rehberg appeared again at the same venue, this time at the second of two concerts to mark the 20th birthday of the (Editions) Mego label. I didn’t bother with the first of these, but the prospect of seeing Rehberg on the same bill as Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and ex-Wire man Bruce Gilbert was too good to pass up.

First, though, back to that cold evening in December. With solo sets from Rehberg and Fennesz followed by a duo performance, the concert was a gripping illustration of the continuing power and importance of Viennese electronica. Bathed in incongruous flashing lights and buckets of dry ice, Rehberg generated moments of unearthly, twilit beauty among the gravel-hard glitches and massive, pulverizing drones. The soundscape constantly shifted and evolved, seeming almost to resolve itself into warped song structures – an impression doubly reinforced when Fennesz took the stage for his own solo set. Wearing a smart suit and scarf despite the heat inside the venue, the guitarist seemed on the point of sending the audience floating off into the Donaukanal with his shimmering silver riffs and fragmentary, blissed-out tunes.

After a short interval these two legends of the Vienna experimental scene came together for the first time ever as a duo, an event that was as moving as it was historic. Fennesz left his guitar on its stand and joined Rehberg on laptop and devices, creating a music that easily resisted the monolithic and revelled instead in its own deranged beauty. A brief, lulling sample of Tears for Fears’ “Advice for the Young at Heart” added a reflective note that contrasted with the prevailing mood of brittle agitation shaped by the duo. I very much hope that this first Fennberg appearance will not also be the last; it’s a collaboration that’s far too precious to let go.

Six months later Rehberg rounded off the second (Editions) Mego 20th anniversary concert, this time with accompanying visuals by artist and frequent Mego cover designer Tina Frank. It was another excellent performance, with Rehberg’s hovering drones and frequencies finding dreamlike parallels in the flickering, coalescing images on the screen. If there’s TV in the cold reaches of outer space, this is surely what it looks and sounds like.

The evening had been billed as starting at 7.30pm, so having made the effort to be sur place at that time it was quite irritating to find a schedule posted at the door saying that the first act would not be on until 8.00pm. In the event, I needn’t have bothered. I was distinctly underwhelmed by Stephen O’Malley’s opening slot, which consisted of 45 minutes’ worth of muddy guitar riffage and effects pedal action that reverberated and recapitulated without development. I yield to none in my admiration for the mighty Sunn O))) and for KTL, O’Malley’s project with Rehberg. But this was, I’m sorry to say, very boring indeed. Bruce Gilbert’s intervening set did little to lighten my mood, so it was a relief when Rehberg and Frank came on to rescue the evening.

To finish up, a word or two on the venue. December’s concert was my first visit to Grelle Forelle, and as I was to find out, the place had set a number of psychogeographical traps for the unwary. I somehow managed to navigate my way across a thunderous highway to the approximate area where I thought the venue was, but it took a good half hour’s trudging up and down Spittelauer Lände before I was finally able to locate it. It was only when retracing my steps back to Spittelau station on the way home that I noticed the venue’s stylized fish-shaped logo painted now and again on the pavement as a directional aid, somewhat akin to the famous yellow line that runs from Barbican underground station to the Barbican Centre in London. Clearly I should have followed those logos to find the venue, although how I was supposed to know that given that I had never seen the logo before was not adequately explained. Last Friday I was a little more confident of being able to find my way, but I was still on the lookout for the little fish designs on the pavement to help me. And guess what, most of them had disappeared, leaving me floundering just as much as on the previous occasion.

What’s more, Grelle Forelle seems to be a nightclub that puts on occasional concerts, rather than a live music venue per se. This quickly became apparent from the way the venue pulled the tiresome trick of getting the live music audience in ridiculously early and then clearing them out in double-quick time in order to prepare the room for the main business of the evening, the club night. The alternative option, of putting the live music on at a civilized hour and then not having the club night at all, is something that seems not to have occurred to the management at Grelle Forelle. Which is a shame, since the venue’s acoustics, the location and (not least) the bar are all excellent. Still, there is something insulting about being politely but firmly escorted off the premises at the end of a concert and told to relocate to the outside terrace. On a warm evening in June this was not much of a hardship, but on a cold night in December it certainly was. All things considered, both these concerts should have been held at the Rhiz, which could easily have accommodated the number of people attending them.

Fennesz, Vienna Gartenbaukino, 5 May 2011

A rum evening this.  The occasion was the Austrian premiere of AUN – The Beginning and the End of All Things, a new film by Austrian director Edgar Honetschläger for which Christian Fennesz had composed the soundtrack.  Since the evening was advertised as a benefit for the Japanese Red Cross (the film being an Austrian-Japanese co-production), and since Fennesz would be there in person, attendance was a must.  But, strangely for a benefit gig, the organizers had announced that there would only be 100 tickets available to the general public, and those for free.  Since the Gartenbaukino, the largest cinema in Vienna, has 736 seats, that left a whopping 636 tickets reserved for people connected to the film.  And since those 636 would also be given away free, it was hard to see where the fund-raising aspect would come in.  Anyway, I expected there to be a massive run on those 100 tickets, and duly hammered my finger sore in a rush to call the reservations hotline.

In the event, I needn’t have worried.  There were large numbers of empty seats on the night, both for the screening itself and for the Fennesz concert which followed.  I would have expected the guitar/laptop wizard to generate the soundtrack live in real time as the film was shown, as is customary at such events, but it was not to be.  Instead he played beautifully for an hour or so after the film, his performance a shimmering and, I thought, unusually aggressive (for him) soundscape hewn from those endless silvery riffs.

As for the fund-raising element, the audience were asked for voluntary donations.  Fair enough, but I can’t help wondering whether more money would have been raised if the evening had been promoted as a regular film plus live performance under normal ticketing arrangements.  And the film AUN, by the way, was a stinker.  One of the most tediously incomprehensible art flicks I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, it made Nostalghia look like Carry On Up the Khyber.

Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.

chart

Short Cuts 2: Fennesz, Akron/Family

More handy bite-sized reviews of recent shows I don’t have the time or the will to write more about.

Christian Fennesz, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 2 November 2009

Very strong evening of guitar and laptop improvisations. The reason I love Fennesz so much is that he gives the lie to the idea that noise has to be ugly and atonal (not that that there’s anything wrong with atonality, done well). On the contrary, Fennesz’s music is dreamy, shimmering, and uplifting. And yes, it’s still noise. Beautiful.

Akron/Family, Vienna B72, 4 November 2009

A strange outfit, this. Their set was basically a long, free-flowing mix of dusty Americana, rabble-rousing vocal harmonies, eerie noise and guitar-driven progressive rock. Given this unusual blend, I can see why Michael Gira was so taken with them that he drafted them in to be his backing group. The great thing, though, was that the group allowed these disparate elements room to breathe and merge seamlessly into one another.

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 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.

Fennesz, Vienna Rhiz, 22 May 2008

The 10th birthday celebrations continue at the Rhiz until the end of May. Last Thursday saw one of the enduring heroes of Viennese electronica, Christian Fennesz, give a rare home town concert as part of those celebrations.

As J. said, watching someone play at the Rhiz is almost like watching them play in your living room. Both in terms of the size of the physical space and the atmosphere the place instils, there’s something about the Rhiz that inspires great loyalty and affection. In this case, Fennesz’s performance was highly unassuming yet strangely moving. No doubt this emotional response was due in part to the fact that, unlike most other people working in the field of electronic music, Fennesz actually plays an instrument, and plays it well. Yes, I retain for the most part a preference for instrumental virtuosity over the point-and-click and knob-twiddling approaches; sue me.

What was so great about Fennesz, however, was the way he combined these two approaches and made the resulting whole sound utterly right and natural. Rich and animated, his silvery guitar tones floated over pulsating drones and disorientating sub-bass frequencies. Playing solo and then in tandem with Vienna DJ Dieter Kovacic (dieb13), Fennesz showed that the electric guitar could be recontextualised without losing any of the visceral pleasure associated with its deployment as a rock instrument.

Ether column, May 2007

Loads of great gigs this month, so straight down to business. First up is Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who will no doubt transform the magnificent Großer Saal of the Konzerthaus with his vivid, airy playing. Garbarek is a man who sits comfortably between the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical and world musics. After a stint in Keith Jarrett’s band in the 70s, he made his name with a string of albums that came to exemplify the limpid, crystalline sound of the ECM label. Forswearing the improvisational theatrics of Ayler and Coltrane, Garbarek’s style draws on Scandinavian mythology and exudes a tender, sunny playfulness. At the time of writing this concert was almost sold out, so check before travelling.

Japanese psych-rock heads Ghost land in Vienna as part of an extensive European tour. Active since 1988, this free-form collective has a shifting line-up centred around singer and guitarist Masaki Batoh. Their music spans a range of influences including the transcendent pastoralism of Pink Floyd, the pyramidal drones of the Velvet Underground and the nagging rhythms of krautrock bands such as Can and Amon Düül II. New album In Stormy Nights is the first Ghost record to have been recorded using the same line-up as its predecessor, yet this new-found stability does not imply any kind of creative stagnation. On the contrary, with this record Batoh and his comrades have reached new heights of invention and inspiration.

More down-to-earth pleasures are provided by Richmond Fontaine, an American alt-country band with a wistful, literate approach to songcraft. Singer and songwriter Willy Vlautin has been much acclaimed for his lyrics, which present echoes of the great American short story writer Raymond Carver in their downbeat realism and unflinching attention to the warp and weft of everyday lives. Vlautin has recently published a novel, The Motel Life, extending his sympathetic observational writing to the printed page. Musically Richmond Fontaine are a deceptively humble proposition, with Vlautin’s understated vocals and Paul Brainard’s washes of pedal steel guitar illuminating these quietly resonant songs of love, hope and loss.

Finally, this month sees a rare home town concert by Viennese electronica legend Fennesz, appearing in an unlikely duo show with American singer Mike Patton. Along with artists like Peter Rehberg and Farmers Manual, Fennesz was in the late 90s and early 00s one of the key figures of the influential Mego label, a Vienna-based imprint that was dedicated to innovative electronic music. Less defiantly atonal than some of his former labelmates, Fennesz’s fusion of guitar and synthesiser is suffused with a bright and warm elegance. His 2001 album Endless Summer was a loving homage to the Beach Boys’ ecstatic summery textures, flawlessly reimagined for the modern age. What he’s doing collaborating with a journeyman like Patton is anyone’s guess, but the results should be interesting in any event. And that’s your lot – something for everyone this month, I hope.