Short Cuts 3: Autechre, Russell Haswell, Jarboe, Modell Doo

The third in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of shows I don’t have the will or, more pressingly these days, the time to write more about.

Autechre & Russell Haswell, Vienna Flex, 30 March 2010

Mesmerising night of electronic wildness, at a venue whose pristinely loud sound system I love almost as much as the eye-poppingly beautiful nature of many of its clientele. Russell Haswell – at least one supposes it was him, although it was impossible to tell given the baseball cap pulled down low over his face – came onstage just before midnight and made a huge and inspired racket for just ten minutes. Crushing drones collided with sick frequencies in a synapse-cleaning curtain-raiser to the main event.

Autechre were superb. Their precise, mechanistic sound could so easily have descended into a dry, sterile exercise; not a bit of it. This music was endlessly vital, bubbling and, oh yes, hot.

Jarboe, Vienna Chelsea, 12 April 2010

An all-too-brief setting of Jarboe’s powerful, otherworldly voice against a churning Metal soundscape. The Chelsea’s murky acoustics couldn’t dispel the hypnotic intensity of this, less a performance than an invocation.

Neonbeats, Vienna Replugged, 24 April 2010

Fun evening of Austrian new wave and post-punk revivalism to celebrate the release of a new, extensive compilation of this stuff on Klanggalerie. Of the four groups I saw, the only one that made a really lasting impression were Modell Doo, a synth/guitar and drums duo who played with a sharp, brittle passion.

Jarboe, Budapest Vörös Yuk, 8 June 2009

Since Jarboe’s planned concert in Vienna was cancelled in murky circumstances, it was a no-brainer for me to make the trip to the nearest place she was playing, which turned out to be Budapest. This is no trainspotters’ blog, but I do feel obliged to mention the excellent ÖBB Railjet service which whisked me from Westbahnhof to Budapest in exactly three hours, in remarkable comfort and to-the-minute punctuality. British trains, I do not miss you at all.

I wrote a short reminiscence of Swans under the guise of a review of Michael Gira’s concert in Vienna last November, which touched on the kindness and generosity Jarboe showed me in the early days of my friendship with her. Ironically, while Gira has for the most part opened up his muse to softer and more acoustic elements since ending Swans, Jarboe’s own post-Swans work has recently been heading in the other direction, towards the theatricality and brute force of black metal. But this really shouldn’t be seen as too much of a surprise. Intensely aware of gods, demons and other spectral presences, Jarboe’s music has always revolved around the kind of incantatory invocations that the BM scene also relishes.

What makes Jarboe extraordinary, though, is the sense of humility and abasement that she brings to her on-stage persona. For at least half of this concert, she came down from the stage and sang while standing amongst the (almost exclusively male) audience, her long blonde hair shrouding her face, her voice howling and trembling in supplication. This was no mere theatrical diversion, but a deliberate strategy on Jarboe’s part to place herself in a position of utter abjection. The resulting cauldron of lamentation was both sexually charged and unbearably moving.

Jarboe’s songs are protean; they refuse to take on the properties of songs, sounding instead like hectoring blasts of black energy. The guitar, bass and drums pulsate menacingly, as though calling up apparitions given voice by Jarboe’s sepulchral keening. The performance resonates with an elegiac, mystical beauty.

Michael Gira has indicated that he may resurrect the Swans name for a new album and tour, a move which (needless to say) I would wholeheartedly welcome. Jarboe, sadly, is unlikely to be a part of any such endeavour; but on the evidence of this show, Gira will have to go some to match the level of draining intensity reached by his erstwhile bandmate.

Swans: Various Failures, Angels of Light: New Mother, Body Lovers: Body Lovers

Michael Gira is a myth-maker, acutely aware of the danger of ossification and constantly realigning his position to avoid it. When Swans emerged in the early 1980s, their grindingly repetitious sonic assault (once memorably described as “the sound of a man walking round in circles with his neck chained”) seemed like a strategy for obsessive rearrangement of a basic set of lyrical and musical permutations. The songs didn’t end; they stopped.

Gira eventually tired of this game and, coincident with the introduction of female vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe, began to introduce chilling acoustic elements into his songwriting on 1987’s essential Children of God LP. Over the next several years, Swans would refine and develop this approach in a series of albums that merged immense rhythmic power with an unearthly delicacy of acoustic instrumentation.These records – 1989’s The Burning World, 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1992’s Love of Life – have long been deleted and are consequently much sought after. Various Failures is a double CD containing a generous selection of material from the period (complete reissues were ruled out, partly on economic grounds but also because Gira was content to let some of the songs disappear).

Listening again to this music, one is struck by how expansive it all sounds, the polar opposite of the early records’ savage inward spin. The loudest pieces here, such as ‘Will We Survive’ and the wonderfully titled ‘The Golden Boy that was Swallowed by the Sea’, are mesmerising dramas of layered orchestration, the massed guitars and drums perfectly framing Gira’s resonant vocals. These songs construct boundaries only to dissolve them: the spaces they occupy are vast and limitless. Elsewhere, Gira and Jarboe offer up unbearable intimacies of form and language, with the shimmering acoustic beauty of the music and the spectral sighs of Jarboe’s voice drawing the listener unmercifully into dense narratives of isolation and failure.

Gira has taken this loose, bluesy strain even further in his new song-based project, Angels of Light. These songs are less reliant on the apocalyptic visual imagery that underpinned Swans’ relentless, thrilling surge. Gira’s new voice is one of humble intimacy, the sound of a man shedding past burdens and discovering new ways of seeing. The musical palette is restrained and absorbing, with accordion and dulcimer adding colour and intimacy throughout.

The results are occasionally stunning; ‘Forever Yours’ and ‘Song For My Father’ in particular are among the most affecting things Gira has written. But there is a schematic quality to some of the other songs that strikes a jarring note. The lyrics are recited slowly and dolefully, with little melodic invention to lighten the mood. At their recent London concert, the Angels of Light shrugged off these limitations in the songs and transformed them into blinding, ecstatic convulsions of pure energy. The record, sadly, suffers from a listlessness that the warm and delicate arrangements are unable to dissipate.

If New Mother represents a slackening off from Swans’ intense emotional charge, Gira’s parallel Body Lovers/Body Haters project can be seen as a move in the opposite direction, a ratcheting of atmosphere and tension. These two CDs, representing the first phase in a projected three-album series, were originally issued separately in the USA and have now been brought together for European release.

Gira accurately describes this mainly instrumental music as ‘psycho-ambient’. While its abstract drifts and swirls share many of the formal properties of Ambient, they are determinedly inward-looking. Also, unlike much Ambient there is a restless intelligence at work here, ordering, shaping and defining. Distant, rumbling drones are picked apart by alien sounds, stately rhythms and sparing acoustic instrumentation. Occasional vocal interventions – a woman’s weeping, a baby’s screaming and a short, mournful song – all serve to heighten the sense of unease. Seriously effective, but not to be listened to with the lights off.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 6, 1999)