Donaufestival 2011: Ben Frost, John Cale, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Nadja

My one and only visit to this year’s Donaufestival kicked off in the Minoritenkirche with a fine performance by Ben Frost, accompanied by pianist Daniel Bjarnason and the Krakow Symphony Orchestra. For this event Frost proposed a meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, with video projections created by the absent Brian Eno. Not having seen the film in question, I have no idea as to how either the music or the visuals related to it. The music itself, though, was beautiful: slow, thick melodies that resonated with exceptional clarity around the atmospheric old church, accompanied by Frost’s heavily treated guitar and Bjarnason’s unnervingly calm pianistics.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, John Cale was a severe disappointment. This was a straight-up rock and roll set that evoked none of the dark phantoms I normally associate with Cale. If it’s true, as J. claimed, that you can tell what kind of state Cale is in by the way he goes about “Heartbreak Hotel”, then I should have known the game was up from the way he opened the set with a tiresomely bouncy version of this old chestnut. The briskly competent band were augmented, entirely unnecessarily, by a gospel choir and horn section, while Cale himself was inadvisably clad in a kilt. There were no Velvets songs, no viola and no mystery. It could have been a bar band up there, and I frequently wished it was.

After that ordeal, it was a relief and pleasure to make the acquaintance of Wildbirds & Peacedrums for the first time. The Swedish trio cast a vivid late-night spell with their heady mix of out-there vocals, propulsive drumming and atmospheric washes of Hammond organ. In fact, that dreamlike Hammond-percussion sound put me in mind of another Swedish group, the irresistible Sagor & Swing (and weren’t they supposed to be reforming?). Strange, then, that the organist seems not to be a core member of the band, who generally consist of Mariam Wallentin on vocals and Andreas Werliin on drums. Rounding off the night, Nadja’s slow-moving, heavily treated guitar and bass drones brought an ominous edge of menace and dissonance to the proceedings.

A final tip of the hat to Lucas Abela’s Vinyl Rally installation around the corner from the second stage, a truly inspired and dotty piece of work. A winding racetrack had been set up with hundreds of old LPs covering its walls and floor. A remote-controlled car, which punters were able to control by turning a separate steering wheel, was placed on the racetrack. The car had a camera fitted to its front, the view from which the “driver” could see on a screen in front of him as he attempted to steer the car through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the racetrack. I’m not sure about this, but I think the car was also fitted with some kind of audio pickup so that bits of noise were picked up from the grooves of the LPs as the car drove over them. It was a brilliant idea. And no, I didn’t have a go on it.

Ether column, March 2007

This month’s column previews two concerts at the Arena, a fine medium-sized venue in the third district. Running under the banner “Love music, hate fascism”, this former slaughterhouse has carved out a niche for itself as a reliable purveyor of alternative entertainments, and has a large courtyard where open-air gigs are held in summer.

Unlikely to be much in the way of summery vibes, though, at the welcome return to Vienna of John Cale. Now pushing 65, this remarkable musician retains every ounce of the tense creativity that marked his earliest work in the mid-1960s. Growing up in a small town in Wales, Cale moved to New York when the music scene there was on the verge of a period of intense innovation. He took up the viola and joined forces with Tony Conrad and La Monte Young in the Theatre of Eternal Music, an experimental ensemble that focused on the hypnotic musical properties of the drone. From there it was a short step to the Velvet Underground, where Cale’s radical dissonance was the perfect foil for Lou Reed’s more pop-wise sensibility. Cale’s musical and vocal contributions to the first two Velvets records were significant, but in 1968 he was deplorably forced to leave the band due to Reed’s control-freak tendencies. Since then he has pursued a prolific solo career, releasing around 15 studio albums as well as numerous collaborations and works for film and dance. His solo work is characterised by a restless intelligence, with passages of great elegance and refinement jostling for space with snarling aggression and spare, controlled atonality.

On his last visit to Vienna in February 2006, Cale warmed up the rather sterile Birdland atmosphere with a slew of songs from his extensive back catalogue and a sprinkling of Velvets classics for good measure. Here in the more relaxed surroundings of the Arena, he’s sure to deliver a powerful and committed performance.

A week or so later, Austrian alt-rock outfit Naked Lunch hit the Arena on the Vienna leg of an extensive tour of Austria and Germany. Formed in Klagenfurt in 1991, Naked Lunch have a turbulent history. Founder member Georg Trattnig died of an alcohol-related condition in 2000, while his co-founder Oliver Welter lived rough for a time after the band had been dropped by two successive record labels. Meanwhile, the band’s studio burned down before they had finished work on their fourth album. That record, Songs for the Exhausted, was not released until 2004, three years after its completion; but it became their breakthrough album, trading indie bluster for wintry electronica. Holding fast to the ‘less is more’ principle, their new record, This Atom Heart of Ours, is a collection of understated songs which should appeal to fans of Mercury Rev’s plaintive melodicism. Like Cale, Naked Lunch are survivors, their continued presence an illustration of the virtues of bloody-mindedness and persistence.