Larsen with “Little” Annie, Vienna Rhiz, 10 September 2012

I was very much looking forward to seeing Italian post-rock outfit Larsen in the intimate confines of the Rhiz. Their 2005 album Play was a work of considerable imaginative power, while I had very much enjoyed their set at the 2007 Donaufestival weekend curated by David Tibet. So there was every reason to expect another evening of engrossing instrumental music. Unfortunately, however, the group had brought along their occasional collaborator “Little” Annie Anxiety as guest vocalist. Larsen themselves were superb, especially in the way their multilayered compositions began with the merest hint of anticipation and gradually developed into brilliant, controlled explosions of noise. Sadly, though, I found “Little” Annie’s vocal contributions to be dullsville and her stage presence irritatingly shambolic.

Larsen: Play

On this, their third album, Italian quartet Larsen present a suite of blissed-out pieces apparently inspired by Autechre. The press release states that the band “spent a lot of time improvising around some of their favorite melodies from Autechre albums…suddenly songs were coming out of the air.” Without this information to hand, it would be hard to discern this influence. In the end, though, it hardly matters, since Play is an intriguing and confident work in its own right.

Titled for no apparent reason after letters of the alphabet, the six tracks immerse the listener in a sumptuous array of moods and textures. The opening, lengthy “C” and “E” are intricate, finely spun webs of harmonic tension, with spare bass and violin gradually overwhelmed by massed layers of guitar and drums. If Larsen wear their Swans and Godspeed influences a little too obviously here, there is still no denying the awesome, symphonic power of these constructions.

The rest of the album contains two further longish pieces and two quieter interludes. These may lack the swelling resonance of “C” and “E,” but still have plenty to recommend them. On “S,” waves of xylophone and harmonium merge with a spectral bass figure, until the serenity of the piece is tempered by processing and distortion. “G” is jauntier, its thin, angular percussion steadied by a burrowing riff and blissful accordion work. “J” and “P,” meanwhile, are unnecessarily brief. It’s frustrating to hear these tracks end after just two and three minutes respectively, when Larsen have shown elsewhere how magically they play the long game.

Donaufestival 2007

Wow, what a couple of weekends that was. Too much drinking, not enough sleep, a bit of sickness on the last night, but most importantly a whole load of incredible music at the Donaufestival.

Week one kicked off, for me at least, with the Friday evening show in Hall 1. Matmos held no interest for me, far too tricksy and glitchy, and Om didn’t really engage my attention either. But the rather sterile non-atmosphere of the hall was broken awesomely by Current 93, who gave a formidable performance with an extended line-up of the band (I think I counted sixteen people on stage). Musically, the thing swelled beautifully, with the deathly pace of the strings and guitars giving a veiled, doomy ambience.

The next day’s curtain-raiser at the Minoritenkirche was a quartet of C93-related acts: two hits and two misses. Pantaleimon bored me rigid, and “Little” Annie was just an irritant. But Simon Finn impressed with his powerful, committed songwriting, and Julia Kent‘s performance on the cello and loops was serpentine and gorgeous.

Everything fell perfectly into place back at the Halle later that night. Fovea Hex were lorn and lovely, Larsen were driven and compelling. Six Organs of Admittance – featuring Ben Chasny and a very cool girl in a very short skirt – abused their guitars effectively out in the lounge. Nurse With Wound – a band I never thought I’d see live – created haunting, massive structures, and their two songs with Tibet on vox were shuddering, berserk blasts of energy. Will Oldham rounded off this superb evening with a set of pure tunefulness and white-hot wisdom.

My first night of Week Two saw a set of uncanny, bruising atmospheres being created by Throbbing Gristle. I simply needed to see these four unassuming people onstage – well, three unassuming people and one unashamed exhibitionist – and acknowledge the immeasurability of my debt to them. The infinitude of their influence on so much I have thought, done, heard and written over the last twenty years of my life.

Preceding their livid set, Alan Vega was a tiresome nuisance, looking for all the world like a confused pensioner as he wandered cantankerously around the stage, hollering useless drivel in our direction. Bookending the evening, Zeitkratzer and Rechenzentrum were rather ho-hum.

Things came to a spectacular end on Monday, with the Boredoms making a holy and riveting percussion-driven performance. Phill Niblock was a necessary interlude (by this stage I was feeling decidedly queasy), before Haswell & Hecker bawled out the place with a set of juddering noise, hypnotically lit by a constantly flickering green laser beam. TG returned for their Derek Jarman performance, and this was a revelation. The film (In The Shadow Of The Sun) was a slow and infinitely sad dream piece, saturated with deeply resonant imagery. And TG’s soundtrack, including a dark and mournful choir, was suitably plangent and sweeping. last of all, KTL (Peter Rehberg and the bloke out of Sunn o) played a set of deep, pulverising drones.

A word about the Esel guys, whose amiable performances I witnessed at odd moments in the lounge. They were very funny, I have to say. The stuff about auctioning off artists’ relics (sample riff: “here is a pill from Fabrizio of Larsen. Fabrizio will suffer pain because he will not take his pill”) appealed directly to my sense of humour.

It’s still scarcely believable how this all happened so close to me, here in Austria this year. Never again am I likely to witness such an extensive and concentrated pile-up of musical moods and experiences. It was, well, life-affirming.