Short Cuts: Naked Lunch, Der Blutharsch, Damo Suzuki, Volcano The Bear

No major concerts to report, but I wanted to give a brief flavour of a few things I’ve seen recently.

Naked Lunch/Universalove, Vienna Arena, 22 August

I think this was the only cold, wet day in the whole of August, so of course it had to be the day on which I chose to attend an open-air concert. Once again Naked Lunch were superb; see here and here for longer reviews of this engrossing film/music experience.

Der Blutharsch, London Camden Underworld, 18 September

Fine performance of dark psychedelic rock from Albin Julius and friends.

Damo Suzuki/Mord, Vienna Arena, 22 September

The former Can man continues on his never-ending tour, picking up “sound carriers” wherever he goes. I actually found this to be mostly uninteresting, lacking in variation and Suzuki’s vocals ultimately tiresome.

Volcano The Bear, Vienna Rhiz, 6 October

Very uneven concert of experimental rock and improv. Some beautiful piano-led instrumental moments, but the vocals and lyrics were largely mannered and inconsequential. And by the end it was clear that the duo had run out of ideas, which for an improvising ensemble is rather worrying.

Naked Lunch: Universalove, Vienna Gartenbaukino, 17 April 2009

It was an unexpected pleasure to see Naked Lunch again, reprising the excellent live soundtrack performance that they premiered at last year’s Donaufestival. Not much to add to my review of that event, except to say that Thomas Woschitz’s film Universalove now seems even more like a major work, its glancing and resonant plotlines balanced by a considerable emotional pull. And the music is really quite stunning, with its angular and relentless percussion bolstered by haunting guitar work and the parched croon of Oliver Welter’s voice.

After 18 years of existence, Naked Lunch still seem to be practically unknown outside of Austria and Germany. Doubtless this isn’t a situation they’re happy with, but I’m tempted to say that they’re too good to be allowed out anywhere else.

Tortoise/Naked Lunch, Donaufestival, 3 May 2008

These pages are backed up because there has been so much going on lately. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Backtracking…

My second and last visit to the 2008 Donaufestival was a far more positive and pleasant experience than the previous one had been. The evening opened at the Minoritenkirche with Universalove, a film by Thomas Woschitz with a live soundtrack by Austrian alt-rockers Naked Lunch (for more on whom, see my March 2007 column).

This event was marvellously engrossing from start to finish. The film was a collection of thematically linked stories focusing on love and relationships, each of them quietly eloquent in its own way. The accompanying music was no mere incidental backdrop, but a series of emotive, quietly devastating songs that informed and commented on the narratives. The main musical impetus came from the percussion, with the two drummers standing centre stage and bashing out beautifully immersive and textural rhythms. The wintry and plaintive vocals, meanwhile, contributed an air of dark melancholy to the film. This highly impressive collaboration was an indication that the somewhat jaded live soundtrack genre still has the potential to mesmerise.

One minor gripe: the seating arrangements in the Minoritenkirche were bizarrely ill thought out. Despite the fact that the event was very well attended, the organisers for some reason decided to lay out only twenty or so rows of seats in front of the stage, leaving the rest of the church as standing room. Having arrived fairly early, I was lucky enough to grab a seat, but it looked to me as though the majority of the audience was left to stand uncomfortably around. Why the entire church couldn’t have been given over to seating is utterly beyond me. This was a film, after all.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, a similar thoughtless disregard for the needs and comfort of the audience saw Tortoise come onstage at the absurdly late hour of 1.30am, by which time I had already been bored stiff by the wearisome sermonising of Ursula Rucker and the stilted meanderings of Xiu Xiu. Anyway, Tortoise were fantastic, insofar as I was able to stay awake and listen to them. Their last record It’s All Around You may have been a tepid approximation of former glories, but onstage the combination of the two drummers (again) with the jazzy guitar and vibes remains as potent and telepathic as ever. Kaleidoscopic, fresh and startlingly original, Tortoise music is pretty damn irresistible; but it would have been good to take it in through eyes and ears that weren’t pleading for some downtime.

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.