Ether column, July 2008

Thank goodness for the Arena. While most of Vienna’s rock venues shut down for business over the summer, this old warhorse keeps going throughout the hot months by simply going outside. Just like the rest of us, in fact, but their backyard has the advantage of being big enough to play host to acts of the calibre of Sigur Rós and Patti Smith.

Sigur Rós hail from Iceland and play an intriguing kind of post-rock with quasi-classical leanings. Active in their native land since 1994, they achieved worldwide recognition in 1999 with their second album Ágætis byrjun. With this album and the lovely single “Svefn-g-englar”, the group found their signature style of music defined by ethereal strings and the swooning falsetto style of singer Jón Birgisson. Birgisson often plays guitar by bowing the strings with a cello bow, adding to the dreamlike delicacy of the group’s sound. Writing their songs in Icelandic was never likely to bring Sigur Rós mainstream appeal, but they took themselves even further out with their next album (), which was sung entirely in their own invented language, Hopelandic. Their music has an unfortunate tendency to be used in film and TV soundtracks, reflecting its soothing and widescreen nature.

Patti Smith has been an important figure in alternative rock for over thirty years. She was energised by the American wave of the punk explosion in the mid-70s, playing regularly at New York clubs like CBGB and providing a strong female counterbalance to the male-dominated world of punk. Not that Smith was any kind of shrinking violet; her début album Horses was a fearsome statement of intent from the opening words “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” onwards. She recorded three further albums of jagged, obstinate rock in the 70s before retreating from public view for most of the 80s and 90s. In recent years she has continued to write and record, and has taken up a number of activist causes including green politics and anti-Iraq war protest.

Moving back indoors, the Arena also plays host this month to American neo-progressive rock outfit The Mars Volta. Rising phoenix-like in 2001 from the ashes of At The Drive-In, the Mars Volta quickly abandoned that group’s earthy hardcore approach in favour of a more complex stew containing elements of punk, jazz and Latin American styles. Their recently released fourth album The Bedlam in Goliath is their most dynamic and persuasive statement yet. Apparently written in response to a series of experiments the group mde with a ouija board while on tour, the record is a concept album about the power of the occult. Lest that put you off, I should add that it’s also loud, energetic and downright funky.