This fourth album from Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley finds the duo upping the ante considerably in terms of grim, hellish and agonisingly slow guitar- and electronic-led drones. Moonlighting from his day job as half of Sunn O))), O’Malley turns away from that group’s relentlessly sludgey twin-guitar attack in favour of more silvery, melancholy tones. Rehberg, for his part, makes scalpel-sharp electronic incisions to take the music ever deeper into uneasy listening territory.
In 1999 or thereabouts, Ed Pinsent and I interviewed Peter Rehberg at his home in Vienna. (The resulting article appeared in The Sound Projector 8, long sold out but downloadable from the SP website.) Back in those days, Rehberg and the like-minded souls whose music he released on the label he co-founded, Mego (Fennesz, Farmers Manual, etc) were seen by some as the vanguard of a new revolution in electronic music, eschewing the analogue synthesiser in favour of using digital music software to create and manipulate sounds which they recorded straight to hard disc. Their ‘instrument’ of choice was the Apple Macintosh, which had already revolutionised the ease of use of the personal computer. Since the mid-90s, a clutch of Vienna-based artists had been making a global impression, with the scene initially coalescing around the clubby, downtempo vibes of Kruder & Dorfmeister, Patrick Pulsinger and Erdem Tunakan. As the 90s wore on, the Mego crew emerged with a harder-edged, glitchy sound that could be heard on a regular basis at the Rhiz bar, Vienna’s new temple to electronic music.
An overwhelmingly loud and brutal concert from the metal band it’s OK to like (and certainly the only one I like). In fact this evening was more akin to a test of physical endurance than possibly any other I have seen. Here were Sunn O))) as they should be heard – just the two men on guitar, with no extraneous vocals or instrumentation. Playing – or, more accurately, improvising off – their 1999 début The Grimmrobe Demos, the duo issued a full 90 minutes of nothing but malevolent guitar drones and sub-bass frequencies monstrous enough to make your entire body quake.
There’s a lot of talk about Sunn O))) having a deadpan humour to their work, a certain quality of sending themselves up, but I can’t see it when the outcome is as relentlessly tortured and funereal as this. With their cowled selves only ever partially revealed through the impenetrable curtain of fog, their agonisingly slow onstage movements and their uncanny, somehow menacing salutes, O’Malley and Anderson seem less concerned with acknowledging a sense of the ridiculous than with presenting a coherent and disturbing vision of Hell.
Those who arrived early had the pleasure of seeing local laptop hero, and head honcho of Editions Mego, Pita aka Peter Rehberg, who forms one half of KTL with O’Malley. More or less reprising his April set at the Rhiz, Rehberg took full advantage of the much larger PA to generate ferocious coils of sound from his two Macbooks. That haunting and fevered third track from Get Out loomed particularly large again, sounding like a deranged part-animal/part-machine as it swooped and seethed about the place.
When I was 13 years old and just getting into “proper” music for the first time, most of the kids at my school were huge followers of heavy metal, in particular the short-lived phenomenon known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. As a quieter and more bookish type (don’t laugh), I was the only person I knew of that age who worshipped instead at the altar of electronic music, in particular the German group Kraftwerk. I’m tempted to say I had the last laugh, for while the NWOBHM quickly floundered, Kraftwerk are still a formidable proposition. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that their rare concert in Austria this month takes place at a dance music festival, since Kraftwerk are still more often thought of in terms of their supposed “influence” on hip-hop and techno than their own music itself. Kraftwerk music is possessed of a shimmering, crystalline beauty, the simplicity and urgency of their melodies utterly beguiling. Although founder member Ralf Hütter is the only one left from the classic Kraftwerk line-up, in this case it hardly matters, since the individual personalities were long ago subsumed into a group identity that represents itself onstage in a stunning multimedia show including, at one point, the appearance of the legendary Kraftwerk robots. Impossibly dry and funny, at times sinister yet strangely hopeful and touching, Kraftwerk are the sound of the future turning back in on itself.
Just sneaking in under the wire this month is a welcome return to these shores by experimental drone metallers Sunn O))). Although the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have played with a bewildering variety of other artists, their strongest music undeniably emerges from their work together as Sunn O))), a group originally conceived as a tribute to Earth, another band in this field. Yet in recent years Sunn O))) have outstripped Earth with their dark, mysterious and resonant music, which consists of deep, agonisingly slow guitar lines played amid a welter of feedback and the occasional anguished vocal. Live, they present an intriguing spectacle, playing at deafening volume, dressed in long, hooded robes and filling the room with industrial quantities of fog that add to the ritualistic aspect of the performance. Arrive early to catch the support slot from Vienna laptop maestro Peter Rehberg aka Pita, who plays with O’Malley as KTL.
Finally, I could hardly end this column without mentioning another Vienna concert by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, this time performing with his celebrated Chicago Tentet in the elegant surroundings of Porgy & Bess. This awesomely talented and expressive big band is now at the height of its powers, merging the delights of way-out jazz and free improvisation into an extended and delirious whole. Not to be missed.
This was a rare and all too brief live appearance by hometown hero Peter Rehberg, effortlessly demonstrating the warmth and emotional empathy that, in the right hands, can come out of laptop music. Standing impassively on the small stage of the darkened Rhiz, Rehberg focused intently on his Macbook, occasionally glancing over at a second machine to his right. The music began with slow, tense accretions that gradually uncoiled into an expansive dronescape, thick percussive stabs adding to the sense of foreboding. Before long, though, the epic third track from Rehberg’s epochal 1999 Get Out album came surging through the speakers, crushing everything in its path with its juggernaut melody and sense of delirious abandonment.
As the scouring blast of that extraordinary piece ebbed away, Rehberg continued to issue pulverising drones, networks of rhythmic patterning and the occasional desolate strand of melody. After half an hour it was over, and this most self-effacing, yet fiercely creative of musicians closed his laptop and left the stage.
So the Rhiz is ten years old this month. It’s a great achievement to keep going a club/bar/venue (like a few other places in Vienna, the Rhiz never seems entirely sure of which it is, and is all the better for it) devoted for the most part to defiantly uncommercial electronic music, and to make a success of it. Hats off and happy birthday, then, to Herbie Molin, his collaborators and conspirators.
When I first arrived in Vienna I didn’t get to the Rhiz much, but I’ve been making up for it in recent months. There was the Nurse With Wound night last month, at which DJs Walter and Martin span a range of classic NWW sides and Colin Potter played a funereal live set. And now there’s the 10 Years of the Rhiz celebrations, with a slew of gigs taking place in May. The first of these, for me at least, saw the KTL duo of Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley play on a much smaller stage than the last time I saw them at the 2007 Donaufestival. What was so impressive about that concert was the way the group utterly dominated their surroundings, transforming the sterile Krems exhibition hall into a proper concert space through the crushing totality of the noise they produced (and also, it must be said, through the use of huge quantities of fog).
Last week’s concert at the Rhiz was all the more exciting for taking place in such an intimate setting, but was curiously underattended. I’m no authority on O’Malley’s principal project, Sunn O))), but from what I do know (and from the memory of their 2006 concert at the Szene at which Rehberg did a support slot; was that the evening that birthed KTL, I wonder?), I would have thought your average Sunn O))) adherent would have been ecstatic to see O’Malley do his massive drone guitar thing in a venue as small as the Rhiz. It’s not as though Sunn O))) and KTL inhabit dissimilar musical worlds, after all. And yet the place (which holds 100 people, tops) was not at all crowded.
In any event, the set was musically as well as literally blinding (the fog filling the room made the duo only sporadically visible, even from a few feet away). Coiled and hovering with malevolent presence, O’Malley’s agonisingly slow guitar reverberated around the room and invaded the listener’s very marrow. Rehberg, meanwhile, issued deep and obliterating drones from his Mac, forcing O’Malley’s guitar lines outwards in a mounting vortex of pressure. The music seemed to be searching for escape within the tight confines of the room and, finding none, turned in on itself; an afflicting and oppressive infiltration.
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.