Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Vienna Chelsea, 5 October 2012; Caspar Brötzmann/No Home & Primordial Undermind, Vienna Chelsea, 29 September 2013

I never got around to reviewing Peter Brötzmann‘s concert at the Chelsea last year, but now I have a good excuse to rectify the omission. In what was a rather nice alignment, the saxophonist played there last October with his longstanding Full Blast group of Marino Pliakas on electric bass and Michael Wertmüller on drums; and then, almost exactly a year later, Pliakas and Wertmüller showed up at the same venue with Brötzmann’s guitarist son Caspar as No Home. It’s a measure of the Swiss rhythm section’s skill and versatility that they sounded just as right for Caspar as they always have for Peter. Trading squally sax for sheets of guitar noise as their front end, the bassist and drummer provided a dense underpinning for the lead instruments’ wild and disorderly conduct.

Peter Brötzmann seems to have rather fallen off my radar of late. Once a regular visitor to Vienna, he’s only played here once this year, at Porgy & Bess in February, which of course I missed. Full Blast’s gig at the Chelsea was one of only two occasions on which I saw the man play in 2012, the other being a magnificent two-night stint with the now defunct Chicago Tentet at Martinschlössl, which I never got round to reviewing either. Props to the Trost label for putting on the gig, although I must admit to being not the world’s biggest fan of this label or of its sudden interest in Brötzmann, The Thing and free jazz. Trost have been going since 1992, but they only started releasing Brötzmann product in 2011 and Thing product this year, prompting the obvious question, why now? What’s more, they seem to have a strange aversion to jazz gigs. By situating Brötzmann in a grungey rock club rather than a jazz club, they seemed to be trying to take him out of a ghetto (jazz) that he doesn’t actually need to be taken out of. In doing so, they felt the need to appease Brötzmann’s core audience, who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at the Chelsea, by including the reassuring words “seated area available” on posters for the gig. And talking of seating, Trost are insisting that next month’s gig by The Thing at the Blue Tomato is a standing-only affair, another piece of iconoclasm that I personally could do without.

Anyway, Full Blast played that night with their customary gusto, the limitless throb of Pliakas’ bass and the vast tectonic rumble of Wertmüller’s drums successfully navigating the treacherous currents of Brötzmann’s overdriven blowing. Peter’s cry sounds increasingly like a call to arms, the urge to raise consciousness in the listener more pressing and desperate than ever, the revolutionary fervour that gripped Machine Gun undimmed by the passing of the years.

If No Home’s gig never quite reached the ecstatic heights that Full Blast’s had done, that was more down to differences in approach than to any lack of energy and commitment. Unlike his father, Caspar Brötzmann is no improvisor – every note and riff feels carefully considered and worked upon. What Caspar’s playing lacked in spontaneity, however, it made up for in doom-laden heaviness, as these labyrinthine constructions in sound swamped the room with bludgeoning force. Stalking the guitarist’s every move, Pliakas and Wertmüller anchored the set with brazen, attack-dog ferocity.

Having paid the price of early arrival by being made to endure several hopeless support bands in recent months, it was a total pleasure to see Primordial Undermind opening for No Home at the Chelsea on the final date of a Europe-wide jaunt. Forever operating in a state of creative flux, the Undermind have undergone a line-up change or two since I last saw them, and now feature Christoph Weikinger on guitar and Michael Prehofer on drums alongside core members Eric and Vanessa Arn on vox/guitar and devices respectively. On this particular evening the move to a twin-guitar attack paid repeated dividends, since this PU is appreciably heavier than previous incarnations of the group. Weikinger’s mighty riffs splintered mile-wide holes in sonic space, into which Eric Arn soared with repeated mantric soloing. On an unshakeable quest to burst the listener’s head open from the inside, Primordial Undermind’s all-out psych rock remains as forceful and compelling as ever.

Primordial Undermind: Last Worldly Bond

If asked to think of contemporary music coming out of Vienna, many would probably call to mind Pita, Fennesz and the other past and present denizens of the Mego label. But there’s another loose network of artists working in the city these days, less heralded but more numerous and, for my money, more sonically diverse and interesting. Active since the beginning of the 2000s, they operate at the intersection of avant rock, noise, free jazz and improv, often collaborating with each other both live and on record to create a warm, eclectic and beguiling sound. Some of the key players in this scene are guitarist Martin Siewert (Trapist, Heaven And), drummer Martin Brandlmayer (Radian, Trapist), keyboardist Philipp Quehenberger, turntablist dieb13, drummer Didi Kern (Bulbul, Broken Heart Collector), reedist Susanna Gartmayer and guitarist Eric Arn, whose group Primordial Undermind have put out a wonderful slice of psychedelic rock in Last Worldly Bond.

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Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.


Faust, Vienna Szene, 23 September 2010

Incredibly, this was my first visit to the Szene for 2½ years – a fairly damning indictment of this venue’s generally shoddy programming since its takeover by Planet Music (for more on which, see here). It’s more than a little ironic, too, that this particular duck was broken by a visit from one of the two extant versions of Faust, this one being the line-up featuring two original members of the group, bass player and vocalist Jean-Hervé Péron and drummer Zappi Diermaier. Ironic, that is, because one of the reasons why the Szene’s current programming is so woeful is its over-reliance on ’70s relics, tribute bands and nostalgia-trip artists. Now, I realize this is a contentious point but watching Faust last week it occurred to me that they have become a simulacrum of themselves.

I was talking about the Faust schism before the concert with W., who knows much more about the tortuous history of the group than I do. When I put to him the crucial (to me, at least) question of which version of the group was the more authentic, he replied that they were both authentic. In my view, however, you can’t have more than one ‘real’ Faust (“I’m Spartacus!” “No, I’m Spartacus!”). Ultimately, if both of them are authentic, then neither of them are.

What we got last week, then, was a performance that ticked all the boxes of what a Faust performance should contain: a hypnotic motorik groove from Diermaier, chilling vocals by Péron and the requisite amount of diverting onstage business. An oil drum was roundly abused as a percussion instrument and brought into contact with an electric sander to make industrial quantities of sparks fly. This was all highly entertaining stuff, but it was unfortunately accompanied by too much of what the kids these days would describe as “meh”. There was rather a lot of aimless noodling and pointless axe heroics from the electric guitarist situated stage right. Péron and his female co-conspirator also let their vox and keyboards wander more than was strictly necessary. At one point they even gave a reading, for heaven’s sake, while at another the ivory-tickler came down from the stage onto the floor and proceeded to execute a low quality word painting on a sheet tacked to the wall.

Péron and Diermaier are figures of heroic stature, greatly to be admired for their dedication to keeping the mystery of Faust intact. The hulking Diermaier is an incongruous sight in his sandals, socks and orange shorts, but there’s nothing bizarre about the way he anchors the whole edifice with the miraculous forward motion of his drumming. For his part Péron is a malign and forceful presence, constantly breaking up the flow of the music with his arsenal of disruptive measures. And yet somehow the spark (excuse the pun) one expects from Faust, given their legendary reputation, was fatally absent.

A quick word on the opening act, the duo of Primordial Undermind mainman (and Jandek bassist) Eric Arn and Stefan Kushima. Their slot was mesmerisingly effective, all the more for being delivered on the floor of the hall rather than onstage. Arn drew huge waves of psychedelic riffage from his electric guitar, while the crouching Kushima flayed his devices mercilessly. The warped and tangled vortex of sound that resulted was a synapse-searing delight to behold.

Primordial Undermind, Vienna Rhiz, 13 June 2010

Very intense and powerful preview of the forthcoming Primordial Undermind album Last Worldly Bond on a hot and rainy night at the Rhiz. Singer and guitarist Eric Arn was careful to explain that the group were going to play the record straight through, and that’s exactly what they did – no extraneous material, and no encores. As a result there was barely time to pause for breath as the quintet slammed through their new material, leaning heavily on a delirious mix of Velvets-y riffing and MBV-esque wall-of-sound guitar attack.

One or two of the songs began with fidgety improvs during which the group would attack their instruments in a fairly abstract manner. Arn and cellist Meaghan Burke brought all manner of glitches and scrapes from the sticks and objects placed between their strings, around which Vanessa Arn’s electronics swirled ominously. Intriguing as these sections were, it came as a relief when the bass and drums kicked in and the murky throb of Arn’s guitar enveloped the group’s sound in a fog of uncompromising noise.

The first song on side 2 of the record was introduced – with a dose of irony, one suspects – as a “power ballad”, and there was indeed something soaring and beautiful about this, the only song of the night with Arn on vocals. The evening’s richest moments, however, came when Arn launched one of his brief, incandescent solos into the spaces limned by Burke’s delightfully unhinged cello and David Schweighart’s furious drumming. With the Undermind firing on all cylinders right now, it’d be a brave soul who would bet against Last Worldly Bond being one of the albums of 2010.

Primordial Undermind, Rhiz, Vienna, 24 February 2009

Another highly charged evening of out-there rock from the reliably energetic Primordial Undermind. Technical problems beset the early part of the set, but once they had been overcome, the group settled into a powerful groove and couldn’t be shifted from it. The set seemed slightly less frazzled than the last time I saw them, with the long, spacey freakouts taking a back seat to a more Velvets-y, garage rock sound. Eric Arn’s occasional vocals sounded a little flat and weedy to my ears, and I found myself wishing that there had been fewer of them. As a guitarist though he has few equals, his savage riffing and splintering solos leading the group into maze-like vortices of sound. Meanwhile, the whizzy analogue effects and the swirling abandon of the cello both added a unique dimension to this most singular of Vienna rock outfits.

Primordial Undermind, Vienna Einbaumöbel, 6 June 2008

Now here’s a funny thing. Primordial Undermind were originally planning to play the Subterrarium last Friday, but due to some kind of booking mix-up they had to find an alternative venue. The place where they – and I – ended up was the Einbaumöbel, an unassuming little place under the arches on the Gürtel. This event was billed as a ‘1968 party’, which sounded as though the evening was intended to take on the properties of an authentic late ’60s ‘happening’. Sadly I was born too late to be a flower child, but I’ve always said that if I had a time machine, late ’60s London would be the time and place I’d want to visit more than any other. So maybe last Friday was my chance to be transported back to the era of psychedelic experience, with the Einbaumöbel as the UFO Club and PU as Pink Floyd.

In the event, the venue was a little more mundane than that, with just a few streamers hanging from the ceiling and not even an oil-based light show to convey the hoped-for sense of blissed-out abstraction. Primordial Undermind, however, were on stunning form. Led by the ecstatic currents of Eric Arn’s guitar, the group twisted and shuddered through 90 minutes of dense improvisatory rock. As an ensemble, PU were beautifully intuitive, with the cello (which, sadly, often got lost in the general maelstrom of sound), bass and drums all contributing to the sense of pulsating, directed purpose.

Six Organs of Admittance/Primordial Undermind, Vienna Planet Music, 18 May 2008

Planet Music – what a dump. The only concert hall in Vienna that comes close to the standard British model of ugly, smelly venues covered in sponsorship logos, with unfriendly staff and crap, overpriced beer served in flimsy plastic glasses. For years this place has survived on an unhealthy diet of heavy metal acts, tribute nights and battle-of-the-bands contests, with very rare exceptions such as the line-up we saw on Sunday night. Now it seems that the place is to close down – no great loss there – and its operations moved to the Szene Wien – ah, I knew there had to be a catch. The concern is that the avant-garde, alternative and world-y nights that are the Szene’s stock-in-trade will be edged out in favour of the kind of dreck that Planet Music serves up week after week. The city council and the Szene’s new management are making reassuring noises, saying that the overall utilisation of the venue will be increased and that the two kinds of programming can comfortably co-exist there. Well, we shall have to wait and see.

So this was my second and, thankfully, last visit to Planet Music (the first being to see Ani diFranco, many years ago). And it was a great gig, although the attendance was pitiful. Admittedly it was a wet Sunday evening, but if these two bands had appeared at another venue they would certainly have drawn a far larger audience.

After my last Primordial Undermind concert, a mostly acoustic affair at the Subterrarium, I had expressed a wish to hear them play a full electric band set. I was to have my wish granted sooner than expected, after they were announced as the support band to Six Organs of Admittance, whom I had already planned to see. This was one of those rare and inspired pairings that justifies the all-too-often redundant concept of the support act. PU were exceptionally fine, calling to mind the primitivist throb of Loop and Spacemen 3 while reaching out into areas of blissed-out drone and glide that were entirely their own.

Six Organs of Admittance were even more spectacular. This line-up of the group was expanded from the duo of Ben Chasny and Elisa Ambrogio that played a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival. Joining the two guitarists on drums, Alex Neilson worked tentacular rhythmic patterns into Chasny’s mesmeric riffing and Ambrogio’s squally undercurrents. Ambrogio’s playing was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to; apparently fighting to bring her guitar under control, she threw awkwardly angular poses as she attempted to wrench every last note from its seemingly unco-operative strings. (Regrettably she was wearing trousers on this occasion, thereby depriving us of the sight of her bending over in a short skirt as she played.) Chasny, meanwhile, produced wave after wave of hypnotically sparkling phrases, blending intuitively with Ambrogio’s grainier and more textured approach. When he stepped up to the microphone the effect was compelling, his autumnal voice bolstering the music’s uncanny atmosphere of charged, mystical energy.

Paul Lebrecque/Primordial Undermind, Vienna Subterrarium, 4 April 2008

My second concert in as many nights was about as underground as gigs in Vienna get, literally as well as metaphorically. Subterrarium is a cellar accessible only via an unmarked wooden door. Cold, damp and somewhat lacking in the comfort department, the place more than compensates for these deficiencies through the warmth of the welcome it extends and the commitment and dedication of those who perform there. Having played host last December to the reportedly excellent acid folk group Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Friday night saw an appearance by Paul Lebrecque of inspired free folk aggregation Sunburned Hand of the Man, in collaboration with Vienna’s own space rock heroes Primordial Undermind (see last month’s column).

This curtailed evening began with a brief solo spot by Lebrecque. Alternately plucking and bowing his banjo, he was a picture of concentration, lost in rapt contemplation of his instrument. Overtones and half-formed melodies radiated outward from Lebrecque’s playing, forming a strange yet compelling blend of old-time Harry Smith folk and almost raga-like atmospheres.

Almost immediately, Lebrecque picked up his electric guitar and was joined onstage by the PU crew. Together, the six of them started up a loose, flowing improvisation that began quietly and unfolded beautifully. I was unimpressed by PU frontman Eric Arn’s initial fiddling with his acoustic guitar (there’s only one guitarist in the world who should be allowed to hold anything other than a plectrum or slide to a set of guitar strings, and that’s Keith Rowe), but once he quit the tricksiness and actually started to play the thing properly, his contributions were rich and varied. Elsewhere, the combination of slipping slide guitar, tumbling bass, thunderous cello and drums, and spacey electronic effects coalesced into a wild and engrossing whole.

All too soon, it was over. The guerrilla nature of the performance space turned round and bit the group on the backside, as first the drummer was told to keep it down and then the entire group was forced to stop playing at 10pm, due to the disturbance they were causing to the residents upstairs. A great shame, as to these ears they sounded like they were just getting underway. I unfortunately missed the last “proper” Primordial Undermind gig at B72 in March, so have yet to hear them play a full electric set. I suspect it will be worth the wait, but their next gig is also at Subterrarium in June, so I may have to wait a while longer.

Ether column, March 2008

The last time Mark Eitzel played in Vienna, it was to 30-odd people at the Chelsea on a wet Sunday night. Those lucky few witnessed a typically quixotic solo performance from Eitzel, delivering his intense songs in a seemingly casual but, in fact, incredibly crafted and passionate way. This month Eitzel is back in town with his group American Music Club, on the back of a new album, The Golden Age. While he probably doesn’t care all that much, I certainly hope for a larger audience this time. Eitzel is a knotty and intractable performer, self-deprecating to the point of embarrassment. For the most part, his songs lack identifiable choruses and hooks. But his voice is an instrument capable of truly wrenching displays of heartfelt emotion, and cuts through you with deadly precision. His group’s blank, neutral name speaks as eloquently of their music as The Band’s did of theirs; AMC inhabit the wide open spaces of American rock, with the guitar and rhythm section framing Eitzel’s searingly honest, confessionally driven lyrics.

Great double-header at B72 this month, with Japan’s Up-Tight and Vienna’s own Primordial Undermind presenting an evening of out-there psychedelic rock. Up-Tight lay down thick layers of guitar-heavy drones, their squalling mantras of noise building into a blissful cacophony that evokes prime-era Velvet Underground or Spacemen 3. And like the Velvets, Up-Tight are also partial to the odd eerily melancholic ballad, providing the listener with occasional respite from the sonic onslaught. Primordial Undermind are an equally bracing proposition, with long, spacey jams navigating the listener into the kind of inner headspace explored by pre-Dark Side Floyd. After 15-odd years of existence in America, leader and guitarist Eric Arn relocated the group to Vienna in 2005. Since then, they have released their sixth album Loss of Affect and continued to mine a richly creative seam of trippy, clangorous music.

Finally, gifted American folk singer Marissa Nadler makes her Vienna début early next month. “Folk” is a barely adequate term for what Nadler does, however. Her recently released third album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, pulsates with a haunted Gothic spirituality, its songs resonating with a deeply unsettling power and grace. Nadler plays acoustic guitar with all the glowing richness of Leonard Cohen or Bert Jansch, while the rapturous imagery of her lyrics chimes perfectly with the angelically pure beauty of her voice. “Oh what a day to dance with you,” she sings, “oh what a day to die”, summing up her songs’ swooning and radiant conflation of love, sex and death.