Mats Gustafsson/Martin Siewert/dieb13, Vienna Rhiz, 4 April 2011; Frode Gjerstad Trio with Mats Gustafsson, Vienna Blue Tomato, 14 April 2011

In my review of a concert by Fire Room last year, I bemoaned the fact that there is hardly any crossover between the scenes at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to electronic music and free jazz. The observation is no less valid now than it was a year ago. Despite the genial management of Herbie and Günter respectively, and despite the many obvious similarities between these styles of music, it’s rare to see either artists or audience members from one place showing up at the other. So it was a great pleasure to see Mats Gustafsson, who along with people like Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love is by now part of the furniture at the Tomato, turning up for what I believe was his first ever appearance at the Rhiz. The gig cemented an association with Austrian guitarist Martin Siewert that goes back to at least last summer, when Siewert’s Heaven And played the closing set at the Gustafsson-curated Konfrontationen festival, and was bolstered last December when the saxophonist joined Siewert for a frenzied blowout at Heaven And’s gig at the Künstlerhaus.

There’s clearly an affinity between the two, then, and it’s fascinating to hear how Gustafsson responds to the presence of another, very different-sounding, lead instrument as opposed to the rhythmic core of double bass and drums he lines up against in The Thing and other groups. On this occasion the duo were joined by turntable and electronics merchant Dieter Kovačič (dieb13), whose malevolent drone-based activity formed a disquieting accompaniment to the guitar and reeds. It was a short set, only 40 minutes or so, but there was still a vast amount going on here. Gustafsson spent most of the set on the deep, resonant baritone sax, switching occasionally to the rare slide sax. Throwing himself into the performance with his usual relish, Gustafsson made the Rhiz his own, challenged only by the endlessly vital and inventive guitar work of Siewert. The guitarist was, as ever, a joy to watch as he moved fluidly between acoustic, electric and tabletop modes; he peels off sheets of squally, thunderous attack with the deranged instinct of Robert Fripp, but trades Fripp’s frosty demeanour for a wholly persuasive openness and sense of fun.

Just over a week later, Gustafsson was the unannounced surprise guest at a gig at the Blue Tomato by the Frode Gjerstad Trio, an all-Norwegian unit consisting of the eponymous Gjerstad on reeds, Jon Rune Strom on double bass and the ubiquitous Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. The first set consisted of the trio only, and it was a pleasure for me to hear Gjerstad play for the first time. Less cerebral than Vandermark, less visceral than Gustafsson or Brötzmann, the saxophonist eschewed a barnstorming approach in favour of clear, ringing lines on alto and clarinet that allowed the bass and drums plenty of space to work their magic. Nilssen-Love’s complex polyrhythms were as brilliant as ever, while Strom was a constantly forceful presence on the low end.

After the interval Gustafsson took up his tenor and Gjerstad immediately deferred to the guest, who laid waste to the room with a long and devastating solo. Things never really let up from that point on. The two reedsmen’s techniques and registers complemented each other beautifully, with Gjerstad’s light and nimble colourations set off against Gustafsson’s fearsomely powerful mid-range assault. This was my last visit to the Tomato before their well-deserved summer break; I’m sure, though, that there will be plenty more such mesmerizing evenings before 2011 is out.

Pita & Z’ev, Vienna Rhiz, 6 December 2009

Exceptional concert of crushing noise from the reliably hardcore Peter Rehberg and his partner for the evening, American percussionist Z’ev. Aside from this brief review of an album he made a few years ago with David Jackman a.k.a. Organum, this was my first acquaintance with Z’ev, whom I was vaguely aware of as some kind of Industrial metal-basher. No metal onstage tonight, though; instead Z’ev played the V-drums, and did so with great skill and panache.

Because the V-drums don’t require a huge amount of physical exertion to play, the American was able to lay down all manner of complex and interlacing stickwork, which ended up sounding like a vast and heavy cloud of noise. Z’ev’s playing was especially notable for the way it almost-but-not-quite resolved into a steady rhythmic pulse, leaving the listener with a distinct sense of unease and discomfort.

Over on the other side of the stage, Rehberg made plenty of contributions to that sense of unease himself with the squalls of sonic violence issuing from his Macbook. Indeed, such was the totality of noise in the room that it was frequently impossible to tell whether a given sound was being generated by Rehberg or Z’ev. Not that it mattered. The two of them barely exchanged a glance at each other for the hour or so they were onstage, yet behind this apparent lack of communication lay a supremely intuitive understanding of how to ramp up the tension to monstrous levels. Possessed by a malign sense of urgency, Rehberg’s hissing drones and Z’ev’s clattering percussion are made for each other.

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.

Ether column, May 2008

The main event this month is a series of concerts to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Vienna’s leading venue for experimental electronic music. Herbie Molin and Christof Kurzmann founded the Rhiz club in 1998, at a time when Viennese electronic musicians were in the midst of a tumultuous burst of creativity and were bringing worldwide attention to the city. The Rhiz was, and remains, central to the more cerebral end of this activity, exemplified by the challenging laptop improv put out by the Mego label. It’s fitting, therefore, that the proprietor of Mego (now known as Editions Mego), Peter Rehberg, should be appearing at the Rhiz this month as part of the anniversary celebrations. As well as making solo records under the name Pita, Rehberg has worked with many of the world’s top names in avant-garde and improvised music. At the Rhiz this month he showcases his latest project KTL, a collaboration with Stephen O’Malley of drone metal group Sunn O))). The gig is likely to be rib-crushingly loud, especially in the tight confines of the Rhiz, all of which should make for a pleasantly disorientating live experience.

Such a warning/recommendation could equally well apply to the following night’s appearance by the legendary English electronic noise pioneers Whitehouse. The Rhiz is hugely fortunate to be hosting one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse, who have been a constant and nagging presence in underground music for a staggering 28 years. Having weathered numerous line-up changes over this time, the core duo of William Bennett and Philip Best are disbanding the group to concentrate on solo projects, leaving behind a legacy of fearsome, hostile and aggressive music. The early Whitehouse records were bleak, harrowing affairs, consisting of a barrage of high-pitched frequencies and juddering low-end drones over which Bennett would scream the occasional lyric laced with goading obscenities. The group’s disturbing iconography, replete with imagery of serial killers and sexual sadism, won them few friends in the supposedly tolerant music scene, but they developed an international following and inspired a generation of lesser noise musicians. Their concerts, which they described as “live actions”, were intensely confrontational events that occasionally erupted into physical violence.

Over the years, Whitehouse’s art has matured into an acute and invasive form of psychological inquiry, with Bennett and Best pouring forth dense clusters of unsettling personal questions and blasts of haranguing profanity. Musically, they have abandoned the dual high/low frequency assault in favour of a livid, complex and dangerous sound, characterised by monstrous synth noises and deranged, clattering percussion. (Much of this shift can be traced to Bennett’s recent interest in African rhythms, which will form the core of his forthcoming Afro Noise project.) Live, Whitehouse are great fun, revelling in rock star poses and laying down a compelling and highly original form of electronic harshness. One of the most important and original groups ever to come from the UK, they will be sorely missed.

Bulbul/Carla Bozulich, Vienna Rhiz, 27 May 2008

The last concert of a very Rhiz-y month for me. For this one the Austrian group Bulbul were joined onstage by American singer (and occasional Bulbul collaborator) Carla Bozulich, who is in the middle of a European tour with her own group Evangelista and played at the WUK the following evening. This was an unannounced appearance by Bozulich, although I had been tipped the wink from various sources. And although her appearance wasn’t advertised in advance, it wasn’t entirely under wraps either. The Rhiz had the evening billed as “Bulbul plus surprise act”, while Bozulich’s website listed a “secret show” on this date. Guys, if you tell people you’re playing a secret show, it’s not a secret anymore. If they’d wanted to do the secret thing properly, they would have made no mention of it at all rather than being all coy about it. But that would have been less annoyingly teasing.

Anyway, the concert itself was pretty entertaining. Bulbul have passed me by up until now, although P. tells me that they play regularly in Vienna. And this was confirmed by the existence of a loyalty card which was pressed into my palm as I entered the Rhiz. Cute marketing ploy: go to four Bulbul gigs and get into the fifth one free. (I would have thought a limited CD-R or something would have been a more appropriate reward for such loyalty, but let that pass.)

The music was hard to pin down: angular, splintery rock with lots of distorted guitar, pounding bass and busy drumming. This was very much a Bulbul gig, not a Carla Bozulich gig: as far as I could tell, all the songs were theirs, not hers. But her contributions on vocals and effects-heavy guitar were raw and expressive. There were also two moments of diverting theatrical business. At one point, first Bozulich and then the guitarist and bassist decided to mount an onslaught on the sanctity of the drums. Each grabbing their own drumsticks, they carried out a delirious improvised raid on the kit, falling over each other in the process. Later, Bozulich brandished a sheet of paper containing some lines of verse, which H. told me later were the words to a Viennese drinking song. Holding out the microphone and encouraging audience members to recite the words, she initially got a couple of deadpan spoken recitations. She struck lucky, however, with the third – a girl who was not only happy to sing the words but (after some initial reluctance) was persuaded to join the group onstage to sing them. Both incidents reinforced a view of Bulbul, and indeed of Bozulich herself, as refreshingly unaloof and persuaded of the will to connect and communicate.

Fine photos by David Murobi here.

Fennesz, Vienna Rhiz, 22 May 2008

The 10th birthday celebrations continue at the Rhiz until the end of May. Last Thursday saw one of the enduring heroes of Viennese electronica, Christian Fennesz, give a rare home town concert as part of those celebrations.

As J. said, watching someone play at the Rhiz is almost like watching them play in your living room. Both in terms of the size of the physical space and the atmosphere the place instils, there’s something about the Rhiz that inspires great loyalty and affection. In this case, Fennesz’s performance was highly unassuming yet strangely moving. No doubt this emotional response was due in part to the fact that, unlike most other people working in the field of electronic music, Fennesz actually plays an instrument, and plays it well. Yes, I retain for the most part a preference for instrumental virtuosity over the point-and-click and knob-twiddling approaches; sue me.

What was so great about Fennesz, however, was the way he combined these two approaches and made the resulting whole sound utterly right and natural. Rich and animated, his silvery guitar tones floated over pulsating drones and disorientating sub-bass frequencies. Playing solo and then in tandem with Vienna DJ Dieter Kovacic (dieb13), Fennesz showed that the electric guitar could be recontextualised without losing any of the visceral pleasure associated with its deployment as a rock instrument.

Whitehouse, Vienna Rhiz, 8 May 2008

Over to the Rhiz for the second night in a row to witness one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse. If KTL represent one facet of contemporary noise – murky, lowering and insidious – then Whitehouse represent its obverse – seething, ferocious and even celebratory. And if the end of Whitehouse is also the end of the power electronics genre they singlehandedly birthed, then there is no finer way to mark those passings than with the kind of blistering performance they gave last Thursday.

Whitehouse have been an important part of my musical journey for around fifteen years. Unlike some of the other groups I met along the same path, such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans and Current 93, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I first made their acquaintance. I do remember going into the old Vinyl Experience shop on Hanway Street sometime in the early ’90s and asking if they had any Whitehouse albums in stock. The assistant reached under the counter and handed me a copy of the Another Crack of the White Whip compilation. Holding my nerve, I bought it and took it home. The furtive manner of this purchase, together with the rather unsettling Trevor Brown cover art and the sinister aura that I realised surrounded Whitehouse, led me to believe that I was now in possession of something unutterably clandestine. I wasn’t, of course; it was just a compilation album. And yet hearing the album for the first time, I found that its boldness and explicitness undermined the surface ugliness and brutality of the music. The music kept calling me back, seduced as I was by the sheer audacity of it and by the realisation that I was caught up in something I only wanted to experience, not to justify or explain.

To a greater or lesser extent, that wish for immersive, unmediated experience has governed much of my personal response to music over the years. In the case of Whitehouse, however, it’s always been the primary impulse. As if to illustrate the dichotomies at work, last week’s concert was frenetic, disorientating and above all highly entertaining. William Bennett spent most of the time staring impassively at his Vaio, a picture of “don’t f*** with me” serenity with his dark glasses and expression of scowling menace. Occasionally he would abandon his workstation to deliver a charged, suggestive lyric, his voice ramped up to peak levels and his microphone lead coiled around his neck like a noose.

The star of the show from a performance point of view, however, was Philip Best. In marked contrast to Bennett, Best seemed to want to spend as little time as possible behind his laptop. His array of movements and gestures was great fun to watch, from pinching his nipples to drenching them with saliva, from salaciously stroking the collaged pages of his lyric book to humping the amps at the back of the stage (which looked in grave danger of toppling over as a result). The overall impression was of a kind of deranged sexuality wholly in keeping with the graphic outpourings of Best’s lyrics. On Bennett’s rare excursions to centre stage, he and Best would interact hilariously, caressing each other and holding their arms aloft in a gleeful posture of rock-star triumphalism.

As for the music, it was exceptionally livid and abrasive. Surging treacherously from the speakers, the layered drones, rhythms and frequencies merged into a sublime totality of noise. What came over most strongly was how carefully orchestrated it all was. No improvisation, no taking chances; Whitehouse know how to manipulate an audience for maximum effect. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder and more delirious, they would make the merest adjustment and the whole edifice would become yet more frenzied and euphoric. It’s dangerously addictive stuff, the kind of live experience you don’t want to end. But end it now has, and whatever William Bennett and Philip Best decide to do in the future, music is a duller and more predictable thing now that Whitehouse aren’t around any more.

Photos by David Murobi here.

KTL, Vienna Rhiz, 7 May 2008

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.