Ether column, February 2008

Regular readers of this column will know that I hardly ever recommend upcoming concerts by big name artists, on the grounds that they get quite enough publicity as it is without me adding to it. I’m happy to make an exception, however, in the case of Neil Young, who comes to Vienna this month as part of a very rare European tour. Young is a brave, stubborn and dauntingly creative individual who has been making music for over 40 years. Although he is Canadian by birth, his songs build into a mythic form of Americana, tapping effortlessly into both acoustic folk and electric rock forms. There are few more exciting sounds in rock than Young’s incendiary electric guitar playing, while as an acoustic guitarist and singer he catches a perfect note of desolate yearning. On this tour, Young promises to play two full sets, one acoustic and one electric, a combination which will showcase both sides of his awesome talent.

Two further concerts this month bring contrasting aspects of contemporary American rock to Vienna. Earth are a doomy guitar outfit led by Dylan Carlson, who was a close friend of Kurt Cobain and bought the shotgun with which the Nirvana singer killed himself. Their signature sound is best described as a slowed-down, drone-based form of Metal, although on their 2005 album Hex Carlson’s guitar style became markedly lighter and more countrified. Earth were last seen in Vienna in 2006, when they found themselves in the strange position of playing support to a band who were formed in tribute to them (the even more droney and Metallic Sunn O)))). This time, they deservedly take the stage as headliners, and their own support act is well worth catching – experimental guitarist and former member of Sun City Girls, Richard Bishop.

Finally, there’s an intriguing event at the Arena this month, the Maximum Black Festival. The story of how it came about is a good one. The Wiener Stadtwerke (the parent company of Wien Energie and Wiener Linien) wanted to use a piece of music by Canadian singer and violinist Owen Pallett, who records and performs under the name Final Fantasy, in an advertisement. When Pallett refused, the company went ahead and used an unauthorised cover version anyway. Naturally, Pallett was fuming, but he was placated by a remarkable offer from the WS – they would finance a day-long festival curated by him. And here it is – not only Pallett, but also juddering trio Deerhoof, idiosyncratic alt-rockers Frog Eyes, lo-fi noiseniks Dirty Projectors and, best of all, the pulsating guitar-driven mandalas of Six Organs of Admittance. Think about it – where else in the world would you find a public works company sponsoring a line-up like that?

Earth & Richard Bishop, Vienna Szene Wien, 24 February 2008

A very strong concert at the Szene Wien last night by American drone-metallers Earth. The music unfolded at a slow, rigidly controlled pace and barely deviated from it throughout, shaped by the funereal pulse of the drums and the colossal hum of Dylan Carlson’s guitar. Carlson spoke little except to introduce the songs, but he was an impressive onstage figure, looking like he’d walked in from a Tarantino film with his long moustache and slicked back hair. As a guitarist he was a picture of concentration, holding the neck high and gazing fixedly at the strings while playing with a surprising delicacy and finesse.

The group were clearly making an attempt to lighten their sound with the inclusion of keyboard and trombone patterns. Others may disagree, but I could easily have done without these embellishments; they were an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from the group’s perversely inspiring core sound. I also found myself wishing for slightly more thump from the drums. These reservations notwithstanding, Earth proved themselves to be an uncannily potent force.

Early birds had the good fortune to witness former Sun City Girl Richard Bishop on solo electric guitar. He’s an awesomely talented player, and it was great to see that his mighty technique never descended into empty-headed twiddling. Instead, the music swarmed hectically around the hall, with clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations.