Ether column, November 2009

Another cracking month for concerts. Top of the list is the visit of Six Organs of Admittance, playing in the grimy surroundings of the Kleine Halle at the Arena. Six Organs is more or less guitarist Ben Chasny, joined by various collaborators for both live and studio work. Chasny tends to get lumped in with the “weird folk” crowd, which is actually not a bad shorthand for his uncanny and hypnotic blend of acoustic guitar-driven, mostly instrumental music. Calling to mind mystical Eastern ragas alongside the primitivist fingerpicking style of the late John Fahey, Six Organs music sparkles with melodic invention. On this tour, Chasny will be joined by electric guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, whose playing is as thrilling to watch as it is to listen to, and Alex Neilson, one of the most gifted and inventive drummers of modern times.

Moving right along, there’s an unmissable evening of free jazz and improvisation at the excellent Blue Tomato club this month, featuring two of the key figures in the genre. American saxophonist Ken Vandermark is a workaholic who spends most of his life on the road. His fierce and passionate playing effortlessly combines the swinging Fire Music style of Albert Ayler with the more abstract European style of Peter Brötzmann. Like most free jazz musicians, Vandermark has a list of collaborators as long as your arm; he’s one of those who believes in improvisation and ad hoc groupings as essential elements in keeping the music fresh and vital. On this occasion he’ll be joined by the awesomely talented Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love, sticksman with The Thing (see the March 2009 issue of Ether), Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and too many others to mention. This kind of duo concert, with two musicians facing up to each other onstage with no preconceived notions of what they are going to play, represents for me the perfectly symmetrical essence of free improvisation.

And rounding things off, a very different kind of duo, KTL, the guitar and laptop pairing of Sunn O))) mastermind Stephen O’Malley and Vienna’s very own Peter Rehberg. O’Malley is the master of the drone guitar, playing pulverizingly loud sub-bass frequencies that resonate deep within you. Rehberg, meanwhile, coaxes all manner of hectic and crystalline sounds from his laptop. As well as being a formidable presence with their own records and concerts, KTL have often created music for dance and theatre pieces. It’s a natural move for them, therefore, to make film soundtrack music. As part of this year’s Wien Modern festival, they’ll be performing their own score to the classic early Swedish silent horror film, The Phantom Carriage, live as the film is shown.

Six Organs of Admittance, Vienna Arena, 12 November 2009

Excellent evening of high-intensity rock from the gifted Ben Chasny and his group. The paradox of Chasny is that, even as he plays the guitar with raga-like flourishes that effortlessly and emotionally recall Indian sitar music, he conjures up sounds that seem to point towards a new, daring and thrillingly original future for rock. It’s a remarkable and highly original combination, and it works magnificently.

Joining Chasny were Elisa Ambrogio on guitar and devices, Andrew Mitchell on guitar and Alex Neilson on drums. On the two previous occasions I’ve seen Ambrogio play (both with Chasny, in fact), I’ve been hugely impressed by her overtly physical approach to the guitar. She seemed to take a while to get going tonight – her presence for much of the set was rather subdued. But once she hit full stride she was unstoppable, her endless squalls of drones and feedback forming a powerful complement to Chasny’s glistening satori-heavy modes. Alex Neilson, meanwhile, was a sweeping and generous presence on the drums, his oceanic patterns weaving and diving around the interlocking vectors of the three guitars. Mystical and transcendentally inspired, but without the slightest hint of hippy tosh, Six Organs of Admittance are harsh and beautiful.

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.

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?

Donaufestival 2007

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.