Ether column, October 2008

The autumn gig-going season gets into full swing this month. Silver Mt Zion (or, to give them their full name, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band) kick things off with an anguished howl, playing for the first time in Vienna since their appearance at the 2006 Donaufestival. From Montreal, Canada, SMZ began in 1999 as a side-project to the legendary post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, allowing some members of that group to explore song-based music with a more stripped-down feel than the sprawling instrumental epics in which GYBE specialised. With GYBE in semi-permanent hibernation, however, SMZ has become a group in its own right, while their music has taken on something of the epic quality of the parent band. SMZ’s songs are long, intense and emotionally devastating; the seven members often sing in unison, their lyrics telling of personal hurt and political injustice, Meanwhile the extended line-up of guitars, strings and drums creates powerful dynamics of tension, release and crescendo.

Those in search of a more “entertaining” evening out could do worse than to check out Bermudan singer-songwriter Heather Nova. A gifted and beautiful performer, Nova has always been way more popular in Europe than in North America; their loss is our gain. Over six albums and supported by relentless touring, she has perfected a blend of rockish swagger and bruised sensitivity. Her tremulous warble of a voice is equally at home with soaring ballads and crunchy chord progressions. Unlike many of her contemporaries Nova is no waif-like minstrel, but a songwriter who takes the familiar idioms of rock, pop and folk and infuses them with a beguiling sense of mystery and abandonment.

Come with me now to Brooklyn, New York, where The Hold Steady are blasting out their infectious brand of classic American rock for a new generation of audiences. Singer and lyricist Craig Finn has made no secret of his liking for the wordy storytelling of Hüsker Dü and Bruce Springsteen, while fans of the Pixies should also find much to admire in the dense weave of guitar textures that the five-piece band lays over Finn’s rousing and confident voice.

Finally, there are not many cities that would give part of a major music festival over to a composer specialising in lengthy solo violin pieces. But Vienna is no ordinary city, and this year’s Wien Modern festival will be enriched by three concerts featuring the innovative avant-gardist Tony Conrad. Best known for his ’60s collaborations with minimalist guru La Monte Young, Conrad also made an album with Krautrock legends Faust and in recent years has composed many works for solo amplified violin. His music explores, to often mesmeric effect, the transcendental properties of the drone.