Short Cuts 5: Tortoise, Broken Heart Collector

Tortoise, Vienna WUK, 21 November 2010

The last time I saw Tortoise it was through a haze of sleep deprivation and alcohol at the 2008 Donaufestival, when they (or, more likely, the event organizers) made the audience wait until 1.30am before coming onstage.  November’s altogether more civilized appearance kicked off at 8pm and was over by 10; other than that, it was business as usual for the Chicagoans.  That’s not in any way a criticism; it’s actually rather miraculous that Tortoise are still with us after all these years, still serving up their effervescent and irresistible blend of jazz, funk and instrumental rock.  There’s an unflappable confidence to what Tortoise do, a sense of quiet authority that is reflected in the ease with which the group members take over each others’ instruments and carry on playing.  Mapped out by the meshing interplay of the drums, vibraphone and keyboards, Tortoise music resembles an endless highway, teeming with interest and pleasure at every turn.

Broken Heart Collector, Vienna Rhiz, 30 November 2010

The Rhiz was packed out for this appearance by what, as far as I can make out, is a fluid unit consisting of fun-loving improv-noise-rock trio Bulbul together with Maja Osojnik on vox and devices and Susanna Gartmayer on reeds.  Bulbul seem to relish being fronted by slightly unhinged female singers: cf. 2008’s gig at the Rhiz at which the group gave repeated depth and colour to Carla Bozulich’s angular vocal interventions.   Osojnik was, if anything, an even more arresting presence than Bozulich had been, while her dramatic and surreal texts were thrown sharply into focus by Bulbul’s splintering sonic constructions and Gartmayer’s restlessly agitated reeds work.

David Murobi took his customary great photos of the gig which you can see here.

Tortoise/Naked Lunch, Donaufestival, 3 May 2008

These pages are backed up because there has been so much going on lately. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Backtracking…

My second and last visit to the 2008 Donaufestival was a far more positive and pleasant experience than the previous one had been. The evening opened at the Minoritenkirche with Universalove, a film by Thomas Woschitz with a live soundtrack by Austrian alt-rockers Naked Lunch (for more on whom, see my March 2007 column).

This event was marvellously engrossing from start to finish. The film was a collection of thematically linked stories focusing on love and relationships, each of them quietly eloquent in its own way. The accompanying music was no mere incidental backdrop, but a series of emotive, quietly devastating songs that informed and commented on the narratives. The main musical impetus came from the percussion, with the two drummers standing centre stage and bashing out beautifully immersive and textural rhythms. The wintry and plaintive vocals, meanwhile, contributed an air of dark melancholy to the film. This highly impressive collaboration was an indication that the somewhat jaded live soundtrack genre still has the potential to mesmerise.

One minor gripe: the seating arrangements in the Minoritenkirche were bizarrely ill thought out. Despite the fact that the event was very well attended, the organisers for some reason decided to lay out only twenty or so rows of seats in front of the stage, leaving the rest of the church as standing room. Having arrived fairly early, I was lucky enough to grab a seat, but it looked to me as though the majority of the audience was left to stand uncomfortably around. Why the entire church couldn’t have been given over to seating is utterly beyond me. This was a film, after all.

Over in the main hall later in the evening, a similar thoughtless disregard for the needs and comfort of the audience saw Tortoise come onstage at the absurdly late hour of 1.30am, by which time I had already been bored stiff by the wearisome sermonising of Ursula Rucker and the stilted meanderings of Xiu Xiu. Anyway, Tortoise were fantastic, insofar as I was able to stay awake and listen to them. Their last record It’s All Around You may have been a tepid approximation of former glories, but onstage the combination of the two drummers (again) with the jazzy guitar and vibes remains as potent and telepathic as ever. Kaleidoscopic, fresh and startlingly original, Tortoise music is pretty damn irresistible; but it would have been good to take it in through eyes and ears that weren’t pleading for some downtime.

Ether column, April 2008

It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Lower Austria, to follow the exceptional line-up of last year’s event. However, there are still plenty of worthwhile performances on the schedule at this most stimulating of festivals. The pick of these has to be the visit of American group Tortoise, who will grace the stage with their slinky and graceful instrumental music. Tortoise are often described as ‘post-rock’, a label which, like many such categorisations, has a kernel of truth at its core. In the early 90s, a time when rock music was in thral to Britpop and grunge, Tortoise emerged playing a music that seemed determined not only to sidestep but to supersede those essentially retrospective approaches. Incorporating elements of jazz, easy listening and dub reggae, Tortoise music achieves the rare feat of appealing to the listener’s head and feet at the same time.

Two evenings later, Connecticut’s Magik Markers drop by in support of their recently released album Boss. The Markers are an unruly noise-pop duo consisting of drummer Pete Nolan and singer/guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, who doubles as the life and music partner of Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny. Joining Chasny on stage for a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival, Ambrogio demonstrated a glorious ability to shred the hell out of her electric guitar with blasts of intelligent, well crafted noise, mirroring much of the Markers’ previous output (which consisted of one ‘proper’ studio album and a long series of self-released CD-Rs). Boss, however, sees a strong redefinition of the Markers’ approach. It’s a remarkably diverse set of songs, with Ambrogio’s seductive voice reaching out over Nolan’s fiery percussion and occasional contributions from producer (and Sonic Youth veteran) Lee Ranaldo on guitar and glockenspiel.

Back in Vienna, German experimental rock pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten return as part of an extensive European tour. It’s incredible to think that Neubauten have been active now for almost 30 years, without in all that time losing any of their freewheeling and churning creativity. Having weathered numerous line-up and label changes over the years, the Neubauten of 2008 are a lean and reflective proposition. They have long ago abandoned the more challenging extremes of their early incarnations, in which hollow-cheeked frontman Blixa Bargeld would howl dementedly over an eviscerating percussive attack fashioned from scrap metal and building tools. The unconventional instrumentation remains, but Bargeld has matured into a songwriter of rare acuity, his texts (in both German and English) replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Musically, Neubauten combine elements of central European folk and out-there rock, powered by the spidery progressions of Bargeld’s guitar and by NU Unruh’s self-constructed rhythmic arsenal. Their life’s work is to capture the essence of the untranslatable German word Sehnsucht, fusing tenderness, longing, regret and destruction.