Oliver Welter, Vienna Radiokulturhaus, 20 September 2010

One of the best things about writing a column which previewed upcoming concerts in Vienna (for the now defunct Ether magazine) was that it encouraged me to investigate musicians who were previously unknown to me. In one or two cases, that research led me to groups of which I am now a confirmed fan and can’t imagine life without them. Okkervil River would be one of those, and another would certainly be Austrian independent outfit Naked Lunch. I’ve raved about their superb soundtrack to the film Universalove here and here, but my original Ether column about the group contained a seed or two which may have led to their becoming an important presence for me. Knowing the group’s turbulent history, which saw one founder member (Georg Trattnig) dying of alcoholism and the other (Oliver Welter) living on the streets for a while, would certainly have contributed to my sense of the anger and desolation that clouds 2004’s aptly titled Songs for the Exhausted, as well as their 2007 masterpiece This Atom Heart of Ours.

It was a real pleasure, then, to catch Oliver Welter in solo acoustic mode at one of Vienna’s smartest venues, the Radiokulturhaus. Limbering up for what will no doubt be a period of extensive Naked Lunch activity (with a new album and tour in the offing), Welter played a solid two hours’ worth of old and new songs, with a sprinkling of cover versions thrown in for good measure. He was in a relaxed and chatty mood, although his between-song patter was all in German and therefore passed me by entirely. The songs themselves, however, are sung in English. One might hazard a guess that this is being done for commercial reasons, were it not for the fact that Welter’s whole approach seems as unmediated by commerce as that of Peter Hammill (of whom, a reliable source informs me, Welter is something of a fan). Despite the group’s profile having increased as a result of Universalove’s acclaimed presence on the international film festival circuit, I get the feeling that their strong Austrian and German fanbase is likely to remain the bedrock of their following.

In any case, it seems to me that the lyrics being written and sung in a language that is not the singer-writer’s own lends Naked Lunch’s songs a sense of alienation coloured by optimism, even a certain naïveté. This hunger for redemption from estrangement is shored up in turn by Welter’s voice, which sounds like that of a battered but resilient angel. Stripped down to skeletal acoustic versions, the songs emerge as haunted, uncertain reveries: a wedding day is a funeral, a fleeting encounter with a girl who was “so sad, so beautifully sad” is anatomized in unsparing detail. A new song, “The Sun”, meanwhile, was delivered with immense rhetorical power, Welter’s sense of relief at having successfully navigated its treacherous waters evident in the way he triumphantly punched the air at the song’s end.

The audience were held rapt throughout, and refused to let Welter leave. Much to his credit he was generous with the encores, winding up with a song sung in Spanish, no less (from the soundtrack to The Wild Bunch, if I understood correctly). Despite the shift of language, its tender fragility was entirely of a piece with what had gone before – an emotionally unsparing performance from this self-effacing but vastly talented musician.

Records of 2009

Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.

1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still


1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria

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.

Naked Lunch: Universalove, Vienna Gartenbaukino, 17 April 2009

It was an unexpected pleasure to see Naked Lunch again, reprising the excellent live soundtrack performance that they premiered at last year’s Donaufestival. Not much to add to my review of that event, except to say that Thomas Woschitz’s film Universalove now seems even more like a major work, its glancing and resonant plotlines balanced by a considerable emotional pull. And the music is really quite stunning, with its angular and relentless percussion bolstered by haunting guitar work and the parched croon of Oliver Welter’s voice.

After 18 years of existence, Naked Lunch still seem to be practically unknown outside of Austria and Germany. Doubtless this isn’t a situation they’re happy with, but I’m tempted to say that they’re too good to be allowed out anywhere else.

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.