Konstruktivists, Vienna Fluc, 8 September 2014

Odd, not entirely satisfying evening of post-industrial synth pop from these British veterans of the genre. Konstruktivists is largely the project of Glenn Wallis, one-time auxiliary member of Whitehouse and associate of Throbbing Gristle, aided and abetted by a revolving cast of collaborators. For the current iteration of the group Wallis is joined by Vienna’s Mark Crumby, editor of the seminal Whitehouse cuttings book Still Going Strong which was at least partly responsible for sustaining the myth of Whitehouse in my mind when I bought it sometime in the 1990s. (It also included White Stained Covers, a free cassette of Whitehouse cover versions, of which more later.)

Given this enticing web of connections I really wanted to like Konstruktivists, but the evening never really took off for me. Having long harboured an unaccountable dislike of unconventional dress in all its forms, it was always going to be an uphill struggle from the moment Wallis took the stage in a top hat, white make-up, fake black eye and what looked suspiciously like a nappy worn outside his trousers. This get-up, ridiculous as it was, nevertheless made perfect sense in the context of Wallis’s approach to performance, which was just as uncompromising and baffling as his appearance.

Wallis sings in an unvarying monotone, his default voice a kind of muttered growl that rapidly becomes irritating and robs the songs of much of their communicative impulse. Due to heavy processing many of the words are inaudible, while those that survive seem to emerge from some opaque private cosmology. Stilted and rhetorical to the last, Wallis’s texts remain wilfully, defiantly obscure.

This is unfortunate, since at the same time Crumby is working wonders from behind his set-up (as far as I could tell, a mix of analogue and digital equipment). The electronic beats and textures are warm and seductive, the occasional blasts of noise cathartic and invigorating. Crumby takes as his starting point the glassy atmospheres of 20 Jazz Funk Greats-era TG and makes of them something startlingly fresh and unexpected. The sense of mystery is enhanced by complex and beautiful back-projected constructivist graphics, forming a constantly evolving visual correlative to the shifting sands of Crumby’s music.

Over at stage right, meanwhile, Wallis continues in stubbornly declamatory vein until, with some relief, the encore is reached. Much to my surprise, the finale is a track from White Stained Covers, “I’m Coming Round Your House” by Earphaser (presumably a pseudonym for Wallis himself). I seem to remember this effort being one of the highlights of the compilation, although it’s hard to say for sure since I haven’t heard it for at least 15 years, not having owned a cassette player in all that time. Gleefully puncturing the macho postures of the original, the song’s air of cheerful insouciance stands in marked contrast to the gruelling nature of what has gone before.

Songs out of Clay: an appreciation of Al Stewart

It seems unlikely that Al Stewart will ever play a concert in Vienna, which means I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him. But I still feel the need to write something about Stewart, since by now I’ve covered most of my favourite artists on this blog but never said a word about him, and since there are times when I feel that there is no greater lyricist and songwriter.

I can remember the first time I heard Al Stewart very well. It was in 1984 or thereabouts, in the spare room of our family house in Salisbury which I had converted into a nerve centre for A-level revision. I could never listen to music while studying, it was too much of a distraction, so I must have been taking a (not exactly rare) break from the delights of English, French and Modern History in order to listen to Anne Nightingale’s Sunday evening request show, which was broadcast on Radio 1 in pristine FM sound quality right after the Top 40 show. This programme regularly served up a diet of smart, listenable music I instinctively liked, music that I couldn’t find anywhere else on the dial – not on daytime radio, not on John Peel and certainly not on the execrable Friday Rock Show (whose use of Van der Graaf Generator’s “Theme One” as incidental music was and remains its only redeeming feature).

Anyway, one evening Anne Nightingale played a song that immediately made me sit up and pay attention – one of those that, when you hear it on the radio, you make sure you’re listening to the presenter at the end, because you absolutely need to know the artist and title. This song was ten minutes long, lyrically intricate, driven by mile-high acoustic riffing and a compelling air of drama and mystery. At the end of the song Anne Nightingale helpfully told us not only that it was called “Nostradamus” by Al Stewart, but also that it came from an album called Past, Present and Future. I had never heard of Stewart, but I had to own this record, and so I set off to find it – something easier said than done, since, like most of his back catalogue at the time, it was long deleted.

I can’t remember where I finally tracked down Past, Present and Future, but it would have been some second-hand record shop in London or Brighton. I fell in love with the LP instantly, and it’s still one of my top three favourite albums of all time. (The others, since you ask, are Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator and In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs – another group I must write about sometime.) My taste in music at the time was clearly heading in the direction of folky singer-songwriters, with Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega (although not Bob Dylan) both getting repeat play on my turntable. But Past, Present and Future had something that both Cohen and Vega lacked – it rocked, and it was that delightful mix of folk and rock music that really sealed the deal for me. Like no record I’d heard before, it was brimful of winning tunes, inspired guitar work and infectious, propulsive rhythms.

And the words! Rich in metaphor and clever wordplay, yet stirred by narrative drama, these were the most literate and eloquent lyrics I had ever heard, delivered in a distinctive, coolly precise voice that made you hang on every word. “Nostradamus” was the highpoint, of course, but every song on the record was a gem, from the moving and autumnal “Old Admirals” via the witty historical rollercoaster of “Post World War Two Blues”, to the towering epic that was “Roads to Moscow”. There was something uncanny about the cover as well. Wearing a three-piece suit, leaning stiffly against a mantelpiece in a room full of antiques, paintings and fine china, Stewart looked more like a young aristocrat than a musician. Meanwhile, the Old English lettering and filigree tracery reinforced the impression of the album as a historical document rather than a mere collection of songs.

Over the next few years I hunted down the rest of Stewart’s extensive and mostly deleted back catalogue in those same second-hand record shops. Modern Times, the follow-up to Past, Present and Future, was another masterpiece, and indeed I regard those albums as two of the greatest, and most overlooked, achievements of British folk rock. I eventually completed my collection with a mint condition original copy of the first, not terribly good album, Bedsitter Images, which is probably the rarest record in my possession. Each album was replete with Stewart’s unique songwriting talent, blending personal and historical narratives in songs that resonated with striking imagery, radiant melodies and that wistful, mellifluous voice. I’ve listed ten of my favourites at the end of this article, but I could easily have named a dozen others.

The first new Al Stewart album to be released after I discovered him was 1988’s Last Days of the Century – not one of his best, admittedly, but still perfectly listenable, featuring a then unknown Tori Amos on backing vocals. On the back of this record Stewart toured with a full band, giving me the chance to see him live for the first time at the Town & Country Club (now the Forum) in Kentish Town. It was a hugely enjoyable concert, featuring a generous cross-section of his songs and also, I recall, a fine uptempo version of Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. Funnily enough I was wearing a Leonard Cohen T-shirt that evening, which I had purchased at his Royal Albert Hall concert earlier in the year. With a few other diehards I hung around by the Town & Country Club stage door after the show, and met Stewart for an autograph or two. He commented favourably on the T-shirt and told me a story of a time when he had met Cohen. The details of this encounter are unfortunately now lost to me, other than that the old groaner said to Al: “I’m waiting for Suzanne.”

Not long after that (in 1989, maybe), I made the short journey along the south coast from my home in Brighton for my second Al Stewart concert in the unglamorous surroundings of the Assembly Hall in Worthing. This was also a full-band show, but the only thing I can remember about it is that the bloke playing saxophone left the stage and wandered around the hall while taking his solo on “Year of the Cat”. I’d like to think Stewart played “Manuscript” that night, probably the only song in the world that namechecks Worthing, but I honestly can’t remember whether he did or not.

I saw Stewart a few more times after that (the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 among them), but these were all solo or duo acoustic shows and therefore bereft of the electric dynamics of Stewart at his folk-rock best. In fact, with the exception of a full-band show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013, I’m not sure he’s played with a proper band (meaning electric guitar, bass and drums) for years. His recent albums, since 1993’s excellent Famous Last Words, have also tended to err on the side of unplugged caution. This is a real shame, since these songs are certainly at their best with the amps turned up and the pulse of a rock beat going through them.

I’ve written this article because Al Stewart has given, and continues to give, enormous listening pleasure to me, and I wanted to set down some of my experiences of being a fan of his over the past 30 years. His songs are like no others; they are lucid, moving, clever, funny and endlessly quotable. Here, for example, is a beautiful and perfectly balanced couplet: “And had I but known last summer what I now understand/I’d have never set my foot inside this bleak and bitter land.” There are so many others, but don’t take my word for it – listen for yourself.

Ten great Al Stewart songs that are not “Year of the Cat”

“Gethsemane Again”
“Songs out of Clay”
“Soho (Needless to Say)”
“Apple Cider Reconstitution”
“The Dark and the Rolling Sea”
“Rocks in the Ocean”
“Accident on 3rd Street”
“The Coldest Winter in Memory”
“Trains”
“Three Mules”

Future Islands, Vienna Flex, 28 May 2014

Here’s another group who have spent years on the road, perfecting their live act and building up popularity through word of mouth, hard work and bloody-minded persistence. And in Future Islands‘ case it certainly seems to be paying off, although their now legendary appearance on the David Letterman show can’t have done their prospects any harm either. The Flex was rammed to capacity on this occasion, and it doesn’t take a genius to predict that Future Islands will be playing much larger venues than this from now on.

So yes, I went along to this show out of curiosity and because, like everyone else it seems, I was intrigued by vocalist Samuel T Herring’s performance on Letterman. In a world of formulaic indie artists, here is someone with a unique and riveting approach to performance. Herring sings with undeniable passion and soul, but that’s only the beginning of what makes him a star. He dances in an extraordinary, utterly unself-conscious style, bobbing and weaving as if vast, unmediated emotions are coursing through his veins. When he’s not reaching out to the audience as if trying to connect with each and every one of them, he’s either growling like a dog or hammering on his chest like a penitent. It’s a wonderful sight to behold, and if anyone reading this hasn’t yet seen that Letterman clip, I urge you to seek it out on YouTube; it’s truly spectacular.

The problem, for me at least, is that the songs themselves are not strong enough to sustain interest for an entire performance. In Herring, Future Islands have one of the most charismatic frontmen I’ve seen, yet all the charisma in the world can’t hide the fact that the group’s songwriting ranges from the rudimentary to the insipid. The gorgeous “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, by a country mile their best song, is tender, melancholy and suffused with an indefinable longing; try as they might, however, the group are fatally unable to reproduce its magic elsewhere. Song after song proceeds on the basis of lazy, half-baked melodies oozing out of watery synth tones. Lyrically tendentious and rhythmically uninspired, this stuff takes its place at the end of a long line of unremarkable synth pop creations.

Now on the verge of a major breakthrough, Future Islands find themselves on the horns of a considerable dilemma. Without Herring’s lovable-dork persona, they would be just another bunch of chancers dolefully prodding at a keyboard. For now, they are able to bask in the considerable goodwill generated by their frontman’s undoubted appeal. Yet the thinner the act wears, the more Future Islands risk being rumbled as musical also-rans.

Shearwater, Vienna Szene, 23 April 2014

This year I’ve found myself listening to Shearwater more than just about any other artist, so it was a great pleasure to take my preferred front centre spot at the Szene for what was, remarkably, their third concert in Vienna in as many years (see here for my review of their 2012 visit). Some groups, and Shearwater are one of them, tour so frequently that you can’t help but admire their dedication. The received wisdom goes that groups have to tour in these days of rampant downloading in order to make money from music. But as Shearwater’s singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg recently wrote, “Touring is like the rest of American life – only the famous bands make money. The rest of us are doing it for some other reason.” (As an aside, Meiburg once asked people on the group’s Facebook page if they could guess how many copies of their recently released album Fellow Travelers had been sold; the answer was a mere 1500.)

No, it seems to me that touring is what you need to do to form a bedrock of support and goodwill in the world, and it’s certainly what initially made me a fan of Shearwater. As mentioned above, though, I’ve also been playing their records an awful lot this year, particularly 2008’s Rook, 2010’s The Golden Archipelago and 2012’s Animal Joy. The first two of these seem to go together in my mind, consisting as they do of spare, brooding art rock that draws you in with its haunting imagery and restrained instrumental colours. (“An Insular Life” from The Golden Archipelago is my favourite song from this period, a stunning cinematic masterpiece in three minutes.)

Animal Joy was something of a departure for the group, more urgent and direct than its predecessors but no less compelling for all that. And in “You As You Were” and the near-title track “Animal Life” the album contained two of the most potent and dramatic rock songs I’ve heard in many a year. This music is so good that it makes me want to grab everyone I know and make them listen to it, so convinced am I of its dazzling, diamond-hard brilliance. (Since the new one, Fellow Travelers, contains only one Meiburg original among a rash of cover versions, it’s a fairly inessential addition to their catalogue.)

It seems to me, in fact, that there is no-one else in rock doing anything remotely like what Shearwater are doing except for my one great musical obsession, Peter Hammill. This isn’t a comparison I make lightly, but it’s one that makes sense to me given Meiburg’s sharp intelligence, rich voice and gifted way with words, not to mention the grand ambition of his songwriting. In other words I find this music completely spellbinding, from Meiburg’s soaring vocals via his remarkable texts to the way the songs ebb and flow from peak to challenging peak. Shaped by gorgeous melodic touches, the songs speak eloquently of memory, violence and the precarious relationship between human and natural worlds.

Live, Shearwater are a fearsomely powerful outfit, with Meiburg’s up-front guitar and keyboards bolstered by energetic percussion and, well, more guitar and keyboards. Between songs he is witty, relaxed, yet always riveting. His spoken introduction to the song “Home Life”, in which he tells of looking out of his bedroom window as a boy and seeing the lights of radio towers in the distance, is both evocative and strangely moving.

After an enthralling main set, Meiburg returns to the stage alone for a stark solo reading of the anguished “Hail Mary”, slashing furiously at his guitar as his voice echoes around the hushed room. Finally the group send us home with an exuberant cover of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”, a fun way to end the evening for sure but one that feels almost too lightweight in comparison to the epic scale of what has gone before.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Vienna Stadthalle, 23 July 2014

The last time Neil Young came to Vienna was six years ago, touring on the back of the Chrome Dreams II album. That show, in the slightly odd surroundings of the Austria Center (which has rarely been used for rock concerts since; maybe they were put off by the fact that the audience nearly broke the floor with their jumping up and down) was a relatively user-friendly affair, with an acoustic set followed by an electric set and a fairly generous helping of Young’s greatest hits. Wednesday night’s concert, on the other hand, was definitely one for the diehards, with extended jams aplenty and an acoustic set that lasted for only two songs – one of which, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, added up to not much more than glorified busking. And yet this was the one that played out in front of a capacity audience in the soulless barn that is the Stadthalle, with its muddy acoustics, concession stands and endless parade of people wandering around the place. All of which goes to show, as if it needed reiterating, that nothing is predictable in the world of Neil Young.

The other big difference between the 2008 and 2014 concerts, of course, was that this time Young had brought his legendary backing band Crazy Horse with him. And while there’s clearly no “right” or “best” way to see Young, given the plethora of styles and configurations at which he excels, there’s no denying the crackle of excitement that greeted his entrance onstage accompanied by rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, drummer Ralph Molina and substitute bassist Rick Rosas, along with two excellent female backing singers.

With barely a nod to the audience, the evening kicked off with a barnstorming take on “Love and Only Love” from 1990’s seminal Ragged Glory album. Young and Sampedro fell straight into a lengthy dialogue, their guitar licks meshing together in loose but controlled interplay. It was a full four minutes before Young stepped up to the mic, his unique and still haunting voice testifying to the song’s powerful message: “Love and only love will endure/Hate is everything you think it is/Love and only love will break it down/Break it down, break it down.”

On the other hand, if there’s one thing Neil Young has been at pains to communicate in his almost 50-year career, it’s that love is not all you need. The strongest emotion emanating from the stage was not love but anger – and righteous anger at that, borne of an abiding and passionate humanitarian conscience. The singer’s black hat stayed stubbornly on his head for almost the entire evening, but from my vantage point fairly close to the stage (or, if you must, from the video screens on either side), it was clear that his mouth was set in a more or less permanent snarl. It was as though these long (14 cuts in two hours), serpentine songs, their distorted shapes hewn from volume and electricity, were the only possible response to an ongoing crisis of global proportions.

That response was inscribed not only in the more hard-rocking numbers like “Love to Burn” and the inevitable main-set closer “Rockin’ in the Free World”, but also in the more elegiac moments such as “Living with War” and “Cortez the Killer”. “Cortez” in particular was exquisite, with Young drawing out long, achingly tender cadences to frame the song’s narrative of love and sacrifice. When not at the mic Young was most often to be found squaring up to Sampedro, the two men seemingly oblivious to all but the music binding them together, a touching image of two sexagenarians holding fast in the storm.

Given the depth of Young’s back catalogue, there will always be gripes about the setlist, with regrets over omitted songs an inevitable aspect of any post-gig discussion. In my case, the absence of “Like a Hurricane”, “Hey Hey My My”, “Powderfinger” and “Cinnamon Girl” was particularly keenly felt. It was also unfortunate, though perfectly understandable, that Young chose to round off the evening with the bouncy but rather cheesy new song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?” But such disappointments count for little when weighed against the urgency and vitality that Neil Young, at 68, still brings to everything he does.

 

The Thing, Vienna Chelsea, 1 May 2014

It looks like those in Vienna who want to see The Thing in a jazz club will have to look further afield from now on. Following last November’s gig at the Blue Tomato for which the seats were removed, this time Trost Records put them on at the Chelsea, not a venue previously noted for its jazz programming. Once again, the audience was thereby forced to stand. Now I have no objection either to standing gigs – Lord knows I go to enough of them – or to the Chelsea, a venue I have been to many times. But The Thing are not a group who should be playing there. I assume that what’s behind these events is a desire to break down the boundaries between genres and make The Thing more attractive to non-jazz audiences. The problem with this is twofold: first, it robs The Thing’s music of its original impetus and context; and second, it risks alienating the group’s core audience who have been going to see them in jazz clubs for many years.

Despite the inappropriate setting I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see The Thing again, and thus it was that I found myself front centre at the Chelsea on May Day. With the celebrations for International Workers’ Day in full swing, the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love wasted no time in propagating their message of freedom in and through the music. This seemed like a more hardcore Thing than has been heard on recent outings, with Gustafsson’s sax low on tunes and high on the frenzied skronk that makes him the natural heir apparent to Peter Brötzmann. A reading of Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” was virtually unrecognizable from the slow burning version on The Cherry Thing, while “Red River” from the new album Boot! was a maelstrom of surging energy. Håker Flaten, on double bass throughout rather than the bass guitar he favoured at the Blue Tomato, was on powerful form, sculpting a monster solo from the aftershocks of Gustafsson’s tenor. Nilssen-Love, meanwhile, moved with customary panache, his jaw-dropping polyrhythmic stickwork the perfect foil for the Swede’s colossal riffage.

The well-earned encore, when it came, was something of a disappointment. With the audience’s appreciation still ringing in his ears, Gustafsson turned to the unwieldy bass saxophone and drew the evening to a close with a scrappy, directionless improv. It was the only wrong move of an otherwise spectacular evening. That and the venue.

Kraftwerk, Vienna Burgtheater, 15-18 May 2014

The last time I saw Kraftwerk in 2009 was in a field in some godforsaken corner of Burgenland. Since then, the group – and in particular Ralf Hütter, who to all intents and purposes is Kraftwerk these days – have begun to adopt a more reverential and curatorial approach to their history and to live performance. The release of The Catalogue in late 2009, and the New York MoMA run in 2012, ushered in a new era for Kraftwerk, who now exist solely as a repertoire act. With no new material in the offing (and, since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, none likely to be forthcoming – which is probably just as well), Hütter seems content to revisit and repackage old material for a living, buffing and shining old songs and presenting them to new global audiences in the surroundings of a slick 3D live show. In embarking on this endeavour, he might well have had in mind his national poet Goethe’s dictum that “refashioning the fashioned/lest it stiffen into iron/is a work of endless vital activity.”

The problem, of course, is that this Kraftwerk bears little resemblance to the Kraftwerk I grew up with. It’s a matter of profound regret that only Hütter remains from the classic 1974-86 line-up of the group, leaving him and his current roster of employees to bask in the goodwill that was generated in no small part from the presence of Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. To argue, as some have tried to do, that it really doesn’t matter who is up there pressing the buttons ignores the significant contributions made by the other three members of the classic line-up to the music, the iconography (see the iconic covers of Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine) and the legend of Kraftwerk. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Hütter, who has erased all trace of his former colleagues with such Stalinist efficiency that none of the music critics currently writing about Kraftwerk even seem to be aware of the issue.

Although this historical revisionism leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, there is still much to enjoy about the current version of Kraftwerk. There are two things in particular that I really admire about this curatorial project. The first is that it firmly establishes that the Kraftwerk canon consists of the eight albums from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks. I get tired of so-called cognoscenti who bemoan the fact that Hütter excluded the first three albums from the reissue programme, as if they represent some disruptive experimental tendency that he has ruthlessly expunged from the group’s history. An artist is entitled to establish his own canon, and if Hütter wants to tell his story starting in 1974, that’s fine with me.

The other thing I like about these retrospective concerts is that they situate Kraftwerk as an art project, taking the group out of the nightclub and the muddy field and into the art gallery and the concert hall. The narrative that we hear so often of Kraftwerk’s influence on other musicians, particularly those in the techno, electro and hip-hop genres, holds no interest for me; there are other, more pressing contexts for their work. By presenting the group’s history in such extravagant audiovisual terms, in the rarefied atmospheres of MoMA, Tate Modern and now the Burgtheater, Hütter foregrounds the discourse of Kraftwerk as artists and downplays the standard, largely irrelevant tendency to view them as the “godfathers of techno”. It’s a recontextualization that makes perfect sense to me, placing Kraftwerk firmly in the lineage of pop art and minimalism.

Over the course of four evenings, then, Kraftwerk presented their eight albums in chronological order, doing two shifts per night like the workers they have always liked to portray themselves as (although it’s hard to imagine anyone else going to work in those glow-in-the-dark neoprene suits). I saw the first five of the eight shows, choosing to skip the last three on the basis of the alarming drop in quality that happened between Computer World and Electric Café. Each show’s album run-through was followed by a generously timed greatest hits set. In fact the group often seemed keen to dispatch the relevant album as quickly as possible, with the album polished off in the first 25 minutes or so of the 110-minute show. There were occasional setlist variations, with some songs present at every show and others having to fight for their place. Lesser known tunes like “Kometenmelodie 2” and “Airwaves” achieved instant classic status, although the keenly awaited “Europe Endless” disappointed because its visuals (some dull abstract patterns) were so uninspired. Undoubtedly the biggest treat came at the end of the Man Machine show, which saw “Aerodynamik” and the rarely heard “Planet of Visions” played as encores.

I’d never been to the Burgtheater before, and it was just as splendid a venue as I’d expected it to be, with crystal clear sound and perfect 3D visuals even in the cheap seats. My only gripe concerned the view from the seats at the back of the lower circle. I’d plumped for this circle for The Man Machine and Computer World, my two favourite Kraftwerk albums, but was dismayed to discover when we took our seats that, due to the overhang from the upper circle above, our view of the top half of the screen was completely obscured. Fortunately we were able to move forward and sit on the stairs for the duration of the show, thereby obtaining a perfect uninterrupted view. I was, frankly, astonished that the ushers allowed us to stay there; in London we’d have been steered back to our seats in the name of health and safety before you could say “boing boom tschak”.

The passing of the years can’t rob Kraftwerk’s music of its unearthly, crystalline beauty; it still sounds impossibly smart, funny and wise (although – sorry, Germans and Austrians – the lyrics definitely sound much better in English). The repeated melodic phrases, classical harmonies and insistent mechanical rhythms fuse to form a fresh, distinctively modern take on minimalism. The onscreen imagery, meanwhile, forms a persuasive visual complement to the music, its dry humour and beguiling simplicity making explicit the connections between Kraftwerk and pop art.

In Vienna we sit in a late-night café”, sang Hütter in 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express”, one of Kraftwerk’s few lyrical references to a real place in the world. And if I’m not at home, there’s very few places I’d rather be than a café in Vienna. But rather than any one place, Kraftwerk’s home is the world itself, its distances melted away by car, train, bicycle and computer, the “I” slowly becoming “we”.

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 8 March 2014; Chris Corsano & Mette Rasmussen, Vienna Mo.ë, 3 April 2014

Is there any more powerful sound in music than that of the sax/drums duo? Personally, I doubt it. The combination of the expressive blast of the horn and the undulant forms thrown by the drumkit seems to represent free music at its most elemental and dangerous. More than any other configuration, the sax and drums line-up also embodies the idea of improvisation as dialogue that, for me at least, has always been central to improvised music. It’s at times like this that I reach for the writings of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975):

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself – philosophical, scientific, artistic – is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.1

Over the years I’ve seen a few sax players and drummers squaring up to each other, most often in permutations of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson on the one hand and Paal Nilssen-Love or Didi Kern on the other. Of course, I missed Brötzmann’s gig with the British percussionist Steve Noble at the Blue Tomato this week – his first appearance there for over two years, and I missed his last one as well. But I was able to catch two superlative examples of the genre recently in Vienna.

First up, the long-established Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo, again at the Blue Tomato. Vandermark is another musician whose gigs I keep missing. Can it really have been two years since I last saw him play, with his Resonance Ensemble at Porgy & Bess? This blog would appear to suggest so, but then again there have been many gigs I never got around to reviewing, so who knows. Anyway, Ken and Paal were electrifying on this occasion. Kicking off on tenor, Vandermark alternated zinging melodies with blasts of pure noise while Nilssen-Love wove intricate threads of percussive texture. During the two 45-minute sets, the pair demonstrated the kind of empathy and mutual awareness that can only come from years of playing together, listening to one another and responding to the other’s statements with declarative positions of one’s own. At one point, as Nilssen-Love took a stark, brittle solo, the reedsman reached for his clarinet before seemingly changing his mind and turning instead to the hefty baritone sax. Using the considerable wallop of this instrument to draw the Norwegian into ever more frenzied bursts of activity, Vandermark traced wave after wave of hook-laden melodic invention. Turning to the clarinet for a long, bracing passage of circular breathing, the American showed that his ability to scramble the conscious mind remains as sure and true as ever.

A month or so later it was time to check out the first appearance in Vienna by the brilliant US free drummer Chris Corsano, here in the company of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. It was a pleasure to watch this new duo play in the unusual and intimate environs of Mo.ë, a room which doubles as concert venue and exhibition space and as a result has a uniquely informal vibe to it. With the musicians setting up in the centre of the room and the audience able to wander around at will, the gig had the air of a friendly, spontaneous happening.

Mette Rasmussen has a remarkably fluid and expressive tone on the alto saxophone. Her playing at times evokes the rich, heavenward clarity of Albert Ayler, at others the throaty roar of Mats Gustafsson. Equally, though, she’s able to sidestep these influences and assert her own individual sound in piercingly high tones and controlled outbursts of free playing. Corsano, meanwhile, keeps up his end of the conversation in gripping manner, utilizing a wide range of extended techniques (bowing the edge of the drum, microscopic percussive incidents, blowing on some kind of customized reed instrument) but always returning to that infinite melting pulse. It’s an engrossing encounter from a duo that seems destined for great things.

Note

1. I was introduced to Bakhtin by my English tutor at Sussex, the late Frank Gloversmith, to whom I owe an enormous personal debt.