In memory of G.E., 1 February 1931–30 June 2003

Six years ago today, my mother flew away.

I just want to reproduce the text from the Book of Ecclesiastes that I read at her funeral. I first came across this text on Current 93′s “Hitler as Kalki” EP, at the end of which there is a recording of David Tibet’s father reading it.

“Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

Jarboe, Budapest Vörös Yuk, 8 June 2009

Since Jarboe’s planned concert in Vienna was cancelled in murky circumstances, it was a no-brainer for me to make the trip to the nearest place she was playing, which turned out to be Budapest. This is no trainspotters’ blog, but I do feel obliged to mention the excellent ÖBB Railjet service which whisked me from Westbahnhof to Budapest in exactly three hours, in remarkable comfort and to-the-minute punctuality. British trains, I do not miss you at all.

I wrote a short reminiscence of Swans under the guise of a review of Michael Gira’s concert in Vienna last November, which touched on the kindness and generosity Jarboe showed me in the early days of my friendship with her. Ironically, while Gira has for the most part opened up his muse to softer and more acoustic elements since ending Swans, Jarboe’s own post-Swans work has recently been heading in the other direction, towards the theatricality and brute force of black metal. But this really shouldn’t be seen as too much of a surprise. Intensely aware of gods, demons and other spectral presences, Jarboe’s music has always revolved around the kind of incantatory invocations that the BM scene also relishes.

What makes Jarboe extraordinary, though, is the sense of humility and abasement that she brings to her on-stage persona. For at least half of this concert, she came down from the stage and sang while standing amongst the (almost exclusively male) audience, her long blonde hair shrouding her face, her voice howling and trembling in supplication. This was no mere theatrical diversion, but a deliberate strategy on Jarboe’s part to place herself in a position of utter abjection. The resulting cauldron of lamentation was both sexually charged and unbearably moving.

Jarboe’s songs are protean; they refuse to take on the properties of songs, sounding instead like hectoring blasts of black energy. The guitar, bass and drums pulsate menacingly, as though calling up apparitions given voice by Jarboe’s sepulchral keening. The performance resonates with an elegiac, mystical beauty.

Michael Gira has indicated that he may resurrect the Swans name for a new album and tour, a move which (needless to say) I would wholeheartedly welcome. Jarboe, sadly, is unlikely to be a part of any such endeavour; but on the evidence of this show, Gira will have to go some to match the level of draining intensity reached by his erstwhile bandmate.

Sunn O))) & Pita, Vienna Arena, 3 June 2009

An overwhelmingly loud and brutal concert from the metal band it’s OK to like (and certainly the only one I like). In fact this evening was more akin to a test of physical endurance than possibly any other I have seen. Here were Sunn O))) as they should be heard – just the two men on guitar, with no extraneous vocals or instrumentation. Playing – or, more accurately, improvising off – their 1999 début The Grimmrobe Demos, the duo issued a full 90 minutes of nothing but malevolent guitar drones and sub-bass frequencies monstrous enough to make your entire body quake.

There’s a lot of talk about Sunn O))) having a deadpan humour to their work, a certain quality of sending themselves up, but I can’t see it when the outcome is as relentlessly tortured and funereal as this. With their cowled selves only ever partially revealed through the impenetrable curtain of fog, their agonisingly slow onstage movements and their uncanny, somehow menacing salutes, O’Malley and Anderson seem less concerned with acknowledging a sense of the ridiculous than with presenting a coherent and disturbing vision of Hell.

Those who arrived early had the pleasure of seeing local laptop hero, and head honcho of Editions Mego, Pita aka Peter Rehberg, who forms one half of KTL with O’Malley. More or less reprising his April set at the Rhiz, Rehberg took full advantage of the much larger PA to generate ferocious coils of sound from his two Macbooks. That haunting and fevered third track from Get Out loomed particularly large again, sounding like a deranged part-animal/part-machine as it swooped and seethed about the place.

Ether column, May 2009

When I was 13 years old and just getting into “proper” music for the first time, most of the kids at my school were huge followers of heavy metal, in particular the short-lived phenomenon known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. As a quieter and more bookish type (don’t laugh), I was the only person I knew of that age who worshipped instead at the altar of electronic music, in particular the German group Kraftwerk. I’m tempted to say I had the last laugh, for while the NWOBHM quickly floundered, Kraftwerk are still a formidable proposition. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that their rare concert in Austria this month takes place at a dance music festival, since Kraftwerk are still more often thought of in terms of their supposed “influence” on hip-hop and techno than their own music itself. Kraftwerk music is possessed of a shimmering, crystalline beauty, the simplicity and urgency of their melodies utterly beguiling. Although founder member Ralf Hütter is the only one left from the classic Kraftwerk line-up, in this case it hardly matters, since the individual personalities were long ago subsumed into a group identity that represents itself onstage in a stunning multimedia show including, at one point, the appearance of the legendary Kraftwerk robots. Impossibly dry and funny, at times sinister yet strangely hopeful and touching, Kraftwerk are the sound of the future turning back in on itself.

Just sneaking in under the wire this month is a welcome return to these shores by experimental drone metallers Sunn O))). Although the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have played with a bewildering variety of other artists, their strongest music undeniably emerges from their work together as Sunn O))), a group originally conceived as a tribute to Earth, another band in this field. Yet in recent years Sunn O))) have outstripped Earth with their dark, mysterious and resonant music, which consists of deep, agonisingly slow guitar lines played amid a welter of feedback and the occasional anguished vocal. Live, they present an intriguing spectacle, playing at deafening volume, dressed in long, hooded robes and filling the room with industrial quantities of fog that add to the ritualistic aspect of the performance. Arrive early to catch the support slot from Vienna laptop maestro Peter Rehberg aka Pita, who plays with O’Malley as KTL.

Finally, I could hardly end this column without mentioning another Vienna concert by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, this time performing with his celebrated Chicago Tentet in the elegant surroundings of Porgy & Bess. This awesomely talented and expressive big band is now at the height of its powers, merging the delights of way-out jazz and free improvisation into an extended and delirious whole. Not to be missed.

Kraftwerk, Wiesen 29 May 2009

I love Kraftwerk. When I was 12 years old and the most fanatical Gary Numan fan in Salisbury, I would study interviews with Numan in Smash Hits in which he would expound at length on his many “influences”. After Bowie (whom I have never really “got” to this day, to tell the truth) and John Foxx-era Ultravox! (whom I have very much “got” in recent years), the third often-cited Numan influence was Kraftwerk, a name that sounded impossibly mysterious and glamorous to me at the time.

On one of my occasional visits to Southampton (for an account of a later one, and another initial encounter with a German group, see here), I shelled out my pocket money on what was then still the most recent Kraftwerk LP, The Man Machine. The cover, of course, reinforced the sense of mystery and glamour that had so seduced me in the group’s name: these four white-faced men of indeterminate age, neatly dressed in matching red shirts and black ties, gazed to the right in a pose of strength and heroism, while the bold and multilingual lettering conjured an equally beguiling image of Soviet-era iconography. The music, meanwhile, was like nothing I had ever heard before. Glistening, precise and oddly moving, it put Numan’s more popwise constructions firmly in their place.

The following year, Kraftwerk emerged with a new LP, Computer World, a highly appropriate release given that the first home computers were then making inroads into people’s lives. And the group toured the album, even coming to the Southampton Gaumont, but sadly I was too young to attend. I recall Smash Hits explaining how rare and special Kraftwerk concerts were, since the group were effectively dismantling their Kling Klang studio and bringing it on tour with them. As a meagre consolation prize, I was in Threshold Records in Andover one day (a record shop, I am now astonished to learn, that was owned by the Moody Blues – a fact which would account for the fact that their picture was prominently displayed on the shop’s bags) and walked out with reams and reams of fake, promotional green and white computer printer paper with the Computer World logo on it, which I plastered all over my bedroom wall.

It would be another ten years before I did finally pin Kraftwerk down live, at the Brixton Academy on the Mix tour. A few years ago I caught them again at the Royal Festival Hall, by which time they had pared down their stage set considerably, with the banks of keyboards replaced by a very minimal laptop-based setup. Last week’s concert at Wiesen (part of a dance music festival so shoddy and unpleasant that I refuse even to mention it by name) was more or less a shortened version of that Minimum-Maximum set, with the music enriched by a stunningly effective multimedia show. Stunning in its simplicity, that is, since Kraftwerk instinctively realise the power of straightforward and unadorned imagery as an accompaniment to the steely beauty of this music.

For beauty is what Kraftwerk music aspires to and reaches. The vocals and melodies are precise, clipped and serene; they go exactly where they need to go, and no further. There’s a strangely haunting, sinister quality to a song like “Radioactivity”, the stately tune of which sounds like a romantic paean to the slow death of mankind. There’s an uncanny humour to much of the set – case in point: “The Robots”, with the delightful and laugh-out-loud funny appearance of the titular androids. And Kraftwerk are, of course, utterly thrilled by the idea of motion. Whether serenading the autobahn, the express train or the bicycle, there’s an ongoing fascination with the liberating possibilities of travel. Uniting past, current and future technologies in their tender embrace, Kraftwerk sing of worlds we know and worlds we wish we knew.