With the release of their 2013 album All Is Fever, Naked Lunch seem to have finally laid to rest the film and theatre projects (Universalove, Amerika, Ecce Homo) that they have been working on for the past few years, and begun to concentrate instead on cementing their unarguable position as Austria’s finest rock band. And not before time, one might add, since although those projects (Universalove in particular) had plenty to recommend them, as a body of work they didn’t really stack up against the group’s two full-length masterpieces, Songs for the Exhausted and This Atom Heart of Ours. So it was a great pleasure to see the band play a sold-out gig at the Arena in March, which I’m only now getting around to reviewing following their free show at the Museumsquartier summer opening.
I’m still struggling to get to grips with some of the reasons why I love Naked Lunch so much. I think it’s related to endurance, the idea that here is a group of people that has undergone extremes of experience and whose songs embody those extremes in a very direct and affecting way. I’ve never quite been able to banish the thought, for example, that singer and principal songwriter Oliver Welter was homeless for a while during the group’s five-year hiatus; nor that founder member Georg Trattnig died of an alcohol-related condition (“will it ever stop to hurt/will I ever wash away my pain”, as Welter sings on the elegy for Trattnig, “King George”). Yet what comes over so strongly now, in the group’s songs and performances, is a sense of triumph at having faced down these demons and come out, battered but alive, on the other side.
None of which would mean very much at all if Naked Lunch’s songs weren’t so lyrically passionate and melodically resplendent. Now tracing skeletal, desolate melodies (“Colours”), now launching into bursts of urgent riffing (“God”), the group display an exquisite flair for the immediate and the dramatic. Electrified by devastating choral harmonies, the songs depict traumatized states of mind (“there’s too much violence in my dreams/there’s too much hate running in my veins”, Welter laments chillingly in “Town Full of Dogs”) even as they clutch desperately at purification through sexual betrayal (“I did it with my best friend’s wife/it felt like paradise”). Yet there is tenderness and optimism as well, in the gently enveloping warmth of “In the Dark” and the radiant intimacy of “Military of the Heart”.
Bringing this quest to the forefront of the group’s activity, Welter is an immensely spirited and likeable frontman. Whether engaged in manic dancing, swaggering around the stage, trading moves with bassist Herwig Zamernik or inciting the audience into ever more energetic responses, he’s impossible to ignore. So too is the spectacular coup de théâtre during “The Sun”, in which tiny shards of gold paper pulsate above the audience’s heads. And so too is the way the four men line up for the encores, bringing the shows to an end in an atmosphere of togetherness that is as celebratory as it is moving. We shine on together, when we walk hand in hand.