In the Neighbourhood

The elderly couple living in the flat above us moved out recently. They had probably been living there for decades but a couple of weeks ago removal men were clearing everything out and now the sounds of banging and drilling can be heard as the owners of the building are renovating the flat in readiness for the next occupants. The old couple were never particularly friendly to us or to our children, but still I felt sympathy for them because the old man’s physical and mental heath was visibly declining over the past couple of years. She could sometimes be heard raising her voice at him but I don’t think he ever answered back. Once an ambulance pulled up outside the building and I watched from our second floor window as he was stretchered out and driven away. I half expected never to see him again but he came back. In recent months the old lady could be seen struggling with getting a heavy wheelchair in and out of the lift, and what’s more with lifting him in and out of it. She would push him along the street in the wheelchair to I don’t know where. Now they’ve gone, hopefully to somewhere that’s easier for them to live in. I won’t miss them, and yet in a strange kind of way I will.

Peter Rehberg & Fennesz, Vienna Grelle Forelle, 19 December 2014; Peter Rehberg/Stephen O’Malley/Bruce Gilbert, Vienna Grelle Forelle, 26 June 2015

I never got around to reviewing the last concert I attended in 2014, which consisted not only of Peter Rehberg’s first solo appearance in more than five years, but also the world premiere of Fennberg, a.k.a. Rehberg and Fennesz, as well. (I was, sadly, not in Vienna at the time Fenn O’Berg, a.k.a. Rehberg, Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke, played at Porgy & Bess in 2001, part of which was recorded for posterity as “A Viennese Tragedy” on the trio’s second album The Return of Fenn O’Berg. Legend has it that the track was so named because the audience on that occasion was so pitifully small.) Now is as good a time as any to rectify that omission, since last week Rehberg appeared again at the same venue, this time at the second of two concerts to mark the 20th birthday of the (Editions) Mego label. I didn’t bother with the first of these, but the prospect of seeing Rehberg on the same bill as Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and ex-Wire man Bruce Gilbert was too good to pass up.

First, though, back to that cold evening in December. With solo sets from Rehberg and Fennesz followed by a duo performance, the concert was a gripping illustration of the continuing power and importance of Viennese electronica. Bathed in incongruous flashing lights and buckets of dry ice, Rehberg generated moments of unearthly, twilit beauty among the gravel-hard glitches and massive, pulverizing drones. The soundscape constantly shifted and evolved, seeming almost to resolve itself into warped song structures – an impression doubly reinforced when Fennesz took the stage for his own solo set. Wearing a smart suit and scarf despite the heat inside the venue, the guitarist seemed on the point of sending the audience floating off into the Donaukanal with his shimmering silver riffs and fragmentary, blissed-out tunes.

After a short interval these two legends of the Vienna experimental scene came together for the first time ever as a duo, an event that was as moving as it was historic. Fennesz left his guitar on its stand and joined Rehberg on laptop and devices, creating a music that easily resisted the monolithic and revelled instead in its own deranged beauty. A brief, lulling sample of Tears for Fears’ “Advice for the Young at Heart” added a reflective note that contrasted with the prevailing mood of brittle agitation shaped by the duo. I very much hope that this first Fennberg appearance will not also be the last; it’s a collaboration that’s far too precious to let go.

Six months later Rehberg rounded off the second (Editions) Mego 20th anniversary concert, this time with accompanying visuals by artist and frequent Mego cover designer Tina Frank. It was another excellent performance, with Rehberg’s hovering drones and frequencies finding dreamlike parallels in the flickering, coalescing images on the screen. If there’s TV in the cold reaches of outer space, this is surely what it looks and sounds like.

The evening had been billed as starting at 7.30pm, so having made the effort to be sur place at that time it was quite irritating to find a schedule posted at the door saying that the first act would not be on until 8.00pm. In the event, I needn’t have bothered. I was distinctly underwhelmed by Stephen O’Malley’s opening slot, which consisted of 45 minutes’ worth of muddy guitar riffage and effects pedal action that reverberated and recapitulated without development. I yield to none in my admiration for the mighty Sunn O))) and for KTL, O’Malley’s project with Rehberg. But this was, I’m sorry to say, very boring indeed. Bruce Gilbert’s intervening set did little to lighten my mood, so it was a relief when Rehberg and Frank came on to rescue the evening.

To finish up, a word or two on the venue. December’s concert was my first visit to Grelle Forelle, and as I was to find out, the place had set a number of psychogeographical traps for the unwary. I somehow managed to navigate my way across a thunderous highway to the approximate area where I thought the venue was, but it took a good half hour’s trudging up and down Spittelauer Lände before I was finally able to locate it. It was only when retracing my steps back to Spittelau station on the way home that I noticed the venue’s stylized fish-shaped logo painted now and again on the pavement as a directional aid, somewhat akin to the famous yellow line that runs from Barbican underground station to the Barbican Centre in London. Clearly I should have followed those logos to find the venue, although how I was supposed to know that given that I had never seen the logo before was not adequately explained. Last Friday I was a little more confident of being able to find my way, but I was still on the lookout for the little fish designs on the pavement to help me. And guess what, most of them had disappeared, leaving me floundering just as much as on the previous occasion.

What’s more, Grelle Forelle seems to be a nightclub that puts on occasional concerts, rather than a live music venue per se. This quickly became apparent from the way the venue pulled the tiresome trick of getting the live music audience in ridiculously early and then clearing them out in double-quick time in order to prepare the room for the main business of the evening, the club night. The alternative option, of putting the live music on at a civilized hour and then not having the club night at all, is something that seems not to have occurred to the management at Grelle Forelle. Which is a shame, since the venue’s acoustics, the location and (not least) the bar are all excellent. Still, there is something insulting about being politely but firmly escorted off the premises at the end of a concert and told to relocate to the outside terrace. On a warm evening in June this was not much of a hardship, but on a cold night in December it certainly was. All things considered, both these concerts should have been held at the Rhiz, which could easily have accommodated the number of people attending them.

Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall, 22 May 2015

When I wrote an appreciation of Al Stewart last year for this blog, I kicked it off with the words “I’m not going to be able to write a live review of him”, since I was convinced I was never going to see him on a stage again in my lifetime. Which just goes to show how wrong I can be, since nine months later I was at the Royal Albert Hall in London to see Stewart perform his “classic albums” Past, Present and Future (one of my top three favourite albums of all time) and Year of the Cat. As it happened I had other business in England at the time as well, but even if I hadn’t, I would almost certainly have made the trip anyway.

I said pretty much all I have to say about Past, Present and Future in that earlier piece, so I refer anyone who is interested there for an idea of why it was so important for me to attend this concert. As for Year of the Cat, by some distance Stewart’s most popular and enduring album, it’s a record that I’ve always greatly admired without ever feeling that it reached the heights of PP&F or 1975’s exquisite Modern Times. Still, there was enough of Stewart’s songwriting genius in evidence on YotC to make the second half of this show very nearly as essential as the first.

The Royal Albert Hall is the kind of venue that makes you contemplate the history of all the music that has previously been heard there, one of the few concert halls that is as much a part of the occasion as the artist you’re there to see. It was inevitable, therefore, that while waiting for Stewart to come on and taking in the splendour of my surroundings, I tried to remember all the previous times I had been there. I’m pretty sure the first was Suzanne Vega in 1987, followed not long after by Leonard Cohen in both 1988 and 1993 (I’m proud to say that I saw Cohen well before he started playing his London shows at the O2 Arena). After that things get a little fuzzy, although I certainly saw shows by the Cowboy Junkies, Tindersticks and Bruce Springsteen solo there at some point, not to mention the late John Tavener at a Prom sometime in the 1990s (nabbing his autograph as he swept up the steps to the Albert Hall from the nearby Royal College of Music before the show). Thinking back, the last time I was there may well have been for Spiritualized’s transcendent appearance in 1997. Al Stewart may not have reached quite the ecstatic heights of that event, but he was nevertheless able to cast some magic of his own with his magnificently stirring and eloquent folk rock.

In no small part this was due to the fact that he had brought a full band with him, including such distinguished Stewart alumni as electric guitarist Tim Renwick and keyboardist, occasional acoustic guitarist and musical director Peter White. Renwick in particular was a revelation, his nimble electric solos merging with the acoustic frontline of Dave Nachmanoff and Stewart himself in a definitive illustration of folk rock par excellence. With the guitars bolstered by White’s plangent keyboards and Marc Macisso’s vibrant sax and harmonica, plus bass, drums and backing vocalists, this immaculate group brought glowing life to Stewart’s long, intricate meditations on time, history and man’s place within them.

Stewart is a thoroughly likeable, engaging frontman, all too willing to spin anecdotes that flesh out the personal and historical background to his songs. It’s only when he sings, though, that these songs grip you with their dramatic and expressive flights of lyrical invention. Forty years after he wrote them, he may regret giving them quite as many words as he did, since he good-naturedly complains about how difficult it is to remember some of the lyrics. Yet his lovely voice catches a note of unexpressed yearning that reverberates through all the years, decades and centuries from which his characters emerge. It’s this vivid, hard-edged nostalgia that elevates Stewart’s songs above the realm of the commonplace and propels them towards the status of great popular art.

Sleaford Mods, Vienna Chelsea, 30 April 2015

Just a few hours after arriving home from Sarajevo, I was off to the Chelsea for the first Vienna appearance by Sleaford Mods, an eccentric English duo who specialise in obscenity-laden rants dripping with bile and sarcasm. Given their obsession with the thuggishly absurd nature of contemporary life in England, they’re very much an English thing, but that didn’t prevent the Chelsea from being rammed to capacity on this occasion, tickets having sold out weeks in advance. The fact that the following day was May Day can’t have done any harm, either.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in the front row at a gig and found myself having to take evasive action to avoid being sprayed with beer, but that’s the kind of night this was. In fairness, it was only one or two idiots who elbowed their way to the front and insisted on heckling and throwing their weight around as though this was some kind of GG Allin performance, and thankfully they got bored after a few songs and slunk back from whence they had come. Sleaford Mods’ music may be on the aggressive side, but that kind of behaviour is unconscionable.

Most people know what to expect from Sleaford Mods by now, and on this evening they certainly don’t disappoint. Jason Williamson barks out his anger-fuelled texts in a bitter, Midlands-inflected Sprechstimme, while Andrew Fearn loiters at the back of the stage swigging from a bottle of beer and occasionally seeing to his laptop. That device provides the only musical accompaniment to Williamson’s narked vocals, its constant stream of jittery beats echoing the wired tension that emanates from the singer as he stalks the stage. Gesticulating wildly to himself as much as to the audience, his movements lurching from a cocky strut to a simian lumber, Williamson is a fidgety yet compelling presence.

I do wonder how much Williamson’s splenetic diatribes of rage and disgust mean to the Vienna audience, though, since so much of what he writes about is inextricably bound up with the crap quality of modern English life. To really get a song like “Jobseeker”, for example, you have to know that “Jobseeker’s Allowance” is now the official term for what used to be called unemployment benefit. This insidious piece of Newspeak permits no alternative to the recipient of benefits being in a constant state of “actively seeking work”, an absurdity beautifully satirised in the wretched civil servant’s fortnightly chorus of “So Mr. Williamson, what have you done to find gainful employment since your last signing on date?” There can’t be that many in the audience, moreover, who remember not only Tiswas but also its pitiful late-night spin-off, OTT, as well. Such arcane pop-cultural references, entertaining as they are, merely cushion the seething mass of disquiet that is Jason Williamson’s England.

Mono, Sarajevo Kaktus, 20 April 2015

Having unfortunately been unable to make Japanese post-rock quartet Mono’s concert last week in Vienna, it was a very pleasant surprise to arrive in Sarajevo for a two-week visit and discover, quite by chance, that they were playing in the city on only my second night there. Naturally, then, I wasted no time in going along.

The venue, the Kaktus, was part of a concrete eyesore, the Skenderija, which had for some reason been plonked slap bang in the centre of the city close to the banks of the Miljacka. Taking the form of a long, thin bar with a low stage at one end, the Kaktus was slow to fill up on this Monday evening but eventually swelled pretty much to capacity. There was a palpable sense of occasion among the audience; I can’t imagine that many touring groups make it down to Sarajevo, and certainly not too many Japanese outfits. I congratulated myself on getting there early doors and securing a vantage point at the front, since the low-slung nature of the stage meant that those further back would have been able to see precious little. Such considerations assumed particular importance in this case, since Mono’s two frontmen were to spend most of the concert either seated on stools or crouched low down on the floor.

The entirely instrumental music of Mono is a thrilling journey of epic proportions. Lonely, desolate threads of guitar pick their way through a barren landscape of ruin and emptiness, stalked by eldritch rumblings of bass and drums. Occasional interventions on keyboard and glockenspiel add to the looming sense of dread and unease, until the guitars and drums lock together and rise up in apocalyptic unison. Ratcheting up the tension in the merest of increments, the group transmute gaunt and skeletal melodies into red-hot cauldrons of burning intensity.

Clearly the leader of the group, Takaakira Goto is mostly responsible for those weeping Fender runs. When he’s not huddled over his instrument, his long dark hair entirely obscuring his face, he’s drawing patterns in the air or coaxing ever more funereal lamentations from the impressive range of effects pedals at his feet. Rhythm guitarist Hideki Suematsu takes a more circumspect approach, meting out clouds of riffage around Goto’s lacerating lead guitar. Wearing a fetching pair of red high-heeled shoes, bassist and keyboardist Tamaki Kunishi is a towering centre-stage presence, while Yasunori Takada augments his mighty drumming with occasional recourse to a large gong suspended behind his kit.

Although Mono clearly bear some sonic resemblance to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, their vast crescendoes and tidal waves of volume make them an electrifying proposition in their own right. The similarity doesn’t end there, though, since there’s an aura of mystique around the group that chimes with the dark progressions of their music. Over the course of the two-hour set, the group didn’t speak to or even acknowledge the audience once, nor did they respond to the fervent calls for an encore. Afterwards, though, they were all smiles, happily signing autographs and posing for photographs with the considerable knot of people who had stayed behind.

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Neil Cowley Trio, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 7 April 2015

“Wow!” mouthed Neil Cowley to his bandmates Rex Horan and Evan Jenkins, over the warm applause that greeted the appearance of Cowley’s eponymous trio on the stage at Porgy & Bess. The Londoner was clearly pleasantly surprised by the fact that he had attracted a near capacity audience to Vienna’s premier jazz club, especially since, as he himself admitted, “the last time we played here, there weren’t that many people.” Looking back through the archives, I found that their previous visit was in October 2012, just a few days after my great musical hero, Peter Hammill, had graced the same stage and complimented the venue on its Fazioli grand piano. Although Cowley didn’t make any specific comment on the Fazioli himself, it certainly sounded (to my untrained ear) like an instrument more than capable of reflecting the twists and turns of Cowley’s effortlessly variegated playing.

Back in 2012, of course, I was shamefully ignorant of Cowley’s music, a situation only rectified last year when I reviewed his then new album Touch and Flee for The Quietus. That record has remained a firm favourite with me since then, so it was a sheer delight to hear it performed straight through as the first set of this concert. With Horan issuing moody runs on double bass and Jenkins a dartingly creative presence behind the kit, Cowley’s virtuoso mastery of the keyboard left me slack-jawed with admiration. Frequent words, smiles and glances between the three of them testified to the rock solid status of the trio as a unit, not to mention the pianist’s occasional bursts of laconic humour between tunes. Live as on record “Sparkling” was a gorgeous highlight, its timeless summery beauty inscribed deep in its surging, blissful melody. The jaunty “Couch Slouch” lightened the atmosphere considerably, while “Mission” built on a rickety toy piano intro to reach a stirring, animated conclusion.

Cowley promised to “play the hits” in the second set, and he wasn’t joking. Not that he’s likely to trouble the charts any time soon, but riproaring tunes like “We Are Here To Make Plastic” and the stunning closer “She Eats Flies” were as winning and immediate as anything I’ve heard done in the name of jazz. Elsewhere, the pianist dedicated the fleeting and delicate “Box Lily” to his prematurely born daughter, who had spent the first three months of her life in an incubator. Head bowed in thought, hands gently giving shape to the flecked radiance of the piece, Cowley was momentarily revealed as a loving father as well as a gifted pianist and composer. Although undercut by his trademark wit and humour (“she’s now seven and she’s a right pain in the arse”), it was a deeply poignant and tender moment in a concert filled with wonderful things.

Michael Nyman Band: Battleship Potemkin, Vienna Konzerthaus, 5 October 2014

I’m trying to plug some of the gaps in this blog left by concerts in 2014 that I never got round to reviewing at the time. There are plenty of these and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to all of them, but it’s got to be worth a try, right?

It seems sensible to start with some of the shows that figured in my list of top 10 concerts of last year. In October I finally caught up with Michael Nyman, a composer who’s been on my radar for many years thanks mainly to his haunting scores for Michael Winterbottom films like Wonderland and Everyday as well as, to a lesser extent, Jane Campion’s The Piano and his work for Peter Greenaway. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve long thought of Nyman as a kind of British version of my favourite contemporary composer Philip Glass – swelling (post) minimalist structures, one foot in art music and the other in popular music, as happy writing soundtracks as he is writing symphonies. It’s an impression that was amply reinforced by his appearance at the Konzerthaus, where he led his eponymous band through a live soundtrack to Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic Battleship Potemkin.

Now I’m no expert on silent film, but even I could tell that Battleship Potemkin was a significant achievement. I was gripped throughout by the film’s epic scale, its revolutionary editing techniques and its expertly marshalled propaganda message. But what struck me most of all was the people – the sailors, the authority figures, the people in the crowds –all of them intensely human, and all depicted with Eisenstein’s fascinated, unflinching gaze.

As for Nyman’s soundtrack, it was a powerful, headlong rush of a thing. I’m well aware that Nyman is treated with the same kind of sniffiness among the hardcore classical music fraternity that Glass is often subjected to, but I really can’t see the problem when the outcome is as lucid and inventive as this was. Hammering out pattern after bold pattern on the piano, Nyman led his virtuosic band superbly through the momentous events of the film. The uncanny sound of the saxophones, flutes and violins swathed the hall in vibrant textures and swirling, pulsating melodies. The film’s great forces of violence, struggle, treachery, unity and triumph played out hypnotically onscreen against the clashing inevitability of Nyman’s music.

Events took a rather surreal turn at the end of the evening. There had been a solitary heckle of “zu laut im Haus!” at one point during the performance, but I dismissed the uncouth interjection and turned my attention back to the stage and the screen. It was much to my surprise, therefore, that I walked past the mixing desk on my way out and found Nyman’s sound engineer being roundly scolded by a group of elderly female soi-disant musical experts, all falling over themselves to tell the poor guy how it had been far too loud and that their ears were still hurting. Well, boo hoo. Personally I could have done with it being a few notches louder, but the exchange illustrated perfectly why I like Nyman, an establishment figure who gets invited to play at the Konzerthaus but holds no brief for the stifling conventions of the classical music world.

Out in the foyer Nyman was signing autographs, not exactly besieged by well-wishers even though the performance had been well attended. I got my copy of Wonderland signed and related to him the story of what I had just seen. “This should be so much louder,” he replied.

Earth, Vienna Arena, 2 February 2015

A quick look back through previous entries of this blog confirms that this was at least the third time I had seen Earth in Vienna. They turned up at the Szene in 2008 and the Arena in 2011, although I’m pretty sure I also saw them opening for Sunn O))) at the Szene in 2006, which must have been one of my first concerts since moving to Vienna. It must have been galling to play support to a group who started out as a tribute band to you, and I wonder what the current state of the relationship between Dylan Carlson and Stephen OʼMalley is like, since they don’t seem to associate with each other much these days. But I digress.

My review of Earth’s 2008 appearance noted that on that occasion they augmented their core sound with keyboard and trombone parts. I recall being somewhat nonplussed by these embellishments, so I’m pleased to be able to report that Earth have gone back to basics this time, with the ever-present Carlson on guitar and Adrienne Davies on drums joined only by Bill McGreevy on bass. Carlson picked out long, agonisingly slow guitar solos against the thunderous swoop of Daviesʼ drums, the length and funereal pace of these instrumentals contributing to an overall mood of sludgey defiance that I found perversely invigorating.

Looking wilder and more whiskery than ever, Carlson speaks only to introduce the songs and his fellow musicians. The titles of the pieces (“Even Hell Has Its Heroes”, “There Is A Serpent Coming”) have a pleasingly apocalyptic ring to them that adds to the doomy ambience hanging over the proceedings. Although seven or eight distinct songs were announced, there was so little tonal variation between them that they might as well have been played as one continuous piece. This is not meant as any kind of criticism, by the way. On the contrary, the longer the concert progressed, the more engrossed did I become by Carlson’s relentlessly single-minded pursuit of the perfect note and riff.

In fact, the way Carlson approaches the guitar suggests that he regards it as some kind of block. His playing resembles a sculptural process aimed at refining and stripping down the instrument to its bare essentials. Holding the neck of the guitar aloft, his gaze fixed on the fretboard, he patiently chisels away at it as though in search of some higher truth. Unsurprisingly, none is found to emerge; nevertheless, Carlson’s impossible quest for enlightenment makes for an absorbing evening.

Concerts and albums of the year

Once again, time and other commitments have defeated me and I am way behind with this blog. The last concert I reviewed here took place in October; I’ve seen quite a few more since then, but haven’t had the time to write reviews of them, much to my regret. I’d still really like to fill in the gaps, but who knows if or when I’ll get around to it. Anyway, here’s some kind of list of the ten best concerts I saw in 2014, of which only a few currently have links to reviews:

  1. Shearwater, Vienna Szene
  2. Pharmakon, Vienna Arena
  3. Oliver Welter, Vienna Floridsdorf
  4. Michael Nyman Band: Battleship Potemkin, Vienna Konzerthaus
  5. Kraftwerk: The Man Machine, Vienna Burgtheater
  6. Fire! Orchestra, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  7. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato
  8. William Basinski, Warsaw Pardon To Tu
  9. Peter Brötzmann/Jason Adasiewicz/Steve Noble, Warsaw Pardon To Tu
  10. Christian Fennesz/Peter Rehberg, Vienna Grelle Forelle

I’m still not much of a consumer of new recorded music, although my new part-time job as a reviewer for The Quietus has given me some very welcome exposure to 2014 albums.   With that in mind, here are five new releases I enjoyed this year:

  1. Peter Hammill, …all that might have been…
  2. Fennesz, Bécs
  3. Neil Cowley Trio, Touch and Flee
  4. Pharmakon, Bestial Burden
  5. Fire! Orchestra, Enter

See you in 2015!