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.

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.

Oliver Welter, Vienna Floridsdorf, 9 October 2014

It’s not often that you come across a completely new and surprising format for live concerts, but that’s what Vienna artist, actor and director Oliver Hangl has come up with in the excellent series of “walking concerts” that he curates. The idea is simple but brilliantly effective: the performer wears a microphone, the audience is kitted out with wireless headphones, and together they wander through the streets of the city, the singer serenading the audience as they go with music beamed magically into their heads. No need to worry about noise from passing cars, or that the music is too loud for the neighbourhood – there’s only you, your fellow audience members, the constantly changing environment and the performer, whom you can be as close to or as distant from as you wish. Every so often, the performer stops at an open space to sing and the audience gathers round. It’s a uniquely welcoming and intimate way to experience live music.

Hangl has put on quite a few of these walking concerts over the past couple of years, but last month’s event with Oliver Welter was the first I had attended. Regular readers of this blog will not need reminding of my admiration for Welter and his group Naked Lunch, and I remain stumped by the fact that no other writer in English seems to have cottoned on to their significance. Critical recognition is long overdue; in the meantime, Naked Lunch continue to impress with their wintry, melancholic alt-rock.

Anyway, this was my third time of seeing Welter solo. Following earlier outings at the Radiokulturhaus and the Chelsea, temples to state-sponsored culture and Anglophile scuzz respectively, here Welter and his guitar were to be found in and around the streets of Floridsdorf, the 21st district of Vienna. Kicking off on the steps of the town hall, headphones safely clamped over our ears, we negotiated pavements and pedestrian crossings before finding ourselves outside an Interspar supermarket. I really didn’t think we were going to go inside, but sure enough we did. Bemused shoppers looked up from their browsing as Welter launched into “God” from the Songs for the Exhausted album, its tone of savage pessimism sitting uncomfortably among the mops and buckets on display.

Our next stop, equally surreally, was a small funfair outside Floridsdorf station. Following a brief, tense period of negotiation between Hangl and a carousel operator, Welter – somewhat precariously, it must be said – took up position on the sweet little roundabout, whose young passengers were fortunate enough to catch the title track of the Universalove soundtrack album. Striding purposefully through the busy station itself, Welter delivered the first of several cover versions, Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is To Love Him”. Here, as with later readings of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”, it’s Welter’s quavery, desolate voice and tender washes of acoustic guitar that turn familiar pop standards into expressions of forlorn, burnt-out romanticism.

Lighting out for the quiet residential streets behind Floridsdorf station, Welter answered my silent wishes with a stunning version of my favourite Naked Lunch song, “Military of the Heart” from This Atom Heart of Ours. The evening’s final setting, though, was as perfect as it was unexpected: a quiet riverside restaurant on the shores of the Alte Donau. The sun having long since set, an inky gloom descended as we stepped gingerly onto the jetty. After tearing his way through All Is Fever’s epic showstopper “The Sun”, Welter, in an inspired move that did more than anything else to make this event unforgettable, clambered aboard a small boat and proceeded to give the rest of the concert from there. Floating on the dark waters of the Alte Donau with a helmsman at the wheel, Welter’s anguished rendition of “The Retainer” was a heartstopping moment. As, indeed, was the evening’s last song, the despairingly bleak “The Funeral”, sung a capella by Welter as he and his craft drifted slowly out of vision and into the enveloping blackness of the night.

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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 parallel 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.

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.