Jaga Jazzist, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 10 November 2015

Fabulous evening of out-there prog/jazz/electronica action from this phenomenally talented Norwegian octet. It’s been ten long years since I last saw Jaga Jazzist at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton, an intimate upstairs venue that will forever hold a special place in my heart by dint of the fact that I saw my first Swans concert there (the Children of God tour in 1987). Back in 2005, though, I knew precious little about jazz of any stripe, and it was only thanks to my friend J. coming down to Brighton to see this group that I ended up at the Pavilion at all. Come to think of it, it must also have been around that time that I saw the late, much missed Esbjorn Svensson and his trio at the Dome next door, another important step in my discovery of jazz. But I digress.

I’ve long been a sucker for large ensembles, from that other Nordic big band Fire! Orchestra (whom I’ve sadly yet to catch live) to Peter Brötzmann’s epic, and now retired, Chicago Tentet. The physical presence of a large number of people on stage inspires awe and wonderment, underlines the significance of collective activity, and not least produces a massive wall of sound that has the power to flatten anything in its way. In the case of Jaga Jazzist, the vivid tones of the guitars, keyboards, vibraphone, brass and reeds combine to form a dreamlike soundworld that cascades around the infectious grooves proposed by the bass and drums.

Speaking of drums, it’s drummer Martin Horntveth who readily assumes the role of face and voice of Jaga Jazzist. Sitting off to the side of the stage, his impressive beard lending him the air of a friendly backwoodsman, Horntveth introduces the songs and acts as the convivial cheerleader of the evening. His multi-instrumentalist brother Lars, the group’s main composer, occupies centre stage but stays out of the limelight. Switching between guitar, reeds and goodness knows what else, Lars is the architect of the pulsing melodies that define the immensely persuasive Jaga sound. Meanwhile, the tuba and trombone form an exultant partnership up at the back, their jazzy tone perfectly complementing the burbling tide of the synths.

The stage itself is beautifully lit, with rows of multi-coloured upright poles evoking some kind of playful, welcoming forest. It’s an impression amply reinforced by the spirited manner in which the group goes about its business. Lively and vivacious to the end, Jaga Jazzist warm the feet while appealing directly to the head and heart.


Peter Brötzmann/Jason Adasiewicz/Steve Noble, Warsaw Pardon To Tu, 19-20 November 2014; Peter Brötzmann/Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato, 1 October 2015

I never got around to reviewing Peter Brötzmann’s two-night residency with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Steve Noble at the Pardon To Tu club in Warsaw last November, an event that happily for me coincided with a work visit to the Polish capital. Now is as good a time as any to revisit that occasion, since the saxophonist also turned up the other week at the Blue Tomato in Vienna, with Noble this time but without Adasiewicz.

Pardon To Tu was an excellent venue, staffed by friendly people and with a relaxed yet enthusiastic audience. The club was crammed to capacity on both nights, while the walls were decorated floor to ceiling with strikingly effective black, white and red posters giving the history of previous events at the venue. Moving along the corridor that adjoined the main room, I was able to take in those posters and marvel at all the wonderful artists that the club has hosted in its illustrious past. The backdrop of the stage, meanwhile, was covered with the names of hundreds of luminaries from the worlds of creative and experimental music (Peter Hammill’s name being the only notable omission I could spot). The only downside to the place was the unwelcome presence of a dog, which the owners allowed to run uncontrolled around the place.

Ever since Brötzmann put the Chicago Tentet on ice, he’s been trying out new configurations and collaborators as a way of preventing the music from lapsing into predictability and routine, and this new trio is certainly an example of that. The Warsaw residency was the first time I had seen either Noble or Adasiewicz play, and both of them proved to be more than worthy foils for the sax legend. With Brötzmann kicking off strongly on alto, Adasiewicz was a gleeful presence on the vibraphone, the unusual timbre of the instrument forming warm clouds of invention that contrasted vividly with the saxophonist’s razor-sharp improvised lines. As for Noble, he was a formidably focused and inventive drummer, as was demonstrated in a thunderous duo passage with Brötzmann.

Both nights of the residency consisted of one long, 90-minute set, with pauses between the songs but no intermissions. This approach paid repeated dividends in terms of the trio’s intense and concentrated approach to free improvisation. Switching to clarinet, Brötzmann played a long jazzy solo that was as tender and beautiful as anything I’ve heard him play and cast the room into utter silence. Heading for the home stretch, Adasiewicz’s harsh metallic interventions prompted Noble into ever more pulsating activity while the saxophonist ripped the insides of his tenor to shreds.

Back at the Blue Tomato earlier this month, Brötzmann squared up to Noble for a truly engrossing evening of reeds and drums dialogue. I remain of the opinion, expressed last year in this review, that this duo form represents improvised music at its most elemental and dangerous. And anyone who heard the German rent the air of the Tomato’s hallowed back room that night with the warlike cry of his tenor and tarogato would surely think twice before disagreeing. Noble, meanwhile, picked up some irresistible rhythmic grooves in among the wow and clatter, the unerring dream logic of his percussion work harking back to his early days with Rip Rig & Panic.

It occurred to me while listening to this concert that, whereas the other four great reedsmen of our time (Braxton, Gustafsson, Parker and Vandermark) are all apt to launch into sections of circular breathing at one time or another, Brötzmann has always steered clear of the technique. Listening to the colossal intakes of breath that punctuate his playing, it’s not hard to understand why. Eschewing the heady spin and swirl that comes with the territory of extended soloing, Brötzmann’s playing remains firmly grounded in the earth, hewn from rock, soil and blood.

King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia, 21 September 2015

The last time King Crimson played in Paris was in July 2003, as part of their last European tour before reconvening this year with a new line-up. Since Robert Fripp at the time had an inexplicable aversion to playing in his home country (one which he has now happily overcome), I decided to travel to Paris for the concert. (I’ve always enjoyed going to Paris for shows, having gone there to see Swans in both 1992 and 1995.) Sadly, however, my mother died the week before the show, so I was unable to make it in the end, although I went to Paris anyway a few weeks later.

Twelve years later, and with my father now on his deathbed, it was finally time to make the journey to Paris to see King Crimson, although this time coming from the east rather than the west. Having been a fan for many years of the 1969-71 and 1973-74 incarnations of the group, but having little or no time for the various line-ups featuring Adrian Belew, it’s an unalloyed pleasure for me that the Belew period has effectively been written out of Crimson history with this tour. I still smile at Belew’s answer to the question of how he felt about not being invited to join the new Crimson: “Well, you know, I feel great about it.” Yeah, right Ade.

On the other hand, the return of Mel Collins to the fold is a welcome return to the earlier, classic Crimson sound and repertoire. In general I take with a grain of salt Fripp’s contention that “the music is new, whenever it was written.” The guitarist would no doubt disagree vehemently, but from where I was sitting in the twelfth row of L’Olympia, King Crimson sounded very much like a group keen to revisit past glories, the throwing in of a few half-baked new songs notwithstanding. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, indeed it’s what made this concert so spectacular. After many years of legal and financial hassle, personality clashes and whatnot, it was pure joy to see Fripp step out of the shadows and play the music that made Crimson great in the first place.

There’s a lot of talk about Crimson being so complex, so forbidding, but I can’t see it when the music hits you as directly and viscerally as this stuff does. The massive impact is largely down to the presence of a fearsome three-drummer front line that extends right across the front of the stage. Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison together form a vicious Cerberean beast, their densely interlocking vortices of sound leading the music into many unexpected and fruitful directions. Bringing sunlit warmth and beauty to these sacred texts of progressive rock, Collins is a darting and forceful presence on reeds, while Jakko Jakszyk is a fine singer and second guitarist.

As for Fripp himself, it’s his astonishing guitar work that propels Crimson into the realms of the stratospheric. His expressive, radiant melodies, and his richly emotive use of delay and sustain, surge and retreat around the vast sonic powerhouse cast by the front line. The crushing riff that drives “Red” threatens to stave your skull in, while the flickering, lambent motif that threads its way through “Starless” is, for my money, one of the most exquisite creations in all of popular music.

It was a shame, though, that Fripp didn’t speak once to the audience during the concert. As is well known from his (now sadly dormant) online diary, the man has a waspish sense of humour which, as numerous 70s live recordings attest, he would at one time use to good effect in sardonic comments to the audience between songs. The humorous side of Crimson is often overlooked in critical writing on the group, and it’s something that was largely absent from this concert (apart from a brief recorded announcement at the beginning).

The only other complaint I have about the show relates to one or two unforgivable omissions from the setlist. At 17 songs long, Monday’s concert was two shorter than Sunday night’s Paris début, and a whopping three shy of Tuesday night’s conclusion to the Paris residency. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been the iffy new material which was dropped, but I actually missed out on two certified Crimson classics, “Sailor’s Tale” and “In the Court of the Crimson King”. Of course, both songs could easily have been slotted into the evening if the frankly tedious “Soundscapes” curtain-raiser had been curtailed. “In the Court” at least I had assumed would be a non-negotiable element of the setlist, but apparently not. Indeed, it seems to have been played at every 2015 show except the one I attended, which blows. The omission of “Sailor’s Tale”, another song played at almost every other concert on this tour, was equally annoying, its pivotal position within the Crimson repertoire having been well described by Sid Smith as follows:

The guitar sounded like a steroid-enhanced banjo and utterly unlike anything else which Fripp had done before in Crimson. It’s the sound of the rock guitar solo rulebook being torn up… the leap from the symphonic and jazz stylings of the earlier albums into a spikier, metallic world.

Sources close to the group tell me that another Crimson European tour is planned for 2016, which will presumably venture a little further eastwards than did this jaunt (which only visited the UK, France and the Netherlands). On the strength of tonight’s performance, I would strongly advise interested parties to make strenuous efforts to catch this next tour, since the chance may not come again. This incarnation of King Crimson is savage, unrelenting, miraculous.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Vienna Arena, 25 July 2015

The last time Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy played in Vienna was back in 2008, on a blazing hot summer’s evening at the WUK. The heat inside the Arena for Will Oldham’s return visit in July was equally oppressive, but on this occasion Oldham and his immaculate band seemed more interested in keeping a lid on the atmosphere than in raising the onstage temperature by more than a degree or two. This was a jaunty, amiable canter through the Oldham back catalogue (with a sprinkling of cover versions) that did a great job of showcasing his immense talents as a songwriter, but did so at the expense of the disquiet that lurks at the heart of Oldham’s best work.

I freely admit to being no great authority on Oldham’s work, having only climbed on board with 1999’s breakthrough I See A Darkness LP and been a follower up to and including 2006’s troubling The Letting Go. Having doubled back and devoured the earlier, devastating Palace Brothers/Music records, I pretty much jumped off the bus with 2008’s Lie Down in the Light, a perky set that left me bemused rather than (as I probably should have been) cheered by Oldham’s apparent eagerness to move from darkness into light. A run of inconsequential later releases (2011’s sombre Wolfroy Goes to Town excepted) merely reinforced the impression that here was an artist who had fatally lost his way.

This impression was not in any way dispelled by July’s concert, in which a large and appreciative Arena audience saw Oldham deliver a set that drew heavily on those recent records and was, as a result, distinctly underwhelming. With the rickety Appalachian sound pushed to the forefront, Oldham’s blend of country and folk was relaxed to the point of nonchalance. As song after song drifted past on a bed of twangy guitar, pleasantly shuffling rhythms and frankly unnecessary saxophone, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this stuff was being dispatched in an unforgivably casual manner. Nowhere was the problem more evident than in the treatment of “I See A Darkness” itself, which was entirely drained of its sepulchral elegance and reinvented as a dire, bouncy singalong.

Oldham remains a gifted lyricist, uniquely able to evoke love, loss and doubt in words of haunting and skeletal beauty. His voice, meanwhile, has a reedy, quavering quality that I find very appealing. But he has a weirdly declamatory way of singing that undermines the broken dignity of his texts and makes them sound like so much bluster. When you add the inadvisably middle-of-the-road arrangements, the outcome was a gig as baffling as it was frustrating.

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.


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.