Heaven And, Vienna Künstlerhaus, 15 December 2010

My last concert of 2010 neatly tied together a couple of strands from the previous two. Like Tortoise, Heaven And have two drummers; like Broken Heart Collector, one of them is Didi Kern. Kern’s presence in the line-up tonight no doubt came about due to the no-show of regular Heaven And drummer Tony Buck, although it’s unclear to me whether Buck has left the group for good or whether his absence on this occasion was merely temporary. Since a large part of Heaven And’s prior appeal rested on the churning impact of Buck and Steve Heather’s twin percussive attack, restricting themselves to just one sticksman for this concert was clearly not an option.

Heaven And impressed me enormously when I saw them at Nickelsdorf this summer, their pulverizing guitar-and-drums racket providing the Konfrontationen festival with an appropriately confrontational late-night finale. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those dizzying heights, it was only because of the sparse attendance and also because of the bizarre set-up of the performance space. In front of the stage was a standing area and, beyond that, a few rows of raked seating. The audience were always going to gravitate towards those seats, leaving a yawning gap between group and audience which was plugged only by a few stumpy pillars, whose only conceivable function seemed to be to rest drinks upon. Since no-one was standing anyway, they looked rather forlorn.

None of which prevented Heaven And from turning in an utterly convincing performance, with Martin Siewert’s regular and tabletop electric guitars blasting into overdrive against Kern and Heather’s constantly shifting patterns and Zeitblom’s relentless bass groove. And, of course, the group had an ace up their sleeve: a special guest appearance by Swedish (and surely, by now, honorary Viennese) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Tearing great strips out of the air with his awesome lung power, Gustafsson matched Siewert all the way for sheer audacity and verve; a rare and precious instance of white-hot rock and world-beating free improvisation, colliding and fusing in their own light and heat.

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.


Konfrontationen Festival Day 4, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2010

On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.

Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone.  And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.

All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.

Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.

Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.

And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.

(Review of day 2 here.)

Letter to The Wire, July 2009

Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.

A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.

Donaufestival 2009, Day 1: Sonic Youth, Fennesz, Heaven And, No Neck Blues Band

It’s taken me far too long to get around to writing a report on this year’s Donaufestival, so here’s the first of three recaps of the nights I attended. In general there was plenty more to enjoy this year after the fairly disastrous line-up of the 2008 event. The headlining acts were mostly of a high standard, reflected in the news that the festival’s director has had his contract extended for a further three years (due in large part, no doubt, to the fact that a record 13,000 people visited this year). Crucially, the headliners – people like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Spiritualized – were the kind of artists who walk that tricky balancing act between creativity and commerciality; they attract relatively large audiences, yet are able to do so without compromising their artistic integrity. (I wish I could say the same for Antony & the Johnsons, the festival’s single biggest draw this year, whose appearance on weekend 2 I had no desire to see.)

It’s more the second-tier acts that the festival has to work on now. With one or two honourable exceptions, there seemed to be a gaping hole in the middle of most evenings, with not much to entertain those people who were waiting around until 11.00pm to see the main act. One of those exceptions would certainly be the No Neck Blues Band, who had the unenviable task of being the first group to play on the main festival site on the first evening. They carried it off with great verve, though, creating a loose yet compelling weave of instrumental textures and the odd bit of Fluxus-style tomfoolery. Funnily enough NNCK were the first group I ever saw at the Donaufestival, at the old Korneuburg site in 2006 (review), so it was good to get reacquainted with them. The blond college boy-type percussionist, who on that occasion stripped naked and smeared himself with fake blood, was comparatively restrained this time, climbing very athletically up the lighting rig in order to suspend a cello from the ceiling. Meanwhile the spectacularly bearded frontman was busy winding a long reel of string around various instruments onstage – a nice visual correlative to the increasingly meshed and vexatious music.

Later on in Halle 2, all this detritus was cleared away in order to make way for a MacBook and an electric guitar –  a sure sign that Fennesz was in the building. The Austrian laptop musician played a blinding set, issuing simple chords and riffs on the guitar and then subjecting them to all manner of treatments and manipulations. The results were vivid, colourful and entirely engrossing. Electronica guys like Fennesz and Peter Rehberg are often accused of taking the easy option, of somehow not being ‘real’ musicians, but there’s an awful lot of brow-furrowing going on when they stare into their laptops. Forming a marked contrast with the blank looks of most rock musicians, this level of concentration is an indicator of the care and creativity that go into electronic music-making of this quality.

Over in Halle 1, I caught a brief snatch of Heaven And, a pleasantly noisy rock/improv unit who reminded me (in a good way) of ’73/’74-era King Crimson. Having impressed the Sonic Youth-hungry audience enough to win an encore, they then rather ballsed it up by coming back on to play a slow, quiet and searching piece.

No chance of Sonic Youth themselves doing anything quiet or searching, though. Do they actually have any slow songs in their repertoire? If so, we certainly didn’t hear any of them tonight. This group, about whom I have always remained agnostic despite their impeccable avant credentials, came on and proceeded to blast their way through a set of jerky, spasmodic numbers that were each about as short as Kim Gordon’s skirt. It was a lot easier to admire than to enjoy, if I’m being honest. No shortage of energy, for sure, but precious little of the close-your-eyes-and-be-transported transcendence that the finest rock music has to offer – and which I was to experience in excelsis two nights later.