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Tuesday, October 22, 2002

++ Austro Audio: New Music From Vienna

++ Back from abroad, free from the job, I've taken it upon myself to rearrange my working quarters (that is, the corner of my bedroom that I tell the IRS is a "home office") and carve out a space slightly more conducive to productivity. Of course, in order to do that, I've had to dig my desk out from amongst towering stacks of CDs, and in the process discovered a massive backlog of excellent material, either recent or forthcoming for fall and winter. In the interest of expediency, then, consider this column, and most likely the next few weeks' as well, a kind of megamix of key fall releases; today I'll focus on my Austrian haul.

I came home from Vienna so loaded down with CDs that I was a bit worried about getting nabbed in customs; making matters worse, several of the discs I brought back from MEGO could probably be loosely considered audio weaponry, they're so abrasive. If you're not allowed to fly with nail clippers any more, I'm sure you shouldn't be allowed to carry Kevin Drumm's Sheer Hellish Miasma on the plane; the Chicagoan's virulent, thrumming guitar feedback sounds sufficient to blow out the wiring on the sturdiest 747. COH's Mask of Birth is more subdued, but employs the same fried-circuit textures, stretched over a frame of pulsating, magnetic beats. "New disco for the new human," proclaims COH's Ivan Pavlov in the liner notes. "This sure is electronic stuff. Only electronic keyboards were used on this recording." It sure is, Ivan; it sure is.

Pure's Noonbugs is a similarly seasick mess of needling sine tones and slow, rolling waves of bass, spread out across two long-ass tracks that swell to fill one very disconcerting hour. Hard to believe, but Pure is the same artist who used to record blistering techno as Ilsa Gold for Vienna's Mainframe records. His "Winterreise" release dates back to 1995 but has just been reissued; its fusion of hi-hats, acid lines and bass kicks is like an unstable chemical compound, ready to collapse at any moment. Maybe if the track did crumble to pieces — and lay decomposing for a long, long, time — it would sound a little like ohne's 1. ohne, a quartet who cheekily copped the MEGO logo for their own band's branding, go digging through a sandpile of bleeps, clicks, hiccups and fragments of song, scooping it rudely into bags like investigators after a catastrophe. Odder still, a voice like Leonard Cohen's appears occasionally, slurring a dirge-like commentary. The CD cover pictures what might be some unidentified human organ, but ohne's sound ultimately suggests the bleakest naturalism ever, a landscape so sublime it would've sent Turner lunging for the absinthe.

++ Not all of the recent MEGO output is so abrasive, oppressive or dispiriting, though. Tujiko Noriko's second album, Hard Ni Sasete (Make Me Hard), is a strange and wonderful blur of melted-down pop, with her sweet, childlike voice (an awful lot like Björk's, it must be noted) buttered over organs, home-made beats, and scraps of flyaway ambiance.

Noriko's work, at least in spirit, if not tone, isn't far from some of the recent releases on Angelika Köhlermann, a newish label run by Gerhard Potuznik. Its most recent signing is Anne Grabow, a Viennese artist who, recording as Ted Minsky, creates beguiling, lo-fi pop that draws on electro, '60s soul, and even Brecht and Weill. It's all varnished with a thin synthetic veneer that seems to run counter to her own lyrics: "This isn't digital; this is real." A stylistic shape-shifter, Grabow at times recalls Björk, at times The B-52's, and at times Portishead, but ultimately her album Madame le Ted sounds unlike anything else.

Also quite unlike anything else out there is Philip Quehenberger's Q.BB.Q 12-inch on Cheap, one of Vienna's most respected experimental techno labels. I was lucky enough to catch a performance of Quehenberger's at Flex, a bass-heavy temple of boom if there ever was one. The very drunk Quehenberger, a relatively new entrant on the scene, stabbed at his sampler and tickled his keyboard like a jazzbo seductionist, but with the bass turned up as loud as it was, all you could discern was a fuzz of beats and overdriven leads. Still, it was thrilling stuff, and the single offers a clue or two to the pencil-mustachioed madman's method. Unsteady breakbeats grumble and thump beneath reams of grinding, distorted guitar, keyboards, and sheer noise. Quehenberger mumbles over most of his tracks, but his voice is so thick with effects, there's really no telling what he's saying. While he's clearly not afraid to use his fuzzbox, it's not all veiled in static: "Copa BBQ" is a nasty, electro churner that barrels along with pistons pumping, hard enough to scare the legwarmers off most electroclash dilettantes.

But Quehenberger is practically understated compared with the electro-punk bluster of Tweenie, another recent Cheap signing. On the opening track, Sebastian Schlachter and Stefan Strobl lay down New Order arpeggios, fat roadkill basslines, and flailing electric guitar while vocalist Edwina Vielhaber moans and shrieks in a voice that could give the shivers to Diamanda Galas herself. It's been a while since I've heard a track so laceratingly mean, but sexy at the same time. The rest of the EP is taken up with supercharged electro lock grooves, unsteady glitch techno, and an organ-thick vocal track that sounds like Matthew Herbert as heard through a nightmare. The perfect accompaniment to apple bobs and exorcism, Tweenie is very Halloweeny.

++ All of these releases are available from www.mdos.at, MEGO's mail order record shop. Next week the megamix continues a variety of American and European releases — including the long-awaited return of Skam recording artist Freeform.


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