The Positive Powers

4. November 2006

Austria sees itself as the “nation of music” and Vienna the culture-capital, so when it comes to dropping names, it is Mozart, the Strauss family, Karajan and Falco that first spring to mind. But the city on the Blue Danube has much more to offer than the traditional clichés and today has a lively contemporary music scene. An overview.

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So what about the other musical Austria, the flip side of the trademark classical music culture? It all began in 1986 when Hans Hölzel, alias Falco, topped the US charts for three weeks with “Rock Me Amadeus”. In the mid-90s a new buzz went round as Kruder & Dorfmeister’s electronic “Sound of Vienna” created waves in the media in cities as far afield as London, Paris and New York. Today there is a small, compact, but fine local scene and a crop of musicians who have been known to punch above their weight on the international stage. The secret is out; there is a lively, creative, original and independent cultural biotope growing behind the back of the big marketing machinery. The time has come for the new “heroes of today” (to quote Falco, the ultimate role-model) to find their place in the world, as DJ and musician Electric Indigo tours Europe and the USA, and acts such as Kruder & Dorfmeister and Dzihan & Kamien are no longer just insider tips.

But let’s go back to Vienna itself. This is where the music plays. The communications “big bang” created by the arrival of the Internet has left its mark. Vienna’s digital Bohemians have been doing their homework and have progressed from bedroom studios to the download revolution and the new media channels of Google, Napster, iTunes, YouTube and MySpace. There is no better place to check out the Austrian music scene than in Vienna.

What in 2007 are the absolute “must sees” in the city and surrounds? The electronic scene with its Techno, TripHop, Dub, Drum & Bass, Electro and Downbeat features a rich world of sound and top-quality auditory experiences. As long ago as the mid-1990s, NME (New Musical Express) was raving about “Viennatones” and the British avant-garde magazine Wire was amazed that Vienna had been able to develop such a lively, innovative and well-networked scene.

Today Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister are still running their definitive label G-Stone and remain as adventurous as ever. The Sofa Surfers have just celebrated the ten-year anniversary of their business arm, Klein Records. Meanwhile, those eternal Underground-buddies Pulsinger & Tunakan (Cheap Records) – who in recent years have moved towards Jazz and DJ culture – have found new company in Dzihan & Kamien, who stage Couch-Sound (!) as something like a multicultural, eclectic feel-good spectacle. So, although it has almost become a cliché, the impulsive-relaxed “Sound of Vienna” is alive and well. Especially now that Heinz Tronigger’s “Sunshine” crew, which runs several bars (Passage, Roxy among others) and records acts such as Madrid De Los Austria on its own label, has gotten a radio station. At last, the city’s soundtrack has found a home on the airwaves.

But stop! That’s not quite fair. FM4 has been the real listening post and youth-culture station for more than ten years. It is central Europe’s most innovative public radio station with a cult following reaching from Munich to Bolzano and on to Bratislava. It might just be the most important media lifeline for Austrian musicians on this side of Austro-Pop history. If it’s not on the FM4 playlist, it is probably not any other, either.

This much is certain: today, Austria’s musical landscape is more diverse, more active, original, autonomous, independent and confident than ever. Some twenty-five years ago the Progressive-Punk band Chuzpe sang about a gathering of the “positive powers” coming together “for you and me”. Despite the passage of time, the words still ring true and have gained in their power to inspire.

In many genres we have already seen the results. In HipHop, acts such as Texta, Schönheitsfehler, DJ DSL, MaDoppelT, Kamp and the Waxolutionists have stirred things up and made their mark. Meanwhile, Attwenger is rightly seen as a folk music innovator and there is a long list of guitar heroes, Electro-Pop acts and neo-singer/songwriters.

My three unashamedly subjective recommendations for top acts are Heinz, a band featuring Michi Gaissmaier and specializing in a combination of Rock and traditional Viennese music, who are more daring and creative than the likes of Sportfreunde Stiller. Also on my list is Wolfgang Schlögl, a.k.a. I-Wolf, who is always up for an adventure either as the man behind the Sofa Surfers, solo or in combination with other acts. And last but not least Silicone Pumpgun, alias Barca Baxant and DJ Callrider, represent a kind of fresh, relaxed and enthusiastic Sequencer-Trash-Pop without adhering to tradition.

At this point I should mention Russkaja, who, together with the “Ost” club, have signaled strong support for Russian Disco, Ethno Trends and Balkan Chic. But then what about bands such as DelaDap!, Fatima Spar & the Freedom Fries and so on, and so on. Enough!

There are more live acts than ever. A quick glance at insider magazines such as Falter, Gap, “tbc” or even at dailies like the Kurier, Standard or Presse is enough to confirm that. There is a great range of clubs and venues with quality programming that are well worth exploring.

The music spot in Vienna is Flex: the Underground Shangri La with a Punk heritage and a concrete subwoofer. Flex is today what Voom Voom was to the 60s, Vanilla the 70s, U4 the 80s and Volksgarten the 90s. Rhiz is the meeting place for Spex readers, laptop musicians and pop theoreticians. It is down-to-earth and at the same time futuristic, something typical of this revitalized stretch along the Gürtel. The Kunsthalle on Karlsplatz, a glass cubicle with avant-garde artwork inside, along with the adjoining Kunsthalle Café have been regular haunts for connoisseurs for years thanks to their central position and open atmosphere. Project space offers a diverse program of music and DJs for free. For people who can look a bouncer in the eye, the Passage, a former pedestrian underpass beneath the Ringstrasse and not far from the equally worthwhile Volksgarten Pavilion, has been transformed into Vienna’s hippest party zone and is home to the fashionable clubbing scene. Another venue worth checking out is Elektro Gönner, a former electrical hardware store and now an insider tip for unpretentious excursions into the world of bars and music, with a mixed crowd of FM4 staff and the crew of the sound studio next door.

More than ever it is the small but classy independent labels that keep music production going. They include Wohnzimmer Records, Trost, Acute, Schönwetter, Pate, monkey., Karate Joe, Siluh – to name just a few.

The number of record and CD stores is dwindling because most of the action now happens online (try http://www.musiktank.at, http://www.mica.at, http://www.pop-info.at, http://www.austriancharts.at, http://www.sra.at, http://www.musicchannel.cc). But for those who are looking, the usual chains are joined by much more intimate and inviting shops modeled on High Fidelity. Vinyl is still available – for the MP3 generation an almost erotic, haptic, optic and auditory experience. Black Market for example, is more than just an ordinary record store. It is also a favorite drop-in place for aficionados of Downbeat, Black Music, Drum’n’Bass and Electronica. A range of other shops, stores and boutiques offer selected CDs, off-beat rarities and knowledgeable staff. The motto is do it yourself – from concept to local sales.

It is simply not true that the local scene is lacking in quantity and quality. The various protagonists in the local creative industries have been working hard to raise profiles in the marketplace. The results are almost always a personal and cultural pleasure and profit. So why not invest a little time and ear-space, it is well worth it.

J U K E B O X
Three recommended, current CD productions from Vienna

SOFA SURFERS: Sofa Surfers (Red Album)
(Klein Records, http://www.sofasurfers.net)

Originally the Sofa Surfers – the name says it all – were lumped in with Downbeat electronic musicians associated with Kruder & Dorfmeister. But Schlögl, Kienzl, Holzgruber and Frisch have long since reinvented and developed their own style. With their charismatic singer Mani Obeya (who also appears with Soundhotel), the quartet has found the missing link for their deep, organic grooves. Live, they are in a league of their own.

TNT JACKSON: Lovers
(Stereo Alpine, http://www.tntjackson.net)

Vienna’s electronic scene also has its share of the laptop-geeks, second-hand avantgardists and egocentric sound modelers who flick switches in living-room studios around the world. But here in Vienna Glamour, Pop, Punk, Sex, Concept and Kalkül are also at home, and there is hardly a band – except, perhaps, for Mediengruppe Telekommander – that so perfectly embodies the synthesis of electronics and sweat as does TNT Jackson.

STEREOTYP: Keepin’ Me
(G-Stone, http://www.g-stoned.com)

If you want to hear how the typical, finely tuned “Sound of Vienna” has developed in recent years, you would do well to listen in to Stefan Moerth, alias Stereotyp. While Peter Kruder has headed off into rarified electronics with Voom:Voom and Richard Dorfmeister perhaps makes too much use of the tried and tested with Madrid de Los Austrias, the long-term K&D apologist Stereotyp dabbles with a palette of Dub, Soul and Club Sounds. The result is a magnificent bass-heavy and almost metaphysical soundscape for the vast space between the right and the left earlobes.

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