Blank Manuskript have described themselves as a ‘musical chamber of wonder’, a description which anyone who has been fortunate enough to see this remarkable Austrian band live in concert would certainly have to agree. The Blank Manuskript live experience is sumptuous, bewildering, thrilling, infectiously, enchanting and a little scary all at the same time – they really are that good. A Live Document is the band’s first live album, and the near 80-minutes of songs are taken from their three standout shows during 2022 – Night of the Prog at Loreley and Woodstock Forever, both in Germany, and ARGEkultur Salzburg in Austria. This is a band who have also shown considerable commitment to touring in the UK in recent years, and I was fortunate enough to see them in a Church in South Devon on a magical night last year… but does this live album capture that magic?
A Live Document comprises ten songs, but there are two extended passages with the first six songs making up two segued epics of three songs each, each well over 20-minutes each. Interestingly, the songs in these passages are not even from the same albums, but Blank Manuskript weave them together so skilfully and artfully they feel completely connected. The short opening Foetus is from their 2019 album Krasna Hora, and its plaintive vocals and acoustic guitar make it an evocative curtain raiser, like a chorus to a Greek play. This brief opening immediately reveals the band as vocally talented, both individually and as a group, with all the members contributing to the singing. Foetus gestates into the much more menacing Public Enemy, from 2015’s The Waiting Soldier, about the loss of identity in human beings, with a chiming, haunting guitar and electric organ motif from Dominik Wallner. The power and tempo soon rises before receding into a delightful pastoral flute passage from… well, I’m not sure who plays the flute in this song as this multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist band has two flute players, Jakob Widerin and Alfons Wohlmuth. Indeed, the album credits reveal the bewildering array of instruments each member plays, as well as singing. In concert, it is a wonder to behold as the band effortlessly swap instruments multiple times – this is a seriously talented outfit!
Public Enemy proceeds forcefully before taking a short jazzy left-turn and then rolling along more darkly. Another unexpected turn injects some almost blues-like vocals and guitar to take us ominously towards the end… and straight into what must be one of the highlights of their gigs and this live album, the outstanding epic The Cult of Birdman, from their 2009 debut album Tales from an Island – Impressions from Rapa Nui. The Cult of Birdman characterises all that is great about this band, and this live album. It takes us on a fascinating and unpredictable musical journey for over 16-minutes (no really, bear with me – this piece fits that hackneyed ‘musical journey’ description so well that it is impossible to avoid that cliché!).
The Cult of Birdman swoops over a range of musical styles, starting with some lovely Supertramp-like piano from Wallner, overlaid with delicate early Genesis-like flute… which all of a sudden morphs into a frankly bonkers jazz section, with Jakob Widerin honking away madly on saxophone over some deft and funky drumming from Jakob Sil (who is outstanding throughout the album). Blank Manuskript’s vocal dexterity shines out as they indulge in some eccentric vocals, reminiscent of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Just when you think we are losing touch with sanity we find ourselves losing touch with planet Earth as the love story of The Cult of Birdman seemingly floats off into the vacuum of Space with an ever so subtle bass from Alfons Wohlmuth and some very Floydian electric guitar from Peter Baxrainer. Putting all these disparate elements together really should not work, but somehow the magicians of Blank Manuskript succeed in gloriously fusing these elements together. The song gathers pace and power with some stratospheric guitar and tremendous organ work as the whole band drive forward, barely but skilfully keeping it just on the right side of chaos. This mind-bending whirlpool calms beautifully for the finale with some sweet harmony vocals and gentle piano, and it is all over too soon.
In some ways it is mystifying why the band did not end their show with such a great song, but it certainly plunges the gig goers deeply into the intoxicating world of Blank Manuskript. I did not know their music before I saw them last year, but such is their showmanship (in eye-catching and colourful costumes) and their musical skills, it simply does not matter – you just get swept along with it. The same is true of this album. You may never have heard a note of Blank Manuskript music before but there is a good chance that after this opening triptych of songs most listeners will have been captured in the Blank Manuskript net and just go with it.
The second trio of numbers commences with a manic sax and drums intro as Twilight Peak, from 2020’s Himmelfahrt album, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, emerges from the clouds and, similarly to the splendid The Cult of Birdman, we are on another musical rollercoaster. The sax and drums are suddenly superseded by a tapping electric guitar, which then ascends on a breathless flight before we settle down into a near chanted vocal section with the return of pastoral flute tones. The dam breaks halfway through the song as the whole band crash in stridently, and we descend into a maelstrom of furious and remarkable saxophone from Jakob Widerin, which elicits a well-deserved mid-song round of applause. The emotions are well explored on this imaginative number as a lonely plaintive piano evokes a sense of melancholy. A Floydian guitar enters, and the song rises to an appropriate peak… before segueing beautifully into the delightful acoustic guitar and flute instrumental After the War (part 1) from the debut album. The second part of After the War opens with a gently rising vocal passage on a bed of organ before a sensuously sinuous guitar solo flows over the piece. A lovely sax solo is the inevitable gentle come down of this gloriously melodic and melancholic elegy. It genuinely feels rather emotional.
The Last Journey jolts us back to Krasna Hora (which provides all four songs for the closing quartet of this album) with the band careering down a rock mountain in unison, but from this headlong drive we suddenly hear some plaintive harmony vocals ‘Save Me’. From this brief plateau of calm the song soon enters its last mesmerising death-dive on a mighty relentless wave of rock from this finely tuned and intuitive outfit. From the debris of The Last Journey, the band effortlessly flow into the heartbreaking Silent Departure, which is delicately played on classical guitar by Peter Baxrainer, and what sounds like an accordion, presumably played on the keyboard, over which the band sing with suitably fragile vocals.
Shared Isolation injects a distinctly strange off-kilter atmosphere as saxophone and electric guitar seem to maniacally squawk at each other before the guitar implodes in a squall of feedback. From this chaos emerges a Tangerine Dream-like synth wave. You could not really make this stuff up! Blank Manuskript seem to know no boundaries. Shared Isolation continues to twist and turn in bewildering but fascinating musical contortions, with sax blasts and weirdly brilliant serpentine synths bringing this insanely inspired song to a shuddering climax. Blank Manuskript barely take a breath before launching into Alone at the Institution, with Eastern woodwind and tremendous drumming taking us in a completely different direction… well, of course they do! A distinctly jazzy section is embroidered with magnificent saxophone and playful guitar noodling. The opening Eastern-tinged opening theme is recapitulated before Blank Manuskript bring the show and album to a close with a gently undulating passage and some outstanding and heartfelt vocals.
I have very fond memories of the incredible performance from Blank Manuskript last year, and this is a great reminder of the spectacle they so skilfully put on for us. They return to the UK in November, and this time I am contemplating a considerable cross-country journey to see them again, such is the brilliance of their shows. I would highly recommend others taking the opportunity to see this very special band in action.
For those lucky enough to have seen Blank Manuskript, A Live Document is a brilliant souvenir to remember that experience – it has been on constant repeat since I received it.
For those who have yet to see Blank Manuskript – or are unable to do so – A Live Document is a perfect introduction to this truly original and exceptionally talented band… just take a leap and join the ‘Cult of the Birdmen’ from Austria!
01. Foetus (2:27)
02. Public Enemy (5:40)
03. The Cult of Birdman (16:30)
04. Twilight Peak (12:06)
05. After the War (Part 1) (2:10)
06. After the War (Part 2) (8:12)
07. The Last Journey (5:07)
08. Silent Departure (4:09)
09. Shared Isolation (11:54)
10. Alone at the Institution (9:41)
Total Time – 77:56
Peter Baxrainer – Electric Guitar, Classical Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Recorder, Vocals
Jakob Sigl – Drums, Percussion, Tapes, Vocals
Jakob Widerin – Saxophone, Flute, Electric Guitar, Percussion, Vocals
Dominik Wallner – Electric Organ, Electric Piano, Synthesisers, Vocals
Alfons Wohlmuth – Electric Bass, Electric Upright Bass, Flute, Vocals
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Austria
Date of Release: 14th April 2023
– Tales from an Island – Impressions from Rapa Nui (2009)
– The Waiting Soldier (2015)
– Studio – Live – Session at ORF Radiokulturhaus (2018)
– Krasna Hora (2019)
– Himmelfahrt (2020)
– A Live Document (2023)