November 16, 2023

The London prog fans who stayed at home rather than venture out mid-week missed one hell of a treat.

According to Julie Andrews in the famous Musical, the hills are alive with the sound of music around Salzburg. But the lovely Austrian city is not exactly bursting with world famous rock artists. Perhaps it’s because it was the birthplace of Mozart, and classical music still dominates the city today. As a result, rock acts, especially the more unusual and progressive groups such as Blank Manuskript don’t find fertile ground. A casual look at the band’s recent touring schedule shows gigs in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, but none in their native Austria, which is unusual.       

The gig at the 229 (yes, you’ve guessed it: it’s the street number, and it’s on Great Portland Street in central London), was the first of a four-date mini-tour of the UK by Blank Manuskript. The support act was Dandelion Charm, a duo formed of husband and wife, John and Clare Fowler from East Sussex. At heart, Dandelion Charm are a folk act, albeit spun out with plenty of progressive twists. With just two voices and one acoustic guitar, you might expect a thin sound, and yet the density of the guitar work and the exceptional harmony vocals filled out the sound more than sufficiently. Dandelion Charm played for the best part of fifty minutes, and dare I say it: they charmed the audience!

Wohlmuth leaves the bass aside to play flute

When Blank Manuskript took to the stage, you couldn’t help but notice the glittery and slightly gaudy costumes.  That perhaps was a hint of what was to come because Blank Manuskript’s extravagant take on progressive music is like no other. Imagine mixing Van Der Graaf Generator with bits of Genesis, Focus, Pink Floyd, a sprinkling of jazz, and a little bit of eccentricity – what pops out is Blank Manuskript. They opened with Public Enemy, one of their shorter and simpler songs, but even here there was a mix of different moods: the straightforward riff that opens the piece; the pastoral flute solo; and the wild careering keyboards. Quite how Blank Manuskript pull all these elements together without sounding horribly disjointed is slightly magical.   

One of Widerin’s sax solos

Blank Manuskript then played a good chunk of Himmelfahrt, their most recent studio album, an eight-part interlinked suite.  The fifteen or more minutes of Twilight Peak was one of the highlights of the gig. It was chockablock with brilliant musical ideas and passages. The sax shone in a couple of outstanding solos and the band got into a cool groove during a Floydian funky section. There was an extraordinary change of mood when the lights dimmed, and keyboardist Dominik Wallner played delicate piano in the style of Bach for maybe two minutes. Twilight Peak passed seamlessly into Celestial Spheres which was characterized by a dreamy vocal, a little reminiscent of early Camel. It was gripping music, and gripping musicianship as band members casually changed instruments. Bassist Alfons Wohlmuth shed the bass in favour of a flute more than once, and the most versatile of all was Jakob Widerin whose primary instrument was the sax, but he also contributed guitar, flute and even glockenspiel during the evening (the glockenspiel was most striking in the remarkably atmospheric central passage of Shared Isolation).

After that newer material, Blank Manuskript went back to the vaults and their 2008 debut album for the two-part After The War. Part 1 was a meditative interplay between acoustic guitar and flute, while Part II was an impressive organ drenched Floydian piece with a clear nod of the head to Comfortably Numb. It gave guitarist Peter Baxrainer an opportunity to pull off a blistering solo, and he followed that up with another lengthier, more restrained, but equally brilliant solo that was the centrepiece of the band’s signature song, The Cult Of The Birdman. Oh, and that was after Baxrainer had opened the piece playing recorder while Wohlmuth and Widerin both played flute. There are no constraints with this band!

The vocals were very democratically shared between four band members with just drummer Simon Strasshofer remaining silent. There was some good banter too – the most interesting concerned how the band heroically set off to isolate themselves on a farm in the Czech Republic and write the material for what would become their 2019 release Krásná Hora. So, while they probably nearly froze to death since they could only afford to go in November, they did take the wise precaution of taking a cook with them to ensure everyone was happily well fed.

The encore was an early track called Doubts, a heavy riffing number with some unexpected Queen-like harmonies added. It then verged into what I believe was a track called Magician’s Dance which was reminiscent of the more experimental early Roxy Music material. The gig concluded after an hour and a half of intense but intensely rewarding prog music. The only negative point was the rather meagre attendance. The London prog fans who stayed at home rather than venture out mid-week missed one hell of a treat. If any of the upcoming dates are near you then I strongly advise you to go along and see them.

Blank Manuskript take well-earned applause