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The Viennagram

The Middle East, Cambridge, Mass.

December 13, 2008

As I write this, I have yet to form a solid opinion of the Providence-based punk / showtunes / experimental outfit The Viennagram. At once the group is pretentious and unpolished. Its wisdoms are coal on the verge of becoming pearls, sometimes hitting, but often missing. It’s a spaghetti-on-the-wall philosophy, one that, for all but the most virtuosic, is better left for the rehearsal room than for the concert hall.

Their saving grace is that they know that, too.

They’re a five year work in progress, grown from a group of friends and acquaintances who met at the Olive Garden, where several members worked. Some were musicians, some were artists, and some were people simply fascinated by the project itself. The result was mixed. While generating some genuine output, band members say, early feedback told them to tighten up the act: fewer people on stage, and more music (and less roadie shock art).

What remains is a significantly more coherent, but still developing sound. They retain many of their performance art (though they hate to use the phrase) aspects: Dan “Danger Dan” Dubois comes from a primarily visual arts background and will paint, dance, scream, or otherwise contort himself on stage, to the confusion and amusement of the audience. Frontman A.V. (the eponymous Alex Vienna) is a character-actor of sorts, a self-created freak-show villain that’s unafraid to drink ink, wave dildos and plastic limbs, change costumes several times throughout a show, and otherwise draw gratuitous amounts of attention to himself.

Their goal is to bombard the senses. If the shrieking of A.V. and Danger Dan into megaphones doesn’t hit you, then maybe the ironic Dixie-land brass lines will, or watching the bass player bite a lightbulb, or the confetti that flies from a jury rigged catapult, or the just barely stable frame of pots and pan used as a drum set, or the fluorescent posterboard “pow!” sign thrown at the audience mid-act, or the flurries of feathers released from a mid-concert down pillow pillow-fight. And this is just how The Viennagram scratches the surface.

It will keep you awake, at only slightly more than the price of a medium latte.

My biggest criticism for the group (or for the audience — the lines blur) is that much of the shock and awe may distract from some excellent expression from the less-lit parts of the stage. Pianist “Turbo D” and guitarist Abe Edelman pulled the most weight and got the least attention, as did the group’s Berklee-trained brass section, which was clumped together on stage right and wasn’t as audible as the frontmen. But all that is forgivable, as The Viennagram is much more a work in progress than a standalone moment in time, a study of people as much as a documentation of what they can do. Guitarist Abe Edelman explained, “the theater of life never gets old,” and that audience versus band, audience versus audience, and band versus band were all fascinating conflicts and worthy of observation. At each show, even the most devoted Viennagram fans are confused. By the show’s end, though, they remember why they came: curiosity, and the pursuit of a mass consciousness: a bunch of people who don’t know what the hell is going on, and who are fine with that.

After the show, the room littered with confetti and feathers, A. V. told me how he loved how the whole crowd would go home, the scent of feathers still on them, and how every time they saw a pillow, for days, they would remember the show. That is The Viennagram’s immortality. I never got a clear answer on whether their music was more constructive or destructive, and I suspect it’s because The Viennagram isn’t sure.

While I feel that the Viennagram is far from the final word in music, they’re definitely on to something. This is a show you need to see live, a show that resurrects music as an experience, as a social experiment, and not just a solitary glimpse of a divine but isolated noise. Perhaps, in an age with so much music and nobody listening to it, The Viennagram’s unpredictability, lack of refinement, and, above all, their malleability in their pursuit of the perfect shit show, may be close to the right medicine.