Tagged: Norway

The Loving Tongue


Here’s the latest outburst of mean-spirited evil acoustic gittarring hoodoo from Bill Orcutt, the guitarist from Harry Pussy who caused such a stir when he resurfaced from a long silence armed with an acoustic guitar so fierce that you could hear the very grain of the wood when he played it in his angry, restless and atonal way. On A History Of Every One (EDITIONS MEGO eMEGO 173) the ferocity that I seem to recall from 2009′s A New Way To Pay Old Debts may have mollified by one or two degrees, allowing us better to concentrate on Orcutt’s curious approach where he mixes primitive blues/country idioms with a very strong bent on modernistic free improvisation, so that he continues to comes across as a more forceful and grumpier version of John Fahey inhabited by a ghostly variant of Sonny Sharrock with thin reedy fingers clutching the neck like a lifeline. The sensation of hearing many poltergeists channelled through a single physical entity is reinforced by Orcutt’s eerie vocalisings on this record, which aren’t really singing so much as the sort of weird wailing that most great jazz pianists use, in what I had always assumed was a sort of guide-track to keep their keys in tune with the melody and their body in time with the swing. If you scope the back cover of this release you’ll see a clutch of titles that reflect either an appreciation of primitive swamp blues (‘Black Snake Moan’, ‘Bring Me My Shotgun’, ‘Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground’) or allude to standards from the American songbook of Grade-A schmaltz, including ‘White Christmas’, ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and ‘Zip A Dee Doo Dah’ 1. And ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ may be intended as another nod in Fahey’s direction, viz. Fare Forward Voyagers or any of his works which hinted at his love-hate relationship with the Christian faith. However, as you will hear when he plays these tunes, they are by no means cover versions that remain faithful to their sources, and that’s putting it mildly, nor do they dwell in any known blues modes for more than five seconds at a time. While we’re looking at the cover, note how stark and unadorned it be with its sans-serif fonts and no images. Orcutt’s White Album, without a doubt. From October 2013.


Another strong record from the Norwegian trio Cakewalk who we last heard with their 2012 debut album Wired; they use synths, guitars, bass and drums to produce excellent improvised instrumental work, situated somewhere more or less in the area of avant-garde rock music, but enriched with plenty of ideas, innovation, and just sheer tough-mindedness driving every note, plus a great approach to making records that ensures clarity, depth, and a straight left to the jaw for every listener. Stephan Meidell, Øystein Skar and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad work hard to escape cliché and over-familiar sounds, and they can be quite indignant if ever challenged about their supposed “resemblance” to any given band or genre of music: “chances are we’ve never listened to them”, they assert, when presented with a music journalist’s review studded with lists of references. For the most part, Transfixed (HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2526) has a sombre and heavy approach in the performances which I would liken to holding a conversation with a troupe of heavy-set tattooed wrestlers who have somehow been awarded professorial chairs at a school of advanced study, and who now hold no truck with dissenters as they lecture from the podium on their chosen subjects with gravity and authority. This is especially true of the relentless chugging motion of ‘Ghosts’, a piece of music whose stern aspect is only slightly leavened by a surface of decorative electronic trills used about as sparingly as silver balls on a miser’s birthday cake; and the controlled hysteria of ‘Swarm’, which could be used to provoke a riot in any given crowded situation, for example the New York stock exchange floor. ‘Bells’ is trying a shade too hard to be more likeable, and in places could be mistaken for a media-friendly arthouse movie soundtrack, and ‘Dive’ is a misguided attempt to do the ‘bleak ambient’ thing, which this trio are not suited for; they’re just too loquacious for effective minimalism. But the remainder, ‘Dunes’ and especially the dour title track, deliver just the right tone of steely menace, all set to a thrilling rock beat. From 07 October 2013.

  1. That last title is its own double-edged sword; it famously appeared in Disney’s Song of the South, the kitschy 1946 movie which has since been frowned upon, for what are now perceived as racist themes.

Lana For Sale


Tune in to Lana Trio for a taste of hot and lively free jazz played in the Norwegian style by said trio on their self-titled album (VA FONGOOL VAFCD008). You recall of course that trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø was mentioned on the duty roster just recently as one third of As Deafness Increases, whose album was by coincidence released on same label – he’s playing a far less abstract mode of brassy mublement on this outing and where possible giving human / animal voice to that ungainly lump of metal with its obscene sliding component, thus joining the ranks of thousands of jazz players who transform trumpet, trombone or tuba into extension of their conversational language. Nørstebø’s parps and slobbers are pretty upfront on most cuts – so far, so engaging.

However secret weapon of this trio for me is Kjetil Jerve, the pianist, who’s clearly made such a close study of Cecil Taylor’s work that he practically breathes the DNA of that Afro-American titan through his own Nordic fingertips. You’d do the same if you took a copy of Indent between the sheets every night for your bedtime reading. Said Jerve is more knife than pianist; he weaves intricate and deft patterns in seemingly indefatigable style, his digital muscles never tiring for an instant, and while I’d be first in line at the record shop the day his solo piano album hits the racks, for time being I’ll make do with the second track here which showcases a complex thread of intelligent keyboard tickling that’s so intense that all Nørstebø can do is moan gently in appreciation. There’s also ingenious dynamics at play on track four ‘03.07’, where Jerve inserts short trills, runs and atonal fugues into a taut, wiry framework, with the skill of a vendetta-seeking Italian wielding his stiletto. I’m not enough of a musicologist to know, but I think Jerve is cunningly deconstructing chords according to his own rules, then drip-feeding the information back to us in reordered fragments.

Other standouts: track 5, ‘06:39’, which is more about atonal noise than free jazz and allows the players to get some serious improvised groaning out of their systems. Ditto Track 6, ‘04:16’, which strays into “prepared piano” territory by way of Keith Tippett’s experiments using jangly things inserted under the piano lid. Oh, and we mustn’t overlook the drummer Andreas Wildhagen, who is also well-schooled in the Andrew Cyrille / Sunny Murray mould with his free-ranging and agitated pulsations. Like their label-mates As Deafness Increases, Lana Trio have oodles of rapport and simpatico ESP as a group, enabling fruitful sessions. Extra bonus: note brevity of tracks which rein in excess of the type associated with BYG Actuel records, yet does not sacrifice on the high energy front. All round high scoring item. From September 2013.

By the Akerselva River

Pure I believe was this electronic extremist who did stuff for Mego and attained notoriety for sampling the run-out grooves of vinyl records to create his very austere digital music. He’s still milking the “end of vinyl” concept apparently, since on No End Of Vinyl (CRÓNICA 079-2013) he’s enlisted ten prominent electronica creators to contribute tracks (some of them remixes) based on the theme. Even the sleeve itself is cleverly overprinted with concentric circles on black card, so that it looks like an idealised vision of microgrooves. Hereon, @c – slow and increasingly menacing fragments of gurgly broken sounds; Christoph de Bablon – remix of the original ‘The End Of Vinyl’ to produce a boring and pompous synth tune; JSX with his ‘Biological Agents’ and a decent piece of techno-stealth dredged from the sewers of Paris; cindytalk hurling buckets of digital water over a cliff in slow motion; Goner’s remake of a Pure track, using too many effects and gimmicks until incoherence dominates; and Opcion – an effective object lesson in “less is more”, with chilling desolate tones. We also have the very interesting Arturas Bumšteinas, whose ingenious ‘Opera Povera’ was probably constructed from classical music on vinyl, and exhibits a painstaking craft that is notably absent from the other auto-piloted submissions. But Rashad Becker is also memorable with his strangely rotating and colliding elements, spinning in layers like a wall-sculpture made of 100 bicycle wheels; and Pita, whose solo work I don’t seem to have heard for a long time now, and whose ‘This & That Edit’ has the kind of purity of form that Terry Riley would adore, plus a clarity of tone that’s like spring water on an otherwise rather sludgy-sounding comp. All of these contributions show us possibilities, ways of opening out an idea through remaking and refitting. Yet very few of them really reflect the vinyl-ness of records, apart from a few audible samples of crackles and clicks which surface in some of the contributions, and the digital “identity” is very much up front – processed, artificial, impossibly “perfect”. There’s a double-edged irony to all of this, since (as the label webpage indicates) the original release of fourteen years ago was full of millennial uncertainty about the future of media carriers, and recorded music in general; it was asking the question “will vinyl die?” and weeping a solitary tear as if every CD being pressed were another nail in the coffin. Now of course, the way the tide is turning in favour of vinyl and analogue media again, it seems the question is whether the digital has a future.

Speaking of your “millennial uncertainty”, the Norwegian quartet SPUNK just completed an extremely lengthy musical project which they started in 2001. Every year they would meet up to play a single tone and continue to hold it as a sustained drone, using mostly acoustic instruments (strings, brass, woodwinds) and voices. By the time they had finished they had completed a realisation of all 12 notes in the scale. Now the collected recorded results have been released as Das Wohltemperierte Spunk (RUNE GRAMMOFON RCD2140) as a six-disc boxed set, meaning you get two of these drones per CD at approximately 30 minutes apiece. The players involved are the lovely Maja Ratkje (constantly proving herself as a formidable all-rounder – singer, composer, improviser, noise artiste) and Hild Sofie Tafjord (see previous remark), plus the cellist Lene Grenager (guesting from +3dB Records) and Kristin Andersen who plays trumpet and flute. Although not remarked on in the press notes, that’s an all-female team making this ethereal yet wiry music, and among the first things you notice is how unlike American minimalist (masculinist) music this set is: and by unlike, I mean it’s intuitive instead of programmed to death, sensitive to the listener rather than running them over with a relentless systems-based steamroller, and almost completely lacking in the enormous ego drive that, for me, characterises the long-winded work of some composers in this area. This isn’t to say Das Wohltemperierte Spunk is a set of drifty ethereal wispiness (though some may hear that at first), since there is a very simple structure at work in realising the 12 notes in a pre-determined sequence, drawing ideas about mathematical composition from Bach, and there’s an unflagging determination to see the work through to the end over a very long period. I also like the fact that they did it in a variety of locations around Oslo, including a cabin on a fjord, and a mausoleum with a very long decay time within its walls. Usually they played to a very small audience; no wonder they regarded this as a “secret shared among…closest friends”. Clearly the four of them found it a very unifying experience, and one of the keywords (which may get up the backs of some readers) is “meditative”, but there is no pretentious pseudo-spiritual psycho-babble here, just a commitment to finding (and creating) enough space to play and to listen in a very simple way. In the interests of disclosure, I’ll admit I haven’t got much beyond D# in the set so far, but even so I can report that these drones are far from being flat, smooth or boring progressions; there’s a very ragged surface to all the performances, with unexpected angles, corners and planes fully on display, and much of the genuine spontaneity that we would hope for from good improvised music; plus much variety and dimension in the tones and timbres that are being explored. In short, listening engagement is guaranteed throughout these 12 slow but intense pieces. Methinks that the effects of hearing it all in one sitting would be considerable. (13 February 2013)

From Groningen in Holland we have the fairly bizarre combo Sexton Creeps, who for their third album Alex Hotel (HEILSKABAAL RECORDS HK023) have teamed up with the sound artist Kasper van Hoek. The Creepsters pride themselves on their international membership, their shared passion for psychedelic music, and the use of home-made instruments alongside the more traditional guitar-bass-drums-keyboard setup. The opening drama ‘Homophone / The Unicorn Dies’ is a genuinely odd escapade, mainly because it works through about three different dynamic shifts, starting off as a quasi-Nick Cave dirge which lumbers forward for some minutes before exploding in the centre with a crazed echo and guitar screech-out of acid-fried freakery, then descending into the quagmire of a dark fairytale acoustic ballad sung in a minor key. The Sextoneers may come on like indifferent, slouching stoners, but when a certain switch is flipped upwards, they instantly transform into vibrant electric eels. ‘Pissing In The Woods’ is also a rum fish, a moody spookster with a compelling organ sound that would make Tom Waits trade in his golden trilby, and mumbled lyrics which may be packed with menacing symbols. As for ‘Elderly Ladies’ Umbrellas’, it confirms the band’s penchant for formless slow slide-guitar jams underpinned by eerie wailing effects; it’s as though they’d read all about Pink Floyd (1967 period) and their lost and unrecorded performances at the UFO Club and decided to reimagine for themselves what it must have been like to be that band. Did I forget to mention the contributions of the vocalist, J.C.? He’s got a great line in lugubrious mumbling when he’s doing the creepy death-ballads, but also capable of erupting into shouty and screamy blasts of horrifying proportions when the occasion demands it. While I can see this strange record appealing to the prog and psych revivalist brigade, there is also a thoroughly weird strain that writhes at the heart of this album, and the listener will struggle to pin it down like a wriggling centipede in the core of your apple. Bert Scholten did the unsettling artwork of sleeping bodies packed into a compressed grid, like human sardines. (28 February 2013)

Monster Rock and Mushrooms

SEID_AmongThe Monster

Among the Monster Flowers Again

Among the Monster Flowers Again marks the debut of Norwegian band Seid. Described ominously as ‘psychedelic space-rock’, the vinyl album mixes electronic sounds and sixties organ vibes to produce something highly listenable and surprisingly accessible, especially for people slightly spooked by the phrase ‘psychedelic space-rock’.

The psychedelic overtones are especially strong on ‘The Monster Flowers’, which opens the album with a real sixties hippy vibe; segueing nicely into ‘Fire Song’ which retains the hallucinogenic theme while incorporating more thrashing guitar rock sounds.

This is a theme that continues throughout the album, with each track perched somewhere between the mosh pit and Haight-Ashbury. It’s a delicate balancing act, but, for the most part, Seid manages to keep all the plates spinning without the whole thing falling down.

The space vibe really kicks in midway through the album on ’5/4′, which is the harshest and most distorted on the album, sitting somewhat at odds with the melodic sounds that reverberate through the rest of the tracks. Fortunately, this is followed by one of the album’s standout tracks, ‘Lois Loona’, which is a bit more restrained, but nonetheless a powerful piece.

‘The Tale of the King on the Hill’ is a bit of a downer, but things pick up again for tracks eight and nine, banging out more of what this band seems to do best; gentle, melodic sounds that draw you in then build to an ear-rattling crescendo. The final track, ‘Among The Monster Flowers…Again’, unsurprisingly brings us back where we started; picking up on the vibe from track one and gently setting us back down on earth after one exciting trip.

The band describes the album as ranging from “totally tripped-out mushroom dwarves who walk through bizarre landscapes to heavy psychedelic rock”. Whether that makes you start to salivate in anticipation, or run screaming for the hills, you’re likely to find something to enjoy on this album. In short, put those flares on, get that lava lamp fired up and turn the Monster Flowers up to eleven. Just watch out for those tripped-out mushroom dwarves.

Eine Kleine Jazz Musik


Mats Eilertsen Trio
Sails Set

The second recording from Mats Eilertsen Trio is a gallery of vignettes neither perfected nor perfunctory, but briefly stated sentiments seemingly abstracted from memorable scenes. This peripatetic piano, drum and bass trio locates their work somewhere in the liminal terrain between improvisation and composition – a claim far from uncommon – but one ratified by a supple, intriguingly intangible sound, which is fortified by a finely-tuned harmonic rapport as the three flow in and out of a shifting array of formations with a sense of equality and equanimity evident in every note.

The eponymous ‘Sails Set’ provides a nonchalant entry: Harmen Fraanje’s piano tumbles like a winding mountain stream, pillowed by vibrations drawn from a slowly bowed double bass. This carefree manner is abruptly more angular in ‘Stellar’, in which a stark solo piano pans through an abandoned house in monochrome. Drummer Thomas Strønen wields a range of sticks throughout the album, mostly catalysts for calmer climates, but in ‘Orbiting’ his off-meter rolls of tinkling percussion stand as the most striking feature, complimented by a newly springy and staggered bass sound. Overall, it is Eilertsen‘s bass-playing that I’m most drawn to, being expressive of the group’s warm, non-committal personality, but laced with a soft, all-adhering resonance.

The moods pass effortlessly from one instrument to another as easily as the leading role. A sparing attitude towards instrumentation resides among the group’s many graces, and the negative space that surrounds and permeates every musical event is often as expressive as the performance. At times it has the air of a good film noir score (with a hint of zen minimalism in the core), albeit one lacking a theme tune. It is not dissimilar to some of the better material from John Zorn’s recent jazz output, though luckily lacking the exhausting pace and vibes.

One might assume that on record the trio further explores themes discovered while improvising, though forsaking motifs and melodies for the sake of a more impressionistic array of atmospheres. Their avoidance of distinct phrases suggests a series of extended segues, not scenes. The credo that ‘less is more’ is articulated perfectly in this short set, where even in its evident freedom there is ever a sense of restraint. The group sets out not to dazzle, but to enchant with careful attention to duration and detail.

Exit! Pursued by a Flare


Fire! Orchestra

Probably not a precedent, but interesting enough a concept is the power jazz trio that always amounts to more than three. Fire! comprises multi-disciplinary heavyweights Mats Gustafsson (sax, Rhodes and electronics), Johan Berthling (bass, guitar and organ), and Andreas Werliin (drums and percussion), and is typically an extra-curricular venting venue for the three mainstays. Their two previous outings were collaborations with Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke respectively, but Exit! sees them fortified by a further 24 Scandinavian jazz musicians and the group’s name is expanded in a manner commensurate. Given the injection of so much new personnel, it is unsurprising that this venture exhibits wilder, more chaotic personality traits than the preceding team-ups.

However, with small measures of bemusement and disappointment I found that in spite of this feral enhancement, Exit! frequently stops short of an all-out jazz attack on the listener, articulating an operation somewhat less excessive than it is an exercise in restraint. Mysteriously so in fact, for both of the album’s long-form pieces are themselves bisected into sections of only anecdotal resemblance, when the four tracks that served the predecessor so well might have worked better.

‘Exit! Part One’ adds a beat to the club-footed lope of the last track of the Jim O’Rourke collaboration, (‘Unreleased?’); adopting a self-assured strut, which is realised in rising triplets. Swiftly enough, a sultry chanteuse enters the scene, her piercing ululations signalling the entry of some blazing Batman brass, which flares and fades in succession like a fleet of passing Cadillacs driven by Sun Ra. The vocals recede and return, delivered almost atonally and lacking – alas – the meaty delivery that made June Tyson so much more powerful than her pugilistic namesake.

The lyrics – to my ears – (a further innovation) are nondescript and a tad too rarefied, relating to ‘the possibility of improvising in actual space, and the ties ropes and teachers in many online spaces and programs’. As a consequence, the musical space reserved for voice feels like it could have been put to better use. However, ten minutes in and things start to gel a little more: bass and drums adopt a slower, pendular swagger; shimmering organs and horns render a background full-bodied but non-intrusive for further post-modern ruminations, resorting to shrillness only in the energised, final few minutes.

‘Exit! Part Two’ begins uneventfully, but tension mounts with a urinary urgency that finds a delayed but welcome release as a cascade of shrieking brass, which obliterates all memory of the innocuous yelps leading up, which might well have fled from Bono’s throat during scale practice. The rocking rhythm that drives this one, ebbs, rises and expands even when punctured by stabs of saxophone.

Inexplicably, this titanic machine halts in the eleventh minute, to be usurped by one bleating soliloquy and then another. The searing backdrop that hitherto rendered such ululations palatable is now gone and a full five minutes is spent building steam from squeaky fluttering, only to spazz it again, in the absence of an appetite for vocal histrionics. Mercifully, a fireball booms out of the void and burns a giant cigar hole in the speakers with a comet trail four minutes long, affecting a tentative redemption in the album’s dying minutes.

The flaws (by my reckoning) in this album are quite unnecessary: the weak vocals and the peculiar structure, to identify the principal culprits. The sense arises that errors of judgement are difficult to undo on a project of this scale. A brave face is needed. Which is not to say the album is a dud – probably it will knock many listeners out – and in its stronger moments the band hits a mean stride, sounding unstoppable. I don’t get those lost minutes back, but I do know when to put the kettle on.

From Some Faraway Field

BJ + COLEimg270

1982 + BJ Cole
1982 + BJ Cole

In this latest episode of musical wanderlust, steel guitar raconteur BJ Cole climbs on board with 1982, the trio comprising Nils Økland, Sigbjørn Apeland and drummer Øyvind Skarbø. The atmosphere is – and I offer the cliché without apology – ‘cinematic’. It speaks of sparseness, topographical isolation; the opening tracks redolent of the rural expanses of some Midwestern period drama starring Liam Neeson. In places, there are dim reminders of Bill Frisell.

In the opening, Apeland’s harmonium sets the tone of mournful grace, cueing a handsome entrance from Økland on the violin, which strides with dignity through the sparse, shuffling undergrowth. Like some wood-whittling background extra, Cole maintains a low profile throughout the opening track (entitled ‘09:03’, after its duration); a markedly different persona to the gregarious one I (last) encountered on the Luke Vibert collaboration, Stop The Panic. But moving in to the second track, he assumes a speaking role, gracing us with a voice both dynamic and dynamically varied. Sometimes tremulous, sometimes tremendous.

At times the air of mournful contemplation becomes almost nautical, as though fantasising of faraway seas, a ghostly galleon in the frozen morning fog, courtesy of the quiet swells of seabed-still sea shanties that emanate from the harmonium; the lilting, airborne twangs of steel guitar that conjure up Coleridge and vanish without warning like Ahab after his white whale. These are subsumed by alternating episodes of urgency (in which the erstwhile laconic Skarbø rallies his most determined rhythms) and muted pondering, marked by the albums distinctive tendency towards droning and daydreams.

In contrast to its relative brevity (just over 33 minutes here), there is depth to this recording that lends it the richness of the landscapes it evokes. The musicianship is beautifully restrained and intuitive to the point of identity surrender. The listening experience is rewarding and utterly recommended.

A burger from Norway with metallic ingredients

Well, I didn’t really know what to expect with this one. Some Pop-Op packaging; “Noise”, says the info, straight out of Norway. So when a guitar/bass/drums racket of lurching bass-driven chunk that sounds firmly in a Butthole Surfers/Flipper sort of lineage (via, more pertinently, three decades of subsequent, related music) erupts when I press play I am briefly taken aback, having braced myself for Merzbow-isms. I guess there are other connotations of noise in other musical circles. Perhaps if a ‘rock’ was appended to the noise the approach would have been more obvious to me. Although (textual) noises also are made about ‘mind-enhancing’, ‘counter-cultural’, ‘new’, ‘forward-thinking’, these prove red herrings, in most respects. The key to Staer’s music lies firmly in a rock mode, more specifically a largely American tradition of ‘alternative’ rock, metal and various ‘core’s. The rumbling bass and choppy guitar recalls hoary alternative rockers of yore, heavily redolent of the 90s, such as Unsane or even the Melvins, sans all vocals. Something I would not particularly consider ‘counter-cultural’, associated as it is with MTV, burgers, etc. Although, curiously enough, the press release does compare the album to a burger-meal from a certain pervasive red and yellow fast-food establishment. Do Noxagt and some Load Records things sounds like this? I’m not sure, for some reason I think they might well. I think there’s perhaps a sonic connection.

Riff based and workmanlike, clad in oily dungarees (not too oily, mind. In fact on closer inspection, this could be hamburger grease…) this is primarily a bass showcase, prominent thundering and grumbling away under everything. It is certainly has some weight, which I understand is important in heavy musics. It’s also very tightly controlled and played, riveted by the monstrous downtuned bass. The fastidiously geometric riffing also contains clear whiffs of that most arithmetical of modes, ‘math-rock’ (or ‘maths-rock’ as it perhaps could be known on our shores, if it has to be known). It’s recorded very nicely, even glossily, although a bit of dirt never hurt anyone in these circumstances. Incidentally, I never did understand the dichotomy in metal (not that this is a metal album, this is only metal in a post-millennial, post-metal way) between the latent distortion inherent in the music and the pristine recording often aimed at when bands had enough money to access a studio.

There are no melodies or hooks or any particularly unhinged moments (moments in the last track, which is a definite highlight, are an effective exception, where a borderline melodious guitar line is allowed to raise its head from sweaty scrutiny of the fretboard and roam free over a steady kick drum pulse), the dedication to furious, knotty, detuned, riff construction above all is paramount. Overall we are presented with something a little like some monumental sculpture involving heavy iron plates and more rivets than you can shake a bass at, all coated in thick, battleship-grey lead-based paint sitting in an exclusive art gallery. It is heavy, unadorned, feels expensive, and involves a lot of metallic ingredients. If it is cleanly recorded, scrupulously-anchored riffage (health and safety would be proud, none of these riffs are going anywhere, lashed firmly as they are with industrial cabling) and growling bass in a reasonably energetic rock idiom that you’re after, then there is more than sufficient chunk for those requirements contained herein.

Staer home
Staer on Soundcloud



Pause and think again

Big Numbers

It’s been a while since we heard from the excellent John Wall, a UK composer who has been continually honing his very extreme approach to the art of digital composition. I was rivetted by his earlier work like Alterstill 1 which displayed his meticulous approach to layering and assembling samples, producing astonishing juxtapositions and creating “virtual bands” from highly unlikely pairings of selected records. He made most plunderphonics artistes, especially the over-rated John Oswald, look excessive and careless by comparison. Since then Wall embarked on a trajectory, a path of attenuation that was determined to pare down his already minimal approach, and the music became increasingly austere: shorter in duration, far fewer notes, much more abstracted, and even tougher for the human ear to endure. As he evolved this very fundamental take on the less-is-more philosophy, I sensed by the time of 2005′s Cphon that Wall was sacrificing some of his own human spontaneity on the altar of digital perfection, much as I enjoyed the music. That particular trend appears to be reversing itself on this new record 139 (ENTR’ACTE 139) for Entr’Acte. This may be partially because another human is involved; it is a collaboration with Mark Durgan, the English noisemeister whose 2005 Hypertension Classics Vol. 2 (4 CDs of blistering, churning hell released under his Putrefier alias) still causes murmurs of painful remembrance among the few whose ears it has scarred. On these six untitled pieces, Durgan has been issued with a modular synth, but any predilection he may have had for creating a blistering screech assault has been quashed by the iron control of Wall. Or has it? Minimal as this music may be, the compacted strength of a thousand noise firebrands still ticks away at its mechanical heart. Wall may be doing everything in his power to bleed away the rich colours from each inhuman tone, but as many seated behind the mixing desk have learned, you can’t keep a maverick down for long. Which brings us to the additional credit Wall has taken on the record, that of “severe editing”. One can imagine what this methodology involves, not only a ruthless and focussed effort of selection in order to reduce hours of music to a single powerful blip of concentrated juiceiness, but also carrying out the activity with a stern countenance and furrowed brow, thereby presenting the very image of severity. I’m all for it. If I had my way John Wall would be appointed as a sort of musical censor in this country, cutting down overlong contemporary electronica albums to a fraction of their current length. In fact, why stop there? If he could encode his method into a computer script in some way, it could come bundled with each new installation of Audacity or Max-MSP, and automatically curtail the music at source. That would teach a few people a thing or two! At slightly over 33 minutes in length, this is a record which offers you ten times as much vitamin-enriched protein as any given slice of venison…realised at Wall’s UtterPsalm studios, and it’s also nice to see he’s able to incorporate his letterpress skills (title embossed in blind) into the design of the package, which meets the generic Entr’acte packaging conventions halfway. From 29 March 2012.

It had a dying fall

From the Californian Accretions label we have the solo piano record by Nazo Zakkak, A Pause By Any Other Name (ACCRETIONS ALP055CD). This gifted composer who currently teaches music at St Katherine College in San Diego has been improvising at the keyboard since an early age, but his Pause record is a structured composition of slow and very beautiful piano music. Zakkak considers himself a modernist and experimental musician, but tends to embrace harmonic structure and melody rather than the indeterminism and alienating techniques of much contemporary classical music of the 1960s. In short nary a trace of John Cage’s dicta can be found embodied in this music, outside of a passing reference to Morton Feldman, whose piano music this superficially resembles in its use of space and very deliberate timing. According to Cecilia Sun’s liner notes, it is to English composers of the 20th century we must look if we want to find real spiritual forebears to Pause, among them Michael Nyman 2, Howard Skempton, and Brian Eno. All those concerned in bringing this release into the light are reluctant to dub this music “ambient” without the application of various caveats, and while many listeners will be instantly reminded of Music For Airports when they hear this, it would be foolish to overlook the compositional methodology at work here. Although recorded entirely by the composer on this release, Pause is scored for four pianists, who are required to pay careful attention to the decay of each chord they play in the series, making use of the sustain pedal and listening closely to the dying chords of their fellow musicians. The act of decay itself plays a part as a trigger in the compositional process, in other words. The album arrives in a rather vague and grey piece of cover art, but it’s a not-unpleasant piece of music. From 14 March 2012.

Layer Cake

After all that composed music, how about something more performed and spontaneous to round out our day? We’ve been receiving quite a number of items from the Norwegian Hubro label this year, many of them real niftaroos. Hubro seem to specialise in bringing our attention to numerous talented instrumental bands, all capable of producing fascinating music which is impossible to classify, freely mixing within jazz, rock or improvised idioms. What also comes across is great fluency and skill in playing. No exception is the trio Cakewalk, whose debut album Wired (HUBRO CD2514) was released in May 2012. Øystein Skar, Stephan Meidell and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad play synth, guitar and drums and while they are more firmly situated in the improvised rock camp than some bands on the label, the classification pigeonhole drops away very quickly on hearing just a few bars of music. It’s just great instrumental playing with a lot of energy, fire, and innovation, without self-consciously trying to imitate styles or genres such as krautrock, jazz fusion, or psychedelic jamming music; all three players make inventive use of their instruments and generate strong, unusual sounds. I suppose it is fair to remark that the band really have only two modes – either taut fast rock riffing or swirly introspective offbeat droning – but the elements fuse together in very satisfying and surprising ways, and each piece evolves and grows naturally. What comes across strongly is the assurance and confidence in the playing, which is impressive for a debut album, but then all three players are quite experienced and have come to Cakewalk from earlier bands – among them Sacred Harp, Highasakite, The Sweetest Thrill, Kramacher, Vanilla Riot, Glow and the Hedvig Mollestad Trio. Quite a list of names there – what current explosions of talent might we be neglecting in that Nordic Realm? At one time the lazy journalists used to summarise Norway as the home of “Norwegian noise” – and nothing else! Excellent bands like Cakewalk are proving what nonsense that is.

  1. UtterPsalm CD2, released in 1995.
  2. In particular his Decay Music (UK OBSCURE NO 6, 1976), which shares some common ground with this record.

The Choko King: oddball solo eccentric with a playful and eclectic style

Jono El Grande, The Choko King, Norway, Rune Arkiv, RACD107 (2011)

Not quite my brand of oddball solo music eccentric – I prefer my artistic eccentrics to be morose and cantankerous fellers in the vein of Fastest and Keuhkot – but Jono El Grande is an amusing fellow and the music on “The Choko King”, a compilation of recordings he made from 1995 to 2008, is a great exposition of his style and art. Best approach to listening and comprehending this album is to hear it in one go because it’s the guy’s outlook and style and the album’s mood that are most important: El Grande has a playful, open and easy-going attitude and his music is eclectic and varied, blending in influences from film scores, prog rock, electronic pop and what might be lounge space music from the 1960s in parts. The majority of tracks whiz by quickly and a couple repeat in different versions (“Eva’s Horse Dance”, “Vital Requiem”). The entire recording is happy and exuberant, full of the joy of being and being able to run across a range of music territories, picking whatever pleases our man and combining different elements into one joyful and idiosyncratic whole.

Pride of place is given to the bonus track “Vital Requiem – Complete” which at 14 minutes is the longest song and a veritable circus bizarre of near-deranged tunes on xylophones out of hell and other instruments whose crazy melodies suggest possession by phantoms that escaped from the spirit world equivalent of a mental asylum. A cartoon vocal gibbering in mysterious tongues is the highlight of the song.

The music flies about at various tangents and just when you think you have him figured out, off he goes in another unexpected direction. After a while of constant upbeat happiness, I confess I begin to find the album a bit tiresome and the playfulness not so spontaneous and even rather strained. Back to the likes of Fastest and Keuhkot for this reviewer: birds of a feather flock together, I suppose.

Contact: Jono El Grande, Rune Arkiv / Rune Grammofon