2019: From The Side Of The Desk

My desk at home is a mess, as Mrs S continually points out to me.

It is a place for incoming mail to accumulate, a home for broken bits of things that need to be repaired, seven-inch singles that were taken out of their alphabetised boxes and which never quite found their way back, research materials for projects I may or may not ever finish, an in-tray containing goodness-knows-what and somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, a miniature Zen garden; I imagine that if the bird statue could come to life it would be shaking its head in dismay at the very un-Zen chaos that surrounds it.

On the left hand side of the desk is a pile of CD promos graciously sent to me over the course of the year which never quite got reviewed. This troubles me endlessly. And so, in an effort to repay that generosity and goodwill, and so I can show Mrs S that I’ve cleared at least some of the detritus off my desk, here’s a clutch of short reviews of some of the albums I never quite got around to in 2019.

“A good many back payments are included,” said Ebenezer Scrooge as he whispered his donation to the same charity collectors he had dismissed several pages before in A Christmas Carol, and so this is for all the labels and PRs and artists who graciously shared their music with me this year but which I then seemed to uncharitably ignore.

I’ll keep the desk – both physical and digital – clearer in 2020; I promise.

Jazzrausch Bigband – Dancing Wittgenstein (ACT)

In which the Roman Sladek and Leonhard Kuhn-led forty-piece big band’s 2018 self-released album gets a shiny reissue by the ACT imprint. The album found the band showcasing their distinctive flavour of acoustic jazz augmented by techno beats and authentic synth flourishes, with lyrics derived directly from the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s bonkers, but it works – honest.

The album’s finest moments arrive on the eponymous opening ten-minute piece – replete with cycles of Terry Riley motifs – and the hypnotic house pianos of ‘Continuous Dirichlet’, the latter forcing headache-inducing Googling of incomprehensible statistical theory.

Lumen Drones – Umbra (Hubro)

Umbra is the second album from Norway’s Lumen Drones, a trio of esteemed fiddle maestro Nils Økland, guitarist Per Steinar Lie, and drummer Ørjan Haaland. Lie and Haaland’s day jobs in the post-rockers The Low Frequency In Stereo provides the weighty folk-blues bedrock of the standout ‘Droneslag’, whereupon Økland’s Hardanger fiddle provides a noisy, discordant tension.

In complete contrast, the trio’s seamless interplay on ‘Etnir’ produces the album’s most serene and dreamlike piece, full of beguiling wonder and ethereal, mystical texture. Umbra was released on the inestimable Hubro label, the first of three releases in this list that I failed to review this year.

Elephant9 – Psychedelic Backfire I & II (Rune Grammofon)

Norway jazz-rock supergroup Elephant9’s double live collection was recorded at Oslo’s Kampen Bistro in January 2019 and finds the trio of Ståle Storløkken (Hammond, Rhodes, Minimoog, Mellotron), Nicolai Hængsle (bass) and Torstein Lofthus (drums) ripping through white-hot takes of tracks from their five studio albums.

The first set features energetic re-treads of their debut album’s title track ‘Dodovoodoo’, which here seems to traverse the paper-thin frontier between Can at their most freeform Chick Corea’s Return To Forever at their most lysergic. Two versions of the evolving groove of ‘Habanera Rocket’ – one on the first set as a trio performance and one on the second augmented by Reine Fiske’s additional guitar – riff on the track’s central rhythmic shuffle, the latter featuring Fiske’s guitar prowling feistily around Storløkken’s dexterous keyboard work in a truly breathtaking duel.

Afenginn – Klingra (Tutl Records)

The work of Danish composer Kim Rafael Nyberg, Afenginn offers a distinctive take on modern classical composition that draws parallels with the work of Yann Tiersen. Tiersen’s vocal collaborator Ólavur Jákupsson can be heard across the eight pieces included here, as can The Danish String Quartet, percussionist Knut Finsrud, bassist Mikael Blak, drummer Ulrik Brohuus, the twin pianos of Teitur and Dánjal á Neystab and the mournful violin of Niels Skovmand.

To call this body of work haunting would be an understatement, with the gentle melodic washes, electronic textures and layered jazz percussion of ‘Ivin’ and the growling analogue synth-heavy coda on the towering ‘Skapanin’ having a particular resonance.

Jo Berger Myhre / Ólafur Björn Ólafsson – Lanzarote (Hubro)

Lanzarote is the second outing on Hubro for Norwegian bassist Jo Merger Myhre and keyboard / percussion guru and Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and follows 2017’s The Third Script.

Their new album finds their simpatico approach to texture and sound augmented by resonant brass contributions from Ingi Garðar Garðarsson and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson. The slow-build and ultimately noisy layered crescendo of ‘Atomised – All We’ve Got’, features buzzing electronics, urgent drumming and anguished horns, the whole thing sounding a lot like the end of days before collapsing into a passage of muted reflection. The tuned drums of the quiet ‘Current’ evokes comparisons with Manu Delago, its percussive core offset by Myhre’s searing double bass melodies and gentle spirals of delicate, inchoate Moog.

Armin Lorenz Gerold – Scaffold Eyes (The Wormhole)

Armin Lorenz Gerold is a an Austrian multimedia artist who also performs under the name wirefoxterrier. Currently based in Berlin, Gerold’s primary focus of late has been on altering perceptions of the radio play, with Scaffold Eyes taking the form of a live performance for Gerold’s voice augmented by pre-recorded sounds delivered through a binaural speaker installation.

Originally performed at Berlin’s KW Institute in November 2017, the CD release on The Wormhole presents Gerold’s rich narrative as a noir soundworld, featuring occasional forays into café jazz, harpsichord classicism and delicate sections of pianissimo texture. Gerold’s soft diaristic delivery is accompanied by additional segments performed by Doireann O’Malley and Miriam Stoney, each word imbued with a strange, haunting resonance, even when describing quotidian events and observations. The effect is not dissimilar to the strange, unresolved ambience of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, and it’s hard not to imagine Gerold’s work resplendent in murky monochrome, lit by the diffuseness of ineffective street lighting.

Frode Haltli – Border Woods (Hubro)

Frode Haltli is an accordionist and no stranger to the Hubro imprint. For Border Woods, he is joined by the esoteric percussion of Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, and his distinctive accordion playing is interwoven with Emilia Amper’s nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle).

On tracks like the concluding ‘Quietly The Language Dies’, the quartet’s unified sound centres on a seamless interplay between the accordion and nyckelharp, veering from stirring (if mournful) melodic alignment to powerfully discordant drones. Beneath them, Stene and Raude’s percussion is ephemeral and textural, a gentle foundation of tuned drums providing an unexpected counterweight. At the other extreme, the fifteen minute ‘Mostamägg Polska’ channels a particularly vivid flavour of traditional Nordic folk music, interspersed with moments of beatific ambience.

With thanks (and apologies) to Ian, Jim and Philip.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.