Christian Wallumrød Ensemble – Many

As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.

One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.

Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.

Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.

The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.

Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Erlend Apneseth – Fragmentarium

Fragmentarium follows on from last year’s brilliant Salika, Molika album for the wonderful Hubro imprint. This new collection of seven delicately-assembled pieces finds Hardanger fiddle maestro Erlend Apneseth joined by Stein Urheim (guitar / bouzouki / electronics), Anja Lauvdal (piano / synth / electronics), Hans Hulbækmo (drums / percussion / flute), Fredrik Luhr Dietricshson (double bass) and Ida Løvli Hidle (accordion).

Opening with the mesmeric shapes of ‘Gangar’, Apneseth offers a rich tapestry of sounds straddling traditional Nordic folk forms with more modernistic flourishes – delicate synth sprinkles, arrangements that nod toward jazz and a sense of casual discordance. The album’s title track buzzes with an angry, claustrophobic noisiness punctured with layers of Jew’s harp and Apneseth’s evocative fiddle playing. Throughout that piece, and indeed across the whole album, we hear processed, floating voices drifting in and out, each one borrowed from the Norwegian folk museum in Prestfoss, creating an odd sensation of being adrift from time and place: who do these voices belong to? When were they recorded? What are they saying?

Apneseth’s skill is to ensure that his fiddle playing never stays too long in the mournful, stirring channel that it all-too-readily lends itself too. Here we find him offering playful, unexpected gestures and more aggressively-wrought passages, interspersed with sections that nod firmly in the direction of Nordic folk tradition. As a bandleader, he allows a sense of freedom and experimentation to develop among his accomplished group, resulting in incredibly tight playing but a flexible, evolving approach to composition.

The signature track on the album arrives in ‘Der mørknar’, a densely-packed sequence of heavy drones, fluctuating synths, spacey guitar riffs and expressive fiddle, all glued together with percussive restraint and plaintive piano clusters. The effect is one of constant, unresolved momentum, a feeling of pointing toward something that never quite arrives; in place of the wild pay-off, the track collapses into gentle fiddle shapes, a rare moment of introspection in an album that studiously avoids self-absorption.

Fragmentarium by Erlend Apneseth was released February 28 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

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.

Øyvind Torvund – The Exotica Album

To paraphrase David Byrne, upon diving into Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund’s remarkably broadminded The Exotica Album you may well ask yourself: how did I get here?

‘Here’ is a place where early electronic experimentation collides with Hollywood’s heavily romanticised vision of the South Pacific. The album was composed by Torvund at the behest of the Bit20 ensemble, conducted by Trond Madsen, and features wildly inventive synth contributions from Jørgen Træen alongside Kjetil Møster’s expressive sax.

‘Here’ is a place where you can hear the musique concréte of ‘Ritual 2’ sipping mai tais next to to the beautiful, retro-luscious swoon of ‘Starry Night’ with R2-D2 tending the Tiki bar; where the rapid flip-flop between noise and melodic intricacy of ‘Waking Up Again’ makes for an especially vivid tone poem; where the water-like synth sprinkles, pizzicato strings and xylophone of the enthralling ‘Rainforest Morning’ pitches your hammock at the centre of a tranquil sonic oasis.

By the time you reach the end of the springy ersatz synth bird calls, bongos and strings of ‘Out Of The Jungle’, you’re ejected back into a normality that comes as massive disappointment after spending the best part of an hour inside Torvund’s vivid vision of exoticism.

The Exotica Album by Øyvind Torvund is out now on Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith