Three from Rune Grammofon

I've long been aware of the rich musical tradition of Norway. As a guitarist at the end of the 20th Century, I found it hard to ignore the force of Norwegian black metal artists, many of whom evolved in fascinating ways over just a few albums to incorporate many styles into their music: Ulver, Dodheimsgard, Peccatum, and many more. When I was in music school, a native Norwegian trumpet player exposed me to the music of Farmers Market, and as a big fan of the montage approaches of early 90s Zorn and Bungle, I was very impressed. When I dug further into experimental jazz, Norwegians were there, too, showcased over the decades by ECM records, and further highlighted today by labels like Rune Grammofon.

While a lot of the artists showcased on Rune Grammofon have roots in jazz and classical traditions, the label focuses on a broader spectrum of creative music from Norway, including artists whose work falls closer to pop and rock. I recently profiled two of their artists, Scorch Trio and Hedvig Mollestad Trio, in my power trio album review, but there are many more exciting albums and artists to explore from this label. Here are three more of their submissions that make an impressive case for Norway as a diverse cultural destination.

Elephant9 - Walk the Nile
Elephant9 could easily have been included in my power trio review if I had expanded the definition of "power trio" to substitute Hammond organ for guitar. This is a highly energetic trio working in gaps between rock and jazz fusion that recall the best of Miles electric period, Herbie Hancock's more aggressive 70s work, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The rock part of the approach is that most of these jams emanate from riff-based guitar and bass work, and the frequent and liberal use of overdrives/distortions on keys (and again an occasional ring modulator effect--dust off your EH Frequency Analyzers, folks). The jazz influences become apparent in the creative unfolding of melodies and solos over the riffs and the sophisticated rhythmic interplay within the group.

The basic framework for each of these songs is clearly composed, but rather than taking turns playing extended solos, the group listens carefully to where the music wants to go, and they seem to collectively improvise the pieces into satisfying variations. Singable, memorable melodies far outnumber moments of dense soloing. And though each track builds to a thick jazz-psych jam eventually, there are many introspective moments throughout the record, too, my favorite being the gentle first few minutes of "Habanera Rocket" that eventually coalesce into a softly-played riff from which vast armies of funk are sent into battle.

This trio is itself a kind of supergroup of Norwegian musicians: Stale Storlokken, man of many keys in groups like Supersilent and Humcrush, leads the band, accompanied by basist Haengsle Eilertsen on bass and drummer Torstein Lofthus, who also drums for a favorite Rune Grammofon artist of mine, Shining. The focus of Elephant9 is relatively narrow compared to the wide range of skills these musicians bring to the band, but they clearly care about this style and they dig deep. I was especially impressed with the way Storlokken often makes the group sound like a quartet, keeping sustained organ passages rolling with his left hand while adding Fender Rhodes melodies with his right. The whole record sounds like a lost artifact from the early 70s: the writing is there, the playing is there, and the recording itself is a warm, huge, and slightly toasty analog affair. If you're a huge fan of rocking, raw fusion combos of yore but you've mostly exhausted your search through old crates, this album will be a treasure.

Stian Westerhus - Pitch Black Star Spangled
I'm always interested in solo guitar albums, and this is a really good one. Westerhus also plays in Monolithic, Rune Grammofon trio Puma, and has been featured in a wide range of other collaborations. On Pitch Black Star Spangled, he pulls out very close to all of the "guitar tricks" I can think of, both in terms of extended technique and in the use of effects. These soundscapes plunge into moments of harsh textures, but I was also impressed at how much melody is included in the proceedings: most records like this sent my way tend to stay focused on either melodic considerations or textural/sound exploration, but this one integrates both impulses very well.

I don't get the impression that most of this music is improvised. The melodic ideas seem carefully considered, and many of the effects are used in ways that require at least some premeditation to get the layers of sound to flow into one another so organically. Improv probably plays a role in guiding the duration of some sections, but there is a very "personal" feel to the pieces, like sounds and approaches discovered in experimentation getting taken out of a practice room mindset into further compositional refinement.

Placed in the center of the album's track sequence, the title track is an especially potent piece, and the longest track at almost 12 minutes. It starts very gently, with just occasional sounds of static set into a looping pedal, and gradually builds up through effected swells, feedback, and simply smacking the open strings. It beautifully contrasts short, percussive attacks, sometimes manipulated with quick delays, atop long swells of feedback. Further contrasts between heavy reverb and very dry ambient spaces also create sonically interesting spaces. The last half of the piece includes some very loud-sounding melodic playing, shifting between minor key and half-whole scales, eventually landing on somewhat meditative iterations of manipulated feedback presented at a softer volume which carry directly into the following track, "Trailer Trash Ballad."

Manipulated feedback, captured and pitch-bent, modified in volume, harmonized, filter modulated, and presented in a variety of perceived spaces through changes in proportions of reverb and delay, is a connective tissue throughout the album, creating pads and melodic fragments over which more sharply-articulated sounds can have various conversations. Westerhus is obviously a skilled "traditional" guitar player, but it's his deeply considered deployment of effects that make this album so interesting. Highly reccomended for fans of experimental electric guitar music.

Ultralyd - Inertiadrome
My favorite of these Rune Grammofon releases comes from Ultralyd, a band I hadn't heard of before, though they've been releasing records for almost 10 years. "Inertiadrome" looks to be their sixth full-length, having also released a split with Noxagt and a self-released 12'' single the same year as "Inertiadrome" (which contains a track of the same name). These are punishing bass and drum-driven jams that frequently ride a groove for their duration while guitar and sax textures make glorious noises above it all. There is an early industrial vibe to most of the riffs, and I'm especially reminded of Kevin Martin's "God" project that released a couple of excellent jazz-industrial albums in the 90s. I've often wished that band would have produced even more records, and I'm delighted to find another ensemble working in that mysterious chasm between industrial, jazz, and goth concepts.

Ultralyd manages to sound almost as dense and heavy as God, an impressive feat for a 4-piece! The drum work focuses on industrial and tribal grooves, at times pushing into the busy, driving approach used on early 70s fusion albums, but the dark, relentless bass riffs and distorted, distant-sounding guitar and sax textures sustain a much more gloomy atmosphere than one would ever expect on an Eddie Henderson record. The guitar and sax approaches on this album are really unique: at times, Anders Hana will take up a two or four note repeating figure high on the neck of his guitar, or saxophonist Kjetil Moster will use a delay pedal to build up a harsh rhythmic counterriff, but over much of the album the two of them push one another into progressively cascading waves of aggressive sound, the timbres of their instruments bleeding into one another and becoming a singular force. They're united by playing lots of long, sustained figures (no solos here), and through heroic doses of distortion and reverb. It can be a harsh-sounding record with so much distortion blending the higher-pitched parts into ugly masses of dissonance and feedback, but this kind of production quality adds a lot to the cold, despondent feel of the jams.

My favorite riff on the album makes long appearances in two tracks, forming the backbone of the first track, "Lahutma," as well as forming a contrast against a repeated three-note sax riff in the penultimate track "Geodesic Portico." Amazing, heavy stuff. Playing in Ultralyd must be a real workout for Kjetil Brandsdal and Morten Olsen, sustaining brutal bass/drum riffage for 40 minutes at a time with very few moments of rest. The repetitive, groove oriented nature of this music, as well as its boundless supply of energy, give it a curious relationship with club music: Kevin Martin largely moved onto more "traditional" sounds and textures in his later dancehall and dubstep related projects, but in my mind there is an alternate universe where Bauhaus and Love and Rockets evolved into aggressive club music, keeping the guitars and basses and real drums and ignoring drum machines and sequencers and synths. There are stages instead of DJ booths at the clubs in this alternate reality, and Ultralyd belongs on those stages, headlining every night.

--first published at Killed in Cars

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