Two new albums on Rune Grammofon, both featuring Norwegian guitarist and producer Stian Westerhus, deliver on the promise of his 2010 solo debut, Pitch Black Star Spangled.
Didymoi Dreams, by the duo of Stian Westerhus and singer Sidsel Endressen, was recorded live in the Oslo jazz club Nattjazzin in 2011.
Sidsel Endressen is that most remarkable thing, a singer of well-past-scat vocalese who is rarely anything less than a pleasure to hear. She made a notable guest contribution to one track on labelmates Huntsville’s Eco, Arches & Eras album of 2008, and joined forces with Humcrush for a joint festival performance that was released as Ha! in 2011. But, fine though those efforts were, Westerhus proves to be her ideal accompanist.
Of these two albums, Didymoi Dreams captures Westerhus’s more extrovert side, though he always plays to exploit or encourage Endressen’s vocal strengths. Witness the radioactive Godzilla stomp he lays down on “Wooing the Oracle”, before tempering his playing to something more like the sussurations of breath in a body nearing a state of suspended animation. The track ultimately segues into the next on the gentlest of Endressen’s lyrical caresses.
On “Dreamwork”, Westerhus’s guitar sound evokes a pulse throbbing faintly in the brooding near-silence of a solitary, inverted consciousness, while Endressen expresses partially crystallised thoughts in disassociated murmurs.
The final track, “The Law of Oh” comes closest to conventional song, with Endressen’s refrain of “hold your breath” framing and highlighting the soulful emotional weft of her more abstract vocals, while Westerhus bathes it all in a glow of ebbing symphonic sound.
The orchestral mood is heightened on Westerhus’ solo album, The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers. Here, he sounds his guitars like a chamber orchestra that’s been subjected to extensive processing, blending word- and formless vocals in for add warmth and depth of tonal coloration.
The album was recorded partly in an Oslo studio, partly in the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum, a modern artist’s space described on its website as “a dark, barrel-vaulted room, completely covered with fresco paintings”. The peculiar surroundings seem to have seeped into the recordings.
Westerhus produced, recorded and mixed the album himself, leaving only its mastering to Helge ‘Deathprod’ Sen, and it’s impressive as much for the gloss of its realisation as for the musical content, which is quite extraordinary.
From the opening track, “Shine”, The Matriarch is characterised by layered, bowed string sounds, accompanied here by treatments evoking prepared piano or idiophonic sound sources.
The ‘orchestral’ tracks slowly drift in and out of synchronicity with etherial, aquatic washes of guitar FX, and the allusions to chamber music are seldom overplayed. Witness the taut bowed and pizzicato violin sounds on “Like Passing Rain Through 9 Lives” dissolving into grittier electronics. At the close of this remarkable track, barbed jags of noise resolve into sounds evoking the brassy peal of a trumpet fanfare.
On “Forever Walking Forests”, Westerhus makes vocal sounds that are part monk, part monkey, evoking in my mind Francis Bacon’s Head paintings of 1949. It builds to a thickly impastoed canvas of noise, for which the closest musical comparison I can think of is Lasse Marhaug’s terrific All Music at Once (2010).
There’s no implicit invitation to autopsy the album or dissect its structural methodology, much less to showcase Westerhus’s technique; the layering is meticulous.
It ends with “The Wrong Kind of Flowers”, burning off any residual corona of orchestral allusion with a cleansing immersion in excoriating FX and numbed but punchy detonations, before closing with a gorgeous coda of relatively clean fretwork.
Where Didymoi Dreams is an assured and strikingly original set, particularly so for a live festival performance, The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers is a masterful, beguiling album of great lyricism and profound beauty.
Westerhus has a new website , which features an informative introductory essay by Fiona Talkington of BBC Radio’s Late Junction.
Sidsel Endressen also has a website, with links to other resources.
Stian Westerhus – Amputation.
Twinkle³ with Sidsel Endresen – Debris in Lower Earth Orbit.