Between 1998 and 2004, Food existed as a stable quartet. Led by saxophonist Iain Ballamy (saxophones, electronics), with Arve Henriksen (trumpet, vocal), Mats Eilertsen (bass) and Thomas Stronen (drums, electronics), Food recorded four albums for Feral and Rune Grammofon. A more conventional vehicle for Henriksen than his gig with Supersilent, Food were nonetheless quirkily experimental, and one of the most inimitable and consistently satisfying bands of their time. When Henriksen and Eilertsen both quit, the character of the group changed irrevocably, but Ballamy and Stronen continued, playing spartan, reductive Food music as a duo.
In the three albums since Molecular Gastronomy (2007, Rune Grammofon), Food have invited guests to flesh out their skeletal rhythms and haunting melodies. The 2010 ECM debut Quiet Inlet was the first to feature Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics) and Nils Peter Molvaer (trumpet), albeit always on separate tracks. An agitated, probing set, the Food identity nonetheless remained evanescent.
Both Molvaer and Fennesz return for Mercurial Balm, which is a quieter, subtler and stronger set. They play together for the first time on just one track, “Moonpie”. On six further tracks Fennesz plays with the core duo, and the album is completed by three pieces featuring Ballamy and Stronen plus Eivind Aarset (guitar and electronics) and Prakash Sontakke (slide guitar, vocal).
If it’s Fennesz’ name that attracts you to the project, the gauzy “Ascendant” is one of only two pieces on which his trademark, gaseous wash of guitar and processing is immediately identifiable. The other is “Astral”, a nebulous track gaining mass by accretion. Stronen’s processed percussion is a swelling mass surfed by burnished chords reminiscent of Fennesz’s Endless Summer. There’s a beautiful, iridescent clarity to Ballamy’s sax tone here too. Elsewhere, “Moonpie” is suffused by Fennesz’s abstractions, which wash over Stronen’s muted toms and soft timpani percussion, and blur into Molvaer’s muted, plaintive cameo like watercolour.
The three songs with Aarset and Sontakke, sequenced together near the album’s end, bring fresh tonalities into play, not least Sontakke’s vocal arabesques on “Chanterelle”, and the sympathetic pitch transitions of his slide guitar, shaded by Aarset’s electronics, on “Mercurial Balm”. Those vocals soar on thermals of percussion and electronics, with Ballamy’s sax singing out in counterpoint, and the slide guitar inspires some of the alway’s elegant, concise and emotionally economical saxophonist’s most uninhibited playing.
The tremulous quality to Eivind Aarset‘s electronics on “Magnetosphere” sets a tone that the other Foodies respond to, making it Mercurial Balm‘s most ethereal track. Aarset’s own album, Dream Logic, works a similar vibe on a bigger canvas.
Here, it’s impossible to distinguish Aarset’s playing on guitars, bass guitar, electronics, percussion, samples and programming from Jan Bang’s on samples, dictaphone and programming.
The first of three variations on the same theme, “Close (for Comfort)” is a softly radiant bloom of multi-tracked sound. Close listening is rewarded with a wealth of detail. You can hear, for instance, the skin-on-string of finger lifts and light taps; I assume the piano or string tones were also produced on guitar, and that the music box kalimba is the result of processing; but the deep resonance of a gently thrummed electric bass and the metallic, tickly swirl of a brushed cymbal are unmistakeable.
There’s a less ambiguous music box quality to the ending of “Jukai (sea of Trees)”, a track that begins with a marimba pulse subsumed in warm, gaseous audio. Likewise, “Black Silence” is barely-there, an unsettling Thomas Köner-esque ambience. “Surrender” begins as little more than a weak pulse. But, quiet as it often is, Dream Logic doesn’t play purely as an ambient album. As it develops, the latter track assumes a weird, out-of-focus soft-rock temper.
“Homage to Greene” has a lovely, serene melody that’s characterised by limpid, open string guitar playing – reminiscent, obliquely, of Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” – and a subtle bass line provides a thread through gentle electronic reverberations and ghost traces of what might, once, have been bass clarinet.
The instrumental work of David Sylvian bears closer comparison. Witness the bucolic, sweetly melodic song “The Whispering Forest”, where log drum samples are worked into otherworldly percussive vibrations. And note how apposite the track titles are. Take “The Beauty of Decay”, for instance: The album’s last track, it comprises little more than bass emanations from a deep fug of decayed sound, dimly cut by the plaintive sound of a horn – perhaps a shofar?
Other 2012 ECM Reviews
ECM Label Roundup II, Part 1: Bobo Stenson Trio – Indicum + Nik Bartsch’s Ronin – Live
Tim Berne – Snakeoil
Fly – The Year of the Snake
Michael Formanek – Small Places
Jan Garbarek – Dansere
Tord Gustavsen Quartet – The Well
Billy Hart – All Our Reasons
Keith Jarrett – Rio
Keith Jarrett – Sleeper; Tokyo, April 16, 1979
Anders Jormin – Ad Lucem
Enrico Rava – On the Dance Floor
Terje Rypdal – Odyssey
Andy Sheppard, Michel Benita, Sebastian Rochford – Trio Libero
John Surman – Saltash Bells