I’m a relatively recent convert to Motorpsycho. I first saw them live only in 2010, when they toured the Heavy Metal Fruit album. I went to the show primarily to see Ståle Storløkken and elephant9, but I was equally impressed by Motorpsycho on the night.
In a review for The Jazz Mann, I described them as: “an ELP high on Blue Cheer rather than Mussorgsky”, and noted with interest the “more expansive and impro direction” they were promising.
Those collaborations led to their last album, The Death Defying Unicorn, a double CD concept opus that I reviewed positively as gratifyingly subtle, given its conceptual ambitions. But then I saw the live show, and was as bored by the bloated turgidity of the music as I was horrified by the sight of Storløkken in a lamé cape. Some things just aren’t funny.
The band have wisely stepped back from the temptation to excess. For Still Life With Eggplant (Rune Grammofon) they recorded the strongest (presumably) of those songs from the Unicorn years that didn’t fit the concept on that album.
Still Life was recorded at Brygga Studio in Trondheim, where early 90s albums Soothe, Demon Box and Timothy’s Monster were recorded. If the group wished to reconnect with the raw ambition of those early Motorpsycho years, then they succeeded.
Their new album has all the pliant muscularity of latter-day Motorpsycho, but would have sounded just right if they’d laid it down much earlier, in the period between, say Blissard (1996) and the albums recorded after long-term drummer Håkon Gebhardt’s departure in 2005. It suggests an alternative, straighter route to the present than the lighter jazz- and surf-rock inspired direction of albums such as Phanerothyme (2001), though some of that album’s textures are parsed here too. In many ways, then, Still Life with Eggplant, is a consolidation album.
Here we have five new songs, three no longer than seven minutes, one a triptych and one a 17 minute epic. Varied in mood, this is an album with no overarching concept. On all but one track, the core trio of Bent Sæther (bass/vocals), Hans Magnus “Snah” Ryan (guitar) and Kenneth Kapstad (drums) is augumented by Reine Fiske, guitarist of Swedish psych-rock group Dungen, who recently recorded an outstanding collaboration with elephant9, last year’s Atlantis.
“Hell, Part 1-3”, Still Life‘s kick-off track, is all the core trio. It’s a distillation of what Motorpsycho do: a slow-burn guitar riff plus Sabs-style bass and a shimmer of reverb fx on the intro, then a crushing, SWANS-style lurch into higher gear. Motorpsycho sound lean, cleaving to the song’s melodic core and Sæther’s vocal for the setup, then loosening up for a seething guitar break over surging polyrhythms. The transition to “Part 3”, when it comes, is as abrupt as it is seamless, a sudden lightening of mood for a coda that’s buoyant and soulful, and evidence of the way this trio play with feel.
“August” is a version of the song Arthur Lee wrote for Love’s Four Sail (1969). It’s a faithful reinterpretation. Although Snah features prominently as the track surges to a conclusion, Motorpsycho leaven their muscularity by incorporating Reine Fiske on acoustic guitar. His finger-picking points up the delicacy of the song’s melody, and evokes the vibe of its acoustic organic genesis.
“Barleycorn (Let It Come/Let It Be)” also begins acoustic, as if it might be, as its title suggests, influenced by the bucolic psychedelia of Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die. Perhaps not, but in the more delicate verses islanding its anthemic choruses, it’s as close as Motorpsycho come. “Barleycorn” has the dynamic sensitivities of a prog song, but the organic mutability of freestyle rock. Thomas Henriksen guests on keyboards, adding atmospheric depth and enriching the texture; and Fiske plays too, plugged-in here and for the remainder of the album.
Still Life‘s set piece, “Ratcatcher”, has all the makings of a Motorpsycho classic. A song of serpentine complexity, It has its surging chorus swells and dramatic stormheads of accumulated energy, but much of its interest lies in eddies and ebbs, where individual lines weave deft textures and produce subtle coloration. It’s a volatile ecosystem with plenty of space for exploration, all synthesised and marshalled imperiously.
“The Afterglow” reconnects to the lighter acoustic mood of the vinyl ‘side one’, but rings the changes from wistful start (“The old guard has stepped down…and left us in free fall,” sings Sæther, “and here we are spinning…clinging to the memories we still share”) to exultant conclusion. Fiske plays both guitar and Mellotron here, subtly affecting the group dynamics.
This is a superior psychedelic/hard rock recording, easily one of Motorpsycho’s most accessible latter-day works, and one that I think their old fans will welcome as much as anyone. The group have looked to their core strengths, and lain down a selection of songs crafted to serve no higher purpose than the individual songs and the felicities the group can tease out of them. Motorpsycho have redrawn the blueprint again.
Grand General – Grand General + Møster – Edvard Lygre Møster
elephant9 with Reine Fiske – Atlantis + Motorpsycho – Blissard 4CD
Motorpsycho and Ståle Storløkken: The Death Defying Unicorn + Bushman’s Revenge: A Little Bit of Big Bonanza