Bly de Blyant – Hindsight Bias (Hubro)
Øyvind Skarbø drums, percussion, voice; Hilmar Jensson guitar, bass, piano, voice; Shahzad Ismaily bass, Moog, organ, banjo, drum machine, voice; Kjetil Møster tenor sax on one track.
Bly de Blyant is an intriguing international trio, incorporating Norway’s Øyvind Skarbø of 1982; Brooklyn-based Shahzad Ismaily, a member of Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog who will be familiar to anyone keeping tabs on John Zorn’s output; and Icelander Hilmar Jensson, best known in my house as a member of Jim Black’s AlasNoAxis. Hindsight Bias is the trio’s second album, following an intriguing collection of miniatures released on Hubro last year, titled ABC.
Skarbø has said: “we wanted to try a similar formula for the new record”, so Hindsight Bias was recorded in the same studio, with the same technician. The musicians, working without headphones, traded instruments and inspirations in real time. Only the material was more thoughtfully pre-determined, and the results aren’t quite as eclectic this time around.
Where ABC was a scrapbook album of small sketches, the songs on Hindsight Bias are more substantial and more of a piece. Or rather two pieces. Skarbø bought six mature arrangements to the session: only two pieces were improvised, and that wouldn’t surprise anyone. The opening “Jiddu” is even-paced AOR, and the following “Westkreuz” soulful and easy-going, with a twist of 80s pop (think Scritti Politti). “Laura”‘s groove is a blissed-out rumination on Daft Punk’s “Get Happy”, unexpectedly enlivened by banjo. On these tracks, Bly de Blyant mine a seam of head music in the tradition embracing both 70s synthesizer pioneers such as Jean Michel Jarre and French ambient pop duo Air.
The album’s title track is less easy to pin down. It’s a lovely instrumental of considerable poise and delicacy, played out on organ, guitar, drums. It’s also a watershed. “Michael Jackson Pollock” is an urgent, staccato rocker; “DEFGHIJK” prog-inspired, all tension and no release. The release finally comes at the end of “Bunker Hill”, where the tenor sax of Kjetil Møster, whose power-Prog group Møster also records for Hubro, harries the group to its summit. With Ismaily on banjo, the closing “The Eighteen Irascibles” initially sounds a lot like Gillian Welch given a Nordic post-prog upgrade, but its second act ends in a stranger place altogether.
Cakewalk – Transfixed (Hubro)
Stepan Meidell guitar, bass, boxes, tape machine; Øystein Skar synthesizers; Ivar Loe Bjørnstad drums; Espen Sommer Eide Buchla synth on one track.
Cakewalk’s last album, Wired, was, by consensus in OTO land, one of the most compelling of recent guitar-centric albums: I pegged it as “motorik kraut- to prog-rock with punk-jazz energy and a large dash of essential originality”. As with Bly de Blyant, on this, the follow-up, the trio have consolidated their sound.
Transfixed rounds off Wired‘s raw edges for a more concerted, denser, darker, and heavier feel. It was, writes Meidell in the liner notes, the fruit of: “jamming for hours and coming up with riffs, structures and melodies…(then) improvising once a tune has materialised”. And that rings true. Each piece is implacably expansive.
“Ghosts”, “Bells”: no, these aren’t Albert Ayler songs. “Ghosts” is industrial guitar/drums motorik flecked with twitchy synth; that is until it breaks into a concerted riff on pounding percussion. The synth then swells within the surge and renders it momentarily anthemic, from which point the groove falls back on Meidell’s grinding bass riffs. “Bells” ups and spring-loads the momentum with a limber bass/drums pulse, and sweetens the deal with chimes both of 80s synth-pop and Genesis (specifically, something on Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). “Transfixed” ditches the melodic content to focus its linear, pummelling groove.
So far so dark. The acoustic guitar strums that begin “Swarm” sound like shafts of light, but they herald a gathering electrical storm: cue another hi-energy rhythm rush, drenched in synth this time, and etched with striations of feedback electric guitar.
It’s “Dive” that finally grounds Cakewalk’s sound, via alien emanations from the Buchla synth of Alog’s Espen Sommer Eide (aka Phonophani). The closing “Dunes” rides a steady, martial rhythm accompanied by fanfares of synth to a conclusion that sustains the tensions between power, rhythm and ambience: the point at which so many other such ventures lose their resolve.
Cakewalk are among the least referential of operators in the field of post-prog power-trioism, and Transfixed is a powerful consolidation of their already forcefully inimitable sound.
sPacemoNkey – The Karman Line (Hubro)
Morten Qvenild HyperPiano, electronics & programming; Gard Nilssen drums, gongs, bells, vibraphone, electronics; Jørgen Træen modular synth on one track.
sPacemoNkey’s Morten Qvenild is one of Norway’s most prominent new musicians. He’s a member of In the Country, Shining, Jaga Jazzist and Trinity, and he is Susanna’s Magical Orchestra. His co-sPacemoNkeyman, Gard Nilssen, is no slouch either: his drumming drives Bushman’s Revenge, Astro Sonic, Puma, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Susanne Sundfør’s band. They first came together in Mathias Eick’s band.
The Karman Line is the notional border of Earth’s atmosphere and outer space or, more practically, the 100km limit of conventional aeronautics. As an album title, then, The Karman Line denotes an exploratory testing of the limits. Qvenild says: “We used the studio as a tool in the process of discovering what we could accomplish… A lot of trial and error.” (Sounds familiar.)
Much of that trial and error has been expended on Qvenlid’s HyperPiano, which incorporates “feedback models” into the familiar instrument. As Qvenlid puts it in an academic research article: “The sound produced by the different parameters of the HyperPiano (are) looped back into the resonant space in the piano and use the acoustic properties there to generate a homogenic sound output.” Capisce?
“Astronautics” opens in a gentle mood with lilting pianism, but its initially clear melody is then subject to electronic distortion, and the track becomes increasingly frenetic. “Chopping Wood in my Brand New Moon Boots” restores the calm, but that doesn’t last.
Jørgen Træen, who co-produced the album, plays modular synthesizer on “Digital Cigarettes”. Analog synth sounds bubble up through a mechanical scrabble of approximate clockwork percussion noises, synth bass and roiling kit percussion. Your point of reference here is Supersilent at their most abrasive.
The album continues to vacillate between stillness and agitation. “Darkness” is two minutes of brooding, unsettled ambience, while “Blue Baboon and Carpenter” sounds like a piano recital in an old-school toy inventor’s workshop. “sPacemoNkey” maintains the keynote sombre mood. Qvenlid’s bruised electronics imitate a blend of brass and low strings to the accompaniment of polyrhythmic drum rolls, until a thunderhead of sustained harmonics gathers, only to burst in a welter of cascading piano and rhythm jumble. The yawing, flute-pitched melody that wraps it all up in the end is unexpected and effective. Great track.
Nilssen’s drumming kicks “Meanwhile in a Galaxy Far Away” uptempo, and the momentum distills and channels the duo’s characteristic turbulence, yielding some of the album’s most forthright music. “Long Distance Call” is a murky suspension of gongs, scraped cymbals and other, less identifiable resonances, all enveloping a delicate, shimmering melody picked out, I think, on vibes. Finally, “Landing Day” foregrounds the piano in the HyperPiano, sustaining the subdued vibe with a hint of melancholy sentiment creeping in.
Bly de Blyant – ABC.
Cakewalk – Wired.
Astro Sonic – Come Closer and I’ll Tell You + Bushman’s Revenge – Thou Shalt Boogie.
Grand General – Grand General + Møster – Edvard Lygre Møster.
El Doom & the Born Electric + Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Shoot!.
1984 – A/B + Moskus – Mestertyven + Håkon Stene – Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal.
Building Instrument – Building Instrument + Huntsville – Past Increasing Future Receding + Skadedyr – Kongekrabbe.