New albums by two established groups that both feature percussionist Ingar Zach: one that mines and refines an open thread of instrumental improv, and another that explodes it, introducing vocals by Mariam Wallentin.
Huntsville – Pond
Huntsville is the main vehicle for Zach’s longstanding association with guitarist Ivar Grydeland, with whom he also runs the Sofa label and, in collaboration with Xavier Charles and Christian Wallumrød, records brittle folk-informed improv for ECM under the name Dans Les Arbres.
In Huntsville, with Tonny Kluften on electric bass, they play immersive collective improvisations. Refining a methodology first explored in the larger ensemble No Spaghetti Edition (2001-2006), Huntsville embrace electronic, post-jazz and post-rock influences. Pond, their fifth album, shows they’ve come a long way from the metrically hypnotic music of Eco, Arches & Eras (Rune Grammofon, 2008).
Last year’s Past Increasing Future Receding exploited the echoic properties of the Oslo’s Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum to capture performances that contained aspects of both Earth’s drone Americana and The Necks’ slow-yield jazz. Everything about it seemed deliberate and expansive. Pond, by contrast, was recorded and mixed in a studio in less than a week. Although still slow-yield, the music’s stygian aspect has been replaced by an edgier, more mercurial spirit. The Necks are still in the equation, but Earth’s influence has yielded to something more like Supersilent.
The first of four tracks, all 10 to 15 minutes long, the lightly motorik “(ER)” begins as a hypnotic marriage of shifting drones and electric bass pulse, with Zach’s shakers implying momentum and Grydeland’s guitar chafing like a spokecard until curlicues of pedal steel chime in. After eight minutes the momentum bleeds away, with the bass briefly plumbing subterranean depths beneath an increasingly chilly echoic surface, every input ultimately leaking into a thin, etherial distillation of sound.
“(ING)” begins quietly, as ambience, with Grydeland bowing guitar, but first soundings of probing bass and percussion effects are subtle yet playful. The bowing continues through, and eventually Grydeland applies effects to expand his sound, prompting Kluften to firm up that bass while Zach processes his welter of small percussion sounds with more agitative energy. While the performance’s halting momentum has a hypnotic effect, the wealth of detail in the inputs keeps the listener’s attention sharp and engaged.
“(AGE)” evolves, slowly, from layered soundings of electric guitar and feedback folded into effects processing, along with Zach’s glitchy micro-percussion sounds. After four minutes of this half-light ambience the trio introduce more fulsome blooms and arpeggiated runnels of electric string sound. Ominous bass detonations and bruised sustains then shadow Kluften’s more agitated partners into a region of darker ambience.
The agitation quotient is upped on the final track, “(OK)”, which reprises the layered guitar intro of “(AGE)”, but is more jagged. Stridently jarring electronic effects are folded in alongside a heartbeat pulse that slowly induces calmness and a sense of equilibrium. But Zach keeps the mood dark with occasional hits on timpani that provoke a sense of unease, and there’a an ineluctable shift back into foreboding as the piece settles into an uncomfortable stasis.
Labfield – Bucket of Songs
Until now, LabField has been the duo of Huntsvile’s Ingar Zach in collaboration with Swedish guitarist David Stackenäs (Territory Band, Fire! Orchestra), whose previous albums, Fish Forms (Bottrop-Boy, 2008) and Collab (HUBRO, 2010), are characterised by detailed, evolutionary drone music.
Giuseppe Ielasi, who guested on Fish Forms, returns as a fully paid-up band member, contributing guitar and electronics: he has several solo albums on the label 12K, and also operates the School Map label*. But a bigger shift is registered in vocals on selected cuts by Mariam Wallentin, a.k.a. Mariam the Believer, of Wildbirds & Peacedrums (she also sings alongside Stackenäs in Fire! Orchestra).
Of nine short pieces here, only one scrapes over the six minute mark. “Ragged Line Reversed” is little more than an intro; motes of processed percussion glitches float over deep, ominous throbbing and abrasively grinding sounds. This could be Huntsville. But “Page 55” is instantly brighter and lighter in tone, with Zach’s brushed drums feathering a stipple of droplet-like acoustic and electric guitar chimes. Those brushes also usher in the first of Mariam’s multi-tracked vocals, a spoken mantra—”skin, flesh, bones, blood, …’—overlying a wavering sung supplication: “why won’t you feel what I feel? / why don’t you see inside me?”
Although six of these pieces have no vocals Mariam’s voice is a game changer, giving the listener an extra, emotive dimension or perspective on the music. (Just as, in doing so, it arguably closes others down.)
“Temporary Reasons” is one of the longer tracks, and it’s atypically exuberant, Zach’s full-kit percussion recast with lightness and vigour in a dance with open-string guitar, and only an occasional, texture-thickening injection of electrical distortion.
The mood is changeable though. The title piece is an edgily atmospheric interlude of strummed guitar, static and Morse bleeps, the latter echoed in the plectrum picks that thread through harsh electronic drones on “Intensive Course in Bad Manners”.
“The Boy who Never Remembered to Forget” is a tensely curious atmospheric miniature, with prepared instrument sounds lost in a fug of forbidding machine thrum. It ends with the percussive crash that segues into “Straight A’s in Constant Sorrow”, a dramatic succession of percussive cloudbursts under generally heavy weather enlightened by shafts of sonorous acoustic guitar.
All of which sets the scene for Mariam’s second vocal on “Members Crossed”: “So you thought about the ocean,” she sings, to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars, “while all you could see was concrete.” She spins other lines into impressionistic vocalese to chime with the pirouetting strings and vibrant electronic sonics of the instrumentalists.
Mariam also sings on “Last Passacaglia”, a dramatically percussive number, in which her vocals slide into glossolalia and seem to counterbalance the prevailing tension and turbulence. It’s an emotion-charged climax to an album that coheres despite its changeability and general edginess.
Huntsville: Ivar Grydeland electric guitar, pedal steel and electronics; Ingar Zach percussion and timpani; Tonny Kluften electric bass.
Labfield: David Stackenäs guitar; Ingar Zach percussion; Giuseppe Ielasi guitar and electronics; Mariam Wallentin vocals.
* One notable release on the School Map label, Eliane Radigue’s “CHRY-PTUS” for Buchla Synth, includes one realisation by the composer and another by Ielasi.