Time for Thomas Strønen to get his due. As a founder member of Food, he must get fed up with constant references to “Iain Ballamy’s Food” (and yes, mea culpa). Well, that was how they were initially presented, as with second album Modified & GM Food‘s accreditation to “Iain Ballamy w/” Strønen, Arve Henriksen and Mats Eilertsen.
Whatever; while Ballamy was presumably preoccupied with the success of Quercus and a Loose Tubes revival, Strønen took charge of This is not a Miracle. As he says in press notes: “With this record I had the time and the will and the idea to do more on my own. I wanted to take the music further (with) a slightly different sound perspective: still atmospheric but more direct and composed.”
To this end, he worked with Ulf Holand, an Oslo-based producer who, in 1997, notably engineered and contributed samples to Nils Petter Molvær’s landmark ECM album Khmer (Holand’s other production credits range from A- ha to Motorpsycho, cf. the latter’s Blissard). The mix was then entrusted to Manfred Eicher – the first Eicher/Holand collaboration since Khmer.
For each Food album after Molecular Gastronomy in 2007, which saw the lineup reduced to its core duo, guests have been invited to enrich the texturalism of their music. Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics) and Nils Peter Molvaer (trumpet) played on both Quiet Inlet (2010) and Mercurial Balm (2012), and Fennesz also contributes to This is not a Miracle.
Strønen gets the sole composers credit for each of the album’s 11 pieces, which he describes as “more structured groove oriented…heavier, dryer, connecting more with how we actually sound live.”
The soundfield is fairly democratic, but Fennesz, rather than Ballamy, seems integral to Strønen’s conception. And the production mediates Fennesz’ playing in quirky new ways. Take lead track “First Sorrow”, where he chimes in gritty metallic vibrato against glitchy, dub-orientalist percussion. It is a tougher than usual sound, for either Food or ECM.
“Where Dry Desert Ends” is truly groove-oriented, and emphatically percussion-driven, though it’s sudden uplifts of melodic synth that surprise, and there’s an interlude of dubby percussion fx with a darker hue. Ballamy’s tenor is deployed primarily to underline Strønen’s Moog.
The saxophonist’s distinctively rich, breathy sound is freer on “This is not a Miracle”, where it’s offset by rhythmical pulsing and nebular electronic textures, and it fully blossoms, riding Strønen’s locomotive shuffle pulse amid Fenneszian reverb, on “The Concept of Destiny”. Elsewhere, on tracks like “Sinking Gardens of Babylon”, his sax cuts incisively through Strønen’s complex, particulate percussion tracks, heightening their emotive impact while having little apparent effect on their shape or direction.
“Only the grooves remainded untouched,” Strønen says: “I’ve cut into Iain’s saxophone playing and the guitar phrases. I’ve taken melodic fragments…and looped them, or taken details from three or fur pieces and layered them in one piece, or built melodies by combining phrases.” However, he also reports: “a creative period of learning how to play this material in concert” with improvised interludes.
After the forgettable “Death of Niger” (notwithstanding Ballamy’s beautiful concluding phrases, which could grace any piece of music that emphasises tone and atmosphere), and a restive and dynamic, yet loosely particulate “Exposed to Frost”, the latter half of the album is calmer, somewhat closer to the established Food sound (which, in truth, has always been protean).
“Earthly Carriage” is directionless, and therefore essentially ambient music, but “Age of Innocence” is more interesting. Beginning with a desert sun dazzle of guitar fx, a disconnect between its multiple tracks, each offset in time, pacing and ambience, is curiously effective. “The Grain Mill” draws similar threads closer together, working them into a pulse track with a garnish of childlike synth and glockenspiel, twice blooming with a swell of processed guitar effects.
The percussion track on “Without the Laws” tips a nod to drum ‘n’ bass, running interference on Ballamy’s dreamy saxophonics – held notes set in opposition to Strønen’s irruptive agitation. A Fenneszian wall of sound is used to reinforce the author’s colder, heavier, glitchy vibe, albeit the latter’s late twist of cybernetic orientalism is quirky and humanistic.
This is a great record. Not as restively original as Strønen’s work with Ståle Storløkken as Humcrush, perhaps, but still out there. I’m keen to see how the group translate and transform this material in concert.
Thomas Strønen drums, electronics, percussion, moog, fender rhodes; Iain Ballamy saxophones, electronics; Christian Fennesz guitar, electronics.
Buy This is not a Miracle direct from ECM.