Amputation is a new solo album by Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus. Released on the new House of Mythology label, it’s a follow-up to 2012’s The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon), an album of orchestral ambience based on bowed guitar treatments and preparations. But it’s closer in mood and post-production texture to Maelstrom (2014), the first album by Stian Westerhus & Pale Horses, a trio completed by keyboard player Øystein Moen and drummer Erland Dahlen, which explored muted outfield post-rock to elusively unsatisfying ends.
Most of Amputation‘s tracks have songs at their hearts. On lead cut “Kings Never Sleep”, Westerhus’ mournful, multi-tracked and processed vocals are accompanied by subtle glitch effects, dark ambience and occasional touches of Oval-esque digitalia, all spun into a moody passage of nuanced processing that irrupts with an injection of volatile and surprisingly abrasive feedback.
Melancholy seeps back in on the segue into “Sinking Ships”, another vocal tune spun from delicate extempore guitar processing, this time developed into an threnody of bowed string textures. Westerhus’ treatment of guitar and effects is about as balanced as could be.
Of the album’s conception, Westerhus says: “it’s about…accepting loss, damage and defeat. About those moments when you realise you are on the very edge of life and society as you know it. … It´s music I’ve dropped to the floor repeatedly,…music in a cracked mirror.”
The results are unsettling as often as beautiful, and there are also cuts with direct and ambiguous appeal. “How Long” is almost a pop song. It starts out with Westerhus’ frail vocal illuminated by guitar glints that mutate into a fat, complex electronic pulse, and his voice finds strength in vocal and musical repetition. It’s like an abstraction of something The Knife might demo. Later moments are wired with the staccato energy of a band like Battles, albeit at several degrees of remoteness.
“Amputation” is an ominous, riff-based exercise in abrasive noise cut through by wordless chant, but Westerhus opens up space for an almost a capella vocal, the lyrics of which gives the album its title: “I’ve been searching for my higher ground / Amputation of true belief.” The ensuing dark ambience, where bowed guitar gives a numinous edge of acousmatic phenomena, recalls Maja Ratkje’s recent Crepuscular Hour, on which Westerhus was a key player. Westerhus develops his own music with orchestral complexity, weaving lines and timbres with an animating pulse of rhythm.
“Amputation” breaks directly into “Infectious Decay”, another avant pop-song based on simple but ingeniously recombinant post rock guitar figures. This, in turn, segues into a sudden squall of heavily fx’d electric guitar, which serves as an intro to “Amputation Part II”, in which excoriating guitar is subject to extreme sonic surgery.
Westerhus makes his best music solo, and Amputation is an intensely compulsive, gritty but finessed and often hauntingly beautiful complement to the beguiling Matriarch.
Stian Westerhus guitar, effects, amplification.
Buy Amputation direct from House of Mythology.