Æthenor is Stephen O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, Kristoffer Rygg and Steve Noble. If you don’t know them already, check their pedigree:
O’Sullivan plays in British art rock outfits Guapo and Grumbling Fur, leads Mothlite, and is also a sometime member of Ulver, the band led by Æthenor’s Kristoffer Rygg in their bold transition from mediaeval-tinged Black Metal to cinematic art rock. O’Malley is electronica pioneer Peter Rehberg’s partner in dark electronic duo KTL, as well as co-founder of doom/droners SunnO))). O’Malley and Noble – formerly of Rip Rig and Panic, now one of Europe’s best and busiest improv drummers – have a well-established duo partnership in their St. Francis Duo.
Hazel (VHF) is the fifth Æthenor album since 2006, but only the second since 2011’s En Form for Blå, which was the first with Rygg and Noble on board. It’s based on live recordings culled from a lengthy tour of Italy in 2010 , but those have been subject to extensive post production.
Noble’s improv experience (he’s lately been a regular foil for Peter Brötzmann) has undoubtedly acted as a vital catalyst for the group’s live alchemy, but the responsiveness and adaptability of all four players is beguiling. O’Malley is at his subtlest in Æthenor, with little or no recourse to dominant riffs.
“Silk To Breath” makes for a strikingly original opener, obliquely orientalist synths mixed with agitative percussion and close-mic’d contact stress sounds, churchly organ and subtle drones running through it all, and an amassing capped off by deep bass notes and shimmering Rhodes. It’s a unique triangulation of prog, improvisation and ‘hidden reverse’ esoterica. So an arbitrary fadeout after six minutes is frustrating.
The synths of “Leather Umbrella” throb more dangerously, the percussion hits hit harder and more insistently, and the meshed electricity of guitar and electronics swells more dangerously. It seems about to slip into a weird post-Glam vibe, but ebbs away instead, and then abruptly teleports to someplace much further out, a Bernie Worrell fever-dream. And then there’s another frustrating, peremptory fade.
On “Anais”, abstracted and sampled voices accompany percussion-pummelled multikulti synth atmospherics with a melody of music box sensibility twinkling at its unstable heart. One of the big pleasures of this album is the constantly restless bustle of percussive activity from Noble, the group’s kinetic powerhouse, who makes sure they never settle. And they keep this vibe going longer, with bolder synth parts accreting and binding on like planetary rings. And they even fashion a proper ending to it. Hallelujah.
O’Malley is often well camouflaged, but guitar chimes introduce the wondrous pulsing density of “Ermanna”, which somehow accommodates both Noble’s agitation and Rygg’s blissed-out wordless vocals. Then they shore up the piece’s expansion, like a more beneficent mirror to the maleficent riffola of Sunn O))). After a while Noble kicks things up a gear, and allied to a thrumming bassline his drumming gives the piece some real momentum. Then we’re teleported again, this time to an altogether airier but eminently unsettling, dark ambient space. Noble, irrepressible, rises again from the opaque depths, and his momentum seems like it might stick, but he’s pulled back in. Cue fade.
The intro to the last cut, “Murmurum”, is built on a martial holding pattern ghosted, amplified and distorted by a miasma of spirit noise that soon swallows it whole, leaving us in a very eerie place indeed. But luckily Æthenor come back like a garage-prog jam band to see us through, and even fashion a proper ending.
Often, when you put group of just such not-quite-likely bandmates together, all the individual quirks are ironed out and you wish they hadn’t bothered. This is not like that. It’s not like anything else either. It’s marvellous.
I like that they’ve distilled the captured road noise into less than 40 minutes of music on Hazel. I like that the unexpectable transitions and segues and tonal shifts are all bracingly effective. And I like that the mixdown undoubtedly excised any torpor, meander or excess. But now I want to hear the soundboard recordings.
Stephen O’Malley guitars; Daniel O’Sullivan Rhodes, synths, electronic effects; Kristoffer Rygg modular synths, vocals; Steve Noble drums.
Stephen O’Malley & Steve Noble: St. Francis Duo – Peacemaker Assembly.
Laniakea – A Pot of Powdered Nettles.
Ensemble Pearl (O’Malley, Herzog, Atsuo, Kurihara) – Ensemble Pearl.
Grumbling Fur – Grumbling Fur – Glynnaestra.
Æthenor – En Form for Blå (reviewed for The Jazz Mann).
Buy Hazel direct from VHF.