Astro Sonic: Come Closer and I'll Tell You
If there's one thing this diverse trio of releases by Cakewalk, Huntsville, and Astro Sonic makes clear, it's that pigeonholing Hubro as a jazz label is thoroughly misguided. That's not to say that jazz isn't a part of its raison d'être, as by its own admission it's dedicated to “releasing music from the vital Norwegian jazz and improvised music scene.” Still, these recent collections illustrate that Hubro's range extends widely indeed. All three improv-heavy recordings are deserving of one's time and attention, but there are differences in quality, with Cakewalk's impressing the most and Huntsville's the least.
First the good news: Cakewalk's stunning Transfixed. On their follow-up to 2012's debut album Wired, Stephan Meidell (guitars, bass, tape machine), Øystein Skar (synthesizers), and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad (drums) serve up a molotov cocktail of jagged grooves laid down in their Bergen studio. Rooted in experimentation and hours of jamming, the band's sound, according to Meidell's liner notes, “ranges freely beyond the shadows of rock, noise, jazz, and contemporary music.” That it does, but a more interesting comment reads: “You'll definitely want to compare us to someone else, but chances are, we've never listened to them. Musicians in general are often confronted with references that are flattering, but completely false.” With that in mind, we'll resist the urge to draw connections from Cakewalk to other artists and simply make note of the group's propensity for fashioning heavy, lumbering grooves that seethe and burn.
At the album's start, Skar scatters synth squeal across the grime-smothered “Ghost,” which presents a well-behaved demeanour until it ascends to the level of controlled roar at the three-minute mark. Hearing the slow unfurl of muted horns as the drums and guitars churn underneath is merely the first of the album's many pleasures. As good is “Bells,” which underpins a handful of harmoniously chiming synth melodies with a lockstep groove made more arresting by the presence of a hiccup in its rhythmic design. The album takes a harrowing turn when the title track finds Cakewalk flirting with blistering noise and unleashing a collective howl that's so nightmarish and merciless it verges on terrifying. The intensity doesn't let up—if anything it increases—during the uptempo throwdown “Swarm” when Meidell and Skar indulge in a healthy dose of shredding. Not everything is so intense: the low-level meditation “Dive” provides a welcome respite from the storm, even if there's still no small amount of disturbance creeping along its synth-heavy periphery (the track also includes Buchla synthesizer playing by Espen Sommer Eide aka Phonophani and Alog member). All told, the album achieves a well-considered balance between structure and improvisation, resulting in forty minutes of beautiful noise.
With respect to Meidell's comment about the listener's tendency to compare its music to that of others, said practice is hard to resist when it comes to reviewing Astro Sonic's Come Closer and I'll Tell You. Don't get the wrong idea: it's not a wholly derivative recording, but there are moments where it's impossible not to hear echoes of other musicians in some of the eleven tracks. The album material, most of it improvised, was recorded over three days in Gothenburg, and while it is the group's debut album, Erlend Slettevol (Fender Rhodes, Moog Voyager, Prophet V), Rune Nergaard (bass, electronics), and Gard Nilssen (drums, percussion, electronics) have worked together for a long time, even before Astro Sonic's formation in 2008.
Most of the eleven pieces are short on the thirty-five-minute release (six of them under the two-minute mark, in fact) and so the album flies past in its engagement with multiple styles and traditions. “Orbiter” plays like a brooding Weather Report mini-exploration from the group's Black Market period when Slettevol's Moog playing is so similar in style and sound to Zawinul's own, while the plodding “Analogue Karma” is elevated by the dramatic climb of Slettevol's Fender Rhodes phrases and synth textures. Nergaard and Nilssen lock into a classic krautrock groove in support of Slettevol's squelch for the pulsating “The Electric Airbag Police,” whereas the rhythmic focus shifts to stutter-funk during “No Satisfaction at All.” The album also includes an ominous electronic soundscape (“437,7 Days”), bruising noise improvs of convulsive rhythms and synth fire (“Magnavox,” “The Shell Falls Rapidly and Splashes Into the Sea”), and a quieter textural improv of less incendiary design (“Shoal”). What the wide-ranging Come Closer and I'll Tell You lacks in cohesiveness, it makes up for in pure entertainment value and in the visceral impact of its channel-surfing content.
If Huntsville's Past Increasing Future Receding is less satisfying than the other two, perhaps some consideration should be given in its defence to the special circumstances under which it was recorded. Ivar Grydeland, Tonny Kluften, and Ingar Zach laid down its material over three days at Emanuel Vigeland's Mausoleum at Slemdal in Oslo, an almost-dark, barrel-vaulted room covered with frescos by Emanuel Vigeland (1875-1948). He erected the building in 1926 as an intended home for his sculptures and paintings but later decided the museum would be used as his burial chamber. With its windows bricked up, the Mausoleum makes for a unique recording site, especially when it offers incredible acoustic potential to those who've used it, among them Stian Westerhus, Diamanda Galas, and Nils Økland (the mind boggles at the thought of Galas's voice reverberating within the locale).
Certainly no listener will nod off during the seventeen-minute opener “Presence in Absence” when it repeatedly detonates its droning passages of quiet gloom with massive percussive strikes; the problem here is that once that opening sequence is over, the material fails to do anything as dramatic during its final ten minutes, even if the extended guitar-bass-drums episode that's presented is executed with conviction. The other two pieces, each nine minutes in length, succeed better by comparison for being more concise and less prone to listlessness. Driven by a wavering synth line, “The Flow of Sand” gradually swells in volume and dynamics with haunted noises and percussive textures incrementally fleshing out its plodding, piano-sprinkled pulse. In like manner to “Presence in Absence,” “In an Hourglass” punctuates its creaking mass with percussive blows, though this time less violently, before shifting the focus to acoustic guitar strums and picking.
On paper, then, Huntsville's fourth album promises much, but in practice the result, while no disaster by any stretch, isn't entirely successful.The problem is that there are too many moments where the music spins its wheels, as if the members are waiting for something to happen and trying to figure out where to go next. In short, it's atmospheric, yes, but not as dramatic as it could be. Perhaps a more satisfying version of the release would have seen Huntsville shortening “Presence in Absence” to maximize its impact and adding another piece or two to bolster the album's thirty-five-minute running time. Maybe the presence of a more compelling solo voice would have made a significant difference, too.