Bly de Blyant: Hindsight Bias

Skadedyr: Kongekrabbe

sPacemoNkey: The Karman Line

Stein Urheim: Stein Urheim

Though Hubro characterizes itself as a label dedicated to releasing music from the Norwegian jazz and improvised music scenes, this quartet of releases collectively suggests that calling Hubro a jazz label is a gross oversimplification. In fact, anyone searching for anything remotely resembling jazz in any conventional sense will pretty much come up empty. And though they're all satisfying releases, it's Stein Urheim's self-titled release that's the cream of the crop.

Urheim's is, notwithstanding modular synth contributions by Jørgen Træen, a quintessential one-man-band affair that sees the Bergen-based guitarist weaving an ear-catching array of instruments (slide tamboura, fretless bouzouki, gu qin, zither, and charango among them) from around the world into five soul-stirring settings. Multiple forms of music are invoked over the course of the forty-minute recording, among them Hawaiian, folk-blues, country, West African blues, and psych-folk, and there are moments when genres that rarely meet do so within the same piece. Country-blues and psychedelia rub shoulders during “Beijing Blues,” for example, when the wail of a harmonica and the strum of a sitar-like instrument appear side-by-side.

Urheim apparently drew inspiration for the recording from composers such as Lou Harrison, Ornette Coleman, and Steve Reich as well as Chinese gu qin music and Norwegian zither music from Valdres. But even though the influence of classical minimalism can be detected during the opening drone segment of “Kosmoloda,” it's the bluesy slide playing that follows that leaves the strongest impression. “Watch the View” likewise features picking whose shudder calls Ry Cooder to mind, while the bent notes and mandolin strums in “Beijing Blues” lend the music a late-night romantic character that's deeply affecting.

As strong as such pieces are, the recording's most sublime moment arrives nine minutes into the second piece, “After the Festival,” when a lilting episode appears whose singing melodies are so lovely the effect is breathtaking. And though one is somewhat caught off guard by the beauty of that moment, the music that leads up to it is splendid, too, with Urheim even at one point seemingly channeling the joyous spirit of African juju. At eleven minutes, it's a long track yet Urheim handles the material in such a way that it flows at a leisurely pace without ever feeling directionless. Calling Urheim's album remarkable is no exaggeration.

Though stylistically unlike Urheim's, Hindsight Bias provides a great many pleasures, too. Ostensibly a guitar-bass-drums outfit led by drummer Øyvind Skarbø and featuring Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson, Bly de Blyant brings a refreshingly free-spirited and playful vibe to its thirty-four-minute follow-up to its ABC debut. A number of genre bases are covered in the eight pieces, all concise and free of excess, and the group's playing is tight, unfussy, and live-sounding (the three laid down the tracks sans headphones and within the same studio room). And while the trio doesn't stray too much from its guitar-bass-drums foundation, other instrument sounds filter into the material, among them Moog synthesizer, banjo, and, on “Bunker Hill,” tenor sax by Kjetil Møster.

It takes mere moments for the recording's appeal to assert itself when “Jiddu” serves up a melodically rich salvo of guitar-driven twang and effortless post-rock. The trio's playful side comes to the fore during “Westkreuz,” a groovy soul-funk jam nicely punctuated by a vocal shout-out, and “Laura,” a disco-fied strut seasoned with foggy, Popul Vuh-like atmospherics. In addition, there's a bluesy funereal improv fit for a graveyard meeting (“Hindsight Bias”), proggy math-rock (“Michael Jackson Pollock”), and a trippy, proto-industrial workout that resembles Tortoise at its most adventurous (“DEFGHIJKL”). Many of Hindsight Bias's tracks suggest that, Skarbø's leadership role notwithstanding and Ismaily's prowess aside, Jensson's the album's true star, with the guitarist doling out melodic riffs and solos with ease at every turn.

Kongekrabbe by Skadedyr is the most unusual recording of the four, though not unappealingly so. The group itself—described as both democratic and anarchistic—comprises twelve members, with founders Heiða Karine Jóhannesdóttir Mobeck and Anja Lauvdal the driving force behind the collective's debut album. Not surprisingly, Skadedyr's robust sound, which includes brass, guitars, keyboards, vocals, drums, strings, and accordion, can be huge yet also capable of subtlety. That Kongekrabbe is as coherent as it is is an achievement in itself, given that the band members rehearse and arrange the music jointly without notes, and that the thirty-seven-minute set was recorded live in the studio in a single day. Of the five tracks, one in particular catches the eye right away for the simple fact that it includes excerpts from pieces by Fats Waller, Astor Piazzolla, Bob Dylan, and Prodigy (among others), but “Partylus” is hardly the only piece deserving of attention.

Each one presents a slight different portrait of the band, without losing sight of Skadedyr in the process. After “Intro Linselus,” an experimental conglomeration of creeping voice and brass utterances, provides the first sampling of the group's sound, “Linselus/Due” appears sporting sing-song meloldies straight out of some ‘60s pop opus and a dense, full-band attack that flirts equally with tribal and noise episodes. But it's the mournful vocal-and-piano coda that appears near the end of the piece that shows Skadedyr's more than capable of creating beautiful music, too. Though the aforementioned “Partylus” is understandably pastiche-like considering its structural design, it's a fun ride nonetheless, especially when it involves Skadedyr channel-surfing frantically between “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Firestarter” and tackling a wild panoply of disparate styles, among them Weill-like vocal chanson and punk-flavoured surf rock. At disc's end, “Lakselus” reinstates the group's persona with a long-form exploration whose restless shape-shifting is by turns murky and blustery. Based on the evidence at hand, Skadedyr's the kind of outfit that's as happy serving up moments of raucous psychedelia as others peaceful and melodious, and able to comfortably switch between them in a flash.

sPacemoNkey might not be a well-known quantity, but the same can't be said for its members, both of whom bring impressive backgrounds to this duo project: pianist Morten Qvenild, first of all, who's contributed to bands such as In the Country, Shining, Jaga Jazzist, and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra; and drummer Gard Nilssen, secondly, who's played with Bushman's Revenge, Astro Sonic, Puma, and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. The duo's sPacemoNkey debut album, The Karman Line, isn't a straight-up piano-and-drums affair, however, but one more experimental in nature with both musicians liberally sprinkling the forty-five-minute album's nine free-form improvs with electronic textures. The recording, whose soundworld is broadened by augmenting acoustic piano with synthesizer and a keyboard that resembles a heavily distorted electric piano, documents the two thinking on their feet, so to speak, receptive to where the music takes them and open to multi-directional possibilities.

With Jørgen Træen sitting in on modular synthesizer, “Digital Cigarettes” roars with an untamed spirit characteristic of ‘60s free jazz sessions. But while there's no shortage of electrified freewheeling, there are becalmed moments, too, such as the near-hymnal states of grace achieved during “Chopping Wood in My Brand New Moon Boots” and “Landing Day.” “Blue Baboon and Carpenter” exudes an affecting emotional pull, even if it's undercut slightly by the inclusion of unnecessary electronic detail in the background, and The Karman Line also includes some well-executed soundscapes of a brooding and alien disposition (“Darkness,” “Long Distance Call”). If there's a downside to the recording, it's one characteristic of improv-based sets, which is that some degree of structure is sacrificed for the sake of exploration. And while melody is hardly absent, it could have been more prominently featured, too.

May 2014