Cakewalk: Ishihara

Dans les arbres: Phosphoresence

Stephan Meidell: Metrics

Full stop: Ishihara is a terrific record. There's a certain kind of alchemy that happens when a particular group of musicians plays together that can be neither forced, manufactured, nor replicated, and the combination of Stephan Meidell (guitar, bass, synth), Øystein Skar (synths), and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad offers ample proof by way of illustration. Regardless of how each sounds individually, they sound like no one else when Cakewalk's engine activates. Arriving after 2012's Wired and 2014's Transfixed, Ishihara is strikingly genre-less: with each member bringing a different specialization to the project, whether it be experimental, classical, or jazz-rock, every track resists any attempt to pin it down to a particular style. Bjørnstad, for example, also drums in the incredible Hedvig Mollestad Trio and brings a similar brand of muscularity to Cakewalk.

“Monkeys” does, in fact, start out with synthesizers mimicking the creatures' furious chatter before settling into a classic motorik pulse straight out of an early krautrock session, the trio's elements coalescing into a glorious maelstrom that lunges forth with urgency and purpose. Like some spaced-out mashup of prog, industrial, turntablism, and jazz-rock, the music thunders for nine fabulous minutes, with stately synth figures soaring over a churning mass of urban noise. Echoing a typical Discipline-era Crimson-styled pulse, Bjørnstad and Meidell lock into an off-kilter groove (three bars of 6/4 and one of 5/4 by my reckoning) on “Shrooms” like it's the most natural thing in the world, until Skar nudges it in prog's direction with softly whistling textures suggestive of a mellotron; a similar effect occurs during “State” when three-note synth figures slather the group's raucous rumble. For the slower “Dome,” the trio strips its sound to a skeletal core with dub bass lines anchoring doom-laden guitar chords, while “Apostrophe” opens with the disorienting dazzle of spiraling synthesizers before Meidell steps forth with guitar riffs tailor-made for some modern-day surf soundtrack.

That title, by the way, wasn't randomly chosen: the word refers to an early 20th-century colour perception test for red-green colour deficiencies named after its creator, Dr. Shinobu Ishihara. In the liner notes, Meidell states that the selection felt apt in the way it reflected the album's music: “a collection of similarly, but not identically, coloured entities with colours popping out, revealing a new logic and creating a story within the underlying riffs, rhythms, and dense textures.” Though it definitely is terrific, the word hardly does Ishihara justice (exhilarating might be better), and at thirty-nine minutes, it's exactly the right amount, too.

Meidell's adventurous streak is also well-accounted for on his second Hubro solo album. Whereas his debut outing Cascades saw him operating within the reverberant spaces of factory buildings and silos, the new one explores a dramatically different concept. First of all, rather than working alone, he recorded the playing of a small ensemble of Hardanger fiddle (Erlend Apneseth), baroque violin (Stefan Lindvall), prepared piano (Magda Mayas), harpsichord (Hans Knut Sveen), and clarinet (Morten Barrikmo) players, whose contributions he subsequently edited and shaped; further to that, Meidell expanded on his own arsenal by augmenting guitar with drum machine, no-input mixer, tape machine, and synthesizer. Using such electro-acoustic resources, Meidell set out to create a 21st-century version of baroque music but with a twist: though instruments such as baroque violin and harpsichord do draw a direct line to the form, the word not only refers to bold ornamentation and extravagance but also irregularity of shape. Both meanings converge on Metrics, then, when the guitarist reconfigures the raw material of the musicians' playing into unusual, genre-defying forms.

Given all that, it doesn't surprise that the two-part “Baroque” seems to have little to do with baroque music as conventionally known; it's safe to assume that the word's meaning in this case has to do with irregularity. Eschewing classical form, the material gradually comes into focus through the combination of a bleating clarinet, hammered dulcimer-like strums, and the percussive pulsing of a drum machine, a result light years removed from anything Handel or Lully composed. Harpsichord flourishes in the second part do establish a connection to the form but tangentially as the composition itself again is more in line with free-form expression. Distancing the music further from the classical baroque association, the beat pattern percolating through “State I” aligns itself to techno, even if the textures slathered across it are hardly ones you'd encounter within a typical club workout. Elsewhere during the track's three parts, the music works itself into a post-rock-styled fever when not delving into foreboding dronescaping or mournful rumination.

One of the album's most unusual settings is “Biotop,” which on the one hand feels insectoid when whirrs and chirps are so prevalent and on the other registers as a techno exercise when a minimal beat pattern pushes the material along; unusual too is “Tauchang,” which carves out a nightmarish path as it creeps through an electronic graveyard of scraping noises and sickly convulsions. Meidell is generally identified as a guitarist, and though that isn't wrong, it's perhaps misleading, considering the degree to which Metrics presents an overall sound design where guitar is but one element within a larger fabric.

Though Phosphoresence pales dynamically when heard alongside Ishihara, it's not entirely fair to compare the two when Dans les arbres is such a different entity than Cakewalk. Comprised of Ivar Grydeland (electric guitars, real-time sampling), Ingar Zach (gran cassa [Italian for bass drum], percussion), Christian Wallumrød (amplified prepared piano, synthesizer), and Xavier Charles (clarinet), Dans les arbres is an improvising quartet whose first two albums appeared on ECM, 2008's self-titled debut and 2012's Canopee, a detail that in itself speaks to the coolly calibrated tone of the group's productions.

As with Cakewalk, there is alchemy in Dans les arbres' interactions, too, but of a kind that's more slow-burning and restrained. Don't think, however, that the thirty-four-minute set's highly tactile settings lack for incident: all four of its enigmatic soundworlds are full of detail. After “Sciure” (sawdust in English) provides a rather unsettling way into the release, “Fluorescent” methodically creeps through an industrial wasteland where micro-textures produced by percussion, clarinet, and prepared piano simulate the wheeze of collapsing machinery. As the album advances, it becomes clear that Dans les arbres' focus isn't on melody, individual soloing, or conventional rhythm-based structures; instead, the four participants channel their energies into crafting ponderous, electro-acoustic soundworlds that unspool with the developmental logic of biological organisms. Though urgency is common to both Phosphoresence and Ishihara, the latter's feels direct, palpable even, whereas in the former it manifests in subtler fashion, more like an undercurrent that leaves one feeling on edge from start to finish.

April 2017