Erik Enocksson: Man tänker sitt
Nils Frahm: The Bells
Rickard Jäverling: The Valleys
Listening to these four Kning Disk releases as a group reveals just how special the Swedish label truly is. The one thing common to the four releases is that any electronic dimension is either downplayed or absent altogether; what is common is a celebration of music's natural spirit and a shared organic sensibility the artists bring to their projects that finds them putting themselves in service to their music. Whether it's the solo piano works of Nils Frahm, the choral settings of Erik Enocksson, the four-limbed guitar explorations of Greg Malcolm, or the bucolic folk songs of Richard Jäverling, the music breathes with a natural spirit that other artists would do well to emulate in their own music-making.
The second volume in Kning Disk's solo piano series (Peter Broderick's lovely Docile the first), Nils Frahm's The Bells features eleven “improvisations” that typically exemplify the structural coherence one associates with through-composed pieces, not spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness creations. It's a rather different project from Frahm's recent Wintermusik outing for the Sonic Pieces label, with The Bells presenting shorter settings in contrast to Wintermusik's longer ruminations. Though he downplays his role, Broderick himself played a more significant part in the project's realization than his producer credit might suggest. In his liner notes, he reveals that during the recording sessions (two nights in November 2008 at the Grunewald Church in Berlin with nothing more than a grand piano, five microphones—two on the piano and three in the church space—, and the site's natural reverb as sound sources), he at times directed Frahm, telling him at one point, “Make a song that you could imagine me rapping over the top of,” and actually placing himself inside the piano while prodding Frahm to create what would become “Peter is Dead in the Piano.” The two culled the best moments from the five-and-a-half hours of material that resulted from the two sessions and structured them to form the disc's forty minutes. Regardless of whether the piece is gentle and reflective (“I Would Like to Think”) or rife with aggressive intensity (“My Things”), the level of musicianship evidenced by his playing clearly shows Frahm to be a remarkable talent. In a recording whose material ranges widely enough that an alternate title could have been The Many Moods of Nils Frahm, we move from a stately overture (“In The Sky and on the Ground”) and an aggressive juxtaposition of staccato chords and melodically flowing figures (“Said and Done”) to “Down Down,” where dense, rolling clusters lend the material a dramatic and heavy character, and the sombre “It Was Really, Really Grey.” That Frahm apparently is able to conjure something as beautiful as the wistful etude “Over There, It's Raining” and the delicate closer “Somewhere Nearby” from thin air is surely a testament to the young artist's considerable ability. One comes away from the recording with a high regard for Frahm's technical command of the instrument but even more for the poise his playing demonstrates.
Very much in the spirit of the so-called “Holy Minimalism” movement is Man tänker sitt (Burrowing), a twenty-eight-minute, nine-part suite that the Stockholm-based Erik Enocksson created as a soundtrack for Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel's film of the same name. Minimally scored for piano, organ, and voices, the recording (available on black vinyl only) offers an ethereal counterpoint to the film, whose subject matter concerns a low-key tale of Swedish suburban life. Stark, austere, elegiac, and fragile, Enocksson's music holds up marvelously well in the absence of the corresponding visuals. His pieces are suffused with melancholy, whether it be a vocal or instrumental setting; no more than a church organ is needed, for example, to convey the sadness at the heart of “II. Non lupi.” The multi-tracked vocal polyphony in “Prologue: Somnio” opens the album with two minutes of lush, hymnal beauty. A rustic piano provides instrumental support for plaintive vocalizing in “I. Nox egoque soli” while a minimal piano figure does the same during “Non strigis.” In its first half a pure choral arrangement of halting lines, “Haec silva odi” exudes an ambiance that's perched halfway between anguished and ecstatic. The harmonium that joins in for the second half's refrain of the first is just buoyant enough to make the vocalizing seem almost rapturous. In “Finale: Ange, nocte nudapecta,” the purity of Enocksson's music is bolstered by having a child soprano take the lead vocal reins. If you're a fan of Arvo Pärt and Sigur Rós (the lonely organ wheezing through the “Epilogue” is pure Pärt), you'll in all likelihood hear Man tänker sitt as heavensent.
Rickard Jäverling's second full-length album, The Valleys, is an absolute charmer, even perhaps one of the year's best releases. Jäverling's follow-up to his debut outing Two Times Five Lullaby offers an invigorating take on the folk tradition associated with figures such as Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and others. The Valleys has its share of acoustic finger-picking but it's no indulgent exercise in guitar virtuosity. Instead, the concentration is on the songs and their arrangements, with the album sequenced so that vocal and instrumental pieces often alternate. Every song makes the strongest possible case for itself, with the end result a near-perfect ten-song collection that draws the listener back again and again to re-sample its many charms. The Valleys opens strongly with “Salt Hill Pt. 1,” an outdoorsy setting for acoustic guitars and sweetly singing pedal steel with a chiming glockenspiel theme the cherry on top. Making like a country-crossing troubador, Jäverling then adds his clear-throated, dulcet voice to the Britfolk-styled jaunt of “May & Lee” while the joyous cry of Andreas Söderström's lap steel and Jäverling's mellotron resound in the background. The wistful meditation “Wishingwell” gets a boost from Maria Eriksson whose gentle vocals nicely complement Jäverling's own, while the wind chimes, harmonium, and trumpet provide enriching atmosphere and deepen the feeling of longing. The album's centerpiece, “Train To C.,” finds Jäverling and company weaving electric guitar, electric piano, viola, trumpet, and drums into a rollicking and bluesy set-piece before settling down for a spectral coda of considerably more tranquil character. Perhaps the prettiest piece is “Salt Hill Pt. 2” in large part due to a central hook that sings out so grandly in violinist Michael Siddell's hands you'll be hearing it long after the recording's done. It's hardly the sole melodic moment of note, however. The sing-song folk melodies that jaunt through “Little Bird” are just as potent, and the subsequent interplay between melodica, glockenspiel, and lap steel is merely one more in a long string of highlights. Elsewhere, Jäverling takes a solo turn on the soothing lullaby “Rest Your Eyes”; Andreas Söderström's trumpet, backed by stately glockenspiel and vibraphone playing, assumes the lead role during “The Wedding Ring”; and a rare somber foray emerges via the melancholy waltz “April.” “Sun Valley” incites Jäverling's group to give the closing track a full-bodied, grandiose sweep that proves to be the perfect way to end this superb collection. While I expected The Valleys to be good, I'll confess I was a bit surprised by how splendid it turned out to be. Of the four Kning Disk recordings covered here, it may be the most satisfying of them all.
Greg Malcolm's CD-and-DVD release, Some Other Time, obviously receives the most deluxe treatment of the four. The elaborate presentation isn't gratuitous, though, as the DVD shows clearly how Malcolm manages to play three guitars simultaneously: one with his hands, and the other two on the floor played by his feet. We even see hanging from the instrument's neck a spring coil that generates percussive colour during his playing, as well as the other idiosyncratic effects he uses as sound generators: mini-fans, E-bow, steel wool, camera flashers, cello bow, and so on. The most arresting track on the forty-eight-minute CD (which documents a live concert in Göteborg, Sweden on August 12, 2006) is its first, a seventeen-minute reading of Ornette Coleman's “Lonely Woman.” Aside from exploiting the material's bluesy potential, Malcolm wisely plays the original's melodies straight, though that doesn't stop him from liberally augmenting them with a plodding dirge rhythm and groans, howls, scrapes, and other spectral touches. Malcolm also covers “Chairman Mao,” a song by long-time Coleman compatriot Charlie Haden, and even adds a countrified vocal drawl to Hank Williams' “Rambling Man.” With its woozy noisemongering, “Spatula Boy” moves the set away from song structures and towards a realm of textural exploration, after which “Depresso Guitar” plunges deeply into an undulating exotic drone exercise where an axe-generated wail writhes in seeming anguish.
For anyone struggling to figure out how Malcolm could possibly accompany a wailing electric solo with finger-picking, for example, as he does during the CD's “Homesick for Nowhere,” the seventy-four-minute DVD helps solve such puzzles. Filmed at the University of Canterbury's School of Fine Arts (in an olive green room) in early 2008, the DVD captures a seated Malcolm relaxedly picking an electric while pressing steel wool with his heavily stockinged feet against the strings of one guitar and an e-bow positioned within the strings of a second. Not surprisingly, the floor guitars are used more as percussive support to the melodic trails pursued by the hand-held, with the alternating foot movements naturally creating corresponding rhythms. During “Hung,” he scrapes the strings using a cello bow and manipulates a twisted wire to generate a scratchy percussive effect. In the remarkable “Lost in Time,” a quasi-psychedelic drone setting with vague traces of The Doors' “The End,” Malcolm drags a steel rod across the fretboard to generate a glassy scrape with one hand while picking strings with the other. He begins “Last Dance” by inserting a wood piece into the guitar neck which is then played with a bow and rod to generate a haunted cry. A marble moves up and down the now-horizontally-positioned guitar, the movement generating a seasick, glissandi effect. Having tied an elastic band around the guitar, Malcolm creates a tranquil oasis in “Staring at the Sun” filled with harp-like strums and koto-like plucks. Near the session's end, a cover of Steve Lacy's “Art” briefly appears before the pretty waltz “Spanish Flang Dang” takes us home. Despite being a “no frills” production that never strays beyond images of Malcolm playing, the footage remains engrossing, particularly when it shows him exploring unusual techniques to their fullest degree. What the DVD emphasizes most is how personalized and resourceful Malcolm's real-time approach is. In place of processing or other real-time electronic or digital aids, he stakes out his own unusual territory by imaginatively extending the guitar's natural sound-generating possibilities and by adding an extra set of limbs to the equation. In short, one witnesses a man not at war with his instrument but rather one highly attuned to its possibilities.