Juhani Silvola: Strange Flowers

Any album pitched as “drone-heavy non-futuristic desert doom” is definitely one I want to hear; it's certainly one way of describing this collection of instrumentals from Norwegian artist Juhani Silvola. While he's made something of a name for himself as a producer (he co-produced Highasakites' debut album All That Floats Will Rain) and musician-for-hire (Jenny Hval, Jessica Sligter, and Splashgirl, among others), Strange Flowers sees him stepping out for the first time as a solo artist. It's hardly, however, a one-man show: Silvola's joined on the eight-song recording by his wife, renowned fiddle-and-viola player Sarah-Jane Summers, and his drummer brother Timo, who otherwise plays in Barren Womb.

Strange Flowers is fundamentally instrumental rock, even if stylistically it extends into multiple areas, and the material's range speaks to Silvola's versatility as a songwriter and musician (he's credited with guitars, synthesizers, electronics, and percussion on the set). A concept of sorts is in play, one involving the uneasy tension between utopian and dystopian states of the world, and Silvola sequenced the album to reflect a journey from darkness to light, from the doom and destruction wrought by modern civilization to the serenity of a post-apocalyptic world free of humans.

That doom-laden tone is very clearly in place in the plodding opener, “The Gods That Built This Place Were Mad,” which, spiked by Silvola's acoustic and electric guitars, plays like it's crawling from a blues-rock swamp and features a lead break whose sting Robbie Robertson would be honoured to call his own. Silvola also indulges his heavier side in “Strange Flowers Bloomed,” which works itself into a dramatic fever in undergirding Summers' violin expressions with doom metal sludge.

Closer in spirit to krautrock and electronic music than rock, the heavily atmospheric “Vents of the Underworld” benefits from the presence of Summers' string textures and Silvola's keyboards, whereas “Black Breath, Black Blood,” a coal-black ambient excursion that flirts with noise in its macabre sound design, locates itself at the experimental end of the spectrum. “The Last Modernist” is less compelling, compositionally speaking, than the other tracks, though the musicians' high-spirited execution of the cut's soaring desert twang does much to make up for it.

Silvola doesn't treat the album and its songs as mere springboards for guitar soloing, though he does strafe the album's most aggressive track, the Godspeed epic-in-miniature “The First Beast,” with a wild solo; the focus instead centers primarily on the song in question and the ensemble's realization of it. The album weighs in at about forty minutes, a perfect length for an album of this kind (most kinds for that matter), and one can't help but be impressed by the ground Silvola and company cover in the eight pieces. If there's a weakness to the album, it's that the change in style from one track to the next can be jarring—witness the transition from “The Last Modernist” to “Black Breath, Black Blood,” for example—though as far as weaknesses are concerned, that one's hardly of the crippling kind.

April 2016