Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Skyphone – Avellaneda (Rune Grammofon, 2008)
Scorch Trio – Brolt! (Rune Grammofon, 2008)
Box – Studio 1 (Rune Grammofon, 2008)

Since its inception ten years ago, the Norwegian label Rune Grammofon has released some of the world’s most intriguing and significant contemporary music. From maverick improvising collective Supersilent and their splinter projects to the beauteous tranquillity of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, there’s a range of unusual and fascinating sounds emerging from this geographical hotbed of innovation.

The Danish trio Skyphone have named their second album after Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, a pseudonym for a Spanish writer said to have penned a sequel to Don Quixote. It’s highly appropriate then that their music, although frequently quiet and sedate, seems infused with so much mystery and adventure. ‘Avellaneda’ is one of those records that somehow manages to be both minimal and intricate, such is the detailed tapestry of these arrangements. The music is consistently evocative, wistful and haunting, and easily transports to the listener to an environment at once thrilling and reflective.

It’s no longer particularly original or unique to attempt an assimilation of acoustic and electronic elements, but Skyphone have such a natural understanding of the timbre of the instruments and sounds they deploy. As a result, their synthesis is consummate and enthralling. Sometimes they sound playful or expressive, but the overall atmosphere is abstract and enjoyably puzzling. There’s a feathery, almost weightless character to this beguiling and charming music.

By way of contrast, Scorch Trio are almost outrageous in their fiery abandon. Guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim delivers what are more like abrasive outbursts than phrases, whilst the rhythm section play with real urgency and conviction. On their third album ‘Brolt’, there’s a real willingness to take risks and a tendency towards unrestrained explosions of invention. There are hints at the classic fury of the fusion movement – particularly the influence of John McLaughlin from the Lifetime records, or even the more aggressive, muscular side of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. There’s also a noticeable streak of blues even in Bjorkenheim’s more extreme flights of fancy that suggests the influence of Jimi Hendrix or Alvin Lee.

But such comparisons risk rendering Scorch Trio more conventional than they actually are. This is frenetic, wild, fussy and busy music. Frequently, such adjectives might be dismissive but interest is sustained by the unpredictable use of space. The length of Bjorkenheim’s broken flurries is never consistent, and the splurging, sprawling racket of the drumming presents a calamitous but riveting backdrop. The result represents something of an expurgation, or a catharsis. The commitment and virtuosity just manages to stay on the right side of exhausting, with the band every bit as thrilling as they are technically impressive. They are permanently placed on the precipice of danger.

Bjorkenheim appears again as part of Box, a Rune Grammofon supergroup co-ordinated by film-maker Philip Mullarky. Like Scorch Trio, this is rampant, tireless exposition, crossing a wide range of genres and dismantling preconceived rules and regulations with commendable vigour. The presence of Supersilent’s Starle Storlokken makes Box a less sinewy and more slippery prospect however, although still fearsome in their virtuosity. The increased emphasis on electronic textures and effects prompts greater attention to detail in mood as much as expression. Following Supersilent’s predilection for refusing to title their pieces, these improvisations are Untitled and numbered out of sequence, with predictable contrariness.

This might be the most challenging but also the most captivating of these recent Rune Grammofon releases. There’s an underlying sensuousness at work that makes it more emotionally complex than the righteous anger of Scorch Trio or the blissful calm of Skyphone. Even though the initial 6 of the 17 minutes of Untitled 9 (somehow the whole piece seems to rattle by with alarming rapidity) are taken at a blistering pace, with a propulsive alchemy between bass and drums, there’s a more delicate rumble at the heart of the rough and tumble playing that suggests not just insecurity, but also perhaps frustrated desire. It’s indicative of the possibility of music to provoke complex feelings and sensations without resorting to language. When the rhythmic urgency gives way to meticulously crafted textures, again, it’s the sensuality of the music that seems striking. Perhaps unexpectedly, it may be the frantic and dexterous syncopation of Morten Agren’s drumming that makes the most eager and effective contribution to this effect.

The remaining pieces are more concise, with the band showing a notable ability for economy and precision. Untitled 11 sounds like an erratic machine, occasionally generating anomalies with radical, dysfunctional glee. Whilst these central tracks are notably off-kilter and jolting, they seem somehow a little more subdued than the album’s opening assault. The final, eight minute exposition provides more evidence of the group’s considerable technical muscle. Recorded in two days without any edits or overdubs, Studio 1 represents one of the best examples of electronic improvisation of recent years, frequently far-reaching and never tentative, it’s rapid and spontaneous, but also has an exploratory instinct at its core.

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