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Michael Crumsho takes a look at three of the newest releases from one of the world's leading experimental labels, Norway's Rune Grammofon.

Northern Exposure

Just as location is everything in real estate, it's also important in music. For proof, look no further than the huge amount of great experimental and improvised music that's coming from Norway these days. Fostered in part by the always eclectic and enjoyable Rune Grammofon, a label from even whom a lesser release is still pretty damn good, the sounds coming from this Northern location vary wildly, as evidenced by three current Rune Grammofon acts – the clash between jazz and electronics of the group Food, the bizarre vocal explorations of Maja Ratkje, and the tense and moody explorations and insane free explosions of Supersilent. All this music could be indebted to Norway's cold air, midnight suns, and geographic isolation. But it also stems from an uncanny assembly of provocative players who are committed to pushing boundaries.

Food are a quartet composed of British sax player Iain Ballamy, and the Norwegian trio of trumpeter Arve Henriksen, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Thomas Stronen. Veggie is their third release overall and first for the Rune Grammofon label. The quartet is assisted greatly by the production and mixing of Helge Sten, also known as Deathprod and, along with Henriksen, as a member of Supersilent. Food's previous efforts for Ballamy’s Feral label focused its members' sometimes non-complementary personalities as improvisers. This time the quartet achieves something special, as Deathprod unleashes his “audio virus” on every track. He cinches in the group's waistline a bit to help create moody, intense, and often atmospheric pieces.

The disc opens with “Tofu”, a short piece featuring horn bleats, scattered drumming, and powerful electronics that slightly resemble those of Supersilent. In contrast, “Eat” begins with more pensive, droning, melodic trumpet phrases from Henriksen, as Ballamy’s lyrical sax lines work their way from the background over electronic drones and occasional percussive clatter. The key here is the excellent interplay between both horn players, which showcase simple harmonies that weave in and out of each other. “Veg” nicely balances haunting melodies and drones. It turns into a glorious, spacious duet between a hushed acoustic bass and a simple trumpet.

“Chickpea” uses more aggressive programming at the start, with rhythmic electronics supplying a stuttering backdrop for Henriksen’s horn lines that alternate between whispered tones and more pronounced droning stabs. As the track ebbs and flows between the electronic and the acoustic, clanging percussion adds to the atmosphere until Ballamy’s saxophone lines drift back into the mix, adding a melodic lift to all the other instruments until it all washes away, only to quietly return from the deep recesses. “Pie” ditches the electronics in favor of more sparsely orchestrated horns and acoustic bass, while Stronen lurks in the background with faint percussion. It gets by on a simple restrained beauty that’s lovely to hear as it unfolds. “Nofood” is all Deathprod, a slow, unfolding, all enveloping drone that works its way from nothingness to a careful oscillation between the speakers. It’s reminiscent of a lot of his great ambient work, and a nice surprise to see on this disc. It clears the air for perhaps the best track on this set, “Mushroom”. This one works different territory than most of the other material here, using hushed vocals along with a tense electronics. The drum hits are scattered quickly and carefully, while Ballamy’s sax quietly begins to rumble. He breaks free over open and loose percussion playing and complementary gurgling electronic sounds. Henriksen contributes some wildly evocative vocals that rise and become fierce as the track slowly unfolds and eventually winds down to an uneasy melodic conclusion.

On an entirely different note, Maja Ratkje might be best known for her work as a member of the anarcho/punk/noise/chamber/improv/electronic/everything quartet known as Spunk. She also is a lecturer and composer and has performed with artists as varied as Masami Akita, The Oslo Sinfonietta, and Evan Parker. Oh, and she also released a great monster of a noise record as one-half of the duo Fe-M@il, with fellow Spunk-ite Hild Sofie Tafjord. The concept behind her first solo effort, Voice, is simply the use of her distinctive voice as the basis for all the sound on the record. What’s really intriguing and sometimes utterly beguiling about this release is the many ways in which she twists this framework into something dizzyingly chaotic, insane, and energizing. “Intro” uses processed bits of her voice, pulled in various directions, as a background for an almost call and response interaction between an adult and a child. “Joy” juxtaposes beautiful measured reverberations of the title word with wild blasts that vacillate between striking, melancholic, beautiful, and downright insane. “Trio” vocalizes explosions, both live and using processed cut-ups of Ratkje’s voice – sounding at times like no wave composed only of drums and digital noise. Intense begins to describe it, but ultimately ends up falling short. This must be heard to be believed.

Ratkje uses her voice more conventionally on “Vacuum,” as she sings hushed melodic lines and allows them to echo off into the distance. With a balance of subtle ambient backgrounds, this piece is one of the more relatively straightforward contained on the disc. It builds in intensity until collapsing to the sounds of Ratkje’s own breathlessness, only to rise once again like the sound of a steam kettle, giving way to what sound like organ tones playing an underwater melody. “Dictaphone Jam” breaks from a rising swell of static into bizarre cut-ups of already odd vocal lines. The editing and processing she subjects her voice to are absolutely insane, as she mutates her own voice into alarms, whirlwinds and explosions.

The title track explores the recurring theme of the possibilities of echo on her voice, creating long passages that ring out into what sounds like a giant cavern, coming back again and again to ring out with her. She sings beautifully on this track as well, over subtle layers of sound that allow her voice to achieve a beautiful tone. “Chipmunk Party” begins with phrasing similar to that of the previous track, only with the vocal lines more chopped up, until frenetic tape edits imitate, yup, chipmunks. It may sound a little kitschy, but it still works. “Acid” relies on some sense of lysergic displacement hinted at by the use of the stereo to create waves of different non-sensical talking heads – a good soundtrack to trying to get the shadows on your ceiling to stop moving late in the night (or perhaps at that point, early in the morning). “Insomnia” closes this incredible solo release with a return to the noisier pastiches of earlier in the record, with the chaos giving way to simple bits of screaming, as much out of joy as insanity, all before breaking into a competition between the lone voice and the swarm of millions, each one trying to outdo each other. The track fades away into nothing but voice and faint tones. Voice often features passages so intense it’s almost hard to believe that the sounds were all generated with a single voice, and they mingle with beautiful sections that never once seem out of place.

Supersilent is perhaps my favorite of the experimental and improvisational acts coming from Norway these days. The quartet has been active since 1997, when it released its landmark and mammoth collection 1 – 3 as the initial release for the then-fledgling Rune Grammofon. 1 - 3, a ridiculous three disc set, reveled in walls of noise, scattershot free jazz bleats of trumpet and stampeding drums, alongside punishing analog and digital electronic bursts – all live, no overdubs. All in all, it's a captivating, tough to categorize set, the type of music that challenges the listener almost as much as possible, and yet still manages to give off more than it requires you to take in. The group's subsequent releases 4 and 5 (the latter culled from live DATs) found them less in the red, emphasizing the space between the tumbling assaults.

On their newest effort, the obviously titled 6, the quartet explores different territory with the same aesthetic result in mind – tense, foreboding tracks always threatening to turn headlong into a white noise frenzy. This release almost seems to straddle a line between the spacey, lyrical explorations of Food and the unrelenting joyous insanity of Maja Ratkje and Spunk. This time out, however, the end result of their improvisations is marked with a much more cinematic feel, with each of the six pieces sustaining a delicate balance between pensive brooding atmospherics and the undercurrents of something more deeply aggressive. In a recent interview, Helge Sten noted the influence of the late Florian Fricke’s group Popol Vuh, and indeed the six tracks on this disc seem almost like they could be the soundtrack to an updated Werner Herzog flick.

The first track on the disc deals with layered organ tones and sparse percussion in the background, the type of sounds that ebb and flow, pulsing with an almost melodic knack as they propel the track forward. Actually, one of the more surprising things about this disc is that it is about as close to unabashed melodicism as the group has ever gotten. At the very least, the swells of organ and trumpet that rise out of the frozen tundra of sound don’t feel as ambiguous anymore. They're not any more deliberate, I suppose, but they exhibit a kind of intuitive grace. The second track is one of the best tracks on the album, a solid ten minutes of loose rhythm as a bed for Arve Henriksen’s beautifully droning trumpet lines and foreboding electronic drones. This time out brings his work with Food and the ideas he explored on his solo record from a couple of years back (the sublime Sakuteiki) to fruition. This is perhaps the most accessible Supersilent has ever sounded, and they’re no worse for it, constructing moodier and headier workouts than they’ve ever done before.

The third track strikes a nice balance between rolls of percussion and waves of advancing and retreating electronics. It juxtaposes constant threats of all-out chaos with more minimal passages to create effect akin to the woozy bombast of their earlier material – claustrophobic and intense, but for different reasons. It goes for an almost Ibsen-like grasp of tension and suspense, until exploding in a psychedelic wash. All of this gives way to the dream-like intensity of the fourth track. Echoing guitars, far-off organs and atmospheric electronics and tossed off drums wind together in alternating bursts of intensity, sometimes crashing together and then again distantly – about as close to a fist-pumping improvised anthem as you can get.

On track five, Supersilent bring back massive waves of drones and feedback into one monumental roar, coupling the occasional melodic theme with great shifts in drones until it sounds like one piercing melody heard through a wall of static. The final track spreads everything out – piano lines, echoing percussion, haunting vocals, and subtle drones that rise and threaten to overwhelm everything else. A cinematic sense of majesty flies freely throughout the remainder of the album, closing out another amazing exploration. The piano rises, the vocals or the drums occasionally, all dipping back down into the bed of sound until it drones off into the distance.

There’s also a lot of other great music coming out of Norway courtesy of a label called Smalltown Supersound. Recently, they released the newest disc from Voice's co-producers Jazzkammer. This duo has been previously known for their intense sonic barrage and sine waves, but Pancakes, their latest, finds the two sounding quieter than usual. What at first seems like the most understated release of the year reveals layers of sonic textures working below the surface in near obscurity. Jazzkammer member Lasse Marhaug also released a great collaboration with Chicago noisemaker Kevin Drumm. Frozen By Blizzard Winds is marked by a nice collision of Drumm’s metallic noise and Marhaug’s attention to ambient atmospherics. It’s the perfect soundtrack to those same blizzard winds that pile the snow on your windowsill. And finally, there’s Kim Hiorthoy. He does all of the graphics for Rune Grammofon’s impeccably packaged discs, and also finds time to release wonderful downtempo and somewhat lo-fi electronic gems. Ranging from the sparsely melodic to thumping house, the tracks on his collection Melke are uniformly excellent.

By Michael Crumsho

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