REVIEW: ‘Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral’ – Samuel Hällkvist

‘EPIK’ IS THE WORD – but then, that’s the distinctive landscape which Swedish guitarist/programmer Samuel Hällkvist has inhabited in his post-rock-jazz albums such as Variety of Rhythm and Variety of Live. Just as intense as those earlier recordings, Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral blasts out solid walls of polyrhythms and electronics – but this time, there seems to be a greater sense of cohesion; a thread of overall structure, intent and chameleonic colour… if you can handle its unrelenting progression!

Rooted in Hällkvist’s deep, complex grooves – which are shared with his drummers and bassists – there are also contributions from sound designer and programmer Katrine Amsler, plus the smouldering trumpet improvisations of Yazz Ahmed, Noel Langley and Luca Calabrese. Pulsating, evolving stratum of venturesome sounds (the nearest comparison being Nik Bärtsch’s ECM albums) are supported by intriguing sleeve notes which significantly reference ‘self-dividing, self-replicating’, ‘nearly impossible yet entirely real’ and the pertinent phrase, ‘flood the senses’. And there is, indeed, an element of needing to positively submit to these crafted/processed, industrial/urban environments; the reward – an intoxicating, absorbing expedition.

Save for the introductory slide across the fretboard, Hällkvist’s guitars are typically integrated into the whole, demonstrated in opening Vägen Som Landet (The road like the land) as it bustles with funky, woven precision, incorporating reverse-bass riffs, big-band-style stabs and sultry, swirling brass. Utan Vilja (Without will) is rhythmically erratic and challenging, while intensifying movie tension is the dominant force in Hög (High), the first of three tracks under the collective title Dekorum; II and III – Medel (Average) and Låg (Low) – are similarly electrifying. The instrumental mélanges fascinate – Badboll Gles and Blåklocka, Ängsklocka especially for their Steve Reich-suggested impressions of tuned percussion, and 100 Takter Med Piano (100 beats with piano) for its spiky, morse code frenzy, complemented by spiralling trumpet. To close, unusually slow, ominous Omstart leads into Svedjebruk (Shifting cultivation), whose unyielding synth-pop strains find a blistering rock climax.

Dizzying, saturated, unsettling, mesmeric, rousing – any of these might be natural responses to Hällkvist’s ten, dynamic tracks which provide a pounding, sonic adventure almost like no other.

Released on 20 August 2020 (the artist’s 40th birthday), Epik, Didaktik, Pastoral and available in CD format from Burning Shed, as well as CD/digital at Bandcamp; and if streaming is for you – there, too.

 

Samuel Hällkvist guitars, MIDI programming, composition
Knut Finsrud drums
Dick Lövgren bass (tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10)
Katrine Amsler sound design, programming (tracks 1, 7, 8, 10)
Anne Marte Eggen bass (tracks 2, 4, 9)
Yazz Ahmed trumpet (tracks 1, 3)
Luca Calabrese trumpet (tracks 2, 6)
Noel Langley additional trumpet (tracks 1, 3)

Cover art by Sophie Bass

samuelhallkvist.com

BoogiePost Recordings – BPCD031 (2020)

‘Christmas With My Friends V’ – Nils Landgren

v_flare_300

IT’S NOW TEN YEARS since Swedish trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren released the first in a series of albums which have imparted joy and peace in the run-up to and throughout Christmas. The successful recordings (and concerts) have consistently drawn together new interpretations of familiar carols and songs with classical arrangements and lesser-known gems, all presented by vocalists and instrumentalists from the ACT Music roster. And following on from 2015’s offering comes Christmas With My Friends V

Landgren and his musicians researched and made their selections together; and, befittingly, they recorded during the week leading up to last Christmas Day – so this festive feel-good is delivered with an extra air of authenticity. Here, exuberant ‘lollipops’ rub shoulders with soft ballads, original compositions and peaceful, crisp, starlit tradition; and somehow, the whole is so lovingly crafted that it creates a sweet, homely and lasting impression.

Multi-tracked trombone ‘solo ensemble’ Morgenstern and Morgenlicht (recognisable as Epiphany carol How brightly beams the morning star, with harmony by J S Bach) heralds the proceedings to wide-skied, echoing valleys; and Landgren’s tender vocal in Eva Kruse’s Let the Stars Come Out Tonight is sparingly supported by folksy guitar and tenor sax. Familiar hymns and carols such as Joy to the World and Go Tell It on the Mountain are refashioned, the latter in growling, muted trombone gospel (Ida Sand the vocalist), and Hogmanay staple Auld Lang Syne‘s fireside coziness is sensitively weighted.

Baby It’s Cold Outside and Everyday is Christmas pick up the affable, swingin’ holiday vibe; the usual whipcracking orchestration of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is replaced with a delectable guitar-and-horn-accompanied soft-jazz jaunt featuring the voice of Jessica Pilnäs. Ida Sand presents her emotive Now the Time is Here with delicacy, enhanced by Eva Kruse’s empathetic bass soloing; and inflected, soulful Love is Born is delivered emphatically by Sharon Dyall’s colourful vocal to a slick and eager instrumental arrangement complete with bluesy sax break.

The tingle factor in these recordings so often comes from a sense of stillness. There Is No Rose‘s medieval strains are carried on the late-evening air by Jeanette Köhn’s crystalline annunciation; the clear, midnight-sky trombone melodies of Johan Norberg’s Seven Stains from Christmas Eve are reminiscent of Landgren’s duo album collaborations with pianist Esbjörn Svensson (Swedish Folk Modern and Layers of Light); and Norberg’s intricate kantele timbres are threaded through such fine delicacies as O Heiland, Reiß Die Himmel Auf and his own gossamer solo Kokles Christmas.

Amongst our regular, seasonal fare of choral, orchestral and pop favourites, Landgren’s concept remains a welcome breath of alternative, chilled enjoyment. A number of these eighteen tracks could be tagged #schmalzy, and there’s certainly variety in arrangements. As with all four previous albums, V possesses a special something – including more, rather attractive European folk-tinged discoveries – all presented with warmth and sincerity by accomplished musicians. A charming gift with which to scent the air during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Christmas With My Friends V can be found at ACT Music, iTunes and other outlets (promo video here). The complete 5CD box set, The Jubilee Collectionis also available.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Jonas Knutsson saxophones
Johan Norberg guitars, kantele
Ida Sand vocals, piano, school organ
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals
Eva Kruse bass

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9830-2 (2016)

‘Flying Machines’ – Flying Machines

FlyingMachines_digital assets

A NEAT SYNTHESIS of pioneering inspiration, elegant sleeve art and exhilarating original music ties together Flying Machines’ eponymous debut album – a jazz-rock experience founded on imaginative, soaring electric guitar expression and energized, synth-sizzling grooves. 

With crew of piano/keyboardist Matt Robinson, bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Dave Hamblett, guitarist/composer Alex Munk’s inspirited artistic approach is fired by the legacy and memory of his father, Roger Munk, whose tireless, award-winning vision for the advancement of British airship technology resulted in this year’s maiden voyage of the world’s longest aircraft – hybrid vehicle Airlander 10.

Indeed, there is undoubtedly a sense of gliding freedom and adventure as these nine, aeronautically-themed tracks take to the skies, as if the guitarist’s overarching brief to the band is to ascend towards spatial euphoria. So although opening number Tracks ripples to incisively picked guitar, deftly chromatic piano and tricksy, propulsive rhythms, it then levels out into an above-cloud state of tranquillity, with Munk’s clean, sustained melodies basking in endless sunlight; and the busyness of Bliss Out also has wide-openness at its heart, Robinson’s anthemic piano octaves floating over Hamblett’s snare drum propulsion, giving rise to gutsy guitar improvisation.

Munk’s citation of Pat Metheny and Mike Walker as influences can be heard in dreamy As Long As It Lasts. Rapid, anticipatory synth patterns in Emotional Math Metal bubble underneath crashing rock chords and breathless, extended, bass-driven riffs (yet there are always moments of serenity for taking in the view); and the guitarist’s solo piece, First Breath, possesses a Tracy Chapman song-like simplicity which almost implies a lyrical vocal line, as well as a redolence of Steve Howe or Steve Hackett prog interlude.

This quartet coalesces superbly across these differently-hued episodes, the buoyant electric bass and Rhodes funk of Lighter Than Air perhaps suggesting Snarky Puppy or, again, Metheny; and Peace Offering‘s initial weightlessness hits some splendidly turbulent dynamic and rhythmic fluctuations, all so exactingly co-ordinated. Stratosphere‘s crunchy, pop/rock solidity treads somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and Genesis; and post-flight A Long Walk Home (with Chaplin’s switch to double bass and Robinson’s acciaccatura piano inflections emphasising this more rustic, acoustic amble) views the afterglow with an exquisite, thankful reverence.

Technically and emotionally thrilling, Flying Machines’ own inaugural flight is ‘up there’ with the best. Released on 14 October 2016, it’s available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Alex Munk guitars, compositions
Matt Robinson piano, synths, Fender Rhodes
Conor Chaplin electric bass, double bass
Dave Hamblett drums

flyingmachinesband.com

Sleeve art by Oli Bentley at split.co.uk

Pictor Records – 001 (2016)

‘Agartha’ – Oddarrang

Agartha

IT’S THREE YEARS since Finnish band Oddarrang came to the attention of UK audiences with their third studio album (and first with British label Edition Records), In Cinema, plus live gigs. Now, once again under the leadership of drummer and composer Olavi Louhivuori, new release Agartha permeates the senses with that same, statuesque wall of sound.

The line-up is less than conventional (a clue can be found in the quintet’s name which, rather than having its roots in folklore, was in fact devised from ‘odd arrangement’). Alongside Louhivuori is trombonist Ilmari Pohjola, guitarist Lasse Sakara, bassist Lasse Lindgren and cellist Osmo Ikonen; and there’s significant band input on synths and voices, with Ikonen also adding Chinese/Asian stringed instrument, the erhu. So whilst Oddarrang’s original music displays the power of progressive rock and the drama of widescreen soundtrack, it is also flooded with the broad, open spaces and inflections of Scandinavian folk.

In fact, it feels like Louhivuori’s world is informed by many influences, opening number Aletheia mysteriously awakening through synth ostinati and sustained, descending hazes redolent of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. This is not blistering-solo jazz, nor mundane ambience. Instead, a series of anthemic, post-rock panoramas are meticulously fashioned, often seeming to build their anticipatory energy towards a blazing aurora; and melodic Central Sun, in particular, reveals both the force and beauty of this fine instrumentation – steely, unison trombone and voices above driving guitar and percussion, steadfastly facing into the wind. In Admiral Byrd’s Flight, an ardent rock groove of determination and intrigue is woven around pulsating, phased electronics and impassioned cello (the stuff of adventure movie climax).

The remaining two tracks of five hint at those extended, storytelling, prog expeditions of yore. At around ten minutes’ duration, slow-burning Mass I-III moves through a series of connected movements, its orchestral poise maintained by trombone, cello and string synth sustenance; and the more folsky guitar addition opens the door to windswept electronics and a thunderously-drummed conclusion. And Telos/Agartha (the album is titled after the legendary city at the earth’s core) is another extended opus whose gaseous, overlapping textures invite the beautiful, cantabile vibrato of the erhu before eventually reaching a hymnal conclusion, with triumphant trombone and cello melodies elevated above the band’s now-familiar layers of synth and percussion.

Oddarrang’s ability to radiate awe and wonder through their specific instrumentation and careful detailing is sure to appeal to those who appreciate emotive, majestic soundscapes.

Released on 23 September 2016, Agartha is available as CD, vinyl or digital download from Bandcamp.

Video: Mass I-III

 

Olavi Louhivuori drums, synths, voice
Ilmari Pohjola trombone, synths, voice
Lasse Sakara guitars, voice
Lasse Lindgren bass, synths, voice
Osmo Ikonen cello, synths, erhu, voice
with
Aino Peltomaa voice on Aletheia

oddarrang.com

Edition Records – EDN1079 (2016)

‘Out of the Sky’ – Vimala Rowe & John Etheridge

Out of the Sky

A DUO RECORDING which, indeed, does seem to have fallen ‘out of the sky’, this album brings together legendary jazz/jazz-rock guitarist John Etheridge and soulful singer/songwriter Vimala Rowe in an intimate programme of interpretations and original songs.

Etheridge (whose impressive, hard-working career has included major roles with Soft Machine and Stephane Grappelli) recounts their chance encounter, whilst walking the green spaces of London’s Hampstead Heath, where they discussed “music and philosophy”; and then how, a few months later, when Rowe attended one of the guitarist’s gigs, he invited her up on stage to perform with him: “The audience and I were taken straight to another dimension through the soul, range and passion of her singing.”

Merging their own musical roots and experiences, Rowe and Etheridge have worked together to fashion a repertoire of great distinction – and whether through smoky samba, playful blues or prayerful serenity, the immediacy of this recording frequently suggests a privileged eavesdropping on an intensely-felt, in-the-moment session of chamber jazz and world music. John Etheridge’s known mastery of both acoustic and electric guitars (playing five different instruments in this recording) is confirmed throughout the nine varied tracks, matched by Vimala Rowe’s vocal dexterity, annunciative clarity and emotional focus.

The duo’s effective, sultry opener Blue Breeze might hint at the operatic drama of Gershwin’s Summertime, but the intertwining of Rowe’s fervid vocal and Etheridge’s echoic, prog guitar soloing suggest something far more contemporary. Much-covered Tanzanian song Malaika (Angel) possesses a lucid, African charm; smouldering Sometimes We Have to Part (accredited to Rowe/Evol) is attractively reminiscent of Sade; and the soft, often deep-registered vocal on Ellington’s Solitude is deliciously held back, coloured by Etheridge’s luscious acoustic chords.

Atmospheric, sustained Syriac Aramaic Prayer, with its calling vocal over an embellished, repeating guitar motif redolent of Ali Farka Touré, might be imagined heard across an exotic, barren landscape, whilst another of Rowe’s co-written pieces, Drive (one of two with Dudley Phillips’ buoyant, underpinning bass) further illuminates the singer’s soulful, R&B angle… and, all the while, these live-feel performances proceed with such secure beauty from both vocalist and guitarist. The combination of Vimala Rowe’s precise Hindustani mantra and John Etheridge’s spacial guitar in his arrangement of traditional tune Ya Kundendu – Saraswati Sloka, is quietly hypnotic – quite a different sound world to Etheridge’s jazz-fusion output.

In beautifully-swinging contrast, Dark Shadows (Earl Coleman, Shifty Henry) pitches Rowe’s playfully accentuated lines against her accompanist’s bright, jazz guitar; and end-piece Detour Ahead places Herb Ellis’ original in the most exquisite of environments, Rowe’s effortless, crystalline delivery balanced with Etheridge at his eloquent best.

Released on 28 May 2016, on Dyad Records, Out of the Sky is available from Amazon, iTunes, etc.

A little piece of musical heaven.

 

Vimala Rowe vocals
John Etheridge guitars
with
Dudley Phillips double bass (tracks 3, 6)

vimala.tv
johnetheridge.com

Dyad Records – DY 028 (2016)

‘Let’s Dance’ – Per Oddvar Johansen

LetsDance

IT MAY BE CLICHÉD to describe an album as a ‘musical journey’, yet the progression in Let’s Dance very much suggests passage through the kind of open, atmospheric Scandinavian landscape portrayed on the cover of this new release from Norwegian drummer and multi-instrumentalist Per Oddvar Johansen. 

Although it marks his debut as leader – with longstanding colleagues Helge Lien (piano) and Torben Snekkestad (saxophones, reed trumpet) – Johansen’s established recording career has seen him appear on over eighty albums (ECM, ACT, etc.), collaborating with names such as Adam Baldych, Trygve Seim and Solveig Slettahjell, and collecting six Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammys).

This trio’s sound palette is many-hued, whilst maintaining a thread of serene majesty, as in opening title track Let’s Dance – a gentle, misty, Tord Gustavsen-like dawn with an arcing sunrise melody painted by Torben Snekkestad’s wispy, duduk-toned soprano sax. As a drummer, percussionist and composer, Johansen also has other instrumental capabilities up his sleeve on this recording (violins, vibes, guitars, etc.), yet the structural balance of these nine tracks is never in doubt. Forest Flower‘s atmospheric delicacy – with distorted reeds, low-sustained piano strings and fragile percussion respectively evoking bird calls, looming storms and the gradual onset of rainfall – is so beautifully imagined. Flying extends the themes of natural openness and shifting climatic conditions through the spacial rise and fall of electronics, violin and dewdrop vibraphone; and the lyrical, folksong qualities in No. 7 feel reminiscent of the work of Jonas Knutsson.

Helge Lien’s restrained yet exploratory piano style is central to many of these pieces, his authoritative sense of equilibrium shining through in Panorama, a dark, brooding episode suspended by his deeply-plumbed pedal notes and only occasional glimmers of brightness; and Per Oddvar’s brushed subtleties underpin Snekkestad’s lachrymose improvisations with incantational foreboding. In contrast, the lurching slide-guitar folksiness of Uluru (for Anette) suggests arrival at a woodland clearing, complete with the sound of lofty tweets and distant, flowing streams – one of a pair of delightful miniatures (with free, electro-percussive Impromptu) which perpetuate the pervading themes of free-roaming expedition.

The rubato of Families, over a slowly oscillating bass figure, offers both Snekkestad and Johansen a broad canvas to explore, with Lien’s own, single-line piano excursions finely placed; and closing track Song M is coloured by the beautifully richness of tenor sax amidst the tranquillity of brushed snare/cymbals and nebulous piano.

Recorded deep within the forests of Sweden, the tranquillity of Per Oddvar Johansen’s Let’s Dance may be interpreted as a grateful invocation to nature – and it’s not difficult, on close examination, to fall under its spell. Watch the video of the recording of the title track here.

Released on 25 March 2016, the album can be purchased from Edition Records’ Bandcamp store.

 

Per Oddvar Johansen drums, violins, vibraphone, guitars, wood percussion, electronics
Helge Lien piano
Torben Snekkestad saxophones, reed trumpet

peroddvar.no

Edition Records – EDN1068 (2016)