Wednesday, March 23, 2005


TORE ELGAROY – The Sound of the Sun CD; ARVE HENRIKSEN – Sakuteiki CD; NILS OKLAND – Straum CD
There’s more to contemporary music in Norway than Turbonegro and black-clad church-burners. There’s also the Rune Grammofon label. I’ve been meaning to give this excellent label a swift rundown for a while, though laziness and the seemingly Herculean nature of the task have kept it at bay.

Dedicated to Norwegian musicians of many shades and stripes, though if you could put a tag on RG’s schtick, it’d be “electro-acoustic” or thereabouts, Rune’s roster is something even non-Wire subscribers will find of at least some interest. Their catalogue, every release housed in the patented patched and abstract art of graphic designer and musician Kim Hiorthoy, is a goldmine of the weird and the wonderful. You’ll find the post-post-rock of Supersilent (yeah, Wire pin-up boys, but good nonetheless), the minimal electronics of Information and Monolight, the fiery jazz squall of Raoul Bjorkenheim and his Scorch Trio (highly recommended for all Sharrock fans), the dark, haunting textures of 20th century composer Fartein Valen, and, well, a whole lot more besides. Then there’s these three, barely-pronouncable clowns.

Elgaroy is, from all reports, a stalwart of the Norwegian scene, though you’d be forgiven for being ignorant of that fact. A guitarist in the Fred Frith mode (the closest comparison I can muster), this is a purely solo album of heavily treated six-string action, most of it, much like Frith’s groundbreaking Guitar Solos LP, unrecognizable as sounds emanating from a six-stringed instrument, much less the work of simply one man (there’s obviously a mountain of overdubs at work here). A wildly eclectic disc, one which sounds like it could've been released on United Dairies, now that I think of it, it really works and never bores. Now that's an achievement.

Arve Henriksen is another mainstay of Norway’s avant-garde scene, and this disc is produced by Supersilent knucklehead, Helge Sten (otherwise known as Deathprod). A solo effort with a Japanese theme, the main instruments on show here are trumpet, organ and bells, and whilst the idea of a Norwegian releasing a minimal album with a Japanese theme may not get one rushing out the door, credit card in hand, it perhaps should. Make an exception here. Ever flipped a lid to the sounds of Bob Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, Eno’s On Land, later Talk Talk, In A Silent Way-era Miles? There’s some reference points for ya.

Nils Okland is, from all reports, a well-respected fiddle player and folk musician in his homeland, so who am I to pass judgment? This is one of my favourite releases on the label (and yes, I’ve heard nearly the whole discography). With minimal accompaniment from other players on guitar, trumpet, organ, harmonium, etc. the sounds of Straum is at once sound modern, yet ghostly and ancient. Partly “avant-garde” and partly submerged in a grand tradition I don’t yet understand, this is a brilliant zone-out platter to spin on a lonely, rainy day. Norwegian folk music… now there’s a can of worms I need to open one day.

This has been sitting around for reasons I do not wish to go into (it’s a “work-related” issue). If I’ve ever “considered” the ‘Groovies at all, which is rare, it’d be as the runt of the pre-punk litter. Gimme the Stooges, NY Dolls and MC5 ‘til I die. Hell, throw in those first three Blue Oyster Cult LPs whilst you’re at it. But the ‘Groovies? I’ve always found them to be tepid at best, stone-cold freezing at worst. My brother had their Supersnazz LP growing up and it did nothing but collect dust for a decade (as it still does). I know it’s not considered their finest work even by fans, though I’ll blame that for throwing me off the trail for nearly 20 years. Not that Slow Death (on the Norton label, by the way), a collection of demo and TV broadcast recordings from 1971-73, is a masterpiece, though it’s a step in the right direction. The recordings are rough, as expected, but at least in this context they actually sound like a rough ‘n’ tumble rock ‘n’ roll band, and not the candy-assed power-pop revivalist outfit I had them pegged as. There’s still a whole lotta stuff here I could gladly live without (covers of “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, etc.), though the title track and the amazing “Shake Some Action” (always my fave song of theirs, and a track which was, and probably still is, a staple of Melbourne public radio) mean I’ll probably hang onto this for a while. Some of the most absurd, rambling and shamelessly name-dropping liner notes, c/o the band’s Cyril Jordan, I’ve ever read, are included in the swish booklet.

Gamelan Semar Pagulingan from Besang-Ababi/Karangasem: Music From Bali CD
Never heard of this one? Rolls off the tongue beautifully. Apparently it’s all The Kids are talking about. I’ve been through a few hyperventilating “World Music” phases in my life, most notably in the late ‘90s when I went on the grand search to locate any and all Nonesuch Explorer, Lyrichord and Smithsonian Folkways “ethnic” titles (I wasn’t very successful, by the way), and about two years back when I found myself in the unlikely situation of living in a house (my house!) which seconded as a warehouse for a record company specializing in the genre (long story, maybe one day I’ll tell you all about it). This CD is a remnant from that second phase. Released on the excellent Wergo label out of Germany, who have two divisions: Classical and World, Music From Bali is 70 minutes of banging, scraping and bell-shaking Gamelan aktion. Once you’ve graduated from the Sun City Girls school of white Westerners pulling this stuff off, you should go straight to the source. There’s a whole world of music out there, why would you want to set a personal limit on any of it?

THE EX – Turn 2CD
A little while back I wrote a semi-negative review of an old Ex LP (which I borrowed off my brother, having not heard it in 10 years), and received a proverbial slap across the face from man-about-the-web, John Righter. If he was present in the room at the time, I’m sure I would’ve been wiping the spittle off my face as he berated me for the pig-ignorance I showed in deriding The Ex as, well, not all that. John, you may have a point. Soon thereafter I spotted this, their 2004 double-CD epic, going cheap, and grabbed it in the hope of giving our fave Dutch anarchist friends a second chance. I did, after all, used to be a big fan of these chaps when I was an angry and impressionable student (you can shoot me… now) and felt that it was perhaps my ensuing 30-something crankiness which didn’t give them a fair shake (not to mention the fact that I was reviewing an album from 1984; not really an accurate, or fair, summation of what they might’ve been up to the last decade). So, the verdict?

For now I’m saying it’s a hung jury with two members who just won’t budge. That’s still a strike rate of 10/12, though there’s a few things holding me back from an unequivocal recommendation. Well, firstly, I gotta say it, even though it’s really irrelevant to the argument, but for this mini-genre of music, I still prefer the awe-inspiring sounds of the Dawson and the Dog Faced Hermans, but secondly, the one beef I have with The Ex is that they rarely stray from the galloping, vaguely Beefheartish beat which every song appears to be mired in. For a song or two that’s fine, maybe even half the album would be OK, though I find Turn to be a little same-y. Sameness of a good thing isn’t something to drive one to despair, but still, too much of even a good thing can be a bad thing. John, I haven’t given up yet!

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