It has been some six weeks since I last wrote an album appreciation, and a lot of music has been listened to in the meantime. The thing is that I haven’t really felt the urge to write about it over that time.
I seem to have totally zoned out of new releases and gone back to things that I listened to years ago. Part of the reason for this is that I can only stream in the one room in the house that is free of the rest of my locked-down family, and so Spotify has been by go-to medium for the last month or so (I think I’ve played on average one vinyl album per week).
This had not been a bad thing, because I’ve explored and reacquainted myself with all sorts of excellent music. I seem to have gone to extremes. On the one hand probably my most played lockdown album, apart from the one I’m writing about here, has been Slayer’s 1986 album ‘Reign in Blood’; while I have also taken a deep dive into the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra.
One label that it has been a pleasure to become reacquainted with, however, is Munich’s ECM… one that is up there with the likes of Blue Note for me in terms of its high quality output and design consistency.
However, it is an album that is new to me that has proved to be the biggest hit… and it makes me so happy that I want to write about it here… because, well, I feel like writing again.
Arve Henriksen is a new artist for me, although I am sure that I have passed this album by many times when working my way through the ECM section in record shops. In that sense I get that feeling that it has been sitting there waiting for me to find it… waiting for that right moment to reveal itself to me…
Released in 2010, this was Henriksen’s fourth ‘solo’ album… the previous three having been released by the excellent Rune Grammofon label from his homeland of Norway. However, what is most remarkable for me, having read up on it, is that this is album was put together from a series of semi-improvised sessions with a number of different musicians; and not developed as a single concept. You really cannot see the joins here because, while it is eclectic, you never feel that it is incoherent… perhaps mirroring the ECM approach more broadly.
The album opens with a live recording, ‘Poverty and its Opposite’, which begins with the plaintiff sound of Henriksen’s trumpet together with subtle electronics and samples from his almost ever present collaborator on this album, Jan Bang… setting the tone for the rest of the set. Joined by percussionist Audun Kleive this is the perfect first track, its space and ambience drawing you in like light into a black hole… yet also somehow cosseting you as you take that journey… it feels at the same time nihilistic yet full of meaning.
This is followed by an amazing track, ‘Before and Afterlife’, in which David Sylvian reads his poetry… the cut and paste technique here sees the spoken word used more as another instrument… the words both losing and gaining meaning as you listen. I can imagine this being something that Cavalier Song may have listened to for their amazing album ‘A Deep Well‘. After Sylvian is finished Henriksen comes in with a trumpet solo that is once again so minimalistic, yet so powerful. I have read that he uses his instrument like Ian Curtis used his voice… I can see what they mean here.
After that comes the track through which I found this album, ‘Migration’. I just love the intermeshing of the trumpet with Bangs’ beats here. Listening to in is akin to me of being surrounded but a soft malleable foam which gives you the space to move and yet wraps its cocoon around you. There is a certain magnificence to this… and yet it still feels quite compact and centred… like being in lockdown it encourages you to built your own world within limited space.
‘From Birth’ again includes Audun Kleive and, if anything, takes the minimalism up a notch (or should that be down or out a notch)… you could fit a mountain in the space within this track… it feels like you can permeate your very self within the sonic strands developed here… a true meditation of becoming part of the essence of the music yourself.
‘Ouija’ has a similar feel, but with the addition of the electronics and samples of Erik Honoré; this short track feels a bit more dense… a fragment and/ or interlude that adds to a subtle disorienting feel that pervades this album. This is followed by ‘Recording Angel’ which is simply luscious and builds on what has gone before. It makes a beeline for that part of you that just melts when you hear certain music… the mixture of the trumpet and a sampled choral voice from Trio Mediaeval gives this number an ethereal feel… a musical airiness that awakens the spiritual dimension in you.
Honoré is back for ‘Assembly’ his subtle choral samples adding to the dual feelings of comfort and disorientation that this album brings (though with the emphasis always on the former). Here Henriksen’s trumpet sounds almost flute-like at times… and again the mixture of his instrument and the samples, and other electronics is pretty much perfect to these ears at this time…
The beginning of ‘Loved One’ has a melancholic feel, even before I put the title and music together I felt that this sounded like somewhat funereal… in a relatively abstract manner… yet just when you think the music is going to fragment you get a wave of electronics which somehow washes it away leaving a certain coherence in its wake. This very much reminds me of the good and bad days I’m having at the moment, and how a really bad day somehow washes the darkness away and creates a new clarity… I’m almost in tears holding this thought with this music! At this moment I feel as if I really have been destined to find this music at this time.
‘The Unremarkable Child’ is another short fragment/ interlude which is so enchanting that I really could listen to it all day… this nicely sets the scene for ‘Famine’s Ghost’ which sees Ståle Storløkken join Klieve and Honorê with synths and samples to create a track that is definitely within the parameters of the album yet also pushes it out a bit in a number of different directions. There is an eerie, almost sinister, feel to this number… you can feel the ghost stalking… and while there is more going on here, you never feel that anything is out of place, highlighting the wonderful way that this album is arranged.
David Sylvian returns with his poetry on ‘Thermal’. It feels like a welcome reprise that is well placed in the set. It feels right that the two tracks are separated in this way because it you had almost forgotten about it… as such it comes as a welcome jolt once again… I probably could listen to a whole album of it… but here, like everything else it is used sparingly.
Which brings us to the final track ‘Sorrow and its Opposite’. The use of Trio Mediaeval choral samples and an organ give this a relatively grand ecclesiastical feel without undermining the underlying and understated allure of this album. It feels like a number that sends you away with some purpose… to return to your small locked-down world and be the best that you need yo be until this is all over.
I have been wondering why I am listening to this album so much at the moment. I think that it is because, through this music, Henriksen creates another world… and alternate reality if you like… that the listener can retreat into. It is a world that is at the same time comforting and accessible… it is one that is challenging enough to come back to repeatedly and find new nuances and flourishes which keep you thinking and, well, fresh… it is one that is superbly played with the various collaborators adding something different to each track.
Put together, then, it is an album that, while not coherently constructed, does nevertheless mirror these strange and fragmented times beautifully. And actually that is the final thing I want to say about this album…
It is beautiful!
From the beginning to the end there is a graceful and beguiling atmosphere that permeates this music and, as if by osmosis, one’s very soul.
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