OK where to start?
The last few weeks have seen me delve into one of the best and most rewarding musical rabbit holes that I have explored for some time. The starting point was the album I’m writing about here, but the sheer depth and breadth of what I found on the Hubro Bandcamp page has been a total ear-opener. Hubro, if you hadn’t guessed, is the label that released ‘Dust Breathing’; along with four other albums by this Norwegian band which comprises members of – amongst others – Motorpsycho and Elephant9, with multi-instrumentalist Kjetil Møster acting as a kind of ‘band leader’ (although the relationship seems looser than that).
The Oslo-based label brings together a number of mainly, but not exclusively, Norwegian musicians and collectives, releasing a large number of experimental albums of varying levels of accessibility covering far too many genre to mention here; although there seems to be something of a focus on the relationship between Scandinavian musical traditions with such as jazz, folk ambient and drone at the forefront of their output. I am yet to hear anything like the whole back-catalogue, but from what I have heard so far there is nothing on there that is anything less than interesting.
But back to ‘Dust Breathing’, and before I even get to the music I need to take time to appreciate the context that you are given for this album through the short essay that is reproduced on the inner sleeve of the vinyl album (an artefact that you don’t get purely by listening on Spotify). It is a lovely piece of creative writing by Aslak Gurholt (who also designed the cover) linking the flu pandemic of 100 years ago with the current coronavirus one, then going through a lovely diversion through the works of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, finally alighting on the cover photo of 1920 New Jersey by Hamilton Maxwell… the link back being that it is of Bergen County, with Bergen being the town in Norway where the band is based.
I particularly liked how Gurholt used the idea of dust as a narrative device throughout the piece, with the idea the accrual of dust can be seen as “dead time passing”. At a time where it feels that we have witnessed a considerable amount of ‘dead time’ while we have been locked down in our homes, this concept seems to be somewhat apt… as the dust of time has settled on us as we await the effects of the pandemic to lift. This also gives us a sense of how we can view the album through it’s title ‘Dust Breathing’… we have all been doing a great deal of this on the last year. That said, the act of listening to this album – or anything in the Hubro catalogue – is anything but ‘dead time passing’. It is as engaging an experience as music should be, a catalyst and inspiration to think and comprehend new ideas both within and outside our heads. Indeed, having listened to it quite a few times now I am increasingly taken by the breadth and depth of the music on offer here, and with the musicianship that accompanies it.
The album begins with it’s longest track, ‘The Bonfire, The Sun”. It is a lovely piece that at first feels as if it is sprawling out of control with Møster’s sax spiralling in ever energetic eddys of sound, but kept grounded by Nikolai Hængsle’s bass and Kenneth Kapstad’s drums. The track develops with a lovely repetitive melody which both soothes and feeds the soul before the band launch into a full on freakout which just seems to get hotter and more offbeat every time you listen to it. It’s difficult to keep up sometimes, but in addition to blowing away the mental cobwebs really disturbs that cognitive dust too.
After that ‘Waistful Tendensities’ rather rocks out in a way that you perhaps would not expect. It is a really left turn that is as surprising as it is welcome, with Hans Magnus Ryan’s visceral guitar work here moving to the fore. It’s a track that wouldn’t be out of place on many classic rock album, although Møster’s sax at times gives it an animated quality that provides the sort of tangential dimension that reminds you that this band are swimming in different waters to your average combo.
Side one of the vinyl version is completed by ‘Ausculptation’, which is an altogether more measured and down beat number. As it gets underway I get the real feeling of coziness, as sense that the music is enveloping me… it is like it is somehow reaching out to me and forming itself within the moment… and it feels exactly like that, almost a fragment, a moment in time that holds you in stasis for its duration.
The remainder of the album is set out in three movements, beginning with ‘Organs of Bodies I: Blightness’. From the start there is a sense of doom here, of sinister machinations. With a drone underpinning it, this is far more electronic than anything that has gone this far. The pace, although slow, feels very deliberate once again drawing you in before letting loose on ‘Organs of Bodies II: Tentactility’. This jazz/ prog number takes the album in yet another direction with some soaring sax playing over squealing electronics, while bass and drums once again provide that solid foundation on top of which the track flourishes. The band build up the tension over nearly ten minutes of absolutely superb and tight playing… the sort of track that makes you long for live music again because witnessing this in full flow on stage would, I imagine, be something to savour.
The final movement, ‘Organs of Bodies III: Palpatience’, is different again; there is still something of a prog vibe here but there is much more than that going on here. There is a sharpness and sense of purpose that you perhaps don’t always get with, particularly contemporary, music of this type. I really like the momentum that the band build up here… moving inexorably towards the denouement.
This, then, is a terrific album that is exciting and subtle in equal measure. It is the sound of four very good musicians getting together and producing something that is unique to them, it feels like it more that the sum of its not insignificant parts in this sense. It is an album that surprises you at every turn and brings something that is genuinely new to the table.
‘Dust Breathing’ is out now on Hubro.
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