Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Reviewed by: Tim Owen
“Pressure” seems set to outclass most other albums in any genre this year.
I reviewed a Splashgirl gig for the Jazz Mann back in June, when the Norwegian trio - Andreas Stensland Løwe (piano/lo-fi electronics); Jo Berger Myhre (double bass/zither/tone generator); Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød (drums/percussion/sounds) - were in London to promote this, their third album. But “Pressure” is only now getting an official UK release. It’s a much less introspective affair than their live performances might suggest. This reflects the opening up of the group’s intimacy to input from a number of carefully orchestrated guest contributions. With additional voices and textures expanding their palette, “Pressure” has Splashgirl acquitting themselves masterfully as performers, writers, and, perhaps above all, arrangers. The album is characterised by its gracefulness, its music instilled with the iridescence and resilience of mother of pearl. “Pressure” seems set to outclass most other albums in any genre this year.
Splashgirl’s loping groove on album opener “Devata” carries hints of the late Esbjörn Svensson’s trio, but its development is in no way predictable. The textures of guest contributor Lasse Passage Nøsted’s “tape feedback” and field recordings dominate the mix, and there are strong echoes of drone metal innovator Dylan Carson’s Earth in the electric guitar of Juhani Silvola (on their own website, Splashgirl term their music “dronejazz”). It’s an odd but effective mix of inputs. The following “Creature of Light” breaks soft and warm into “Devata”’s decay, then grows behind Andreas Stensland Løwe’s dappled pianism. Further traces of Dylan Carson’s influence are evident in the track’s closing, but aren’t heard again despite Silvola contributing to a further three tracks, showing Splashgirl’s attentiveness to the specifics of each track within the larger scope of the album. The drone aesthetic of Earth’s influential Americana-inflected Metal are further discernible in the blending of low brass, guitar and drone that crops up in various places throughout Pressure, as when tuba, courtesy of Martin Taxt (Koboku Senjû), underpins the opening drone of “Alpha State of Mind”. After three minutes a brighter tune breaks through, with a heavily vibed guitar part lifting Løwe’s lilting piano melody. Despite all the guest contributions here and the equal footing of bassist Jo Berger Myhre and drummer Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød, Løwe’s style, famously informed by, though by no means in thrall to, Paul Bley, remains perhaps the single most distinguishing element of Splashgirl’s sound. Myhre’s bass and Knudsrød’s drums carry the piano through the dynamic rise and fall of the track’s easy forward momentum.
“Ravine” is a great example of the way Splashgirl reconcile contradictions within their characteristic limpid group sound. Insistently mid tempo, it is charged by Myhre’s bowed drones and Knudsrød’s loose mallet work, as Løwe maintains a high, liquid pulse with one hand while picking out a naïve melody with the other. A wordless vocal by Kvien Brunvoll (a young Norwegian singer who has garnered much acclaim for appearances at Molde and other European festivals over the past couple of years: surely a name to watch) adds a foreboding quality to the temporally spaced tom strikes that punctuate the opening of “The Other Side”, but Løwe’s forte delicacy maintains a neutral atmosphere. When Myhre’s bowed bass enters the mix the track gains its focus. A muted crescendo after four minutes precedes a lovely tonal blending of bass tones with electric guitar, which soon grows clamorous, and increasingly abrasive. There’s an effective use of Erik Johannesen’s trombone to bolster the pianist’s fragility as the track’s tension builds, and Silvola finally cuts loose as if he’s at the climactic moment of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor epic. It’s tracks like this that earn Splashgirl favourable comparisons with EST, since they similarly blend the poise and judgement of chamber jazz with rock textures to comparably stirring effect.
The Latinate opening pulse of “Concerning this Square” has a rippling, Morse code-like effect, with insistent piano and toms adding drama. Tuba and trombone in unison introduce an intermittent theme, though electronic textures soon cut in. When it re-emerges the theme is bolstered by bowed bass sustains, but it ebbs again leaving only loose, rapidly bowed bass and tom patterns to accompany a fleeting statement from Løwe’s piano. Title track “Pressure” is the only trio performance on the album. It’s a song of two parts: an abstract intro of zither-like inside piano and electronics, muted bowed and struck cymbals, and rubato bass. Metallic notes plucked from the piano and cymbal scrapes resonate like guitar feedback. At just under five minutes in a rapid bowed bass motif underpins a gathering locomotive patter of brushwork on rims, and a simple, repetitive piano motif asserts itself as the track spirals in intensity. “Pressure” ultimately peaks with bass and drums falling abruptly away to leave the piano in a weightless space punctuated only by sporadic sounds of metallic clangour, a nice touch that less imaginative musicians would not have brooked.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.