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Aethenor, Cafe Oto, London, 02/06/2011.

by Tim Owen

June 06, 2011


A similar set would be make for a compelling deep listening experience as a future ?thenor album.


Café Oto, London


Steve Noble / Stephen O’Malley / Daniel O’Sullivan / Kristoffer Rygg

It’s been three months since I reviewed the latest ?thenor album for the Jazz Mann, and it is still on frequent rotation at home. Recorded by an ad-hoc convention of arthouse Metal mavericks, with only one member whose life is devoted purely to improvisation, En Form for Bl? convincingly maps a virgin musical hinterland. It’s pretty much in a class of its own, with only Supersilent providing any really valid point of reference. The album presents a cherry-picked selection of highlights from three concerts, and its five tracks each have a distinct flavour. The chance to catch the group in concert presented a golden opportunity to find out how representative it is of ?thenor’s live sound.

At Café Oto the group played a single uninterrupted set. I would guess that an outline for at least the opening stages was sketched out in advance, since the first half hour saw a quick progression from brooding electronics to a navigation through some tight, dynamic transitions that blended energised power play with free jazz methodology. The keyboards and tape manipulations of Daniel O’Sullivan and the electronics of Kristoffer Rygg are central to the ?thenor sound, but here - and this is the crucial difference between ?thenor and the music of their other ongoing concern, Ulver - they are subject to the interventions of Steve Noble (drums) and Stephen O’Malley (electric guitar), which channel the group sound away from Ulver’s cinematic rock into something much more visceral and unrestrained.

O’Sullivan and Rygg got things under way assertively, creating a soundscape that blended the textural richness of ambient music with the energy of Noise: bright electric pianistics and a swell of electronics, cut through with static, manipulated tape loops, and O’Sullivan’s treated vocals. Noble was comfortable playing behind this backdrop, teasing just the right scraped-cymbal sound or percussive rustling from his prepared kit, but O’Malley initially seemed uncomfortable. He dragged the legs of his wooden chair repeatedly across the concrete floor, before sitting down to flick some loose, dry tones from his fret board. It was only when the set gained momentum, and O’Malley tapped down on an effects pedal for the first time to let loose amplified chords, that he seemed to relax. The group sensed the change, and a noticeable shift up-tempo kicked in, with volume. This was to be perhaps one of the loudest shows I’ve ever experienced at Oto (admittedly not routinely a rowdy establishment), though by no means lacking in nuance. In other contexts, notably within his own Sunn O))) project, O’Malley plays simple chords that gain in power and effectiveness as they are layered and amassed and drawn out to the point of abstraction. Since ?thenor’s music is comparatively fluid and texturally open, this same sensitivity to dynamics and judicious sense of timing is of heightened importance, and O’Malley shows impeccable judgement. There are times tonight when his playing sounds not unlike Neil Young’s, in the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film “Dead Man”: evocative, reverberant chords which seem to hold the moment in abeyance. O’Malley is not yet a natural improviser, but as he’s shown in his occasional performances as a duo with Steve Noble, he is well attuned to the performative nature of the music, and plays to his strengths.

Steve Noble is of course a past-master at improvisation, and as a recent recruit to ?thenor’s ranks he’s a vital, galvanizing presence. It is undoubtedly Noble whose input helps ?thenor to transcend the ambient/Noise/post-Metal scene (which I follow with interest) and pushes it into a freer, more invigorating direction. The set begins to flag at around the three-quarter-hour mark, as the group lose their previously firm grip on the collective dynamic. Noble breaks the resultant tension with a steady rhythm, which injects a much-needed surge of energy and gives the set a renewed sense of direction. It doesn’t last. Perhaps the subsequent temptation to stray into familiar tropes is too studiously avoided: in any case, the set ended with a lull in the proceedings that gave rise to a tangle of musical non sequitur and miscommunication. It didn’t really matter; the preceding hour or so was convincing enough to carry the day. A similar set would be make for a compelling deep listening experience as a future ?thenor album.

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