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by Ian Mann

December 29, 2015


“I.E.” covers many bases from jazz to rock to electro to ambient but always sounds distinctive and convincing. It is easily the best recording involving Aarset that I've heard to date.

Eivind Aarset


(Jazzland Recordings 0602547307248)

The Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset is perhaps best known to British jazz audiences for his work with Bristol born saxophonist Andy Sheppard and his appearances on Sheppard’s ECM albums “Movements In Colour” (2009) and “Surrounded By Sea” (2015). He has also appeared as part of Sheppard’s various live ensembles. His contributions to “Surrounded By Sea” (both reviewd elsewhere on the Jazzmann) weren’t universally welcomed as Aarset augmented the already extant Trio Libero (Sheppard, bassist Michel Bonita and drummer Sebastian Rochford), with Ivan Hewett making some particularly scathing comments in the Daily Telegraph.

Aarset guested with Food (Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen) on the ECM album “Mercurial Balm” and has also worked with numerous other ECM artists, among them trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henriksen and Jon Hassell, pianist Ketil Bjornstad and bassist Arild Andersen. In 2012 he recorded his own album, “Dream Logic”, for Manfred Eicher’s label. However in a solo career dating back to 1998 the majority of Aarset’s solo releases have been for the Norwegian Jazzland imprint, founded by pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and based in Oslo.

Aarset’s guitar playing has always made extensive use of electronics and after hearing his work with Sheppard plus his own ECM solo release I’ve always had him pigeon-holed as an “ambient” guitarist. His sound-washes inform both Sheppard albums plus his own “Dream Logic” but “I.E.” offers something harder edged, more obviously rock orientated, and ultimately more diverse and interesting.

“I.E.” appears to have become a band name as well as an album title. The core group on the record is the Sonic Codex Quartet with whom the guitarist has recorded previously for Jazzland. Joining Aarset on guitars and electronics are twin percussionists Erland Dahlen and Wetle Holte with the latter also doubling on keyboards. Bass duties are undertaken by Audun Erlien, another musician who doubles on keyboards. Also playing a key role is Jan Bang, the live sampling specialist who was Aarset’s chief collaborator on the “Dream Logic” album and who is a regular and focal presence at Norway’s celebrated Punkt Festival. 

“I.E.” features a large cast of additional musicians that Aarset sometimes refers to as his Sonic Codex Orchestra. They include trombonist Helge Sunde plus a brass section supervised by Geir Lysne whose members are drawn from the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.  Other musicians make distinctive contributions to individual tracks and will be name-checked as this review progresses. The album was recorded at a variety of locations but still sounds thoroughly organic and focussed.

One of the most impressive aspects of “I.E.” is the way in which Aarset mingles both electric and acoustic sounds with Dahlen and Holte incorporating tuned percussion and a variety of dulcimers into their twin percussive arsenal. The dulcimers, in particular, add a humanising folk element to the music to be heard on “I.E”.

However it is Aarset’s guitars, both electric and acoustic, that remain at the heart of the music. The leader is particularly prominent on the opening “Rask” which features the core quartet on a piece that begins with the acoustic, folky sounds of the dulcimers but soon takes on a harsher, more metallic edge with some chunky guitar riffing allied to some inventive bass and percussion grooves.  There’s more than a touch of old style prog about Aarset’s music but updated in such a way that it sounds thoroughly contemporary and convincing. His compatriots Jaga Jazzist are an obvious reference point as are Radiohead and the later incarnations of King Crimson.

Most of the tracks on “I.E.” are lengthy and episodic, as a composer Aarset is clearly keen that his pieces convey a strong sense of narrative as he deploys his arranging and texturing abilities to tell stories. “Sakte”, which features Erlien on keyboards plus Bang’s sampling skills is richly atmospheric with the group’s soundscapes conveying a real sense of the Nordic landscapes that inspired them. Again there’s a good mix of acoustic and electric sounds ranging from the tinkling of dulcimers and glockenspiels to the spacey and urban ambiences of Bang’s samples.

Bang is also involved on “Hidden/Feral”, this time credited with “live sampling” as he treats the sounds of the other instruments, which this time include guest Jan Galega Bronnimann on contrabass clarinet. Lyrical, impressionistic and hard edged by turns the music always retains a sense of melody even in its most uncompromising moments, including the insistent, surging, heavily treated/layered riffs and grooves that comprise the second, presumably “Feral”, part of the piece.

“One and the Same” incorporates eerie, ambient soundscaping including contributions from Bang , here credited with samples, plus guest Michele Rabbia who contributes “discreet digital sounds”.  The music has a noirish, dystopian, post apocalyptic feel from which Aarset’s guitar erupts and soars in a manner that brought the phrase “Pink Floyd for grown ups” to my mind.

Arguably the centre piece of the album is the eleven and a half minute epic “Wanderlust”, jointly composed by Aarset and Holte and based upon a riff originated by the Norwegian jazz pianist Ole Henrik Giortz. The piece is divided into three distinct movements beginning with “The City Awake”
which finds Aarset and his colleagues sprinkling their aural fairy-dust on and around Giortz’s riff with Aarset’s ghostly, Frisell like slide guitar aided and abetted by Bang’s live sampling and with guest Sindre Hotvedt credited with “additional programming”. Here, as elsewhere, there is some excellent work from Erlien on electric bass, his elastic, always imaginative grooves are a key factor in the success of the album.
The middle section, “Overgrown”, features aggressive, angular riffing and a rich panoply of electronic and sampled sounds, the power and intensity of the music building incrementally as the music progresses.
The final segment “View from Above” reprises the opening section but with a more obviously ambient, space like feel that is really rather beautiful.

“They’ll Be Asked Nothing” revisits the mood of the earlier “One and the Same” as Aarset mixes electric and acoustic sounds and combines effectively with Bang who is again credited with “live sampling”. As the music accretes in layers of intensity a real sense of drama is generated with Dahlen, Holte and Erlien all contributing strongly to the process as the music builds to a climax. However, dynamic contrasts are an important component on Aarset’s music and the piece resolves itself with a passage of twinkling ambience featuring the ethereal shimmer of tuned percussion.
This is followed by a relatively brief (three minutes) reprise of track four, now bearing the title “One and the Same Again”.

Co-written by Aarset and guest vocalist Lorenzo Eposito Fornasari (aka LEF) the twelve minute “Through clogged streets, passed wooden buildings…” is the album’s second key track. More than on any other piece the music reaches truly orchestral proportions with Bronniman and Rabbia both somewhere in the mix alongside Fornasari’s extraordinary, sometimes heavily treated, vocals and whistling. The Italian born Fornasari is one of the world’s leading experimental vocalists who has worked with many leading jazz and avant garde musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless he is a new name to me and there were moments here when he reminded me of Antony Hegarty. Instrumentally there is a suitably apocalyptic feel about the music which includes some quite gargantuan riffing in the composition’s early stages. 

The album concludes with the drifting, ambient atmospherics of “Return to Her Home”, co-credited to Aarset and Bang and a piece that appears to be a duet between the guitarist and his electronics guru - one that I suspect may have been entirely improvised.

Alongside Aarset Bang is credited as co-producer of the album as a whole and he certainly plays a key role in the record’s success. The core group of Dahlen, Holte and Erlien also make vital and memorable contributions as do the supporting cast of guests. But ultimately the success of the album is primarily down to Aarset, who as well as being a technically accomplished guitarist - he has some great solo moments here - is also a musician worthy of the title “sound artist”. He clearly has a vision of the bigger “sonic picture” and knows exactly how he wants his music to sound and feel. “I.E.” covers many bases from jazz to rock to electro to ambient but always sounds distinctive and convincing. Aarset is creating his own increasingly individual sound world, one that draws on many aspects of music but one that is becoming more and more unique with the passing of the years.

“I.E.” is easily the best recording involving him that I’ve heard and I suspect that its combination of melody and experimentation will ensure that it is also one of his most accessible and successful. Already featured on Radio 3’s “Late Junction” this is music that has the potential to appeal to a broad range of listeners including open minded jazz fans, adventurous rock listeners and devotees of electronic and experimental music. What’s even more impressive and admirable is that it does so without the slightest vestige of artistic compromise. 

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