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En Form for Bla


by Tim Owen

March 04, 2011


Music of singular subtlety and surprising beauty. All in all an outstanding release.


“En Form for Bl?”


No matter how well a listener might be acquainted with the work of any of its members, ?thenor have likely delivered something unexpected with this, their fourth album for the independent Vhf Records since 2006. The group exhibit a maturity that their status as an ad-hoc collective has previously rendered understandably elusive. All of the individuals involved typically operate in distinct and usually antithetical musical sub-genres, united only by their tendency to push boundaries with some form and varying degrees of aggression. In ?thenor they play music of singular subtlety and surprising beauty.

Stephen O’Malley is guitarist and co-leader both of the ever more innovative doom/drone outfit SunnO))), and the more extreme Khanate. He’s also a partner in KLT, a duo with electronica grandmaster Peter Rehberg. Steve Noble will be best known to Jazz Mann readers as a freestyle drummer and percussionist, and member of the free jazz power trios N.E.W. and Decoy. Beyond collaborating in ?thenor, O’Malley and Noble have established an unlikely but successful live performance partnership. ?thenor’s remaining members also have existing connections. Daniel O’Sullivan, a player in British art rock outfit Guapo, is also a sometime member of Ulver, a band that has made an unlikely transition over the years from mediaeval-tinged black metal to cinematic electronica, led by ?thenor’s Kristoffer Rygg, most likely ?thenor’s prime mover.

The most remarkable things about “En Form for Bl?” is its essential unity, but it’s tempting to speculate that much of ?thenor’s magic arises from the syzygy between the O’Malley/Noble and O’Sullivan/Rygg axes, the warp and weft respectively of the group sound. O’Malley and Noble’s visceral instrumental inputs are moderated, channelled and re-purposed by O’Sullivan and Rygg’s sound treatments. Supersilent are just about the only other outfit operating in similar ways. Both groups’ sensibilities are similar though the dynamics at play are rather different. ?thenor’s sound is more cinematic, with richly textured atmospherics accreting from discreet sound events.

The album opener “Jocasta” starts under heavy weather, all turbulent drumming, sub-bass rumble and jolts of electric current, but a leavening coda brings bright electronic sustains punctuated by splashes of metal percussion. An early highlight, “One Number of Destiny in Ninety Nine” goes through various changes, from the controlled raging of a Noble drum solo to a passage of quasi prog keyboards. Soothing washes of synthesized sound contrast nicely with O’Malley’s keen guitar abstractions, all borne along on Noble’s undercurrent. After these first two lengthy tracks the album proceeds with briefer, more mood-specific pieces such as “Laudanum Tusk”, an interval of ominous percussive electronics and hand drumming, and the trance-like aural almost cinema of “Dream Tassels”. The closing track, “Something to Sleep is Still”, finally brings the delicacy of the group’s collective touch, with which even the most tumultuous foregoing passages have been handled, well to the fore. Gentle tones glint against subtle synth washes and dubby percussive echoes, until a perfectly judged cymbal wash builds to a snare drum rap, then silence.

The group members aren’t credited with specific instruments in the album notes, but they each bring particular well-honed skills to the mix. O’Malley is primarily a guitarist, specialising in the generation of densely layered masses of electric sound; Rygg specialises in ambient/cinematic keyboards and programming; and O’Sullivan is a multi-instrumentalist who I’d guess here concentrates on keyboards. The Fender Rhodes, which often plays a synthesizing lead role (allowing the album’s press notes to cite Miles Davis’ classic “He Loved Him Madly” as a valid point of reference, and for us to take that seriously), could well be his work.

Steve Noble is a recent addition to the previously established triumvirate, formerly a studio-bound enterprise. “En Form for Bl?” was created from three performances over as many months at the Oslo venue Bl?, with all music credited as “automatically composed”, which I take to mean essentially improvised. Noble’s improv experience has undoubtedly acted as a vital catalyst for the live alchemy captured on this disc, but the responsiveness and adaptability of all four players is beguiling, and the subtlety of their interactions makes the album a truly captivating listen. The pieces have been well selected and, presumably, edited, from what must have been quite a mass of material. Thankfully the CD’s sound is superb, managing to marry the rawness of the live vibe with auditory depth of field and a wonderful clarity of differentiation. As a final finesse, the CD comes nicely packaged in a card slipcase with a tasteful design by O’Malley. All in all an outstanding release.

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