by Ian Mann
October 15, 2021
Krokofant's mix of jazz & prog is simultaneously frighteningly intense & breathlessly exhilarating, played with a combination of power and precision that recalls King Crimson and VDGG in their prime.
(Rune Grammofon RCD2222)
Tom Hasslan- guitars, Jorgen Mathisen – saxophones, Axel Skalstad – drums
with; Stale Storlokken – keyboards, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten – bass
Unsurprisingly this recent (September 2021) release represents the fifth recorded offering from the Norwegian prog / jazz ensemble Krokofant.
Originally a trio Krokofant began when guitarist Tom Hasslan and drummer Axel Skalstad met in a music shop in the Kongsberg in southern Norway, a town famous since 1964 for its annual jazz festival. Saxophonist Jorgen Mathisen, who has also worked with the bands The Core and Zanussi Five, was then invited to join the group and the trio released its eponymous début album in 2014. This was followed by further trio recordings, “Krokofant II” in 2015 and “Krokofant III” 2017.
I recall being impressed with the playing of Skalstad at the annual “Trondheim Jazz Exchange” event at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. A graduate of the acclaimed jazz course at Trondheim Conservatoire he must already have been performing with Krokofant at this time.
For their fourth album, “Q”, the members of Krokofant decided to bring some additional musicians on board. Their first choice was keyboard player Stale Storlokken, a giant of Norwegian contemporary music who is best known for his work with the bands Supersilent, Elephant9, Humcrush and Reflections in Cosmo and with the guitarist Terje Rypdal. Having already been impressed by Krokofant’s live performances Storlokken readily accepted, closely followed by bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, a rhythmic powerhouse who has been associated with the bands The Thing, Scorch Trio, Atomic and Bureau of Atomic Tourism. Haker Flaten’s involvement has given the band an orthodox rhythm section, which in turn has liberated Hasslan, with much of the rhythmic responsibility being lifted from the guitarist’s shoulders.
Hasslan is the group’s main composer and “Fifth” features four new compositions from him, each lasting somewhere between eight and twelve minutes. It’s therefore quite a short album by contemporary standards, some might even regard it as an EP, but as befits a recording that is also available on vinyl it does fit perfectly into the classic LP record format.
The members of Krokofant share an unapologetic love for classic prog rock, with Hasslan declaring “it’s our mission to bring more prog to the people!” at the time of the trio’s début. Indeed in my review of “Krokofant III” I recall making comparisons with the music of such prog Goliaths as King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. With Storlokken now in the fold others have also been making the VDGG connection, thanks in part to the combination of sax and organ, a sound that made VDGG unique in the rock circles of any era. Meanwhile the album title “Fifth” could be construed as a tip of the hat to Soft Machine and the ‘Canterbury Scene’, surely another influence on the Krokofant sound.
The album commences with “Watcher Of The Fries”, the title presumably a playful reference to the Peter Gabriel era Genesis song “Watcher Of The Skies”, the track that opens the classic “Foxtrot” album. Hasslan’s tune has something of the same epic grandeur about it, but also a steely polish that suggests the influence of American jazz fusion, notably the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in addition to European prog rock. Hasslan and Mathisen deliver quicksilver unison melody lines, Storlokken provides additional colour and texture and Haker Flaten and Skalstad add powerful and quick witted rhythmic support. The soloing is staggering, Hasslan’s high speed shredding duelling with Storlokken’s over-driven Hammond as the rhythm section lay down a buffeting odd meter groove. It’s simultaneously frighteningly intense and breathlessly exhilarating, played with a combination of power and precision that recalls King Crimson in their prime.
The Crimson comparison is even more appropriate to the aptly named “Big Heavy Thing” with its gargantuan guitar and sax riffs and thundering rhythms. Storlokken’s crazed organ soloing channels the spirits of Hugh Banton, Mike Ratledge, Jon Lord and Keith Emerson, propelled by the bludgeoning chug of the rhythm section. Saxophonist Mathisen then cuts loose, wailing belligerently alongside Storlokken’s Hammond and evoking those Crimson/VDGG comparisons once more.
There’s no let up in terms of energy and intensity on “Five Flat Pennies” as it combines jagged riffs with flowing melodies, Hasslan’s guitar soaring skywards above a backdrop of swirling Hammond and kinetic drumming. Some of the unison riffing is quite breathtaking, the quintet version of Krokofant having developed into a well oiled juggernaut - you could happily head-bang to this stuff, albeit in some pretty unusual time signatures.
Only on the closing “Pretty Frypan” do the guys temporarily take their foot of the gas. The piece is introduced by a passage of unaccompanied organ from Storlokken that combines an eerie, spacey feel with church like sonorities. When the riffs finally crash in though they’re even heavier than before, building on Storlokken’s intro to create an epic grandeur based around his church like Hammond. Mathisen’s sax solo introduces a free jazz element (hardcore improvisers such as Peter Brotzmann and John Zorn have also been acknowledged by the band as influences) as he stretches out powerfully and impressively, combining effectively with Storlokken. Haker Flaten’s bass comes briefly to the fore as the band dive into the next section, this boasting a more frenetic groove as Hasslan also combines with Storlokken, the guitarist wigging out with some blistering soloing and some dazzling high velocity runs. The final passage embraces some more deliciously heavy, skronking riffing - Krokofant are not a band for the faint hearted.
I grew up on VDGG, Crimson, Gentle Giant and the Canterbury bands, all of whom helped to steer me increasingly towards jazz. So given my prog rock past and my jazz present it’s not that surprising that I love Krokofant. I appreciate that their music won’t be for everyone, some will accuse the band of bombast, others will just find their music too heavy and intense, but there are a whole lot of listeners from both the jazz and rock camps who will lap it up. I’ve yet to see the band live and the prospect of this quintet incarnation cranking it up at a gig is a truly mouthwatering prospect. In the meantime I still have Krokofant’s recordings to enjoy.
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