CD Review: In the Country: ‘Sunset Sunrise’
(ACT 9548-2. CD Review by Alison Bentley)
‘If the wolf is at your door, it’s you who has to decide whether to shoot it or not!’ So pianist Morten Qvenild explains the self-reliant temperament of Norwegian musicians- pioneering, yet part of a tradition. The photos on their new CD show the piano trio in sharp suits, surrounded by deer and mountains rather than wolves, as if they’ve been beamed in from another time. Their music can be pastoral, but it’s an electronically-enhanced countryside, a virtual landscape of great beauty.
The title track Sunset Sunrise reflects this natural/digital duality. It refers to LA’s Sunset Sound studio where it was recorded, but it also enacts the day’s end and reawakening. It begins slowly (think Grieg’s Death of Åse reharmonised by Berg- two of Qvenild’s cited influences) There’s a syncopated piano phrase, a tidal wave of cymbals, (Pål Hausken), a piano solo with hints of Esbjörn Svensson in its spaciousness, interacting with the lush drum textures. Qvenild has a stylistic quirk of playing two adjacent notes at almost the same time, like grace notes, as if stroking the keys, which unleashes emotive power every time. There’s a dawn chorus of electronica as the sun rises, and a free section with crackles like solar flares. Euphoric rising rock chords emerge, Bad Plus-like. (Qvenild also plays in a Metal band.)
The Fluke, a Whale’s Tail has mimetic qualities too. Qvenild writes all the music and the melodies are strong; this recalls a soulful e.s.t. ballad. The percussion (Pål Hausken) builds urgently in layers, with hoarse whispers, bird (whale?) cries, clinks, ending in hymn cadences. In Silverspring the overtones of the Classical opening chords blend uncannily with the cymbals, and digital drum beats lurk like distant thunder. Bells fall like raindrops into synthesised bowed bass (Roger Arntzen). Birch Song begins delicately and spaciously with a slow backbeat, a Tord Gustavsen vibe. It’s almost a minuet as the bass harmonises with the piano. Qvenild has also noted the use of birches for punishment, and a more menacing side develops- what sounds like fingers scraping strings with extreme reverb, brushes like distant chattering. December Song is reminiscent of John Taylor’s compositions, a modal dissonance concentrating the folk simplicity.
Derrick has a strong groove, a triphop tribute to the Legrand-esque theme of a German TV cop show. The crunchy backbeat and insistent chords echo Steve Reich’s reworkings of Radiohead. Steelpants has punk-jazz-rock beats with Minimoog and laughing theremin sounds playing the tune, over exquisite high insistent piano chords. The symphonic sounds are a reminder that Qvenild is the ‘orchestra’ in the duo Susanna and the Magic Orchestra. Stanley Park is perhaps the most beautiful piece. There’s a strong Jarrett influence (shades of his tune ‘Country’), with an atmospheric electronic wash, gorgeous minor 9 chords and a captivating bass solo. You’re transported to another world by the trio’s musical vision, refined over their 10 years together.
In Qvenild’s words: ‘We just did our own thing- some of it was Nordic, some wasn’t. It’s just about making good music out of what you are. And that’s what we try to do with In The Country.’
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