CD reviews

Børge Olsen – ‘Music in the Dark’

Børge Olsen – Music in the Dark (Fresh Tea Records. CD review by Rob Mallows)
Borge Olsen album coverOn the cover of this, his second solo release, veteran Norwegian guitarist Børge Olsen looks every inch the rock god. Long black hair? Check. Leather jacket? Check. The music, on the face of it, seems to fit. So why is it being reviewed in London Jazz News? Well, it’s described as a fusion of jazz rock, prog and metal. However, Olsen’s interpretation of jazz fusion is, in parts, what you might call metal-adjacent. It’s adjacent to other styles too and that’s the secret of this surprisingly accessible and stupidly fun album. The crunching riffs and thumping double-bass drums on second track Bloody Moon might make you think this album is as far away from jazz as it’s possible to get.
Indeed, the 64th-note hard rock shredding on third track Skvulp – Olsen is famous for his left-hand technique, the press release notes – is more Steve Vai than Pat Metheny. But then on title track Music in the Dark one finds slower tempo, picked notes and four-to-the floor drumming, keyboards and soft vocals tempering the blistering playing. A Return to Forever-Opeth-Dream Theatre hybrid which has some merit, especially when the bass kicks in. Tracks like Question and Story move the album closer towards jazz-rock territory and the complexity in the song construction across the album does tip its hat towards this.
The Count of Godthaab provides rhythmic complexity often found in jazz fusion, but it’s not immediately apparent above the six-string sturm und drang. On the last track, Electronic Factory, there’s a curveball: elements of electronica and disco. So the question remains. Is this jazz? Or even jazz-fusion? There are subtle jazz influences certainly, but well hidden. Olsen has a decent jazz pedigree: he trained at Berklee in Boston, and in addition to playing with Norwegian jazz band Enigmatize he’s also played on albums by the likes of Airto Moreira. Ultimately, this feels like a power metal, hard rock set that self-identifies as a jazz fusion album. And that’s fine. Indeed, perhaps it’s this very fluidity, the stubborn refusal to conform easily to any single genre and readiness to wallow in the joy of playing hard and fast that justifies this album’s existence. It’s not perfect. Olsen plays all the instruments on the album and, while impressive, other musicians in the studio would likely have had a tempering role, smoothing off the excesses and fretboard indulgences (of which there are many). But with a long career in other people’s bands, one suspects he liked it that way. Jazz fusion works best when you don’t notice the join between what’s being fused. It should challenge and excite, get the musical blood flowing. This album does to a large extent. I imagine that many readers will baulk at it upon first listen, as the music sits at the outer edges of the branches of the hyphenated jazz tree, furthest from the trunk. But isn’t that where the sweetest fruit is to be found? LINK: Fresh Tea Records

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