Sailing To Byzantium
, February 18th, 2014 04:49
How could anybody hope to adequately celebrate Rune Grammofon's 150th release with one measly compilation? Since its inception the label's essentially reaffirmed Norway on the map as a purveyor of heterogeneous, forward-thinking music of the highest quality, and established itself as a worthwhile alternative to Germany's ECM for those interested in the Eurocentric jazz and classical crossroads. Besides the variety of styles and emergent idiosyncratic musical syntaxes explored by the label since 1998, the catalogue's personality is further defined by Kim Hiorthøy's indelible visual designs, themselves wandering a winding path from precise colourful graphic design abstraction to intimate portrait photography, and on to this package's own deathless photographic still lifes. Norway's finest label has in many ways managed to capture something of the nation's multifaceted 21st century musical persona: equal parts childish and learned, and notably missing the schmaltz and abhorrent 'hipness' of their Nordic neighbours' own thriving scenes.
The title of Sailing To Byzantium quotes William Butler Yeats' wistful poem of the same name, the same poem from which Cormac McCarthy lifted the dour pessimism of No Country for Old Men's title. After sixteen years of critical success is as good a time as any for a label to assess its own mortality, and to wonder how, and indeed why it may live on. Pleasantly and unnecessarily the music is split across four differently coloured 10" vinyls, and the outer box houses a print out of an extensive interview with label founder Rune Kristoffersen and Hiorthøy conducted by The Wire's Rob Young, as well as a (frankly, too) massive glossy poster. The sturdy boxset decries the thought of any inevitable ephemerality much like Yeats' words. It's an alluring and bizarre time capsule, and should it be unearthed following the future apocalypse, our bemused descendants and the alien race that enslave them will have absolutely no idea what Rune Grammofon or even Norway was all about, but they'll definitely want to set the navigator northwards and find out.
Considering just how myriad the releases have been, with uniformly divergent Norwegian artists continually adventuring down distinctly disparate musical paths, it's surprising how shared and unified Rune Grammofon's resultant outlook seems here to be, consistently performing alchemy and turning the old musical skeletons of jazz, folk and rock into compelling unfamiliar forms. Sailing To Byzantium comprises tracks aimed to show the label's current state, as well as some "personal favourites, hidden treasures" and an exclusive track from innovative trumpeter, Arve Henriksen, and unsurprisingly, Kristoffersen and co have totally nailed it in this box. Each disc represents spectral shades of the label, kicking off with a gut punching trilogy of free rock fusion from the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Bushman's Revenge and Scorch Trio on the blue disc. Hedvig Mollestad's contribution slings mud in every conceivable direction possible, laying down post-Lightning Bolt free fury and heavy 70s riffage all under the guise of a mutant jazz guitar trio. Bushman's Revenge go the proggier route with a live version of Sonny Sharrock's 'As We Used to Sing', finding the latent Hank Marvin in its core theme. The Scorch Trio track on offer slays the lot though, with the 13-minute 'Kjøle Høle' taken from 2004's Luggumt album, recorded while Paal Nilssen-Love was still manning drums for the outfit. It's every bit the archetypal free-rock jam - louder than hell, utterly relentless and totally fucking nuts throughout.
The second green disc turns things down from eleven to ten. It's still dedicated to the label's heavier side, but focusing on groups that still utilise some semblance of good old fashioned composition. Label mainstays Motorpsycho take up a side with 'Year Zero', a dramatic patchwork of Chicago-style post-rock songwriting, while Mats Gustaffson's jazz-meets-stoner-metal trio Fire! languidly groove through a mid-tempo cut from last year's excellent (Without Noticing). The spirit of Keith Emerson emerges on Elephant9's 'Hardcore Orientale', sounding somewhat ridiculous alongside Fire!, but with the trio delivering such a killer performance it's tough to fault them for anything other than sounding a bit too much like The Nice. The third and white disc shapeshifts again, and pays dues to the label's back log of female English-language songwriters, with a typically disconcerting composition from Jenny Hval, a Magical Mystery Tour-like indie pop song from The Last Hurrah!!, a piano ballad from Hilde Marie Kjersem, and a wordy tune from Tove Nilsen's undersung debut. Personally, I've often found Scandinavians insistently singing in English to be somewhat odious and artificial, yet Rune Grammofon's singers attest quite the opposite. Phaedra's 'Honeydewed Autumn' simply weeps with the kind of intricate lyricism our own native speakers have lacked since Sandy Denny fell down the stairs, the words interleaving with sparse guitar & string accompaniment, treading that thin line between genuinely uplifting and heart-breaking honesty.
The final red disc enlists the label's lunatic fringe for side A, and three of its most learned composers for the gorgeous final flip-side. A choice cut from Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus' inhuman collaboration - seeing Endresen's jarring gibberish vocalisations married to Westerhaus' uniquely alien guitar improvisations seems almost conventional alongside Maja Ratkje's 'Intro' to her 2002 Voice album. 'Intro' calls to mind those Stapleton-heavy Current 93 tracks, all industrial clatter and atonal sonics with menacing sped-up David Tibetian helium vocal musings. It's a million miles from the previous disc's gentil songwriting. The climactic side features Espen Eriksen's evocative and incredibly pretty piano trio composition, 'In the Woods', the inescapable emotional tug of Nils Økland's 'Blond Blå' for strings, and the all-important Arve Henriksen exclusive. Henriksen is perhaps the label's current flagship player, and besides Rob Mazurek the most exciting trumpeter/composer active today. Last year's Places Of Worship addressed the meeting of his trumpet with synthetic atmospheric composition, long dormant since Eno & Hassel's Possible Musics, while reaffirming Henriksen's compelling unique tone, inspired by the the japanese shakuhachi. His closing track, 'Silver Box', is a brief and stunningly beautiful piece, combining his Far East intonation with gamelan percussion notably more organic and acoustic in its feel than his recent album, and appropriately bringing to mind both prehistoric creation and post-apocalyptic desolation.
Sailing to Byzantium is Rune Grammofon gunning for immortality. Everything from the time capsule of a package, to Henriksen's climactic loving contribution yearns to let the future know that these guys were here, that they were creating something; that they left the world a better place than they found it. It's barely possible to recommend it high enough, but every facet of Sailing to Byzantium and all of Rune Grammofon deserves to be heard, nay experienced in all of their explosive original glory.