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Stein Urheim
Stein Urheim John Doran , March 10th, 2014 05:46

When attempting his first ever solo climb of El Capitan - a 3,000ft tall sheer rock face in the Yosemite Valley, California - the British winter Alpinist, Andy Kirkpatrick had what he describes as “something equivalent to a religious experience” while listening to his Walkman.

He says: “I was up there for seven days on my own and was in a heightened state of awareness. Under those conditions music becomes… unreal. Your brain is just buzzing with these chemicals whose primal job is to keep you alive. And because of these caveman chemicals you become aware of things in music you’ve never heard before.

“I remember listening to bits of music - that I’d listened to a million times - like The Beatles, Pavement and Van Morrison and hearing things that I’d never heard before. I could hear the sweat on the guitarist’s fingertips being scraped along a guitar string on a Pavement song.

“Perhaps it’s because you’re in a really emotional state because you’re spending so long in a state where you could kill yourself quite easily. It’s very intense. So when you relax and listen to music… I fell asleep listening to a tape and there was a gap at the end of the album. And in my dream I was listening to the greatest music I'd ever heard in my life. When I woke up, 'Tomorrow Never Knows' by The Beatles was playing. It was a revelation.”

I’ve talked to the mountaineer at length over the years about the parallels that can be drawn between certain types of narcotic use and extreme forms of mountaineering such as winter Alpinism but perhaps the strangest similarity between the two (essentially daft and selfish) pursuits is the possibilities for deep listening that are opened up.

Of course, I’m not saying that spending a week on your own half way up a cliff face or hours skirting round the crumbling edges of a K-hole are the only way to plumb the recesses of certain kinds of music; whether it’s meditation, great headphones or high volume, most people have their access points to the sonic world hidden just out of earshot.

An intensely close listen to Norwegian guitarist Stein Urheim’s excellent self-titled album reveals some surprising sonic detail and casts you in the role of a TV detective savant listening to the recording of a crucial phone call for sonic clues in the background. Concentrate and you can hear the natural rhythm of rain falling on wooden beams and slate roof tiles of the house it was recorded in and even a boat chugging past some distance deep in the background.

Urheim has been a member of Gabriel Fliflet’s band Åresong and HP Gundersen’s highly respected drone outfit The Last Hurrah and is no stranger to playing improv and collaborating with noise musicians so perhaps it is no surprise that he embraces and makes a feature of the noise captured on this recording. Fingers scrape on strings, knuckles rap gently on the hollow bodies of tamburas, wooden tuning pegs creak, at one point you can hear him pick up his slide before he uses it… this is the sound of a great musician lustily getting his fingers dirty… getting stuck right in there. This is an album of beautiful music but at the same time it bristles with and relishes in noise.

The instrumentals were recorded in the baroque and beautiful wooden house of the 19th Century violinist Ole Bull in Lysøen, near Bergen. Its large rooms - designed acoustically with small concerts in mind - proved the ideal location because the icy temperature of the house when the album was recorded, a year ago, provided amazingly warm acoustics for the session. The rich depth and dimensionality of the various instruments used by Urheim were teased out perfectly by Audun Strype before the mixing was completed by Jørgen Træen at Duper Studios.

‘Kosmoloda’ opens on a bed of looped guitar and tambura tones overlaid with a Travis picked, steel strung acoustic before the application of a bottleneck slide. It then shifts into a motif of descending pull-offs in 6/8 time. There are extra textures played by Træen on his own home built modular synth which recall the kosmische air of Harmonia or Cluster, but this is really as straightforward as it gets.

The second track, the 11 minute ‘After The Festival’ is the real revelation to me - even if it’s hard to describe why exactly. (This isn’t just me by the way - tQ’s news editor and resident guitar player told me he could divine the stylings of J.S. Bach and Shaggy in the track while it’s author mentions Van Dyke Parks, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman and co-musician Træen says it sounds like something Joe Meek might have recorded.) Stylistically - on paper at least - it’s all over the place taking in African, Caribbean, Chinese and Norwegian folk styles and the key signature changes all the way through it. It goes through Flamenco style then finger-picking before hitting a run of scales that feel very classical before jazzing out.

On the same track Urheim uses the Norwegian zither or langeleik to create a droning pattern in the middle - he is a regular visitor to Valdres, one of the few districts in Norway, where the langeleik-tradition is still alive and well; here he learns old låtter styles of playing. There is also a pronounced Chinese influence here as Urheim also uses a guqin - or Chinese zither - in conjunction with its Norse counterpart. (He is also very much interested in this style and has removed the frets from several of his guitars in order to pursue a guqin style of, otherwise impossible, microtonal intervals on Western instruments.) However if we tend to think of the guqin as an instrument for wise aesthetes (it’s the sound you always hear in the background in films or TV signifying sagaciousness when Confucious is mentioned) this music is not smart arsed. In fact I’d go as far to say that it’s primary impact lies in how much fun it is to listen to. Toward the end of the track he uses non-tempered flutes, analogue synths and distorted jazzy runs to bust out of Western tonality and just when we really haven’t got a clue what’s going on we’re dropped headlong into the relative comfort of a C major suite. And if that sounds confusing… well it isn’t really but it is kind of mind blowing.

I’m not a guitarist but I’d say this would probably appeal to guitarists; Urheim is a John Fahey and Leo Kottke fan as well as being into the more recent Takoma-inspired work of Jim O’Rourke and James Blackshaw. He is influenced by fellow countrymen Bjørn Fongaard and Terje Rypdal as well as classical guitarist David Tannenbaum. Specifically regarding this album he has cited the work of Brian Jones, David Lindley and early Ry Cooder. It’s all in there and much, much more. It’s just a case of listening very closely for it - and you don't even have to leave your armchair, let alone climb a mountain, to hear it.