OK, disclaimer time again. I've known Sidsel for about 9 years, and have had a bit of an email exchange with Stian from time to time. To be honest, the bulk of communications have been regarding the boring stuff all the people in the world who think musicians should give their music away for free never realise exists – yeah: BORING. Working in music is fun, yes, but that's when the concerts are happening, and the records are spinning. The rest of the time can be anything from tedious to gruelling. We can't all be capable of turning down $800 million for a reunion tour, or make our albums go platinum by refusing to put it on Spotify. Anyway … I digress …
Every record that comes bearing Sidsel's name is precious. There simply aren't enough of them. For quite a while, I've been chasing after a definitive document of another of her duo projects, the long and very fruitful one with Jan Bang. I can't say for certain that such a document will ever exist, but I can only agree with a different Dave who, I believe, described such a potential item as "a gift to the world". I can only agree, and keep my fingers crossed in the meantime.
However, Sidsel and Stian are now on their second album together, making this duo – in terms of released albums – the most significant collaboration after that with Bugge Wesseltoft (which, admittedly, discounts her days in the Jon Eberson group, but those recordings are a world away from this work). Listing these things has a certain degree of fun to it, as none of these projects – both recorded and unrecorded – are obviously related, except through Sidsel. And to follow her career is to follow someone who – like Scott Walker and David Sylvian (that other Dave I mentioned) – could have had a highly lucrative career making "easy" music (or rather, music that droves of people used to buy before the digital age devalued music), bought an island somewhere and spent a huge chunk of her life numbing the regret with fine wine. However, Sidsel Endresen is an artist, first and foremost. And like any artist worth paying attention to, she not only took the road less travelled (what would arts reviews have been like if Robert Frost hadn't coined that phrase?) but took a dirt path that only a very brave few had even noticed (Meredith Monk being one example).
By contrast, Stian Westerhus has always been something of an off-path forager. The first time that I heard his particular guitar-manglingly abrasive style was with Puma on "Isolationism" (Bolage Records), which is certainly not a mainstream top 40 botherer. His wilful use of noise, destructive sound processing, high volume and an array of techniques and effects is regularly apparent, and frankly, he makes Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead seem like a ukulele player. And that's an acoustic ukulele, just in case I was being unclear.
The musical marriage of Endresen and Westerhus does not seem any more likely now than it did when they first began their collaboration (I first heard them together at the Punkt Festival in 2010, and at the time wasn't quite sure how their collaboration was operating at all). It wasn't until I heard "Didymoi Dreams" (2012, Rune Grammofon) that I heard what each of them obviously knew was possible from the beginning. They are so opposite, they fit each other perfectly. It was an amazing album, capturing a live performance. This time around, the album is recorded "live in the studio". In other words, they are doing exactly the same kind of performance, but without any attendant distractions or disruptions that live performances can sometimes bring.
In terms of sound, the differences are immediately apparent. Preference will be down to familiarity, I feel, as this more "enclosed" sound is the interloper – had we been presented with a studio recording first, it might take a little bit of psychological adjustment to get the hang of the live sound. And I should point out that unless you play "Didymoi Dreams" at a high volume, you're not actually going to get anything close to the feeling of the actual live performances this duo gives. Recordings and live performance are always different, no matter how faithfully recorded the live performances are. But I digress … again.
Endresen's singing eschews conventional language. We are presented with phonemes, half-spoken utterances, brief moments of melismatic vocalizing, and freshly invented onomatopoeia. It is the language of a musical subconscious, a speaking-in-tongues born of a different kind of ecstacy to that the early Christians demonstrated (perhaps not, though). When watching Endresen live, I sometimes think of Thelonius Monk when he would go into one of his semi-shamanistic dances, clearly well past the barriers that separate us from the inner universe of the music.
"Bonita" opens with Endresen's voice, and a peal of surfer-guitar reminiscent of Dick Dale, before launching straight into the heart of their aesthetic. It stammers, stutters, squeals and glitches. It has a high-tension level, sometimes feeling as though Westerhus's sound is actually hunting Endresen down.
"Ripper Silk" is a much sparser piece, and somehow seems descriptive. Often these pieces seem like a glance into the psyches of the musicians, a brief look at the very stuff that is innately and irrefutably them. However, with "Ripper Silk", it feels more like watching how another's conscious mind observes , stripping away the cloud of language to get at the very essence of what it is to be a human watching.
"Baton" made me feel like I had walked into a cave full of sleeping trolls. However, what begins as a slow creaking evolves into some transcendent Hendrix-like abstraction. It is simultaneously arresting, beautiful, disturbing and agitating. In short, something quite incredible.
"Boom Boom" is possibly one of the most beautiful things I've heard. As close to a "song" in the conventional sense as anything on the album, this should not be taken as somehow a slight on its value (you know the type of thinking I'm talking about – those folks who somehow think that harmony and melody are a problem. I don't have that listed as a problem. Art can be beautiful without harmony and melody, but melody and harmony can also be art. Some people should grow up and learn to live with that instead of sounding barbaric yawps across the blogtops of the world about it). I re-listened to this one 4 times before moving on, something I almost never do.
My extended stay with "Boom Boom", as rewarding as it was, actually delayed my arrival at yet another thing of beauty. "Knuckle Tattoo" is another remarkable track, but this time, it is a different kind of beauty. It's difficult to stop oneself from thinking "how the hell can they improvise stuff like this?" as such thoughts are unwelcome, and have too much of the "DVD special features" about them. Yet the sheer unlikelihood of such beautiful music being improvised with such methods as Endresen and Westerhus use becomes a feature of the music, regardless. Songs like this underline the true beauty of musical experimentation: everything that is going on here is completely outside conventional music-making methodologies, yet remains utterly listenable, and its beauty shines forth.
Entering "White Mantilla", I had a mixture of hope and expectation. After the previous two tracks, I was in the mood for more. Of course, Endresen and Westerhus are explorers. They're looking for new paths to follow, new mountains to climb, new rivers to follow to their source. While "beauty" might not be the apt term to use here, it certainly doesn't lack beauty. However, this track has a fugue-like quality to it, and covers much ground. As the longest piece on the album, just shy of 9 minutes, it has the space in which to operate, but although rich in sound and artistry, it is largely uncluttered, perhaps even slightly barren. The last 2 – 3 minutes are breathtakingly intimate, and left me feeling almost like an eavesdropper. Not only that, but an eavesdropper who had learned something revelatory.
"The Pink Link" (fabulously bizarre little title!) is a miniature sci-fi horror movie, complete with scary jump-cuts and unsettling sounds that meander in and out of view. Things lurk in the shadows, like little pairs of glowing yellow eyes, and worse, occasional sets of three or four eyes. It's not a track to play to your great aunt Petunia during her afternoon tea.
"Solemn Vista" is the only track that reminds me of anything else (outside of the Endresen-Westerhus canon thus far, that is). It feels like a much more abstract Hugo Largo (they have been coming to my mind quite a bit recently … a sign to dig out some old vinyls!) At the same time, it somehow has a Joni Mitchell vibe to it. Joni Mitchell live on Neptune, perhaps, but still Joni Mitchell.
"Blue Punch" returns to the style and sound of the title track. This is flamenco from an alternate dimension. It crunches, whirrs, grates and clanks, guitars sounding like they're melting, amplifiers and speakers dissolving in the acid waves of sound they once conveyed. The whole track, and thus the album, suddenly drop into silence.
While my expectations of this album were high, I knew in advance that I would like it. However, I wasn't prepared for just how much I would. It contains some of the most striking music I've heard this year: strikingly frightening, strikingly original, strikingly beautiful. As of today, I am Bonita-struck.