In the mansion that is Raoul Björkenheim’s music there are many rooms, and the Finnish-American guitar explorer opens up a particularly vivid and volatile new portal with Doors of Perception, his third Cuneiform release with his quartet Ecstasy. The album captures an extraordinary working ensemble stretching into transfixing new spaces, settings defined as much by texture, vibe and sinuous melodic lines as by rhythmic and harmonic structures.
Featuring the innovative drummer Markku Ounaskari, Björkenheim’s longtime partner in sonic exploration, the young and dauntingly prolific bassist Jori Huhtala and saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, Ecstasy continues to expand its sonic palette. Over the course of seven years the musicians have forged a riveting communion. Capaciously inventive, rigorously gutsy and unapologetically Nordic, the music flows from the forbidding Finnish landscape and the hothouse Helsinki scene that gave birth to the band.
One sure sign of the quartet’s deep connection is the way they distill ideas. Sequenced as a stream of consciousness train of impressions, Doors of Perception features 10 tracks that all clock in under five minutes. Rather than exploring extended forms or expansive soundscapes the music is marked by pithy statements and compressed drama. Which isn’t to say Doors of Perception lacks grandeur.
While Björkenheim is no stranger to long musical structures, he was after a different kind of narrative arc on Doors of Perception. Much like each piece is a finely calibrated aural microcosmos, the album proceeds from track to track with its own internal logic. “In a way it is countercultural,” Björkenheim says. “It’s an invitation to a listener to enter in the world that might be disorienting. I don’t hear a walking bass, is this jazz? It might be a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also an invitation.”
With Doors of Perception, Björkenheim and Ecstasy offer something all too rare these days, a musical journey in which the destination is unknown and unpredictable.
Trying to make France's Art Zoyd fit into a single neat description is an exercise in futility. Sometimes they're fiendish sonic saboteurs bent on destroying listener's preconceptions about the way music works. Sometimes they're musical sorcerers conjuring strange but bewitching moments of lyrical beauty.
You could call them the original post-rock band, moving on from the dark, stormy sounds of prog legends like Magma and King Crimson to something that makes even those fearless explorers sound conventional by comparison. You'd be equally accurate in dubbing them avant-classical composers, whose experimental visions are influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
They were members of the notorious Rock In Opposition (RIO) movement alongside the likes of Henry Cow and Univers Zero. They're impressionistic soundtrack composers. They're a band. They're a multimedia collective. Ultimately they're simply Art Zoyd. And it takes a document as massive and monumental as the 12-CD/2-DVD/2-Book set 44 1/2 to even come close to offering a comprehensive picture of what they're all about.
Containing hours of live and unreleased material from the vast Art Zoyd archives, 44 1/2 delves into the dense jungle of wildly diverse periods in a story that goes all the way back to the '70s. But it also provides many of the missing links in their long, knotty discography, filling in the gaps between their official releases and weaving together all of Art Zoyd's disparate stylistic strands into a majestic, multicolored, even imposing tapestry.
Ed Palermo may have gained an international following with his ingenious orchestral arrangements of Frank Zappa tunes, but he’s hardly a one-trick pony. Earlier in the year, the saxophonist released an uproarious double album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2, a project celebrating an expansive roster of songs by successive waves of British invaders, from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck to King Crimson, Traffic, and Jethro Tull.
With his new big band project, slated for release on Cuneiform Records on October 6, 2017, Palermo is back on his home turf, but the landscape feels strange and uncanny. He’s reclaiming the Zappa songbook, filtering Frank through the emotionally charged lens of the polymathic musical wizard Todd Rundgren in a wild and wooly transmogrification, The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren. Working with the same stellar cast of players, Palermo somehow captures the essence of these iconoclastic masters, making Zappa Zappier and Todd more Rundgrenian.
He sees the Zappa and Rundgren as embodying a ying and yang approach to life that played an essential role in helping him navigate the minefields of teenage angst in the 1960s. “For most of my high school days my favorite musicians were Zappa and Todd Rundgren,” Palermo says. “Rundgren had his songs about self-pity, which were exactly what I needed back then. I’d go out with a girl and whatever party I brought her to she’d go and hang out with another dude. Todd understood. At the same time, Zappa had these snarky songs like ‘Broken Hearts are for Assholes.’ It was tough love. You gotta broken heart? Deal with it. Todd Rundgren’s music was there to give you a hug. I wanted to contrast the hard-bitten Zappa followed by a bleeding heart Rundgren ballad.”
“Todd Rundgren holds a very special place in my heart,” Palermo says. “I realized I was in love with my girlfriend (now wife) listening to his album Something/Anything? It was about 2 years ago doing our regular hit at The Falcon that I decided to have Zodd Zundgren night. A lot of people who like the music of Zappa also like Rundgren and Steely Dan, but there are enough Steely Dan cover bands out there.”
Clarity. Attitude. Skill. These really aren’t qualities that define our present time. All too often, our ephemeral reality finds itself reflected in a jittery retro-music that sucks its data from the Cloud that atomised archive accessible to all. Schnellertollermeier’s fourth album, to be released October 2017 by Cuneiform Records, is their reply to all this: Rights, and it offers ample demonstration of their own clarity and ability. Rights comprises four pieces, every one of them inscribed with radicalism. Each is built on just a few ideas and develops out of them until it sounds like a Cubist work of art that seems to gaze out from the most varied of perspectives, but always in the same direction. This is the key to the immense depth and beauty of this album. Apart from the fact that it simply blows you away.
Schnellertollermeier still has its original line-up: Andi Schnellmann (bass), Manuel Troller (guitar) and David Meier (drums). These three musicians attended jazz schools in Switzerland and Scandinavia and have been working together as a band for more than ten years. And although they today live in different towns in Switzerland, their collaboration is even more intense than in their early years. After Holz (2008) and Zorn einen ehmer üttert stem!! (2010) it was above all their third album, X (2015), their first release on Cuneiform, that took the band onto a different level, both in compositional and career terms. Whereas Schnellertollermeier had until then played some 20 concerts per year, today it’s 40. X was named one of the 12 most important records of the year by the Wall Street Journal, and the trio went on tour in the USA, Great Britain, Russia and the rest of Europe.
You could say that Rights is the result of this process of consolidation. Schnellertollermeier has an immense presence that’s the first thing you notice. Initially, you only hear concise, repetitive patterns, but you can already feel their powerful energy while performing, their will to play out and not to yield to any ceremonial, reductionist modes. The pressure is high, their concentration levels too, and their energy levels aren’t a sudden spasm but a prerequisite. This music is complex, but never so much so that the band couldn’t play it with something in reserve. That keeps their music open and free for themselves, and also for those who hear it. Schnellertollermeier is never brash. They regulate the intensity of their sound with the highly controlled nuances of a precision engineer handling thumbscrews. They never discharge an impertinent punch instead it’s outstretched, held out, and offered up.