For her third album as Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, simply titled 3, Norwegian Susanna Wallumrod offers another collection of spare, demanding art songs with hints of jazz and electronica. Oh, there are a few covers, too. Joined as before by Morten Qvenild, and helped out on production by Wallumrod’s husband Helge Sten, Wallumrod’s project may seem like an insider’s record on paper. But despite her ties to Norway’s experimental scene, Wallumrod has always been more concerned with highlighting the stark, simple beauty of her own arresting voice than any formal experimentation. That’s not to say she’s all cerebral beauty. Her solo work explores rich Gothic depths, and Helge Sten brings a heavy metal pedigree to his production approach that helps round out her bass-rich compositions. If this sounds somewhat different to the core Rune Grammofon sound, what you might call something along the improvised/jazz/noise/fusion axis, well it is. But it just makes Susanna, with or without her Magical Orchestra, a very interesting artist.
If only her albums didn’t get mired in all that affect. In a similar way to Lavender Diamond’s Shara Worden, Susanna Wallumrod has an awe-inspiring instrument that she hasn’t quite worked out how to use to her best advantage. She luxuriates over lines without clear melody, and because of this, often gets lost in coloratura detail. Her songs can lose their direction, even when they have this fractured beauty hovering around them. I suppose it’s a mood/time-of-day thing, though, because you’ll listen to her once and dismiss her, but in another context her music can be quite bewitching. Is “Come On” a mess of twisted synths or a complex and thrilling nightmare? I still can’t tell.
Nevertheless, her work with the Magical Orchestra has always been more esoteric than the Gothic rumblings of the solo stuff, so we should expect 3 not to offer a necessarily straightforward approach. Leaning more towards the jazz influences than electronica, her compositions recall Matthew Herbert’s straddling of those two worlds. But where Herbert tackles political topics with humour and vim, Susanna stretches everything as thin as possible in an attempt to get at a song’s essential heart.
Despite appearances, Susanna’s “Magical Orchestra” is just Qvenild, and the sound he makes is more chamber-music than richly orchestrated fanfare – more Part than Mahler, say. This asceticism suits the group’s compositional style just fine, really. They’re obviously most interested in impact-through-the-glacial-gesture, an attitude crystallized on their previous covers album Melody Mountain, which remains their best work. It’s no surprise the couple of covers that are found here on 3 are likewise among the strongest of the material. The standout is Rush’s “Subdivisions”, with its fantastic take on teenage ennui: “In the shopping malls, conform or be cast out … “In the backs of cars, conform or be cast out”.
Though in the end, the fuller timbres of Susanna’s solo work may be what is remembered as her best stuff, 3 has moments of serene beauty. Between the baffling art-vocals and the occasional swell of powerful, alienating electronic effects, there’s a fully realised vision here. Don’t look too deep into it, though – some demons there.