Avant-gardists Food couldn’t have picked a better name for their album if they tried. On Quiet Inlet, they don’t deviate from the beaten path as much as completely abandon it in search of caverns filled with subdued surprises instead. Their sound could be the product of composition or a series of improvisational accidents, or a mix of both. It’s difficult to tell, and this is one of many reasons Quiet Inlet is an impressively inventive album that may be one of 2010’s best releases.
Saxophonist Iain Ballamy and drummer/electronics improviser Thomas Strønen have been the holdout members of Food for a few years now, and their arrival to the ECM label is aided by trumpeters Nils Petter Molvær and Arve Henriksen, and guitarist Christian Fennesz. A list heavy on Nordic names such as this can signal one thing: something unique. From electronic noise to free jazz, from the classical and jazz collisions of the third-stream to the mysterious, impressionistic strokes of the fourth-world, this region of the globe has always known what’s up when it comes to the cutting edge of instrumental music. Food and its various collaborators are so far into this game that many traces of influence, as well as precise pinpoints of style, have been swept away like footprints in the sand. They are their own band, and Quiet Inlet is their own sound.
If one were pressured into finding a preexisting point of reference for this music, it would have to be label mate John Hassell. His conception of fourth-world composition with Brian Eno in the producer’s chair has definitely helped acts like Food establish a career. But even Hassel fans have to admit that the swirling electronics, cavernous reverb pools of guitar, and slow resolve of sax and trumpet lines that mimic one another show how Food are taking the whole shebang several steps further.
“Mictyris” is a bewildering display of musicianship and noise-making that, if you are paying close enough attention, can make your head spin. The track is largely in the hands of Strønen, dangerously throwing poly rhythms into an already established groove. A little less than halfway through, Ballamy chimes in with intermittent chirps, as if Wayne Shorter were poking his head into the drum room asking what in the hell was going on. This frantic puzzle is nursed along by ambient noises courtesy of Fennesz, buried so discreetly in the mix you can easily forget they are there. And Food makes it all sound so easy.
The blend of guitar and electronics is what provides much of Quiet Inlet‘s serene atmosphere, giving Ballamy and Molvaer plenty of opportunities to turn their improvisations into slow and deliberate-sounding conversations. Their interplay on pieces such as “Becalmed” is at once creepy and marvelous. And it speaks volumes to the musicians’ sense of intuition that such disparate parts resolve in a way that is peculiarly familiar. After many listens, it actually comes as a comfort and at times reminds yours truly of the way the Greenwood brothers allow things to unfold in Radiohead.
It’s a rare thing anymore to hear music that sounds so tossed-off, yet feels completely realized. Food has this contradiction, the best of both its worlds, absolutely nailed. In a period when so many talented musicians surrender their creativity to generic impulses, these guys are true originals.