A portentous seriousness surrounds the seventh (and, according to rumour, last) release from Norway’s genre-smashing ambient-jazz pioneers—and rightly so: this is as important a document of intense, ground-breaking improvisation as you’re likely to hear—or see—all year.
Yes, that’s right, this time around you can see what Supersilent are up to. Unusually, the album comes in the form of a DVD documenting a two-hour performance in Oslo in August 2004. By all accounts, it was a hotly anticipated event, the quartet’s first performance in their home capital for some time, with expectations running high and queues round the block. Clearly, on the evidence of this disc, Supersilent rose to the challenge magnificently, creating an utterly compelling performance that has cemented their position as one of the foremost practitioners of improvised soundscapes anywhere in the world.
Accordingly, the DVD comes across with a very deliberate heaviness, with all extraneous clutter pruned back to reveal the gig in its purest form, with no menu screen, no extras, no introduction: just two hours of uninterrupted music.
Filmed and edited by Norwegian multi-media artist, and Rune Grammofon sleeve designer, Kim Hiorthoy, the DVD employs his trademark clarity and precision, capturing the event on black and white 16mm film with very few gimmicks. For the most part the musicians are presented in close up, sometimes silhouetted against the stage’s bright backlights, sometimes shrouded in a more impenetrable darkness. There are some unobtrusive effects, such as a slightly psychedelic ‘double-vision’ that accompanies some of the more exploratory passages, but on the whole the feel is atmospheric and cool with a capital ‘C’—almost like a 21st century take on the hackneyed image of the jazz club, minus the cigarette smoke.
The music itself is simply breathtaking. Six entirely improvised tracks—as usual named only with a number—capturing Supersilent at the darker, heavier end of their sound-palette.
Track 1 plunges straight into a dark, swirling improv with Arve Henriksen’s trumpet sounding like an eastern flute, backed by weird, gamelan electronics and Jarle Vespestad’s skittering drums growing heavier by the moment. As the storm clouds gather, Henriksen begins to vocalise through his trumpet with a high keening call like a muezzin’s summons to prayer. The tension’s still building when Ståle Stoløkken’s moog-like keyboard wail breaks through, lifting the music to a kind of dark, ambient free jazz onslaught that descends into a disorientating electro-breakbeat hell, churned up and disfigured by the ‘audio-virus’ treatments of Helge Sten—aka Deathprod—before a telepathically abrupt ending. It’s the kind of performance that lesser bands would save for the finale to a show, but, amazingly, it serves simply as a preamble to what’s to come. This same intensity is maintained throughout.
The second piece begins as a slow, ambient shuffle, with restrained brushes on the drums, before taking off into a jerky, contemporary take on Miles Davis’ On the Corner, with live samples cutting up the drums and Henriksen apparently playing the trumpet through a saxophone mouthpiece—like one of the crazy homemade instruments that populated Sun Ra’s Arkestra.
Track 3 builds around Stoløkken’s space-age proggy keyboard sound and Henriksen’s breathy, falsetto vocals. From there, there’s a descent into a dark, percussive breakdown, with beeps and twitches like a robotic free-jazz. The pressure’s kept up with the brain-battering insistence of the heaviest techno, before coalescing into a fanfare-groove for the uplifting finale.
Unsurprisingly, after the punishment he’s been dealing to his drums, Vespestad sits out for a short interlude of ambient rumblings, but then Track 5 kicks in with an industrial brutality, like unfathomable machinery at night, and Henriksen’s braying trumpet and shouting vocalese disintegrating into a ragged chaos.
After almost two hours of intense concentration and physical exertion, the quartet looks drained, exhausted. Little wonder, then, that the brief encore is a contemplative piece with keyboards sounding like medieval flutes and Vespestad sitting bowed and inert over his kit.
Then it’s all over. The band exits the stage, leaving just the faint steam of activity and the elusive, momentary glory of the music hanging in the air. We can only hope that the rumours have got it wrong: we simply can’t allow this to be Supersilent’s last hurrah. Start organising your petitions now!