[30 August 2010]
Nils Petter Molvær’s first two LPs, Khmer and Solid Ether, were highly contemporary, perhaps even futuristic. Recorded for ECM, they melted the ambient chamber jazz recognisable as that label’s signature sound into influences from the European electronic underground. These records presented a new kind of jazz fusion. As a trumpeter, Molvær is firmly influenced by the post-bop tradition. This also means that he owes his creative impulse to the old master Miles Davis. However, he wraps his solos around caustic minimalist beats and over ominous soundscapes. Khmer certainly sounded like nothing else. It charged into the left field territory of Bitches Brew, but its songs were shorter and more manageable, and its production values would have been inconceivable to that older generation of cats.
Hamada is Molvær’s ninth record of thrillingly accessible music that retains a sense of hushed gloom perfect for late nights and bright lights. It’s the fifth in a series of original pieces, with the other four being remix albums that reconstruct the original material in a way that mirrors Molvær’s reconfiguration of the role of his instrument. This output is remarkably consistent: Open and contemporary enough to engage younger audiences, and cerebral enough to appeal to an older generation of jazz fans.
Since the late ‘90s, with the emergence of Ninja Tune and Thirsty Ear, lots of artists have been criss-crossing between more conventional jazz set-ups and electronic sensibilities. Molvær acts alongside peers from Joshua Redman to Robert Glasper, and from Esbjörn Svensson to the Innerzone Orchestra, in burrowing into the jazz tradition with the ethos of a DJ digging in the crates. It forms a meeting place between artistic endeavour and commercial appeal, and there is a sense of reciprocity between contemporary musicians paying homage to the old masters and carving out their own original sounds. Here, the organic and the electronic truly collide, and Nils Petter Molvær has had a very interesting part to play in these futuristic jazz adventures.
Hamada is perhaps more sleepy and mournful than anything Molvaer has done before. Where Khmer propped up brooding atmospherics with a deluge of beats, the natural and the mechanized elements of Hamada are fully assimilated in each others’ company. These soundscapes are morose, sometimes gnarled. Further, rather than simply importing electronic beats, Molvær has here constructed a crossover record where they’re motorised, a vital series of sparks that drive the tracks forward.
The whole thing teeters on the edge of the explosion that eventually takes place in “Cruel Altitude”, Hamada’s conflicted, harsh centrepiece. Its martial drums soon make way from directing an expedition into surfacing a sheer metallic cliff. Here, Molvær’s rock action doesn’t seem affected, but it does seem a little self-consciously symbolic. “Cruel Altitude” acts as a pike that punctures a largely ambient, murmuring plateau of an album. Nonetheless, it knows its place, acting alongside “Friction” as a rupture to Molvær’s melodic sensibilities.
These tendencies are very clear on “Monocline” and “Soft Moon Shine”, with Molvaer’s trumpet incandescent, fragile, throughout. It takes place beneath the sleepy, reverb-drenched guitar of “Sabkah” and the unstable conversation between live drums and processed beats on the severe, Spartan funk of “Friction”. “Sabkah” slithers, never really hinting at the extremity of the album’s two heavier pieces. Instead, it acts as a continuation of the album’s opening sketch, “Exhumation”. It introduces the listener to an atmosphere on which the rest of the record capitalises. This sense of thematic constancy, where “Sabkah” is linked to “Monocline” and “Soft Moon Shine” through a frozen synth pad, means that Molvær’s metallic impulses are highly challenging.
On Hamada, the synthetic elements are complex and incisive, and his trumpet is soothing but troubled. However, nothing quite scales the heights of Khmer or Molvær’s other highlights. Hamada is internally consistent, and its ambient elements are alluring, but it is inescapably imperfect. This is possibly to do with the contextual conditions under which music like this now operates. It’s a climate where music is dependent on the role of technology. This climate both facilitates, and acts as an example of, sheer acceleration: the speed of communication is constitutive of definite musical development, but spurs on further developments in a determined pattern that is itself accelerating. As a result, it can’t be easy to unveil fresh ideas, or trying to retain a sense of consistency, of artist self-awareness, of progression, in a culture of determined obsolescence.
This doesn’t make Hamada a poor or unworthy album. It’s interesting, and very much a worthwhile listen. However, music that relies on music technology is destined for the dustbin of history if it isn’t an instant classic, and it’s a shame that artists who want to break new boundaries have to put up with this in such an obvious way.