Raoul Björkenheim: eCsTaSy

[19 February 2014]

By Josh Langhoff

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

What a neat little album of freakouts! Nine of ‘em there, all laid out in a row, none longer than six and a half minutes, and pretty much any type of guitar/sax/rhythm squalor you could ask for. Your wish is eCsTaSy’s command. Unless your wish is to capitalize the band’s name without hassle; in that case you’re out of luck. But even this annoying break with orthographical convention is symbolic. You can’t bottle ecstasy, whether you’re trying to pack it into seven letters or nine jazz tunes. Like rogue capital letters, ecstasy breaks into the world where it will, and one person’s ecstasy can quickly turn into another person’s annoyance or boredom or, if the other person is Charles Gayle, an anti-gay sermon. You court ecstasy at your own risk. Raoul Björkenheim has bestowed the name eCsTaSy upon both his Finnish band and this free-ish album, and they’re fundamentally safe takes on the phenomenon. eCsTaSy alludes to ecstasy but never gets there, and mostly it’s a really good time.

The album’s first song “El Pueblo Unido” alludes less to Latin American political protest than it does to Sonny Sharrock’s iconic Ask the Ages album. Björkenheim’s fills and solos here are gorgeous diatonic things that cascade their notes into mountainous heaps. As with Sharrock, Björkenheim’s guitar digs through effects and tone color, searching for transcendence. He’s less interested in melodic or harmonic invention, although the main melody travels to some unexpected places. Unlike the tunes on Ask the Ages, though, you probably won’t walk around humming “Unido”. The tune does its job, but it lacks something—I wanna say “dark grandeur”, but I might just mean “a hook”.

From there, eCsTaSy mixes straight-up tunes with noisy experiments, almost track for track. “SOS” flips from a high melody to low quick Morse code honking, Björkenheim imitating a bari sax. Its solos go to the fleet-fingered Pauli Lyytinen, here on soprano sax, and bassist Jori Huhtala, who acquits himself well. I mean, he’s audible, so good job to the album’s engineer, one Mr. Risto Hemmi. Bass solos must be hard to get down on tape, or you’d hear more good ones.

Huhtala sounds better on the Coleman homage “No Delay”, which has him walking sympathetically under the free meanderings of sax and guitar. Huhtala’s bass and Markku Ounaskari’s drums take the Haden-Higgins approach to timekeeping. In other words, they make you lose track of the time. As long as they do their jobs, alternately cushioning and goading the soloists, a song like “No Delay” could last your whole commute and it’d be fine. But these are responsible Finns, so “No Delay” only lasts five minutes. The head isn’t as memorable as what Coleman would come up with, but what is? Ornette Coleman remains the catchiest atonal composer ever. Arnold Schoenberg scowls in his shadow.

There are more tune tunes, including a 9/8 funk with some wicked slide guitar, but just as important are what I’ll call the skronk tunes. Be warned, the band never descends/ascends into full-blown skronk mode. They instead give you little self-contained packages of radness: “Here’s the one where we make gentle improv noises at one another and Björkenheim tries out his new effects pedal.” That one’s called “Through the Looking Glass”, so what I’m hearing as lasers might possibly be the cries of the frumious bandersnatch. The song itself isn’t very frumious. Then there’s “Subterranean Samba”, where everyone turns into a percussion instrument. Even saxman Lyytinen! He doesn’t start banging on his horn or anything, but he hits short dry squeals over the rest of the band’s polyrhythmic spree. Once again, Björkenheim finds a novel sound, resembling the low end of an electric harpsichord. Finding just the right tone color seems to be a Björkenheim specialty, one of his main catalysts for creativity. It’s going down, he’s yelling “Timbre!”

The two what we’ll call ballads are ok. “Threshold” has a semblance of sax melody, some lovely guitar arpeggios, and lots of noodling. “Deeper” opens with Huhtala’s arco bass, an ominous sign that the band will commence a five-minute exploration of consciousness-altering drones. They do. A little of that goes a long way—but on the other hand, five minutes is hardly sufficient time to have your consciousness altered. You go to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, you think you’re just gonna stay there five minutes? No! You wander around for hours, exploring how the different sine tones and overtones vibrate your head, seeing how the light moves and breathes if you give it time. In your fourth hour, maybe you learn to interact with the massless waves that acquire almost tactile presence.

Ahem. No, Björkenheim makes jazz albums and he’s paced this one very well, so even while you’re exploring the “Deeper” drones with him, your mind can telegraph back to “SOS”, and then you’re off and running with “No Delay”. On eCsTaSy, Björkenheim and friends never leave it all on the table, the way they might live. On the other hand, they’re rarely boring, they have good taste, and they know how to put together an album. If that doesn’t sound like ecstasy—well, who am I to say where it’ll strike?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179029-raoul-bjoerkenheim-ecstasy/