Eivind Aarset’s Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind of Journey is an outstanding album. Should you ask me what kind of music this is, my statements grow less definitive.
On the one hand, the Norwegian guitarist is often categorized as a jazz musician. He’s collaborated with dozens of jazz musicians, and he’s released a majority of solo albums on the Jazzland label. On the other hand, his collaborations with Jon Hassel and Ketil Bjørnstad suggest a tendency to explore the outer reaches of the areas where jazz, classical, and electronic music start to bleed into one another. When listening to Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind of Journey, you will be struck by moments that may encapsulate all of the above. Sometimes, it will be none of the above. It’s exploratory without being indulgent, contemporary sounding without coming across as esoteric. Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind of Journey is a modern masterpiece.
Wetle Holte and Erland Dahlen are both credited with not only drums and percussion but programming as well. Bassist Audun Erlien covers the synthesizer on one tune while Aarset’s guitar is fed through electronic patches. Together, this little group covers quite a lot of sonic ground. The guest list includes trumpeter Arve Henriksen with Jan Bang and John Derek Bishop providing samples and field recordings respectively. Thrown together, it’s an incredibly unique sound. Not only can you not easily label it, but you won’t even care that you can’t. That’s how good it is.
The album begins calmly with the soothing electro waltz “Intoxication”, a song that could be buzzed, stoned, or just euphoric depending on your opinion. Aarset’s guitar is the element that raises the dynamic level, sounding like he’s ready to strangle his instrument into submission. “Duløc, or The Cat’s Eye” is the closest Aarset’s guitar comes to sounding like Jon Hassel’s horn when the harmonizing effects were on full display and followed the notes wherever they needed to go. This time, “Duløc, or The Cat’s Eye” comes equipped with a post-rock rhythm track that would have given Hassel chest pains. The harmonizing effect finds its way to the other instruments on “Inbound”, a sister track to a seriously rocking ambient number named “Outbound” that is just as noisy as it is abstractly mysterious.
“Pearl Hunter” sets the watermark extremely high, considering that I’ve listened to it over and over again and still don’t know what kind of music you call it. The first two-thirds of it sounds like Bill Frisell is trying to find his way out of a swamp. When the song finally reaches the clearing, the post-punk/gothic swamp monster continues to stomp across the flowered field in full daylight.
“Manta Ray” could be construed as the album’s centerpiece seeing as how it features Henriksen, Bang, and Bishop all together within a seven-minute collaborative composition. If you are familiar with the Norwegian trumpeter at all, then you’ll know he’s not here to bop around just as Bang and Bishop aren’t here to supply the sounds of pretty bird chirps or babbling brooks. This song gives you shades of Hassel’s fourth world set to a backdrop of robotic ambience.
Even the straight-ahead rock beat to “Didn’t See This One Coming” can’t tame the weirdness bubbling over from Aarset’s effects — not that you’ll mind. “Light on the Sanzu River” sounds about the way you’d expect with such a title, setting Aarset’s delicate finger plucking to a swirling, aquatic atmosphere.
As I hinted at early, Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind of Journey is not only a technical achievement in its own right, but it makes for outstanding listening if you want to shut off your analytical brain and just let the sounds wash over you. No matter what the listener’s approach, the reward will be the same. If you’re looking for a rich, detailed album that boasts terrific musicianship, Phantasmagoria has got you covered. Want something that just sounds cool? Again, look no further. You cannot lose.