Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall
Photo: Mariam Wallentin / Thrill Jockey

Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall Bend the Avant-Garde to Their Will

Experimentalists Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall have united to create an album that, even by their compartmentalized standards, is pretty out there.

THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE
Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall
Thrill Jockey
24 March 2023

If the name Mats Gustafsson is familiar to you, then you’re already aware of his unorthodox approach to saxophone performance. His work with Peter Br√∂tzmann and Merzbow speaks for itself, and his “jazz” band, the Thing, have been riding the edgiest wave of noisy free jazz imaginable for over 20 years. So any album where Gustafsson is just one-half of the team is bound to be as exciting as it is strange. Guitarist and electronic musician Joachim Nordwall enjoys a similar reputation within avant-garde circles, especially when making a racket with the Skull Defekts. Together, the two Swedes have united to create an album that, even by their compartmentalized standards, is pretty out there.

THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE may look like a pretentiously bookish title, but it’s also a strangely appropriate one. Sure, the music occupies a certain amount of “space”. What form of recorded music doesn’t? It also has a runtime of a little over 39 minutes. But apart from being broken into eight tracks, the music is not measured in any identifiable way. When listening to the album, one can easily entertain the notion that time is not passing in any recognizable way. As the two musicians spur one another along with strange sounds and clicks that could be used for vamps under other more normal circumstances, you’ll hear something outside the usual confines of avant-garde free-jazz. If that strikes you as odd, then that should give you at least a starting idea of just how naked and impressionistic THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE truly is.

The English translations of the titles are allegedly taken directly from Cordwainer Smith’s novel Space Lords, making for some heavy mental lifting. “THEIR NEW LIFE WAS THEIR FINAL LIFE”, “THERE ARE SOME WORLDS WHERE ALL DREAMS DIE”, “OH, SAID THE STRANGE MIND, YOU WANT ME TO THINK FOR YOU”, and longest of all “HIS FINGERS, MOVING IN THE AIR, PRODUCED A SOFT ORGAN-LIKE MUSIC”. You could never accuse Gustafsson and Nordwall of false or misleading advertising because the music is just as mysterious and nebulous as the titles suggest. As Nordwall puts it, “we never make plans; this is how we sound together.”

As “THERE ARE SOME WORLDS WHERE ALL DREAMS DIE” gets the record started, Gustafsson spends most of the seven-minute track playing but producing few notes. Throughout the album, he treats his saxophone as a wind tunnel and a percussive instrument, clacking the keys while producing tones so staccato that they barely pass as anything from the woodwind family. Sometimes he even manages to solicit a gurgling sound from the deep, coming across as more of a loose-lipped trumpet. Nordwall creates just about anything here, and little occupies a substantial amount of space in the mix.

On “THE DAY OF DAYS WAS THERE”, a series of soft electronic tones sound off somewhat regularly, only to decay as the track approaches its halfway point. After that, the two musicians produce so much high-frequency screeching that, if one weren’t paying close attention, one might be unable to discern the saxophone from the electronics. But it’s quite easy to spot Nordwall’s influence in moments like “THEIR NEW LIFE WAS THEIR FINAL LIFE”, where the sound of the laser guns from The Black Hole gets the treatment of the rapidly bouncing-ball effect. Rare are the tracks like “BIRDBRAIN”, where Gustafsson is free to play his flute with rubato while Nordwall occasionally produces the same two slowly plucked notes repeatedly.

To say that this isn’t an album for everyone is an understatement. If you are curious about the texture of sound being taken to what some would consider an unmusical extreme, then THEIR POWER REACHED ACROSS SPACE AND TIME-TO DEFY THEM WAS DEATH-OR WORSE will gladly escort you to such places. If you like all of your modern jazz to be harmonically agreeable, to “swing” and generally stay in time, then you’ll probably prefer 39 minutes of silence over this. Either way, you look at it, there’s nothing like it, and it’s nice to know that the Gustafssons and Nordwalls of the world are around to remind us just how vaguely odd music can be.

RATING 7 / 10
FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES