Drummer Morgen Agren and keyboardist Mats Oberg may be best known because they once played for Zappa, but this career-summing pair of discs makes a case for their fusion-y, proggy virtuosity, all on its own.
The live DVD Tourbooks, included in Mats/Morgan's career-spanning compilation Heat Beats Live, opens with a tight shot of drummer Morgan Agren's hands, still for the moment, but poised over a vast drum kit with perhaps a dozen cymbals, a snare, and four main toms, and four to five tiny timbales. When he starts, his hands fly over the set, impossibly fast but light-tempered and playful. His expression is a strange combination of grimace and grin, the grimace, one imagines, for the difficulty, the grin for the sheer joy of drumming. His long-time musical partner Mats Oberg takes up just a corner of the screen, hunched over a double keyboard. The records, both the live one and the reissued debut Trends and Other Diseases, may feature the two of them equally, but on screen it is clear that Agren is the extraordinary one in the duo, a drummer's drummer who can flit from cool trad jazz to proggy rock to howling Swedish metal, without dropping a stick, without batting an eye.
Oberg and Agren have been playing together for decades, starting as kids in Sweden. A brief stint with Zappa in 1988 -- Zappa's last rock tour -- brought the two of them wider recognition. (According to their website, Zappa himself enthused, "They played unbelievable, just unbelievable.") Since then, though, the two have recorded seven albums, initially only available in Sweden, and played with dozens of jazz, rock, and experimental ensembles.
The American experimental label Cuneiform Records reissued Mats/Morgan's most recent studio album, Thanks for Flying with Us, in 2005, making the duo's music readily available outside Sweden for the first time. Now, this same label has put out Trends and Other Diseases, Mats/Morgan's first full-length, recorded from 1993 to 1995, and Heat Beats Live, a collection of live performances from 1991 to 2007.
Of the two, Heat Beats Live is, perhaps, a better distillation of the pair's technical proficiency and playful musicality, augmented on about half the tracks by a full band. The disc starts with "The Return of Advokaten", a prolonged, fast-paced three-way between Agren's pulsing, storming rhythms, Oberg's cool Return to Forever-ish keys, and Tommy Tordsson's frantic bass. The keyboard takes all kinds of roles here, sounding like an electric piano, an organ and, briefly, a flute. Yet it's the duel in the rhythm section that gives the cut oomph. You quite simply can't believe that both of them can keep up with the pace and complexity of the piece, yet they do so without visible strain.
Elsewhere, Mats/Morgan adds a guitar player (Jimmy Agren, perhaps a brother?), additional keyboards, and, on one occasion, saxophones. Still, the most powerful cuts seem to be the least ornamented, the ones where Mats and Morgan go at it, just the two of them, their difficultly paced rhythms matching sometimes and intersecting at odd angles at others. You are struck first by the skill at work in cuts like "Mats Jingle" and "Truvas Rumble" (Tordsson plays on this one, too), but then by the sense of play. There is a lightness, a giddiness, a trick-rider bravado to the stunts they pull, as if they themselves cannot stop grinning at what they have gotten away with.
Your appreciation for Heat Beats will depend, to a large extent, on how well you tolerate fusion. It's not everyone's favorite genre -- it's certainly not mine -- but Mats and Morgan do it so skillfully that you have to set personal preferences aside. That's far more difficult on Trends and Other Diseases, where the addition of vocals takes the focus off their really excellent playing and puts it on the melodies. It's much more of a pop take on what they do, a fusion not just of rock and jazz, but of R&B, funk, and diva crooning.
Mats himself sings on a handful of the tracks, his reedy voice evoking a very white Stevie Wonder and just not on a level with the instrumentals. Guest vocalists help a little. The second track, "Trottsov", which features the singer Dilba, has an engaging oddness, the keyboards morphing into a skewed oompah band, the vocals twining and weaving along non-linear, non-poppish paths. Dilba returns for the metal-crunching, tempestuous "Russian Läsk", her cool modulating tones providing some relief from the heat of the instrumentals.
In addition to vocals, there are just far more instruments on Trends than in the live show, and some of them work better than others within the jazz-into-rock framework. The upright bass in "Fire and Audio" is a fine, nerve-wracking element in a jittery, intense composition. The oboe in "Fialka's House" pushes an already borderline synth line firmly into new age territory.
Still, the skill level is undeniably high, particularly in the drums, but also in the keyboards and bass. And that, finally, brings us to the question of who might best enjoy these records. The answer's on the DVD, in the front row of the audience, where a man stands entranced, his arms raised, his hands clenched, pounding out invisible fills on his imaginary drum set. The people who will like this record are the ones who can appreciate, not just intellectually, but with their fingers and toes, exactly how hard it is to play these songs. If you've got a drummer in your family, pick these records up for him. He'll either thank you or give up his instrument forever.