Dec 15 2014
Violinist Ola Kvernberg‘s 2013 release Northern Tapes was a seriously captivating mix of Nordic folk, chamber music and a bit of jazz improvisation and pop music sensibility. It hinted at bigger sounds within the small-group dynamic, where profound statements of beauty could originate from the tiniest whispers. On his newest, Kvernberg is done with the hints. Joining up with an army of strings, the Trondheim Soloists, Kvernberg’s The Mechanical Fair is the culminating expression of that big sound. But that bigger sound doesn’t have Kvernberg turning his back on the qualities that made Northern Tapes so successful. Just like its predecessor, The Mechanical Fair has a huge cinematic presence and a storytellers heart, and it tells its tale through the melody, written on the surface of the tempo and bound by the harmonies.
The album opens with the title-track “Mechanical Fair.” Anchored to a galloping tempo, it’s the single constant on a track that pushes out an array of melodic phrases and harmonic washes. All of the changes and permutations are made easy to follow because of that one constant… the tempo is something that the ear can latch onto and retain its bearings no matter where the ensemble chooses to go. As a result, the opening track is able to construct a series of alluring vignettes that seemingly possess no relation to one another, yet still come off as a logical, cohesive thought. The sighs of strings rising and falling like a deep sleep and their pizzicato gurgling with the calm of a forest stream transitions seamlessly into the wild thrashing of a violin soloist atop thick swaying harmonies, punctuated by brief silences and the strum of guitar and autoharp. Clocking in at just over ten minutes in length, the opening track is an epic statement. Kvernberg then goes about proving that quality will define the entire album.
The short piece “Alarums & Excursions” is a crosshatch of comforting melodic threads and unsettling cadences and tempos. It’s not so much an interlude as it is a path to the next part of the journey.
“Dualist” comes out strong with the strings, a huge harmonic surge that is accented by an urgent tempo, though it’s those harmonies that are creating all the drama here. When it momentarily relents, the melodic eye of the storm is about as beautiful a moment as you’ll find. “Jaja,” on the other hand, is no less beholden to the strings’ harmonic predispositions, but they begin in that eye of the storm and never leave it… though, occasionally, the ensemble gets deliciously close to stepping into more chaotic territory.
“Penrose Walk” is a fitful lullaby that transforms suddenly into a nightmare. The dissonance of strings and crash of guitar and drums combine for an ominous, disquieting tone. But much in the same way that the album’s other shorter piece, “Alarums & Excursions” set the table for the subsequent track, so does “Penrose Walk,” which suddenly disperses for the enthralling serenity of “Metamechanics.”
The album’s standout track, “Metamechanics” opens with the heartbreaking cry of violin, accompanied by the comforting patter of acoustic guitar and drums. Other strings gradually join in, harmonizing in the most lovely way and accentuating both the song’s lilting beauty and its melodic depth. Eventually the call of the strings becomes more urgent. It’s a nice change of pace, especially seeing how dobro dances alluringly between the notes. But even this is outdone when the song basically resets itself with a quick fill from acoustic guitar and starts right in with a different tempo and a new melodic seed to nurture and grow and guide to a blossom in the song’s second half. It’s these kinds of plot twists and turns of phrase and shifts in scenery, performed so fluidly and without a hitch, that signifies what is so remarkable about this album. It’s gorgeous music with a sharp mind.
The album concludes with “Harlot’s House.” What begins with delicate, focused expressions from piano and strings suddenly blooms from a floating ambiance into a much bigger expression. But like much of this album, the larger presence comes at no sacrifice to the song’s potent beauty. This trait is consistent from first song to last.
An album of stunning beauty.
Your album personnel: Ola Kvernberg (viola, violin, piano, vocals, prepared piano, percussion, theremin, autoharp, mandolin, cello, additional guitars), Erik Nylander (drums, drum machine programming), Petter Vågan (acoustic steel string guitar, dobro, 12-string acoustic guitar, vocals), Even Helte Hermansen (acoustic steel string guitar, acoustic baritone guitar), Ole Morten Vågan (double bass) and The Trondheim Soloists: Daniel Turcina, Bård Monsen, Hilde Kjøll, Stina Andersson, Rannveig Ryeng (Violins I), Sigmund Tvete Vik, Elisabeth Uddu, Mathieu Roussel, Nella Penjin (Violins II), Bergmund Skaslien, Kristoffer Gjærde, Guro Lysaker Ness (Violas), Øyvind Gimse, Katrine Pedersen, Ellen Holmås (cellos), and Rolf Hoff Baltzersen (double bass).
Released on Jazzland Recordings.
Music from the Trondheim, Norway scene.
Some other stuff you should probably know:
I still highly recommend Kvernberg’s previous release Northern Tapes. You can read my recommendation of the album by following this LINK.
I also mention in that article his participation in the Liarbird ensemble. That recommendation will probably post in January 2015.
Also, I was recently reminded that Kvernberg is in the jazz-thrash outfit Grand General. Their self-titled album was one of my eMusic Jazz Picks back when it came out in 2012. It appears that particular eMusic column is no longer online, but here’s a LINK to the Rune Grammofon site (the label that released the album) for more info and an embedded track.