Only in Norway, I hear you say. Mixing banjos and steel guitarswith tabla machines and sruti boxes, Huntsville’s music has inspiredsuch glorious critical coinages as “abstract drone Americana” and“yoga country”. The trio of Ivar Grydeland, Tonny Kluften and IngarZach (along with a fourth contributor mysteriously entitled The SoundWizard) look to the far east and the wild west to create broodingsoundscapes that are nonetheless distinctively northern European,characteristic of Norway’s astonishingly fertile experimental andimprovised music scene. That scene is supported by labels such asRune Grammofon, Huntsville’s home for their first two albums, andHubro, who have released this, their third.
Billed as a vinyl release first and foremost (though the 12” comeswith a CD version included), the album is structured around the LPformat, with its title track sprawling across the whole first side.This features a guest appearance from cult Norwegian singer-songwriterHanne Hukkelberg – continuing the high calibre of guests onHuntsville records (their last album Echoes, Arches & Eras includedcameos from Sidsel Endresen and Wilco’s Nels Cline andGlenn Kotche). Hukkelberg chews over each long-held syllable à laJónsi, each note swaying subtly in and out of tune against theunderlying drones.
It’s an arresting and magnetic start to the album, thoughHukkelberg only sticks around for the first four minutes of the19-minute track. With the invocation “bumblebee, bumblebee, closeyour eyes to open your ears”, she is gone, and the listener is leftwith a rich sound world including chimes, singing bowls, pouring water– and of course, those drones. At the core of Huntsville’s sound is apiece of kit called a “drone commander”, which generates endlesslychurning analogue waves; it is coupled with acoustic drones such asthe Indian sruti box. The track keeps up a constant pulse andmomentum, however, with percussion and handclaps, and is driven byKluften’s electric bass. Underneath the drones and pulses, thebassline creates the harmonic changes (in the manner of minimalistpieces such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians). Thepiece is captivating and immersive throughout its 19 minutes as itswims in and out of different moods: from industrial siren sounds to afinal section where Grydeland sounds like John McLaughlin onMiles Davis’s In A Silent Way.
The album’s second side feels bitty by comparison: beginning with a29-second blast of chimes and tabla sounds (For The Working Class), itthen moves straight to darker territory with Ear/Eye connector. Herethe drone commander manages to sound like a rapid-fire military snare,while Grydeland’s guitar miaows and yelps. The intensity builds to apeak, with Zach’s drums adding urgent cross-rhythms, and then slowlyrecedes into the distance until only an ominous saw wave is left. Thecinematic Star Spangled Pillow is driven by the drone commander’ssee-saw oscillation and Grydeland’s ruminative guitar, which hasshades of Bill Frisell.
Delicious as the idea of “yoga country” may be, the countryreferences are less overt here than on their previous albums. Thetitle track’s latter half is driven by a bluegrass-flavoured banjofigure, and Star Spangled Pillow gestures towards surf music with itsbluesy-tremolo guitar sound, but this time around Huntsville seem tohave less interest in closely mimicking those languages. They aremore concerned with improvisational freedom (Zach’s jazz-like splashesof cymbal contrasting nicely with the chugging rhythms) and withbuilding their own distinctive atmospheres. Although a very densealbum, and an uneven one – a slight return from Hukkelberg might havetied it together better – this makes for a deep and rewardinglisten.