Album Reviews

Magnus Öström – Thread Of Life

(Act) UK release date: 7 March 2011

Thread Of Life is the first solo record from Magnus Öström,formerly drummer with E.S.T., the piano trio who were thedarlings of the jazz world and whose appeal went far beyond jazz’sborders, until leader Esbjörn Svensson’s untimely death in a scubadiving accident in 2008. When an album is made against a backdrop ofbereavement, it’s tempting to hear all the music as part of thegrieving process – especially when the tunes have such titles asLonging, Weight Of Death, The Haunted Thoughts And The Endless Fall,and Hymn (For The Past). Öström has spoken about how deeply thepianist’s death affected him both personally and musically, and themost obvious thing to note about Thread Of Life is how omnipresentSvensson’s spirit is in the music.

This was perhaps inevitable – as childhood friends and long-timecollaborators, Svensson and Öström’s musical voices were closelylinked. E.S.T.’s compositions are credited to the trio, and many ofthe hallmarks of the band’s sound can be heard in Öström’s solo debut:the alternation of driving ostinatos with plaintive, accessiblemelodies; the introspective openings building to rocky climaxes; thehints of Weather Report and Radiohead. Gustaf Karlöf’spiano sound, moreover, is strikingly similar to Svensson’s.Naturally, Öström’s distinctively propulsive, electronica-influencedbrushwork is bound to define the group’s playing to a large extent,but Karlöf’s keys even seem to have been been put through the samekinds of effects filters.

Tonbruket, bassist Dan Berglund’s post-E.S.T. project, addedinstrumental colours such as pump organ and steel guitar to recast themusic in a backwoodsy acoustic context, resulting in a more strikingand individual piece of work. Thread Of Life, by contrast, soundsinitially like a slightly soupy E.S.T. record lacking Svensson’sinstinct for earworm melodies. It feels an unkind judgement to makein the circumstances, and repeated listens do reveal key nuances ofindividuality. The emotion is writ larger here (as on the doomyPrelude, with storm clouds of bass and guitar effects swirling roundlooped bells) and thicker textures are provided throughout by AndreasHourdakis’s guitar. There are also vocodered, wordless vocals � laSigur R�s on Weight Of Death and closer Hymn For The Past – thelatter also recalling the Icelandic band’s use of crescendo as, over15 minutes, its marching-song melody swells towards an ecstaticallynoisy finish.

Piano Break Song simmers with contained rhythmic energy, thecombination of jazz and Steve Reich-ish minimalism placing itclose to some of Pat Metheny‘s work. As it happens, Methenyfeatures on the album’s centrepiece Ballad For E. The track standsout in several respects: it was recorded in New York instead ofStockholm, features Metheny and Dan Berglund in place of Öström’sband, and is the track that makes most direct reference to Svensson’spassing. But its presence arguably does the album more harm thangood. With the sweet-toned Metheny playing the most sentimentalmelody on the album, it feels cloying and overlong, interrupting whatÖström’s band have been building. The best thing about it isBerglund’s interaction with Öström. As ballads go, the understated,constantly modulating melody of Between, on which Karlöf isaccompanied by bassist Thobias Gabrielson on trumpet, is much moreeffective.

The Haunted Thoughts And The Endless Fall has a heavy, proggy 5/4beat, and lets Öström bring out his full, formidable artillery. It isa much-needed moment of release in an album whose relentlessmelancholy risks becoming oppressive. Though there are many momentsof beauty, the album’s emotional monotony makes it less than the sumof its parts.

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