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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Stian Westerhus - The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012) ***** [part 3 of 3]

By Paolo Casertano

Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a three part post on Stian Westerhus and his new recording The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers. For more about the musician, see the previous two posts.

Part 3: The album

I will focus now on Westerhus' last work “The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers,” once again for him on Rune Grammofon. The poetically titled work was recorded in the Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, a place kept at a constant five degree Celsius to preserve the wall paintings, and known sonically for its twenty seconds of natural delay. Temporal dispersion and biting icy atmospheres imbue the whole production, but at the same time this album sounds immediately more lyrical and symphonic than the previous “Pitch Black Star Spangled” with its funambulism on pedals and far from the exploding noise of “Galore,” his debut.

The avant-gardish and almost Schoenbergian opening of “Shine” throws us immediately in Westerhus' musical world. On a structure that we may identify as the result of a dialogue between a string section and an ethereal choir,  low-fi chords (sounding like stabs on the guitar neck) emerge, soon followed by the bow slowly rising in a trembling crescendo. I would have sworn this was a synth if I hadn’t seen him play this sound just with guitar and effects.  Notes emotionally climb to the high scales toward the end of the piece.

The second track - "The Matriarch" - has a symphonic approach as well, of low tonality this time. The baritone guitar sounds exactly like a cello. Phrasings are short and jarring. There is a pivotal presence of echo and reverb.

Delay and silence are the way chosen to build the third episode - "Silver Sparkle Attraction." Ghostly presence and chains, just imagine to listen to this in the mausoleum where it has been recorded. Pretty eerie. Little trembling steps are alternated with deep low chords. Tapping on the body of the instrument and looping the resulting sound may work as an invisible drum while the bow grates unceasingly. “Like Passing Rain Through 9 Lives” is highly lyrical and epic. Compositionally this track shows the completeness of Westerhus. Each section of this invisible orchestra has its own score. Remember that he’s playing this alone, and he’s certainly not improvising now. His guitar moves easily from the role of a double bass to the voice of the violin . Far away, there is a trumpet sound, but it also comes from the guitar.

A feeble solo pours us into the fifth track “Unchained Sanity On Broken Ground.” Westerhus comes back in the hypnagogic realm, made of growing waves and whistles, sustained by very distorted buzzes. Closing in a synthetic loop.

In “Forever Walking Forests” Westerhus sings, or let’s just say, he uses his voice. This may be a breaking point. This is conceptual act. He is creating sounds through a gesture, not with an instrument. For Westerhus a guitar seems to be just a conduit and I’m pretty sure he could do the same with many other instruments. I bet John Cage would have admired this piece.

We hear a timpani and viola duet at the beginning of “Kept On Shoulders.” The really melodic open chords contribute to build a stream from which the “violin” can emerge and be totally unveiled, alone, screaming and ululating in the obscurity.

Two different looped layers, enriched by a strong delay effect, contrast in the short “Guiding The Pain,” challenging each other and growing. At times I could call this post-rock. Experimentalism and interferences are the keys of the closing “The Wrong Kind Of Flowers.” Far drones and horns. Play it loud enough to perceive the army that is marching far away till the bombing begins. The atmosphere is tragic and the piece closes with a tear-jerking, unexpected and gentle farewell.

I imagine that the impressive statues festooning the lovely park moved a bit closer to the mausoleum to hear the music being made.

Time for my rating now. I’ve always been looking with admiration to the "album of the month" column here on the left. And I’ve always been wondering why my reviewed albums were not in this list. Are my judgments and ratings too strict and severe? Am I lousy at choosing titles in our “Team Review monthly fighting contest” (I’ll tell you more on it sooner or later) picking always the less eligible ones? That’s why I am now proud to say that my first five stars rating on this blog goes to this album.

And definitely I beg you to let it and my review be part of the “album of the month” column.
Buy the format you like from Rune Grammofon

I have the limited red vinyl edition. But as you probably may guess I’m kind of a groupie here.

© stef


joesh said...

Nice review although I think we have to wait a bit before putting Westerhus in the same calibre as Derek Bailey. There's plenty of guitarists out there doing similar things, if not the same, but unfortunately we live in an era of high visibility and the Rune scene - interesting as it is - seems to have that 'look' that attracts people.

I suggest you try listening to people such as Fred Frith, Hans Reichel or the excellent Keith Rowe to name three players - all easily found on YouTube.

However one doesn't doubt the excellent playing and music of Westerhus.

Thanks for the review.

Paolo said...

Thanks Joesh!
I really appreciate the three guitarists you named. And I agree that lately Rune Grammofon is setting some questionable trends ... just think to the long adrift of psychedelic progressive rock that the label is actually producing...
In any case, what i meant is that the music of Westerhus - at least in my opinion - is less connected and subdued to the guitar and its preparation than one might think. The source of the sound is not the main element of his approach.

Anonymous said...

Great piece on a great guitarist. You might like my post on him at featuring the full version of my edited interview with him for Guitar Player

Martin Schray said...

As usual a very interesting and profound article. Thanks, Paolo.

Anonymous said...

Hello. What a wonderful review. Just to let you know: The album is recorded in the Emanuel Vigeland mausoleum, not in the Vigeland museum next to the sculpture park you mension. The link is therefore to the wrong place. This is where the album is reocrded:
Best, OsloL♥ve.