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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Brakophonic/Gunnar Backman

By Nick Ostrum

Guitarist, composer and producer Gunnar Backman has been documenting his wide-ranging projects on his Brakophonic label for years now. As far as I can tell, the label has released 60+ albums. Seven from 2022 are briefly reviewed here. Although this is an incomplete account of Backman’s work over the last year, it does shine light on just how curious and diverse his output is.

FLAGolodics (Lars Larsson, Fredrik Lindholm, Gunnar Backman, Anders Berg) – Happy Bappy (Brakophonic, 2022)

FLAGolodics falls on the funkier end of the prog spectrum, though it is still riddled with stutters and warped tempo changes. Driving, stadium rock backbeats and repeating laid-back bass grooves provide the backdrop. Backman and Larsson dance above it, weaving into the fabrics shredded to pieces by the other. Backman really lays in on some of these cuts, including the centerpiece, We Need Happy Peppy People. A few other tracks are more open. All in all, an interesting release that is most engaging when it deviates from the traditional song structures into less rhythmic and melodic realms.

FLAGellation (Lars Larsson, Fredrik Lindholm, Gunnar Backman, Anders Berg) – No Admittance (Brakophonic, 2022) 

Although composed of the same musicians as FLAGolodics, FLAGellation has more edge. The sound is full and, especially with Lindholm’s heavy cymbal work and the omnipresent fuzz and feedback, quite heavy. The funk of FLAGoldoic is replaced by noise rock and some bitingly urgent sax runs. And, of course, there’s Backman, who often fights his way to the front with Larson, where they entangle, squeal, suffocate, shriek and squeeze until the ritual whipping is complete. Some of that violent language may be misleading, but this stands out not only in its Hendrix wonk, but also the drudgery and force that propels this album forward.

Anders Berg, Gunnar Backman - Precipitation (Brakophonic, 2022)

Precipitation is a series of short statements of echoing guitar and bass runs that vine together and diverge into interesting sonic tendrils. Often, these tracks seem like the constituent elements of potentially longer pieces: an interesting melody here, some heated interplay there. Backman and Berg clearly have a special connection, and it shows. Unlike some of the other albums in this set, however, the ideas are tantalizing but terse and beg further realization. Precipitation sounds like a series of intriguing sketches (hopefully) of a promising bigger project to come.

Gunnar Backman – Rooms Inside (Brakophonic, 2022)

As one might expect from a full (48 minute) solo album, Backman extends on Rooms Inside in a way he does not on some the shorter releases in this review. All tracks have some sort of layering and processing beyond just a pedal, but Backman is still able to explore different territories. Corridors, for instance, flirts with feedback noise and dissonance, but keeps returning to a clear guitar jangle that grounds the piece and emphasizes the tension between an almost prog-poppy order and dissolution/noise. I imagine Hendrix, Lou Reed and the show Twin Peaks (Towers, a real treasure on the album) exercised some influence over Backman’s approach to guitar, though he distinguishes himself even more in the production. Apart from a few points where phrases are deliberately clean, much of this has gone through some refraction and layering process that turns what could have come off as onanistic noodling into a glitchy and intriguing set of guitar “solos.” Backman often veers toward noise, but, even at his most disjointed, he always falls back into space rock structures and metal-inflected guitar riffage that add coherence and make this an album very much worth seeking out.

Anders Berg, Peter Uuskyla, Gunnar Backman – View-Master (Brakophonic, 2022)

 This is another succinct on that speaks of a greater opus to come. However, with Peter Uuskyla, even the short pieces seem complete movements and ideas. Interestingly, the addition of a drummer seems to open space for Berg and Backman to diverge into mucky (Berg) and glimmering (Backman) territory. At other times (especially in the titular View-Master) they return to the contending interlace mode they adopted in much of Precipitation, though the machine gun rat-a-tat from the trap set propels them to new, spacey places. Much too short, but one of my favorites.

Dishwasher (Staffan Svensson, Per Anders Skytt, Gunnar Backman) – Layers//Day 1 (Brakophonic, 2022)

Dishwasher (Staffan Svensson, Per Anders Skytt, Gunnar Backman) – Layers//Day 2 (Brakophonic, 2022) 

Layers//Day 1 and //Day 2 move in an even spacier, more atmospheric direction that nods toward Miles’ fusion years, though with the trumpet deemphasized. Tellingly, all members of this trio are credited not only with more standard instruments, but also electronics. Backman takes on the fretted virtual guitar and live loops, as well. The result is foggy, with Per Anders Skytt’s drums dancing in fore and Staffan Svensson’s trumpet muted but fighting its way through the haze in the back. Backman’s performance is understated and almost ambient. Still, the music has a clunkiness that lends it depth and intrigue. Also notable is the length of these releases. Unlike the bagatelles that constitute No Admittance, Precipitation, Happy Bappy and View-Master , these tracks have room to develop. Most push beyond ten minutes, and, despite their improvised nature, never get caught in the guitar-forward doldrums. Rather, they remain engaging throughout and, taken in the context of these other 2022 releases, show that Backman and company do their best when they have the space to stretch out.