Arve Henriksen

Strjon

(Rune Grammofon; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 26 January 2008

I had originally intended my review of Arve Henriksen's new solo album Strjon to serve as a prelude to 8, the new album due out the beginning of October by his four-piece electro-acoustic/free-improv ensemble, Supersilent. That album is fucking colossal to say the least; it's bound to be very close to the top of my year-end list, and I know at least a couple other CMG-staffers who are just as ecstatic about it. Turns out, however, I'd be selling Strjon short. Not far from how I'd imagine a humbler and more serene version of Supersilent, Henriksen's music is absent of the apocalyptic menace that often marks the work of his full band. Strjon is a highly introspective affair, full of profound sadness and a heart-wrenching sense of solitude. It's the kind of thing that only seems to come out of Scandinavia, as if it takes a lifetime of exposure to the Norwegian fjords to conjure something so evocative.

At the centre of the album stands Henriksen's trumpet, a distinctly manipulated sound that will be easily recognizable to anyone familiar with his own or Supersilent's past work. On Strjon the trumpet gets a more privileged place amid the sparser arrangements, and lack of percussion. As a fellow trumpet player I'm incredibly curious how Henriksen gets the kind of sound he does; it's obviously processed, but it doesn't sound electric like On The Corner-era Miles Davis. Occasionally it could pass for another wind instrument, but it's always stark and intimate, taking advantage of the haunting presence of the lower register. You can actually hear Henriksen breathing on "Wind and Bow" where his playing is so restrained it sounds like his dying breath; he oscillates between blowing toneless air through the instrument and just barely hitting a note.

The opening track, "Evocation," serves precisely the function its title suggests, featuring only Henriksen's trumpet (here at its most distorted) playing short lyrical phrases interspersed with silence. "Black Mountain" follows and is dominated entirely by synths, sounding more like Supersilent than anything else here, albeit slightly more composed. Some of the strongest material here is where wordless vocals are employed; "Ascent" features soft, high-pitched vocals which sing the same two notes throughout while the trumpet and faint electronic crunches -- like feet trudging through snow -- provide accompaniment.

The way Henriksen thrives within his limitations is astounding; while he obviously doesn't have the chops or range of a Dizzy Gillespie he manages to maintain a consistently interesting tone. On "Green Water" he never sticks to one melody but his playing is so soulful that it's more compelling than a lot of jazz masters. The range of his tone is evident on the short interlude "Alpine Pyramid," which seems to consist entirely of his multi-tracked trumpet but is arranged to sound like a whole symphony.

But the definitive highlight of Strjon is "Glacier Descent," a masterpiece of organic electronics that recalls the pre-verbal natural beauty of everyone from Talk Talk to Sigur Ros to Dead Can Dance. Beginning with a faint horn and droning ambience, Henriksen adds the low hum of a didjeridoo that seems to somehow morph into manipulated vocals that gradually become more identifiable as human. The voice is joined by others which seem to rise out of nowhere and gently fade back in the mix, followed by more pronounced trumpet, then climaxing with full-throated vocals that somewhat recall Native American music but have a power all their own. I use the word "climax" lightly; the song never really reaches beyond a muffled cry and maintains a consistent droning pace throughout. It doesn't push like so much instrumental/post-rock that strains to stimulate an emotional response; it's so well mixed that at some point of listening to it on repeat I found the individual elements no longer seem to exist. All this sounds like hyperbole until you hear it, but its transcendence completely swallows up any kind of moderate language I could use. Henriksen must have been aware of the feeling of boundless innocence that the song ensures; he fades it into a final track that begins with the monosyllabic utterances of a newborn child, gasping for air.

Apart from that, there aren't really any individual elements on Strjon that haven't been heard before with Supersilent, and this may seem like a slight detour considering the massive step forward the band takes with every new release. On its own terms it's more than worthy, however, adding to the half-a-dozen or so excellent experimental albums that have come out of Scandinavia already this year.