(Rune Grammfon; 2006)
By Mark Abraham | 16 October 2006
Ståle Storløkken (one third of noise/jazz behemoth Supersilent) and Thomas Strønen are taking the Humcrush project to brilliant places I’m not even sure I can describe. While it’s hard to tell how much of this is scripted and how much is free improvisation, the palettes they’re employing make this stuff endlessly enjoyable, but even more rewarding is just how vital and original it all sounds, which I kind of hate myself for just typing, but that’s the kind of record this is. Essentially pitting Storløkken’s keys against Strønen’s percussion and electronics, Hornswoggle has the duo exploring the approach of free improvisation without the usual corollary harshness, but also they’re investing some funk into the Rune Grammofon sound, adapting the bleeps and squiggles of Autechre and Oval into rocking little numbers that bounce and thump with the best club jams. Which isn’t quite to say that people will be dancing to this, but injecting a little joy into the Rune Grammofon (or, if you want, Supersilent) formula has resulted in something…not better, but just as awesome, and probably less tethered in precedent, which is amazing enough.
More amazing, though, is how Humcrush proves that creating a sound doesn’t mean creating an album that is eight different versions of the same idea. Like the best free improvisationists, the two musicians employ their instrumentation in the service of different ideas rather than employing an idea as a rallying point for instrumentation, and in doing so are squirming out the other end with a new musical language. If that seems like splitting hairs, listen to “Cyborg I” and “Cyborg II,” bookends to this disc that don’t simply resolve themselves against one another in a bit of Tweedledee/Tweedledum shadowboxing. The former, which draws Hornswoggle to a breathtaking close, has Strønen puttering on skittish riffs that grow in intensity not because he’s hitting things harder, but because he’s filling in space. Storløkken plays it quiet, adding fragmentary melodies and sighing synth heaves throughout. In contrast, “Cyborg II,” the album’s mission statement, has the drummer employing a spate of odd noises to create fairly straight-forward beats, but the way those acoustic and electric sounds bounce off one another gives the whole track a weightless, propulsive feel. When Storløkken starts adding heavy synth lines and neurotic lead melodies over top, the whole thing hums with energy; Strønen settles into an easy beat but claps on wood blocks and ringing knocks on the center of his cymbals that accentuate the electronic sounds underneath. The bass gets really funky, and even though the
“Hornswoggle” ups the ante; Strønen goes completely nuts while Storløkken hammers riffs stolen from a Mothers of Invention live show in the late ‘60s. The interlocking synth lines collapse upon themselves, and since Strønen is playing a real drum kit on the track, his lines mostly just recoil from Storløkken’s weaving, often stuttering in time or straying off the path to hit a jazz riff. The players have an excellent sense of one another; they pull of breaks and pauses with dexterity; they launch into a midsection of programming and heaving high-pitched synths before re-massing into one of the greatest (albeit very short) synth solos this year. “Anamorphic Images” is slower, but the production on the percussion allows it to convey the trickery of depth and sight the title suggests. It’s a headphones song, totally, since the components of Strønen’s textures leap from all over the channels. The melody is hilariously cute, a lullaby that would frighten most children, but even more than the tracks where he’s going nuts on patches, Storløkken’s restraint and his ability to constantly modify the emphasis and in-betweens of the riff creates a fascinating mood, especially when both musicians leap into a ferocious mid-section, again intense without being harsh, Strønen hitting stray snare licks that make holes in his partner’s riffage. “Knucker”—a collapsing house of cards described by music—also benefits from the production; the band lets their Allien-jazz spiral out of control, but all the right drumbeats are accentuated with velocity to keep the thing on point.
“Seersucker” is Humcrush’s micro-house, revolving over a steady bass synth as the drums flit crazily but always end with this squeaky “zwee zwee.” The melodies over top are run through different patches and employ Middle East-ish scales, but they do so with a severity that recalls a presidential inauguration, all eagle swoops and salutes and reverent faces. I can’t quite tell if those are the intended semiotics, but there is something needlessly stern and ironic about the whole track which makes it absolutely engrossing, and that “zwee zwee” is just constantly and purposefully deflating the gravitas. I love it. Especially since it’s followed by “Grok,” the most spastic track on the album and the closest to what an actual “humcrush” may sound like, in the sense that any rhythm is constantly choked by rests. The players do a marvelous job of hitting their tense points in sync, engaging in mini-prog syncopations while random percussion continues overtop. The track ends with a bass/percussion duel that sounds like a Stevie Wonder record remixed by Nurse With Wound or Suicide or something. And I’m not saying I know what that should sound like, but if this is it, let’s get that project on the go.
I don’t know what this album might inspire given how dense it is (which is the only real drawback here; it’s just idea after idea with no space to settle down), but like most albums that evolve genres right off the edge of a cliff, the simple fact of it alone is enough to make this thing important. It certainly rates Strønen as a fascinating percussionist since, even on “Roo” where his involvement is essentially relegated to snare rolls, he’s changing up the sound, not simply creating a trope percussive mood but playing around with it. Storløkken is also a master of textures, and while I sometimes don’t like the pure digital-ness of his chosen patches, his sense of melody in improvisation is stellar, and it is his joy that infects the album, drowning Strønen’s drumming in a sea of quirky melodies that sound delicious whether he’s tossing them from a distance or locked into the rhythm. Just fucking brilliant.