(Rune Grammofon; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 26 January 2008

I lost my father in early January when he succumbed to cancer. Someone who had been through a similar experience told me the first year would be really difficult but dealing with my loss would become easier over time. Now, almost at the end of that year, I’m not sure that it has or will in the near future. I do find it helpful to think in blocks of time. It’s a way to force yourself to believe that you’re carrying on. Or at least putting distance between yourself and the paralyzing immediacy of tragedy.

It probably goes without saying that music has been a consoling force, but what might be surprising is where I’ve found solace: free jazz, the avant-garde, and post-rock. More and more it seems like I’m building intimate relationships with music that’s foreboding and austere; music that, on the surface, seems to discourage an emotional connection rather than trigger one. And I’m framing here; I know that many of you won’t be able to access this album through the personal connection I’ve formed with it, but I think that the appeal of this album is only heightened by it’s emotional qualities. Because, sure, I’ll admit that any catharsis I’m searching for (or finding) is definitely not about instant gratification. And I’ll also admit that this kind of music takes a certain amount of self-sacrifice to approach — especially with solace in mind — and I’ll be readily forthright, given how tragedy plays a role in the way I perceive 8: I can’t help but see this meditative process as an end in itself. But think about that end: I mean, if you can describe that end, like the issues and tragedies and baggage that every single one of us are dealing with.if you can get to it as a tangible idea? 8 is like a wordless reference guide on how to deal with it, or at least how to frame the process of dealing, precisely because of the way Supersilent denies the emotional gratification other bands get by artificially constructing it. And that requires a bit of history, since they’re yanking from the past 6 or 7 decades.

Anyone who’s heard A Love Supreme (1963) — or hey, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000) — should have some idea of the spiritual associations, however loosely defined, of music that falls loosely into these sub-genres. What always struck me about free jazz, in particular, was how it conveys both spiritual ecstasy and chaotic dread at the same time. Y’know, just like how the words “rapturous” and “apocalyptic” carry very different connotations but mean essentially the same thing. Supersilent’s latest title-less masterpiece — the follow-up to 2003’s equally incredible 6 — comes dangerously close to being the essential document of that non-juxtaposition; a perfect intersection of free improvisation, electroacoustic experimentation, and the dramatic arc of post-rock.

In the short view, that’s exactly what we might expect from the flagship act of the prestigious Rune Grammofon label, and even more so because Supersilent remain the finest this fine label has to offer by sheer virtue of their ability to balance all the darker, jazzier, more ambient, noisier, or more erratic tendencies of all the label’s other bands at once. Cheesy, yes, to say “the Alpha and Omega,” but just as they inspire the younger musicians on the Rune Grammofon roster, they observe them, and to listen to any Supersilent recording is to know exactly what to expect from almost anything else in the Rune Grammofon catalogue.

It’s the long view that’s more interesting: Supersilent, with 8, have found a legitimate mode of free improv-inspired self-expression for the 21st century that also happens to be a departure from all free-improv precedents (except perhaps for those the band itself has set). For example: listen to the later stages of free improvisation via artists like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, where even the most basic assumptions of what constitutes music are abandoned, and try to imagine where anyone might go from there. Try to imagine it given that the demise of the left and the rise of the right in America and Europe eroded the foundations free improv thrived upon before punk filled the gaps the avant-left vacated as we entered the Reagan-Thatcher era. Supersilent aren’t really more outré than the aforementioned artists given their basic adherence to fragments of melody, but they do offer something vital to the genre: a hermetic and vibrantly immediate shift in its practice.

How? The Norwegian quartet manages to achieve everything that the genre strives for; they collectively and spontaneously make music and respond intuitively to each other without the restraints of style, structure, or tempo. And instead of cacophony, of noises at odds with each other, of the screeching wash (simultaneously beautiful and horrific though it might be) that has often been the result of this formula, Supersilent produce something so delicate and spare that each individual voice is sacrificed to the whole. Which is why, despite the devastating, even menacing emotional effect that this music reaps from the listener, the essence of this music is that of profound spiritual meditation. How else to explain that mind-numbing paradox of something that embodies such restraint and such complete freedom at the same time?

Perhaps that’s why the band so often seems like they’re at odds with the technology they employ — at least as much as they are in sync with it. They embrace this dissonance and consequently make moments of raw humanity — like Arve Henriksen’s unbelievably disarming muted trumpet that rounds out “8.4” and “8.5” — so much more effective. Because despite the precision with which the band warps their sounds beyond all recognition — a gesture that has relegated many electroacoustic artists to irrelevancy and bland technological fetishism — 8 isn’t a unity of man and technology so much as a violent collision between the two.

If anything separates 8 from 6 (their last proper album, since 7 [2006] was a live DVD), it’s in the rhythm. And not just Jarle Vespestad’s stellar percussion either; it’s the way the basic synth patterns and other electronic manipulations are layered to create fissures in the ambient flow of the tracks, gradually engulfing them completely in a barrage of rhythms. Take “8.1”: the first few minutes are dedicated to fairly formless ambience before two distinctly timbered percussion hits — a crotchet on the 1 and a minim on the 3 — enter like the terrified running of someone who’s crippled one of their legs. About halfway through a synth picks up the riff and the drum kit skitters around it, soon joined by clanging bells to round out the track’s 11 minutes. It’s the most obviously apocalyptic track on the album; by placing it at the start, Supersilent subvert any conventional sense of climax.

“8.3” is another rhythmic miracle: the track starts with a single pounded tom before adding other toms and snares which collapse around the beat without actually hitting it; Vespestad dealing some of the most off-kilter, loping drumming I’ve heard. The band still builds this into something articulate, the intermittent sounds which intrude upon the percussion gradually developing into an interplay between wah-drenched synth and squealing distortion. Both of these sounds would be interesting enough hitting one or two notes, but the band wields them as if they were well-worn jazz instruments, carving beautiful lyrical phrases that manage to somehow make the fury of percussion behind them make sense. “8.4” remains the most understated track here, while “8.5” is most blood-curdling in its first three minutes, after which it settles on a beautiful plateau. And what can I say about “8.6”? The most overtly electronic track here, it discards the usual sustained synths in favour of minute blips that provide the best argument that this band could be Autechre if they were so inclined. Its sparse use of cymbals and other identifiable sounds provide some of the best marriage of analog/digital percussion I’ve ever heard. Henriksen’s broken falsetto that comes out of nowhere in the second half of the track is the best wordless vocal performance this side of Agaetis Bryjun (2000). And then, incredible after this operatic performance, the no wave/noise explosion of “8.7” drops the bottom out the album with a hefty punk fist. Rather than build up to this track, Supersilent realize it’s more effective to pull all the stops out at once.

To say, then, that 8 deals in any kind of resolve would be misleading, but the band willfully exploits that trick, utilizing the tension between building narratives and thwarting expectations rather than merely contrasting laterally through the free interplay of instruments. In fact, given the sequential numbering of all the band’s titles (both across albums and individual tracks), 8 is less of a coherent, unified statement then it is a chapter in a continuously expanding mega-project: the band subverts the notion of coherent, self-contained albums as much as they do the structure of individual tracks that supposedly fill each album’s sequencing. And then, of course, since Supersilent excel at subverting subversions, 8 is still impeccably structured even as it dances around structure. And all of that combines into this gorgeous, forbidding, emotional, emotionally vacant space that invites you inside and won’t let you in, and that may seem like hyperbole but the way the band plays restraint and insistence against one another is never short of astonishing. And so I listen to 8 to help me get through my blocks of time precisely because it deals with those blocks as shifting spaces rather than coherent narratives. It sees time pass without imposing emotions upon it. It helps me deal with my grief, yes, but it’s also just really staggeringly good. Listen.