(Rune Grammofon; 2006)
By Mark Abraham | 20 October 2006
Collapsing acoustic and digital terrain is not a new idea, nor is the novelty of sampling, processing, and mixing the blood of folk and laptop together so much of a novelty anymore. I don’t mean to say that Per Henrik Svalastog is derivative here, or that his approach is so-o-oh 2002 (or earlier), but rather I think that since we can get over the “shocking” juxtaposition (or maybe it’s just cultural guilt/shame for the stupidity of all the returned copies of the Mirwais Ahmadzai-produced Madonna smash “Don’t Tell Me”), we can actually talk about this album based on its overall qualities, instead of the gimmick. Otherwise, wouldn’t we just be pointing at Iancu Dumitrescu’s bicycle-spoke/contact microphone experiments and yelling, “That was the end of acoustical-sonic experimentation”?
Let me pedal back (but not backpedal) here a bit: I don’t love the Books. I don’t not love them, either; I own their albums, and I enjoy listening to them, but I think both Sean and Peter have made excellent points which I will now shamelessly paraphrase: by the time they got around to actually writing songs, nobody cared anymore. In 2002, the production had people breathing stigmata, and certainly the sheer sound of Thought for Food is enervating—it’s like, I dunno, Mountain Spring Tide. As opposed to regular Tide—modern Tide, or Existential Tide—which would be the harsh and regular determinist kind, all synthetic and mechanic, or in the case of music, synthy, because by my count, the only “innovative” thing the Books did was sample acoustic stuff and splice it like it was electric. And make electronic music slow, I guess. But it ain’t that innovative, really, and Ahmadzai (a hilariously bad example, so—oh, I dunno—Timbaland) should be demanding back rent on everything but the tempo, right? Because, fine: the Books are good, and they deserve the praise for shaping old sounds in new contexts; they are fun and frothy, and yeah, the wordless wordplay is kind of cute. Just, let’s not pretend that the Books front a revolution because they figured out how to reverse a guitar line (who owns the back rent here? Some of Lennon’s 40 year-old maryjane dust-shag. Oh, like you still couldn’t smoke the dust of Studio 2 and get high! And also, what a hilarious court case: Weed v. Rock and Roll. I mean, isn’t that exactly what the Books are going for anyway?).
Ahem. My point is that Svalastog isn’t simply collecting snapshots of a broad interpretation of “acoustic,” which doesn’t really mean anything outside of the deconstruction implicit in the process of reconstructing analogue sources itself; instead, he’s focusing on the component parts of Norwegian folk to reinterpret a whole cultural—and personal, but more on that in a second—mythos. That the album is performed on Harpeleik, Bukkehorn, and Kuhorn (basically, a zither and some animal horns, which I only know because the press release translated the names for me) and the parts are fed into a computer is secondary to what comes out the other side: harshly idyllic and unironically electronic pieces that employ counterintuitive rhythms and beautifully spliced patches of what Svalastog calls “heritage and environment.” Because it’s not just the gimmick here: Svalastog has written some astoundingly beautiful tunes that carry the tricky production, rather than allowing the production to disguise any weakness in composition.
The title of “The Wood Metal Friction” sort of explains the game unnecessarily, but the track itself plays out wonderfully, all scrappy drones and fractured figures at the outset that suddenly align themselves into an efficient call-and-response instrumental; pick-axes zing, but this “Whistle While You Work” is sung by ghosts instead of cartoon dwarves. The dub-ish production that sees instruments leave and enter without warning pops the basic rhythms; the zither disintegrates over choking kick knocks and plumb lines. The effect is fantastic, and also surprising: in taking electronic music to the woods Svalastog has turned the forest into a construction site. He’s building houses from the antimodern corpses of Norway’s past, and “Snow Tracer,” which is the gutters and shingles and swooping eves, keeps a roof over your head as you feel your way through this complicated new architecture.
Most of the tracks follow the lead of these two behemoths, but it’s an excellent formula: the zither is haunted by the secret Muddy Waters all-purpose rhythmic solution, its complex figures rooted in stop/start structure, often doing so on counterintuitive beats, while the percussive work stays docile, prodding the gaps and pinching the melodies, but never really providing an overall momentum (or, when it might, like on “Reforestation,” getting the stop/start treatment itself); drony shades and accents push and pull in and out of silences, and the overall effect is to create insanely detailed depth and texture. I can sort of explain it visually—it’s like an early morning drive along the highway, a thin forest between you and the horizon where the sun is rising, which of course creates an alternating series of blinding gaps and eclipsed, opaque silhouettes if you stare directly at the sun, and it just wrecks your depth perception because the distinction is so extreme. And later the “Cow Cow Goat” jumps over the moon, showing another way the distinction works; the track’s believable rave desires—it wants to have fun in the big city but stay true to its cowboy roots—work since it funnels its own rural energies into becoming accustomed with urban rhythms. The album is filled with moments just like this, where Woodwork shows its own silhouette in negative light, a modern spasm of conflicting ideas about progress and freedom born on the edge of the wilderness. Like Thomas Jefferson.
Maybe I’m overstating just a bit. The warp and woof of this album are not of equal complexity, and while the basic concept is steeped in depth, that concept is the only real twist, and the medium for its process is simply stretched (pleasurably, but stretched just the same) over 45 minutes. There are a multitude of reasons to listen all the way through (the notable strung line of “White Oak White Pine” is just one absolutely engrossing example), but the narrative is fairly straightforward. Although, you know what? Maybe that’s the point, too. I said this was personal: Svalastog was inspired by his grandfather, once-folk musician, who, after losing his fingers in a mill accident, gave up music to teetotal in the face of modernity. The way Svalastog has constructed this—not by superficially taking electronic music back to some unclear antimodern diatonic authenticity, but rather taking it back to itself by way of a series of ideas about the evils of itself and a corollary embrace of another set of ideas in opposition to itself? Well, shit, that’s a mouthful, but let’s rephrase: is antimodernism ever really about anything other than the antimodernist’s concerns with her or his absolute and immediate present? T.J. Jackson Lears wrote a whole book on why antimodernism is just, well, modernism, but you don’t need a book to understand that’s the cyclical punch line of this endlessly gorgeous album.