The Norwegian trio Huntsville is comprised of three of the most challenging and adventurous musicians in a country where the musical climate is usually quite daring. For The Middle Class is the ironic title for the trio's first attempt to outline alternative yet highly communicative instrumental drone-based music. The four tracks, all recorded in various places in Oslo during 2005 and 2006, and released by another challenging label, Rune Grammofon, suggest almost groove-based improvised textures. All rely on locomotive-like drumming and percussion that ironically sounds as if it's quoting the Pat Metheny Group in its most cinematic moments. These textures draw references from a broad spectrum of sources: country music, ceremonial Japanese music, South Indian music, electronic manipulation and sampling techniques, and even John Cage. Each musician has developed such an idiosyncratic language and an almost telepathic interaction with each other that the musical outcome blurs any conventional concept of listening, yet the music sounds very natural and organic and surprisingly quite harmonic. For The Middle Class is the most accessible recording from these creative musicians, surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes irritating, always offering tons of provocative revelations, and very convincing. One of my top ten releases of 2006.
The members of the Norwegian trio Huntsville, guitarist Ivar Grydeland, bassist Tonny Klutten and percussionist Ingar Zach, all have extensive experience as free improvisers, having worked with the likes of Pat Thomas, Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey. That makes the music on this album all the more remarkable; one would never guess the players’ histories from these sounds. The initial impression is of highly rhythmic grooves driven along relentlessly by drums or drum machines. Given that the two longer tracks here last over 15 and 22 minutes, respectively, that could have been a recipe for tedium. Thankfully, that is where the trio’s history and creativity come into their own. Despite the instrumentation hinted at above, the truth is far more diverse and interesting than a guitar/bass/drums trio; each player is a multi-instrumentalist who draws on sounds from a range of styles and cultures. First time around, I thought that lots of them must have been sampled; turns out, there is a radio in there, and Ingar Zach does use a tabla machine rather than actually playing tablas, but otherwise the banjo, pedal steel guitar, glockenspiel, acoustic and electric guitar etc are all played, not replicated. On the opener, the intriguingly titled “Appearance Of A Wise Child,” as if to counter the predictability of the steady tabla rhythm, all the other elements are far more unpredictable; not unpredictably weird, but unpredictable enough to keep us on our toes. In other words, fun. There’s the short passage of acoustic guitar appearing out of the blue then disappearing just as quickly; the low fuzz-bass rumble making odd interjections; rhythm undercutting rhythm, all of which makes the end product refreshingly hard to pigeonhole. “Serious Like A Pope” is in complete contrast, but just as original. A series of overlapping modulated drones laid over an underlying sitar-like drone give the piece a tranquil mesmeric quality. The longest track, and centerpiece of the album, is “Add A Key Of Humanity.” We are back to the territory of the opener, a steady rhythm plus interjections, including electronic swirls, detuned electric guitar – and after a while, it is not remotely surprising to hear the arrival of a riffing banjo, as it seems possible for anything to emerge out of this fray. A stimulating, sometimes funny, and always enjoyable album.
Quite possibly the most challenging release on the Rune Grammofon label this year, For The Middle Class is the debut release from multi-instrumentalist trio Huntsville. Although they do at some points go with the guitar-bass-drums setup, the three incorporate not only different playing techniques on their instruments (bowing, tapping, prepared, etc), but realtime processing and other randomness as well as banjo and other instruments. The result is an album of music that's hard to pin down. It dabbles in drone, post rock, free folk, and a definite influence of Indian ragas seep through on the more trance-inducing longer pieces.
Huntsville is in fact No Spaghetti Edition without the extra musicians, yet it sounds like the complete opposite of Ivar Grydeland, Tonny Kluften and Ingar Zach's free improvisation collective. Followers of the Norwegian guitarist, bassist and percussionist are in for quite a surprise with For the Middle Class, their debut. Forget No Spaghetti Edition, the HISS quartet, and Grydeland and Zach's duo albums -- Huntsville sounds nothing like them. In fact, this trio is very similar to the Necks. No kidding. For the Middle Class contains two long tracks that develop gradually over repetitive motives. In "The Appearance of a Wise Child," Kluften's double bass ostinato mimics one of Lloyd Swanton's signature anchors for the Necks' long flights. In "Add a Key of Humanity," it's Zach's locomotive-like snare drum rhythm relentlessly pushing the piece to gain momentum. Sure, the instrumentation differs slightly: Zach uses loop boxes in addition to minimal percussion; Grydeland's noise guitar, banjo and pedal steel guitar are sent through looping devices. If Huntsville's music is noisier and a bit more chaotic than the Necks', the basic recipe remains the same: slow-developing abstract material played over simple evolutive grooves. If the similarity is impossible to miss, it does not mean that For the Middle Class does not have its own peculiar charm; on the contrary. These three musicians are very talented improvisers, and they approach this form from a different angle, packing it with extended playing techniques and odd sounds. Highly recommended.
This will be good for that tenuous New Year’s morning. A Norwegian improv trio armed with a banjo, a double bass, a pedal steel, a bizarre tabla machine, shruti boxes and a fondness for freeing folk from its folk songs, from Santa Fe to Bombay. If the arrangements seem formless at times, their sounds are familiar voices; if most people coax songs from their instruments, Huntsville coaxes ghosts. Any fan of the broken Americana generated by Gastr del Sol in their last couple years would appreciate the gradually degenerating drones and rambles of “The Appearance of a Wise Child,” which layers arpreggiated tones, shuffling shakers, guttural buzzes and shivering steel strings over the course of 15 amorphous minutes. “Serious Like a Pope” conjures dead steel mills and sleepy dude ranches with its moaning slide guitars and barely changing melodic light. Lonely slide notes gliding atop a code of tabla hits tormented by their tempo in the 22 lowly, howling minutes of “Add a Key of Humanity”—it’s part This Heat and part Red Red Meat. “Melon” is a crisp finish of acoustic guitars, low pulses, hovering harmonics and subdued electronics. If the future is too much to bear come New Year’s Day, lodge yourself in the present with a 50-minute stay in Huntsville.
Huntsville make music that´s simultaneously detailed and intuitive. After the all too bried (5 mins) ”Serious Like A Pope”, ”Add A Key Of Humanity”´s manner of shifting into focus reveals that Huntsville are in the admirable business of dream-logic. Theirs is a haunted flow, like an un-stoppered and more accommodating Supersilent.