Trondheim EMP | Poke It With A Stick / Joining The Bolts
It is entirely indicative of the calibre of those involved, that Trondheim EMP manage to do something that is so often done terribly, so remarkably well. Regardless of a listeners’ particular fondness for the types of sound they produce, there is no denying that the group is comprised of an extremely proficient membership, a fact that, more so than perhaps the confines of the research project upon which they are working, underscores the album as a whole.
There are several strings to Trondheim EMP’s bow. On the one hand, it is an album of semi-improvised, ultra-collaborative free-jazz and contemporary composition, with an almost ritualistic take on its subject. On the other, it is the sonic output of an academic research project exploring ‘cross-adaptive processing as a radical intervention in the communication between performing musicians’. Cronica have put together a pretty in depth press release, which impresses by virtue of both the interesting concept, and the aforementioned calibre of those involved – a quick scan of the personnel reveals luminous figures such as Øyvind Brandtsegg, Miller Puckette and Simon Emerson attached to the project.
Musically, the group harness a range of influences and styles, invoking both the more esoteric composers of the Darmstudt school – in particular the likes of Kagel / Stockhausen – and the slightly saccharine, cheesy end of free jazz. Whilst we are not dealing with anything resembling ‘traditional’ or even ‘popular’ music, there is no small amount of bass licks and saxophone squeaks such as has become synonymous with a certain genre. To temper this, Trondheim EMP toy with a darker, murkier edge, pushing their collective machination in to the arena of doom-jazz – indeed, certain moments of certain tracks wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on a Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble record.
For all the focus on group dynamics that the system presumably promotes, it is the quieter, sparser moments in which the album shines. Subtle, bubbling textures and a more considered approach to extended vocal techniques are revealed whenever the collective pull back enough to allow it, and, it is then that I hear, or at least think I can hear, the nuance of the performance system they are exploring. Tracks such as ‘Heavy Meta’ utilise droning, ambient tones played alongside sporadic drums, demonstrating an intriguing synergy between its players in the process. Likewise, the genuinely bonkers ‘Synchronise your Dogmas’ is part vocal drone, part post-punk, weaving potentially desperate elements together to form an intense and unusual experience.
Whilst there is a great deal of interesting music on offer, the project is perhaps slightly hampered by the sheer volume of its output. Consisting of two albums – the first more abstract, the latter more structured – the whole affair clocks in at over 2 hours, and it would be reasonable to suggest the quality fluctuates. Whilst there is a great deal of innovative and exciting music therein, it does occasionally veer into areas that are a little tired, perhaps even incongruous. Extended vocal warbles, and some borderline offensive bass-lines, whilst they may assist the exploration of the system as a whole, dampen the overall experience, reducing the power of some of the more refined, amorphous elements. Ultimately, it feels there is a sublime 50 minute album here, buried amongst another hour or so of stuff that, though largely very good, sometimes repeats the ideas on display and feels somewhat less urgent.
The strength of the academic system upon which the album is based is perhaps most evident when the music is at its least associative. The interplay between often quite diverse elements seems more explicit, more fully realised, and presents wonderful changes of dynamic and timbre that seems to somehow transpose across the instrumentation. Such an approach tends to tame some of the more… outlandish (read: potentially irritating) elements. In a track like ‘Within Reason’, the range of the human voice, rather than demonstrating extended capacity for its own sake, instead determines or feeds off the increasingly caustic and arrhythmic composition that frames it. If the wealth of material on offer is perhaps excessive, there is an audible logic to its presentation. Whilst the second half sheds the vitality of the first, it replaces it with a certain precision that, ultimately, benefits the project as a whole. And whilst I might wish for an abridged version of the album, some trimming of its metaphorical fat, the project, from its conception to its realisation is of an undeniably high standard.