With mainstay Vincent De Roguin absent and Stephen O’Malley exercising smart restraint, Æthenor have released their best album and maybe one of the best live recordings I have ever heard. Assembled from three shows recorded in Oslo, Norway during 2010, En Form For Blå captures Æthenor improvising a loose electric sound bound expertly together by the talents of percussionist Steve Noble and one-half of the Ulver crew. Together they create a surprisingly intelligible sound, which betrays its impromptu birth.
At first, I understood why VHF advertised En Form For Blå as a kind of jazz mutant. With Derek Bailey collaborator Steve Noble playing drums and the duo of Daniel O’Sullivan and Kristoffer Rygg producing atonal melodies using, among other things, a Fender Rhodes piano, records likeGet Up With It were destined to be used as a point of reference. It is immediately evident, however, that Æthenor are not a jazz quartet and that they aren’t making anything like jazz music. Their sound on En Form For Blå is almost totally unique, coming closer to a Pan•American/Music is Rotted One Note/Charalambides hybrid than Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock. Thanks to their fluid style, creative open-mindedness, and a nice editing job—there is no crowd noise—Æthenor make this improvised live recording sound like a studio album. In fact, it’d be easy to mistake it for a soundtrack, film score and effects included.
O’Sullivan and Rygg provide the bulk of En Form’s weight. They alternate between trembling bass swells, noise walls, and lighter-than-air melodies, but typically use some combination of each to generate microscopic interchanges and hallucinatory field recordings. If their instruments aren’t squawking or breathing, they’re rummaging, flinching, or even slithering around in an environment rife with minutiae. There are a few massive crescendos dotting the record, but in general they avoid the chaos of wall-to-wall noise and focus their efforts on lucid instrumental exchanges. Synthetic vamps, which sometimes creep into Pink Floyd territory, frequently anchor the proceedings and help concoct a thoroughly ritualistic tone, which is spacious enough to include silence and pianissimo dynamics.
On more than one occasion, however, Daniel and Kristoffer’s disconnected scribblings congeal into a groove, the same way clouds unexpectedly transform into recognizable figures. For instance, during “One Number of Destiny in Ninety Nine,” Æthenor spontaneously sculpt an Om-like dirge from a sea of squirming effects and churning distortion, turning a storm of noise into a swaying and exotic dance.
It was during such passages that I first noticed Noble’s drum performances. Among the resonant synthetic tones and apocalyptic horn blasts, Noble carves out a whole world of scampering percussive noises and bellicose rhythms. Initially, his cunning approach to the drums sounds supplemental, but on song after song it is evident that his talents are essential to the record’s success. In many cases, his imitative cadences take center stage, with O’Malley, Rygg, and O’Sullivan playing the supplemental role. The importance of his contributions cannot be overstated; without his enterprising approach, En Form For Blå would be a much flatter recording.
Without a doubt, Noble’s work is the star of this show, but the restraint and collaborative ability that Stephen, Daniel, and Kristoffer demonstrate is equally essential. I would love to see this incarnation of Æthenor in concert for myself because I find it hard to believe a record as coherent as En Form For Blå could be the product of a live engagement. If all of their live performances are of as high a quality as this album suggests, then Æthenor should be counted as one of the best live bands around.