Previous Æthenor albums have featured symbols on the front, pyramids and crosses and that sort of thing, which could quite reasonably lead you to infer an interest in the occult. When combined with the fact that the group includes members of Sunn O))) and Ulver, you’d be forgiven for divining some black metal tendencies; however, as their last release Faking Gold And Murder also featured David Tibet, you might equally expect the mystical folk influence that he brings to Current 93. But musically, you’d be hard placed to put the records in this context. It’s perhaps for the best then that Æthenor’s new album for VHF Records, En Form for Blå, dispenses with much of the symbolic baggage I’ve mentioned. The album’s graphic design is markedly different, with a woman’s face picked out of from a stark blue background: as well as being the name of the famous Oslo venue where the album was recorded (and recorded very crisply, it has to be said), Blå translates from the Norwegian as “blue”. If it weren’t for the font, you could mistake it for a Kim Hiorthøy work. And that name, along with that venue, perhaps give better clues to what this sounds like.
En Form for Blå is another superb genre-defying suite of experimentalism from four free-thinking musicians: Stephen O’Malley, Daniel O’Sullivan, Kristoffer Rygg, and Steve Noble. Both in terms of instrumentation and approach, it recalls those more regular Blå residents and Hiorthøy acquaintances Supersilent. Like them, Æthenor utilise Fender Rhodes, improvised drumming, and deep bass drones, with live processing keeping the sound mix varied and unpredictable, the individual instruments surfacing briefly before being dragged back down into the dense sonic stew. The playing is restrained and responsive, maintaining a palpable sense of tension throughout; much like last year when I saw Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble playing together at Cafe Oto, when Noble strained at the tether of the guitarist’s intense textural focus.
And if you do want a drummer to focus on texture as opposed to rhythm, the esteemed UK improviser Noble is indeed your man – as you’d expect from someone who’s played with the likes of Derek Bailey, his repertoire extends far, far beyond just shaping the beat, enabling him to engage in more meaningful dialogue in such a setting. The first track ‘Jocasta’ begins with electrical whine, and he meets it with long, ringing cymbal tones, before staccato bursts of static necessitates some dampened metallic sounds, like he’s engaging it in swordplay. His waves of cymbals add sparkling, shimmering overtones to the twinkling Rhodes melodies of ‘One Number Of Destiny In Ninety Nine’ (as you can see, Æthenor have also dispensed with their enigmatic refusal to give tracks titles).
Like at the aforementioned Oto gig, Malley is playing against type for much of this set, though he doesn’t so much sit in the shadows, as actually create the shadows. His deep bass rumble and amp hum on “Vyomgami Plume” are malevolently portentous, like the tremors which prefigure major seismic activity. When those earthquakes finally arrive they appear with shattering force, and just at the point when you begin to think the danger has passed. The ambient, electric-era Miles exploration that is “Laudanum Tusk” is cleaved in two by a section of hideous distortion, as if hit by the twisted metal force of a speeding train that has been shaken from the tracks, collecting all four band members as it goes. Aftershocks become increasingly infrequent, and “Something To Sleep Is Still” sees the landscape slowly re-emerging through dust-clouds. It becomes increasingly clear that while Æthenor may appear to have changed, they have in fact lost none of their magic.