Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: 3 (2009)
The ability of musicians on the Norwegian scene to live in a multitude of musical spaces was made clear at Molde Jazz 2009, where trumpeter Arve Henriksen performed in a variety of settings, ranging from the sublime beauty of his Cartography group to more aggressive noise improv with Supersilent. The two members of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra are equally spread out, in particular keyboardist Morten Qvenild, who has worked with groups ranging from indie instrumentalists Jaga Jazzist to more aggro progsters Shining, and whose In the Country trio has released its most ambitious album to date, Whiteout (Rune Grammofon, 2009). Vocalist Susanna Wallumrød has released two intimate singer/songwriter albums on Rune Grammofon2007's Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos and 2009's Flowers of Evil.
3 represents a logical evolution for this retro-centric but still modernist-edged duo, with a shift from the brighter, covers-only Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon, 2006) to emphasis on original writing that covers plenty of subject matter, all couched in a darker, more electronic ambience. There's a pulse on tunes like Wallumrød's opening "Recall," a poignant song of lost love; but it's soft, almost subliminal. The thundering drums samples of the more spiritual "Guiding Star" are more visceral, but they're still synched with synth washes and are more programmatic in nature.
Wallumrød and Qvenild split the writing duties, with the keyboardist's music largely more sophisticated harmonically and more direct lyrically. The synth-driven "Game" examines loss from a different perspective, while the more defined electronic groove of "Palpatine's Dream," with Wallumrød's layered voices, is one of 3's brightest, poppiest tracks despite its bleaker subject matter. Like Wallumrød, Qvenild creates miniature orchestral arrangements with layers of keyboards and quirky, orbiting synth lines.
With occasional assistance from friends including Supersilent's Helge Sten and Jaga Jazzist's Andreas Mjås, the duo also covers two diametrically distanced covers, both bearing little resemblance to the originals, yet still curiously recognizable. With Neil Peart's metronomic drumming and Geddy Lee's nails-on-a-chalkboard voice removedreplaced by gentler sonics and Wallumrød's warmer, more inviting voiceRush's "Subdivisions" may not possess the prog-power of the original, but Susanna and the Magical Orchestra turn it into something far more inherently appealing. It's harder to criticize the source for Roy Harper's melancholy "Another Day," but with treated piano and Wallumrød's clear, unaffected voice, Wallumrød and Qvenild claim it as their own.
It's a testament to their own writing that the covers are barely discernable as coming from other sources. Relying on Wallumrød's pure, direct approach to singing and Qvenild's glorious attention to texture, 3 is another highlight in the careers of both Susanna and the Magical Orchestra the collective, and its two members individually. Stark, beautiful, tender and heartfelt, it's a singer/songwriter's album for the 21st century.
Track Listing: Recall; Guiding Star; Game; Palpatine's Dream; Another Day; Deer Eyed Lady; Lost; Subdivisions; Come On; Someday.
Personnel: Susanna Karolina Wallumrød: vocals, programming; Morten Qvenild: keyboards, programming; Erland Dahlen: drums and percussion (1, 3); Andreas Mjøs: vibraphone (3); Helge Sten: guitars (4, 6), keyboards (10); Mariam Wallentin: additional vocals (4, 6); Fredrik Wallumrdød: additional vocals (4, 6); Morten Barrikmo Engebretsen: bass clarinet (7).