Designer Örn Ólason's bedraggled, somewhat sinister cartoon rats adorning the cover of the pan-Nordic quartet Rodent’s debut Beautiful Monster
perfectly reflect the group’s ten original, witty compositions. Cartoon characters like Wiley E. Coytoe have long been noted for their flexible ability to weather lethal accidents, and Rodent posses that same elasticity. While attending the Danish Rytmisk Musikkonservatorium, reeds player Haukur Gröndal and drummer Helgi Sv. Helgason, both Icelanders, formed the quartet with the Finnish trumpeter Jarkko Hakala and Norwegian bassist Lars Tormod Jenset, with the intent to play only their own compositions. Beautiful Monster
represents the culmination of three years of touring and writing. The quartet brings to life their spare, compact compositions with taut solos, dynamic rhythm changes and a sharp, adaptable wit.
When choosing and interpreting their raw materials, Rodent displays the artistic and technical malleability of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But where the AEC crafted an expansive melting pot, Rodent hones their inspirations to a sharp, personal edge. When they do borrow from other sources, they focus their pieces by taking only a core idea. Jenset powers “Alphonso” with a rapidly throbbing jungle bass line, which Hakala and Gröndal counter with effervescent solos that lope with joyful, soul jazz gait. “Mekkano” begins as a lurching stomp, then dissolves into a floating dialogue of dissonantly aching phrases between bowed bass and muted trumpet. The group employs a jump cut technique on “Evil Beaver,” switching between a sludgey ominous rock pulse, wrapped in Hakala’s slurred ruminations, and a free pulse passages, where Gröndal, on clarinet, unleashes trilling washes of notes.
Each member of the quartet supports these strong compositions with individual voices both technically adept and adventurous. Jenset switches easily between powerful rhythmic lines and arco musings, accompanied by Helgason’s restrained timekeeping and detailed accents. “The Donkey on the Mountain,” “Improvisation,” and “Pasquale” feature Hakala’s investigations of the trumpet’s more vocal qualities, which at times descend into airy splutters and wheezes, only to re-emerge as piercing tones. Gröndal examines the mysterious edges of the clarinet on “Donkey on the Mountain,” and on “Podex,” the luxurious energy of the alto sax.
With such subtleties in their playing, it is a shame that the recording feels slightly one-dimensional. More depth—a clearer sense of foreground and background—would have heightened Hakala’s breathy overtones and Gröndal’s sharp tone, giving the album even more character.
Rodent shares one more feature, this one related to craft, with cartoons: elegant simplicity. The best comics art communicates its message with a severe economy of line, word and structuring. With their compositions and playing, Rodent achieves the same, crafting a bold, yet delicate balance.