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Hedvig Mollestad: Ekhidna

Gareth Thompson By

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Hedvig Mollestad: Ekhidna
In 2003, the English writer John Murray published his Booker Prize-listed novel Jazz Etc. It narrated the life and times of a female guitarist, the improbably named Fanny Golightly, from working class Cumbria. One observer in the story describes Golightly's playing thus: "I suppose jazz is the only name for it. It was as delirious as heavy metal, but far too complex to be any sort of rock. Most of the time she was playing as if she wanted to set herself on fire."

So convincing was Murray's depiction that many readers were fooled into believing that Golightly existed. However, those seeking a real-life counterpart could do much worse than check out Hedvig Mollestad, a Norwegian woman whose brawny guitar style has been described as everything from doom jazz to heavy avant prog. If an obvious template for Mollestad might be the Mahavishnu Orchestra's high-powered Birds Of Fire (Columbia, 1973), it emerges that she also cites Black Sabbath as vital; take note of her shuddering album Black Stabat Mater (Rune Grammofon, 2016). This makes sense when we consider how jazz influenced Sabbath's drummer Bill Ward, brought up on Count Basie and Benny Goodman, while the band's guitarist Tony Iommi cites Charlie Christian as an early influence. Even a cursory listen to such Sabbath tracks as "Wicked World" or "Breakout" supports this, rather belying the band's sombre status. Equally there is nothing dense or sludgy about Mollestad's music— her playing has a roaring vitality, her sense of timing is superb.

Ekhidna as a project was commissioned by the Norwegian festival Vossajazz, an event which dates back to 1973. Mollestad decided on a format of two keyboardists, no bass guitar, a pair of percussionists and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva. With three women in this line-up, Mollestad is further kicking against notions of jazz as a male-dominated culture.

A figure from Greek mythology, Ekhidna was half-woman, half-snake. She ate raw flesh and resided in a cave under a hollow rock. So far, so heavy metal, but Mollestad also hones in on Ekhidna as a mother figure who lived in harmony with nature. The album opens sedately enough with "No Friends But The Mountain," where a forlorn trumpet and furtive guitar conjure something icy and daunting. "A Stone's Throw" then dives into punchy riffs threaded with brass lines, over some stonking drumming from Torstein Lofthus of Elephant9. The drift into more languid pastures feels entirely natural, as do the resurgent power-solos that follow.

Fretboard hammers and pulls on "Antilone" build towards a psych-jazz wall of guitar licks and keyboard shards. Three minutes in and the storm subsides to highlight a joyous trumpet break and tabla-style percussing. Mollestad returns for a climax of squally solos, full of treble and searing tonality.

As a title, "Slightly Lighter" is one massive understatement, as Mollestad channels the humid precision of Bill Frisell into a softly strummed meditation. "Ekhidna" cranks the amps back up but the piece is restrained and allows Silva's trumpet to ape Mollestad's fuzz-driven soloing, with a Moog Voyager adding rapture. "One Leaf Left" opens on wheeling guitar motifs yet everything here is muted, even the trumpet and the slinky riff below it, until Mollestad breaks loose amid a final percussive hurrah.

In the Greek fable, Ekhidna and her children were spared death, after attacking the Olympians, so that future heroes might challenge them. As an artist, Hedvig Mollestad throws down a similar gauntlet as she confronts musical and gender stereotypes. Ekhidna is a blistering album, yet also blissful in parts, with much to commend it.

Track Listing

No Friends But The Mountains; A Stone’s Throw; Antilone; Slightly Lighter; Ekhidna; One Leaf Left.

Personnel

Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen: guitar; Susana Santos Silva: trumpet; Marte Eberson: keyboards; Erlend Slettevoll: keyboards; Ole Mofjell: percussion; Torstein Lofthus: drums.

Album information

Title: Ekhidna | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Rune Grammofon

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