Gnomus’ second album continues to refine the atmospheric improvisation the group explored on its self-titled debut . Gnomus is keboardist Kari Ikonen, guitarist Esa Onttonen and drummer Mika Kallio. Ikonen and Onttonen also compose a variety of works, from small ensemble and vocal pieces to big band works. Kallio does not compose like the others, but his meticulous, subdued percussion work has shaped numerous pieces by other composers. These talents combined give the three extended improvisations on II an intuitive structure, one audible to the listener, and the musicians, only after the performance.
II was culled from live recordings made during Gnomus’ most recent tour of Finland. There are no overdubs and or studio manipulations. But the sequencing of the tracks, combined with the intuitive structure of the pieces, creates an improvised suite of three contrasting moods. “Sirens" oscillates between disturbing vocal treatments and strangled synths from Ikonen to Onttonen’s ominous, fragmented metal riffs. “Hypnos” levitates on Kallio’s pointillistic ride cymbal, and more processed vocal chants, warbling moog figures and slicing guitar suggest that the piece could be the soundtrack to some sci-fi film set in the Middle East.
The mysterious ambience, crunching guitar lines and the ghostly, very creepy old man floating disembodied on the cover might lead some to think of Gnomus as some experimental death metal outfit. But there is a strong vein of dry musical humor running though the music, one that makes it feel like the product of the trio’s personal fantasies, a space where they can let their strangest ideas run unchecked. Onttonen can rediscover the metal guitarist in himself, but with the wit and economy of a jazz improviser. Kallio can move at will between propulsive beats and chiming atmosphere, while Ikonen gets to play mad scientist with a whole rack of effects, moogs, synths, sequencers, and voice processing. When you realize that all the Sirens of the first track are really manipulations of Ikonen’s ramblings, you start to see that Gnomus is more interested in having a little fun than in scaring small children. They’d probably rather scare adults.
The music is free in the sense that the trio starts with no predetermined structure, but the improvisations develop in an orderly and composed manner, unfolding slowly, almost like Indian ragas. They unwrap textures, combinations of notes, rhythmic structures and possible harmonies, then pick and choose from each, gradually building the sonic layers. Their composers’ ears allow them to avoid the obvious silent-to-loud dynamic that much free improvisation suffers from.
After two albums and a few tours Gnomus needs to look at where to go next. These musicians could continue to refine their sound, as they have done with II , but they risk turning the expression of their quirkiest ideas into mechanical gestures. For now, though, their surreal B-movie horror improvisation intrigues and seduces with wit, utter strangeness and puzzle-like structures. Someday, maybe Gnomus will make the movie to go with it.
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