Violinist and multi-instrumentalist Ola Kvernberg was born into a line of Norwegian folk musicians which includes the distinguished fiddler and composer Peter Larrson Rypdal. Kvernberg cut his teeth playing in traditional bands led by his parents and began studying classical violin when he was nine. In his early twenties, after discovering jazz, he spent a few years with Gypsy jazz specialists Hot Club de Norvège. Next, he broadened his horizons with a series of modernistic own-name releases which began with Night//Driver
(Jazzland, 2006) and culminated in the internationally acclaimed The Mechanical Fair
(Jazzland, 2014), the album which confirmed Kvernberg as an important voice in twenty-first century jazz. (A more fully orchestrated, and superior, live version, recorded at the Molde International Jazz Festival in 2016, was released in 2019).
All of Kvernberg's new millennial albums have been singular and adventurous, but nothing that came before it hinted at the sui generis lightning bolt that was Steamdome
(Grappa) in 2018. Part future-jazz, part avant-rock, part deep-house, part electronica, part contemporary-classical, the intensely visceral album defied categorisation. With hindsight, portents can be heard in The Mechanical Fair
, which Kvernberg tagged as heralding a "mutton western" genre. The metaphor extends obliquely to Steamdome
, which includes references to some of Ennio Morricone's orchestrating tropes.
There are chasmic differences separating the two albums, however. The string section that is at the heart of The Mechanical Fair
is replaced on Steamdome
by a three-strong drum team which comes on like a squad of berserker Japanese kodo drummers. And before his reappearance on Steamdome
, it seems Morricone had ingested a truckload of 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. So relentlessly intense is the album that, when it winds down after around fifty minutes, the listener is close to exhaustion. At the time, Kvernberg called the music "brazen."
The catalyst which caused Kvernberg's axis to tilt so radically was working with the Norwegian dance music shaman, DJ Todd Terje. Playing with Terje, says Kvernberg, took him back to when he was playing folk music as a child. "Back then making music had been an anti-intellectual, almost purely physical activity," he says. "There was something resonating in electronic dance music that brought me back to what got me into music in the first place. With Steamdome
I rediscovered the joy of making music."
The same cathartic, groove-centric vibe suffuses Steamdome ll: The Hypogean
. The production is sumptuous and sophisticated yet it retains the raw, primal spirit of folk music. (In a way, the process and the product mirror Fela Kuti's one-time-only buffed and burnished album Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense
(Polygram, 1986), which was post-produced by disco jedi Wally Badarou). Four years on, Steamdome
sounds like a prototype for The Hypogean
. Apart from drummer and co-producer Erik Nylander
, with whom Kvernberg had been working since around 2005, and who remains on board for The Hypogean
, on Steamdome
Kvernberg was collaborating with a completely new team of musicians and lab testing radical new ideas. Steamdome
was work in progress and not all the rough edges were intended. There are, for instance, aspects of some rock and dance music passages which are genre specific, even borderline parodic (which was not the holistic product Kvernberg had in mind). On The Hypogean
, by contrast, the band, whose lineup is more or less unchanged since Steamdome
, is single minded throughout and Kvernberg's arrangements are cohesive.
Kvernberg says he resisted any sort of subtlety or nuance on Steamdome
. "I wanted everything to be painted with the widest brush possible," he says, "to be smack in your face. I was trying to move towards a threshold where the music was on the verge of being exhausting to listen to. I still am. But this time I'm trying to do it with more dynamic and sonic variations."
While every bit as physical as Steamdome
, the latest album brings a newly rhapsodic melodism to the party. However eruptive the music gets, it rarely strays from the lyricism of the first two minutes of the opening track. Here the churchlike organ lays down a reverential, reflective foundation which soon develops into blazing, feeling-the-spirit, sanctified fervour. The synthesis is simultaneously carnal and beatific. As George Clinton put it, free you ass and your mind will follow.
The album's closer, "Diamondiferous," wraps The Mechanical Fair, Steamdome
and The Hypogean
together. The violin line which introduces the track evokes the Morricone-ish motifs of the first and second albums and is followed by a whiplash effect which echoes the crack of Clint Eastwood's bullwhip in the post-Sergio Leone western High Plains Drifter.
But Kvernberg's odyssey is not over yet. He is planning Steamdome lll
. There is only one way to go now: interstellar. Set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Steamdome II The Hypogean can be purchased here.
Hire Chris May to write your album's liner notes.
Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz and editor of the style magazine Jocks & Nerds; he was previously the editor of Black Music & Jazz Review magazine.
Disc One: Arpy; The Vault; Get Down; Carbonado. Disc Two: Hypogean; Devil Worm; Diamondiferous; Misty Light (bonus track).
Ola Kvernberg: violin, viola, HX3/Hammond organ, transistor organ, Novation Summit, prepared piano, harmonium; guitars, drums, percussion, vocals, drum machine, cello, effects; Erik Nylander: drum set, pandeiro, tambourine, percussion; Oyvind Blomstrom: electric guitar, pedal steel guitar; Nikolai Haegsle: electric bass, electric guitar; Daniel Buner Formo: HX3/Hammond organ, Bela custom synths/effects; Martin Windstead: djembe, bongos, tambourine, drum set; Olag Olsen: drum set; Cenk Erdogan: acoustic fretless guitar (8); Kirsti Huke: vocals (7); Stian Carstensen: electric baritone guitar (5).