Guitarist Stian Westerhus might be familiar to fans of UK post-jazzers Fraud (with whom he played and recorded a couple of years back). More recently he's turned up with Nils Petter Molvaer, but his CV also includes stints with Nordic noisemeister Lasse Marhaug. He gets about a bit, both geographically and stylistically.
This is Westerhus's second solo effort and was recorded in a freezing studio (details of how many layers he had to wear are on his website). It's tempting to conclude that the conditions had some effect on the music, which is often fearsomely bleak. Westerhus seems to locate himself somewhere between the abstraction of free improv, the feral expressionism of electric free jazz and the cerebral ambience of Viennese electronica. If Keith Rowe, Sonny Sharrock and Fennesz had a jam session on one of Neptune's frozen moons, it might sound a bit like this. Spectral, foggy drones give way to malevolent distended low register riffs, punctuated with anguished howls and great dirty waves of feedback; forlorn melodies emerge and disappear.
Throughout, Westerhus structures his material deftly, sweetening the nasty nightmarish stuff with more reflective passages. The whole album resembles a suite rather than a series of discrete pieces. He covers a lot of ground; Music for Leaving is a hailstorm of distressed clicks, bleeps and buzzes that sounds more like a recording of sunspot activity than a guitar solo. Meanwhile the gorgeously soft, bowed drones of Empty Hands Mirrored Softly could almost be a Hardanger fiddle player intoning a half remembered folk tune.
The guitarist's habit of emphasising the sounds of fingers on strings, the hiss and buzz from pickups and amps puts Westerhus in a different place from the glossier stylings of Eivind Aarset, Bill Frisell or any number of contemporaries. This is dirty, physical music that never lets you forget that at the heart of it is a human being playing a slab of wood with some strings on it. Not for the faint of heart, but highly recommended.
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