The Chicago-based, post-rock instrumental group Tortoise caused a bit of a critical stir in the mid-90s, although their complex blend of rock, ambient, jazz, techno and electronica may have ultimately been to subtle for mass acclamation. However, Tortoise created a lasting template for all subsequent instrumental rock bands who wanted to escape from a monotonous 4/4 beat and predictable prog/metal guitar wanking. Whole new musical worlds opened, and while it’s possible that these two Scandinavian post-rock groups, Cakewalk and Ballrogg (whose releases are on the relatively new Norwegian Hubro label), have only a dim awareness of Tortoise’s legacy, they are operating very much in a vibrant post-rock tradition that now knows no musical or geographical boundaries.
Cakewalk is by far the more visceral of the two groups, with the wailing distortion of Stephan Meidells guitar and the synth keyboard drones of Oystein Skar anchored by the flailing percussion of Ivar Loe Bjornstad. This basic concept of the electronically enhanced noise/rock/improv power trio finds its counterparts in a number of contemporary Norwegian trios, particularly on the older Rune Grammofon label (Scorch, The Thing). The opening track on the CD, “Glass,” begins impressively with what sounds like wooden chimes being buffeted by gale force winds, while Meidells lays down a punchy bass drone and Bjornstad’s drums push the piece forward. The chimes temporarily resolve themselves into a minimalist three-note pattern and Skar ends with some lyrical reverbed licks on guitar while the wooden chimes tinkle in the background. The next piece, “Descent,” starts with a bass throb and shrill, distorted tones from both guitar and synths before Bjornstad’s loose-Iimbed pounding ratchets up the intensity. This one is much closer to noise rock than prog, although like all post-rock worthy of the title, Cakewalk’s music doesn’t resolve itself into the predictability of a particular subgenre. Just as jazz improvises around chord changes, melodies and riffs, Cakewalk improvises with an impressive arsenal of moods, textures and patterns. “Soil” leans more heavily on ethereal electronic treatments and avoids any kind of obvious pulse, while “Perpetual” builds around a funky, propulsive ostinato bass riff and some vigorous shredding from Meidells. Electronic squeals from Skar’s electronics maintain the edge on this track, and the title piece, “Wired, “ offers some fine, fierce noise rock with Meidells thrash guitar again the dominant voice. The program closes with Kammer, a thick, greasy stew of overdriven guitar chords and synth harmonics, propelled once again by Bjornstad’s insistent, tribal drumming. Here, a strong gesture in the direction of Krautrock (particularly Neu! and Faust) emerges.
Ballrogg cites Morton Feldman’s subdued, minimalist chamber music as an influence, and Cabin Music understandably makes quite a different first impression than Cakewalk’s Wired, with the initial entry of Roger Arntzen’s pizzicato double bass on Swedish Country providing a mellow but vaguely edgy pulse (double-tracking allows him to supply a deeper ostinato bass pattern counterpoint as well), while Ivar Grydeland supplies stretched out legato pedal steel guitar lines and Klaus Ellerhusen noodles serenely on clarinet. Close miking of the instruments emphasizes the “woody” sounds of clarinet and bass – and the metallic sound of the steel guitar, of course. The next piece, Breakfast Music, is introduced by a bowed drone from the bass, more long tones from the steel guitar and some additional electronics before the bass takes up the pulse and the clarinet joins in for the theme, which gives way to an interlude of rhythmic but slightly dissonant free improvisation before the theme reappears. This is chamber music with a decidedly lyrical ambience – perhaps a bit like the Penguin Café Orchestra in its prime. Jazz clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre’s various percussionless trios are also a touchstone. The offbeat instrumental combinations of the PCO are revisited in the next piece, Sliding Doors, which combines a repeated clarinet riff with a unison riff on banjo, supported by a bass pulse, before a guitar strum enters and is combined with steel guitar drones. There are few melodies as such – mainly just chord progressions – but the shifting permutations of banjo, bass, steel guitar, clarinet and electronic enhancements keep the ear entertained. The final piece, Fireplace, repeats the combination of plucked bass and clarinet, except that the clarinet gets a little more “outside,” e.g., harmonics and overtones, while some distortion is added to the whine of the steel guitar. Typically, the mood on Cabin Music is dreamy and ethereal, but also eerie, with an element of mystery.