Henriksen/Aarset/Bang/French – The Height Of The Reeds (Rune Grammofon/Southbound)
GARY STEEL enthuses over an album that reverberates with soothing trumpet, atmospheric ‘found’ sounds and imaginative evocation.
Auditioned on CD
One of the many depressing things about reviewing records in 2018 is that it appears that people only seem to want to read about what they already know. Another of the many depressing things about reviewing records in 2018 is that over the past couple of decades it feels as if the only place anyone shows any interest in anything that doesn’t have a peppy tune and a worn-out, clichéd lyric is down there in the underground where ‘normal’ folk fear to tread.
So, when I’ve got something like Arve Henriksen’s wonderful The Height Of The Reeds album to review and enthusiastically recommend, social media will first of all determine that few of my ‘friends’ have the faintest interest in reading about an album by a foreign-sounding bloke who makes music with few recognisable melodies and no lyrics whatsoever.
And that’s a crying shame, because The Height Of The Reeds is a really splendid thing, and despite its origins in a sound-art project, it’s really easy to enjoy.
Actually attributed to Henriksen/Aarset/Bang/French, it features Arve Henriksen on trumpet and (wordless) voice, Elvind Aarset on guitar and electronics, Jan Bang on samples and programming, and Jez Riley French on field recordings. The music was commissioned as a musical companion to a ‘sound walk’ that took place in 2017, in which those who took part wore headphones while crossing the Humber Bridge in Hull, England. It was all part of a celebration of the longstanding seafaring relationship between Hull and Scandinavia.
Dozing off yet? Normally, I would be predisposed against a stand-alone recording from an art project like this, because typically, when stripped of context, the music fails to stand up on its own account. The Height Of The Reeds, however, is completely absorbing and evocative, and listeners can use their own imagination to define what they think they’re hearing.
French’s field recordings are apparently literally captures of the bridge, the river, the steel wires creaking and the reeds in the wind, but more prescient is the way the sounds add texture and an indescribable sense of scale to what is already breathtakingly beautiful music. Henriksen – who has for many years been a member of Norwegian post-jazz ensemble Supersilent as well as a solo artist and superstar collaborator – has a particularly expressive, keening trumpet sound and sparingly uses his vocal falsetto to effective ends.
Occasionally on The Height Of The Reeds, Henriksen will multi-track his instrument to evoke the kind of Fourth World diaspora recognisable to fans of Jon Hassell, but mostly it’s an album that prescribes its own universe. The album is at its best on its longer tracks, like the nine-minute ‘Reefs And Roots’, where the miscellaneous components – those sinuous horn lines, ominous drones, a ominous atmospheric strings, random sounds – are given the space to breathe and morph.
Dreamlike and psychotropic, this music must have been mind-altering to listen to while walking across a large bridge, but has a special alchemy about it even in the comfort zone of one’s own listening space. Impossible to completely categorise, it’s an album that asserts the ability of music/sound to create an atmosphere that’s more than just a background, but features the unmistakable contours of composition.