Runhild Gammelsæter / Lasse Marhaug: Contextual Album Review

Lasse Marhaug enthusiastically plays with others. Over the past three decades, the Norwegian noise musician, avant-pop producer and provocative graphic designer has worked on around 1,000 albums. Granted, many of these records were relatively low-stakes affairs, straight-to-tape live sets he mastered or one-off get-togethers done in small editions. But Marhaug is also a recurring collaborator of Jenny Hval, having co-produced blood female dog and Apocalypse, girland the creative sheet of Kelly Lee Owens LP.8. His former band Jazzkamer also did some of the most indispensable metal research of the century, pushing minimalism to its maximum intensity. Despite this torrent of material, Marhaug rarely releases true solo albums – just one, 2010’s Punishing Exploration All music at once, over the past twelve years. It thrives, it seems, on an exchange of ideas, the warmth of feedback.

But two fascinating new albums – the scrupulous and disorienting solo work The context and a captivating duet disc with ultra-dynamic metal singer Runhild Gammelsæter, The Higgs boson-offer new insight into the mind of one of experimental music’s most active forces, capturing a fascinating blend of intimacy and power. They are very different recordings. Marhaug is locked in a kind of cosmic tussle with Gammelsæter, her ravishing electronics pulling her down to earth as she explores particle physics and the unknown with a voice that uplifts even if it disturbs. By comparing, The context is calm and collected, even when hissing, churning or shaking; this is a careful soliloquy about the nature of sound from someone best known for just letting it rip. Together they galvanize reminders of how space and silence can be as compelling as what eventually rushes past them.

Over the past quarter century, Gammelsæter has often been unfairly reduced to a curious footnote in the history of American doom, even becoming a Danger! index. As a teenage exchange student in Washington State, she formed the short-lived and genius Thorr’s Hammer with Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson years before they became Sunn O))); his voice from the depths of hell made their EP, Dommedagsnatt, the impression that an abyss opened up at your feet. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard it, do it.) It’s become a much-re-released cult favorite; the fact that Gammelsæter went on to Harvard, earned a doctorate in biology, and ran a string of Scandinavian biotech companies only encouraged intrigue later on.

The Higgs boson is not Gammelsæter’s first album since the Evergreen days of yore. It is, however, his most focused and fascinating. Although Gammelsæter is famous for her stentorian bellow, she can also invoke soft cooing, theatrical sibilance, and even singsong ease. Here she involves all these facets at once, bringing them into play with each other and Marhaug’s contortions.

Listening to the opening ‘The Stark Effect’ feels like sneaking through a musical hall of mirrors, as Gammelsæter’s many vocal forms – the devil here, an angel there – emerge from corners you can’t see, then sneak up behind them. It’s fascinating and terrifying at the same time. So does “Hadron Collider,” where Gammelsæter speaks of the energy in a steely voice until it slips into a buzzing moan, as if tormented by the results of its investigations. “Propeller Arc” is a wonderful piece of bass music for the apocalypse. She barks like a military commander in the foreground, while her voice drifts with seraphic wonder in the back. This versatility and control put Gammelsæter in league with Meredith Monk or Diamanda Galás, pioneering singers able to communicate more with tone than with the words themselves.

The key to all of these aspects of Gammelsæter’s voice working so well together is Marhaug’s facility for layering. During ‘Ondes Da Fase’, Gammelsæter’s sound is a mixture of low-pitched buzzing and sibilant highs, blended but unobtrusive like strata of sandstone. It spans the entire track. But phosphorescent buzzes and a faint beat resonating in the distance add dimension; I find myself focusing on those other elements, playing a game where I look around Gammelsæter’s voice like a curtain. In “Static Case”, its intertwined whispers, roars and incantations pirouette through silent circuits and luminous noises. The song moves like a slow wave, resting long enough at its nodes to keep you sitting in suspense, wondering what’s next. It’s an appropriate feel for a record that asks questions about the framework of our universe and admits the answers could create existential dread.

The foundations of this success become clear on The context, Marhaug’s stripped-down yet captivating set of seven instrumental pieces. Recorded in the Oslo studio he used for most of his career before leaving the city for the high arctic of Norway, The context has been meticulously edited from hours of improvisation. Listen to it after The Higgs boson it’s like marveling at a gothic mansion and then somehow seeing the ornate framework behind its walls. Bursts of harsh noise, bursts of angular static, rumbling of punishing bass: while the sounds here are every bit as intense as Marhaug’s past might lead us to believe, his patience and appreciation for space mean the results are newly delicate, fragile skeleton of a once fearsome beast.

The marvel of all is “Context3”. From start to finish, a massive bass thump repeatedly disintegrates in a sequence of seven small hits; curdled electronics, kettle whistles and jagged drones wrap around the beat, like overgrown vines crawling over the aging foundations of this mansion. The sounds clash as they compete for place, while the unconscious rhythm continues. They burn out and fade away in an epic drama condensed into six minutes. Where “Context4” sounds like an endless winter scene, “Context5” evokes the pervasive fatigue of a city soundscape and subsequent retirement. These pieces work so well because of the care Marhaug took to position each part, letting tiny gestures – a subtle increase in volume, a small tone sliding through the silence – shape a larger narrative.

With an artist as busy as Marhaug, it’s tempting to see his work as scattered or flippant, ideas executed in unabashed sprints. In the past, it could certainly feel that way…All music at once, after all, felt like an expulsion of ideas, fast and fierce. Hearing Marhaug’s evolution through this spellbinding pair of records is inspiring, a parable of dull tools being slowly sharpened into surgical instruments. Both alone and with others, Marhaug is no longer just a Norwegian noise musician shocking with spurts of abrasive sound; he is a meticulous producer, using space, time and silence to give more power to these abrasive sounds. In doing so, he rightfully helped restore Runhild Gammelsæter to much more than curiosity status and established a promising new platform for his own thoughtful ideas.

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