Ever since Norwegian singer and art-pop provocateur Jenny Hval released her gripping 2011 debut, Visceral (Rune Grammofon), her most important musical partner has been guitarist Håvard Volden, a staunch experimentalist who’s helped realize her fizzy, ambitious pop. In her live performances she’s usually accompanied by several wig-wearing women, and though Volden joins her too, often wearing his own wig, he tends to stand off to the side behind a mixing desk—Hval is the focal point, and he seems happy with that arrangement. In 2012 the two of them made a lovely, mostly acoustic album called Nude on Sand (Sofa), but its sparse, direct songs increasingly seem like an anomaly for both of them—insofar as artists so unpredictable can be characterized as having a “typical” approach.
Hval and Volden’s new duo project, Lost Girls, doesn’t sound too different from the work they’ve done together under Hval’s leadership—it seems destined to serve as a clearinghouse for material that doesn’t fit on her records. In early March, the duo released the two-track EP Freedom (Smalltown Supersound).
“Drive,” which Hval has performed during solo performances, probes the ambiguities and inequities of gender and identity (familiar territory for her), combining her sweet-toned recitations and soaring melodies with coolly galloping beats, synth washes, and low-key electronic filigree. The other song, “Accept,” gives Volden the spotlight: he made this mostly instrumental track four years ago, layering jagged guitar phrases, humid atmospheres, subtle clouds of white noise, needling synthesizers, Dag Erik Knedal Andersen’s free-form drumming, and Hval’s alternately soft and shrill wordless vocalizations into a constantly shifting soundscape that stretches for 11 minutes. You can check it out below.
The way the reverberant guitar fragments of “Accept” collide with its wild rhythms and noise reminds me of Volden’s project Moon Relay, with fellow guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvald, but he’s also made recent work that’s more abstract than either. In December he dropped In the Wake (Neither/Nor), a concise duo album with New York-based Italian drummer Carlo Costa, who has a strong proclivity for using friction instead of drumsticks—which Volden complements perfectly with his splintery acoustic picking.
Costa rubs objects across the various surfaces of his drum kit, rings bells and strikes pieces of metal, and produces shimmering, vibrating tones by bowing the edges of his cymbals (you can hear this clearly on album opener “Awash,” below). His playing provides a mobile canvas for Volden, who plays in a kind of post-Derek Bailey style, except with passages of wandering melody or conventional chords that Bailey would’ve avoided. The extended silences and woodblock-like pings on the sparse “Ripple” suggest a soundtrack to an off-the-rails Noh theater performance. In the Wake is inviting yet challenging, gently hypnotic yet vividly astringent, and injects its deliciously restrained frameworks with improvisational electricity.
My favorite of Volden’s projects, the trio Muddersten, likewise makes extensive use of friction on its recent second album, Playmates (Sofa). The group also includes microtonal tuba player Martin Taxt and sound artist Henrik Olsson, who’s credited with “objects, friction, piezo”—where “piezo” refers to a type of contact microphone, which he uses to capture the most microscopic of sounds. Volden contributes tape loops as well as guitar, which helps explain the lavalike flow of difficult-to-identify sounds in these four pieces.
The music is sumptuously fluid, despite its odd instrumentation: Taxt’s rubbery low-end blubbering cradles bits of feedback, organlike drones, metronomic clicking, prepared guitar, and all manner of electronically manipulated scratching and rubbing. Picking out specific instruments is only possible here and there. The musicians collectively conjure shifting sound-worlds whose nubby textures and rich surfaces suggest tactile rather than aural sensations. These pieces are sometimes strangely serene, sometimes tensely fraught, as though balancing on edge and ready to collapse or explode any moment—but they never do. Muddersten make something out of almost nothing: their fiercely minimalist music blossoms with fascinating detail once you adjust to the superficial limitations of its ASMR-worthy sonic palette. Below you can hear the new album’s opening track, “Private Pleasure 1.”
Zbigniew Namysłowski Quartet, Zbigniew Namysłowski Quartet (Polskie Nagrania)
Rolf Lislevand, La Mascarade (ECM)
Spisek Szesciu, Complot of Six (Polskie Nagrania)
Christian Zanési, Grand Bruit/Stop! L’horizon (Recollection GRM)
Kuba Wiecek Trio, Another Raindrop (Polskie Nagrania)