Hedvig Mollestad (center) with her trio Credit: Julia Marie Naglestad

In the Reader‘s latest installment of In Rotation, Anatomy of Habit bassist Kenny Rasmussen laid out the reasons he finds the music of the Grateful Dead so boring, cutting to the quick in 29 words. “What I found were meandering guitars, dispassionate vocals, instrumental indulgence with little thought to hooks, melody, harmony, or power, and a dampening of the political spirit of the time.” He concludes, “AC/DC and the Ramones have never sounded better.” Those two bands specialize in concision, true, but to be fair they focus on written guitar solos, not spontaneous ones.

Parts of Rasmussen’s withering critique can be applied to other forms of music equally effectively. Jamming is what many people love about the Dead, but as an act of improvisation, to my ears it mostly involves spinning around in circles. I posted something to that effect on social media yesterday, and a colleague asked me how it applied to improvised music in general. I began considering the music of ferocious Norwegian guitarist Hedvig Mollestad, whose aggressive instrumental trio evokes Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and the earliest work of fellow Norwegian Terje Rypdal. It’s heavy shit, but woven into the massive distorted riffs and stomping grooves is some serious improvisation. Mollestad, bassist Ellen Brekken, and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad (she’s been working with them since they met at the Music Academy in Oslo in 2009) do all the things that Rasmussen says the Dead don’t: the guitars move with purpose, and Mollestad’s extended powerful solos, while constructed spontaneously, organize themselves around melodic explication and rich harmonies.

Earlier this summer Mollestad’s trio dropped two powerful recordings. Black Stabat Mater is the group’s fourth studio album, while Evil in Oslo (whose title makes a Miles Davis wink) is a sprawling live recording taken from two performances in Oslo clubs last year. Both albums reinforce the trio’s visceral appeal, where punishing hard rock coexists with refined group interplay and sophisticated harmonic movement. Some tracks ease up on the accelerator, such as Black Stabat Mater‘s “-40,” a richly atmospheric ballad on which Mollestad and Brekken trace delicate pinging patterns over a tender progression as Bjørnstad fills in space with subtle, ringing cymbal scrapes. And a reading of Mollestad’s tune “The Valley” from the live album summons the gorgeous, expansive sound of Bill Frisell amid the most gentle and graceful of grooves. By and large, though, this stuff is in-your-face.

Below you can hear “Approaching,” the alternately tough and limber opening track from Black Stabat Mater, where Mollestad’s slashing lines, hydroplaning feedback, and hooky little riffs hover magnificently over a heavy prog-rock groove in a meticulous arrangement. You can also listen to side C of the live record, which contains expanded renditions of three tunes from the trio’s catalog (“Lake Acid,” “Rastapopoulos,” and “Arigato, Bitch”), played with looseness and power.
Speaking of great guitarists, Mary Halvorson performs tonight at Constellation in Secret Keeper, her fantastic New York-based duo with bassist Stephan Crump. Their music sounds virtually nothing like Mollestad’s, though it uses melody, harmony, and power in similarly rigorous albeit more subtle ways. I previewed the duo’s performance in Chicago last spring in support of their second album, Emerge (Intakt). You can hear the opening track from that record, “What’ll I Do, ” below.

Today’s playlist:

Astor, Alcor (Kye)
Yamashita Yosuke Trio, Mina’s Second Theme (JVC, Japan)
Jeanne Golan, Viktor Ullmann: Complete Piano Sonatas (Steinway & Sons)
Wasiu Ayinde Barrister & the Royal Talazo Fuji Londoners, My Dear Mother (Omo Aje)
C. Spencer Yeh, Okkyung Lee, and Lasse Marhaug, Wake Up Awesome (Software)