The country of Norway is less than half the size of the state of Texas, and it has fewer citizens than Minnesota. Yet music from Norway has an outsized presence internationally. The musical genre known as “Nordic jazz” or “mountain jazz” blossomed soon after ECM, a German-based label, added Jan Garbarek and other Nordic artists to its roster. Similarly, classical music from Norway reflects the topography and personality of that region. At a different end of the musical spectrum, Norway became a trailblazer for black metal music.
Because of that outpouring of creativity, it seems fitting that a label would pop up like Rune Grammofon, which, in its own words, is “dedicated to releasing work by the most adventurous and creative Norwegian artists and composers.” The label was founded by Rune Kristoffersen, whose openness to innovative music traces back to the period when he first started buying records and attending concerts. In the late 60s and early 70s the music world was busting wide open, and Kristoffersen was impressed by the music coming out of England and America during that period. Jimi Hendrix and Cream were some early favorites, followed chronologically by such artists as David Bowie, Yes, and King Crimson, and after that Joy Division, PIL, and Wire. During that same period Kristoffersen also tuned into such jazz titans as Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
What these artists had in common was an eagerness to take music to new places, to explore, to innovate. That same spirit would later be associated with Norway, and Rune Kristoffersen had something to do with that, first as a musician (for two decades he was a key member of Fra Lippo Lippi, a Norwegian-based band whose haunting goth-rock sound created its own sense of aural mystery), and later as the head of Rune Grammofon, which, after its first release in 1998, quickly attracted fans of forward-thinking music. Kristoffersen was the label manager for ECM between 1995 and 2003, and while ECM had an affinity for Norwegian musicians, Rune Grammofon plunged deeper into the music from that country and explored a broader range of styles. Not only did Rune Grammofon reflect the music coming out of Norway (and to a lesser extent other Nordic countries), it helped invigorate what became a thriving music scene that attracted listeners from around the globe. Ultimately, then, the spirit of exploration once associated with American and British artists (a spirit that resonated throughout Europe) also became a Norwegian export.
Although it’s a small record company with no interest in mainstream music, Rune Grammofon has a knack for brand packaging. Here much of the credit goes to Kim Hiorthøy, a fun and inventive artist who’s designed their album covers since the beginning, so by now more than two hundred titles reflect his handiwork. Hiorthøy’s album covers range from playful to sinister; many use bright colors, clean lines, and simple shapes to create a sort of eye candy hearkening back to the 1960s. His artwork is the core of Let’s Put it to Music: 20 Years of Rune Grammofon, a 2018 hardback book that contains some label history but is primarily a visual experience. The book is itself a work of art, a colorfully-designed panoply of visual surprises. Buy it for someone who’s majoring in design, or buy it for yourself if you want to follow the narrative of a visual artist whose imagination is continually in overdrive.
While many different genres are reflected on Rune Grammofon—including art rock, shoegaze, progressive rock, electronic music, chamber jazz, psychedelia, and jazz fusion—the music blurs the lines between styles more than it embraces a single genre. The label’s most well-known artists include Supersilent, Hedvig Mollestad, and Motorpsycho, and while these musicians vary significantly, they share a penchant for improvisation imbued with colorful soundscapes. Recently I dropped the needle on a stack of recent vinyl releases, and these were my recommendations.
Kjetil Mulelid Trio: What You Thought Was Home.
After all this talk about blurring lines between genres, it turns out my first recommendation sets clear-cut boundaries and will appeal to fans of piano trios. The Kjetil Mulelid Trio plays lyrical, ballad-oriented jazz, and they’re not afraid to play pretty. Pianist Mulelid effectively uses space between notes while double bassist Bjorn Marius Hegge and drummer Andreas Skar Winther provide sensitive accompaniment that leaves everyone plenty of breathing room. What stops the performances from sounding like aural wallpaper is Mulelid’s gift for writing melodies that stay with you. Happily, the recording is clean, alluring, and spacious—a perfect match for the music.
I Like to Sleep: Daymare.
A new edition to Rune Grammofon’s lineup, I Like to Sleep is an adventurous and very young trio (the members are still in their early twenties) that plays vibraphones, baritone guitar, and drums. While listening to this group, I sometimes find myself flashing back to old film noir soundtracks where vibes underscore the eeriness onscreen, but this trio also has an aggressive and more rock-oriented side. The wild card here is the six-string baritone guitar, an instrument that at different times evokes the electric bass and a heavier-sounding electric guitar. The shimmering sound of the vibes, the heavily distorted baritone guitar, and ominous-sounding drums combine to create a colorful soundscape. Fans of progressive rock, noir jazz, and open-ended improvisation should give I Like to Sleep a listen.
Fire! Orchestra: Arrival.
For Arrival, Fire! Orchestra whittled its 28-piece jazz orchestra down to 14 instruments and quieted things way down, so what previously at times felt like a free jazz ball of energy now accompanies, in an austere and muted fashion, vocalists Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. Some tempos border on glacial and some melodies sound almost dirge-like. To get a taste of the results, stream the orchestra’s performance of “Blue Crystal Fire,” a song written by Robbie Basho, whose musical explorations expanded the vocabulary of the acoustic guitar. Although the instrumentation is significantly different here than on the original, the emotion at the core of the song comes through clearly, and the result is bracing. Interestingly, the Chic cover, “At Last I Am Free,” is equally powerful; stripped down and slowed down from the original, this version lays bare the pain that spawned the lyrics, which, though ultimately affirmative, come at a price. The other songs are originals, and they too have moments of pensive, haunting beauty.
Elephant9 with Reine Fiske: Psychedelic Backfire II.
Elephant9 is a Norwegian drums/bass/keyboard trio that started releasing albums in 2008. A 2-LP set, Psychedelic Backfire II contains live performances where each track is a side long. For these performances they’re joined by Reine Fiske, an in-demand guitarist whose resume includes extensive work with Dungen, a popular Swedish prog band. The keyboardist, Stale Skorjokken, uses all the right vintage keyboard instruments (Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano, minimoog, and mellotron), and he’s a mean Hammond player. When Fiske solos, he favors long, sustained notes that melt into the rich soundscapes that Skorjokken creates. Interested parties should stream the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a groove-oriented track that reminds me of the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” in the way it uses a melody from a pop song as a reference point in an extended jam.
Hedvig Mollestad: Ekhidna.
An electric guitarist who combines technical virtuosity with hi-octane performances, Hedvig Mollestad has described her trio as “outgoing & progressive instrumental rock.” She’s a popular live performer who knows how to fire up an audience, and the same energy translates to her studio recordings. Typically Mollestad works with a trio, but here she adds percussion, trumpet, and two keyboards to create a more layered sound. The expanded personnel inspires her to new heights—in fact, this is the first album I would recommend to the uninitiated. The two keyboardists (Erlend Slettevoll in the left speaker, and Marte Eberson in the right) engage in some nice interplay and help create a panoramic sound. While listening to Mollestad, I hear the same spirit of exploration I associate with (to give just a few examples) Sonar from Switzerland, David Torn from America, and Terje Rypdal from Denmark, making it that much clearer that experimental music is now an international phenomenon.