Mention words like “free jazz” and “improvisation” to most people, and they’ll probably imagine some sweaty-faced, bug-eyed, red-cheeked saxophonist making all manner of ungodly racket with his instrument. And by “racket,” I mean stuff that sounds more like constipated goats than anything that resembles “real” music. Speaking personally, I often fall into that category. While I can appreciate the concept of improvisational music, much of what I hear fails to excite or interest me in the slightest. On the contrary, I usually find it annoying, perplexing, and simply put, ugly on both aesthetic and emotional levels.
After a few initial listens, it seemed like Supersilent’s 6 would elicit a similar response. While some of the sounds I heard were intriguing, they failed to really resonate on any level in the following weeks. The album seemed destined to remain an oddity in my CD collection, its spartan packaging lost in the piles. However, and I still can’t fully comprehend the how’s or why’s, the disc suddenly clicked one day while I was listening to it at work. And it happened right when I was about to permanently write off the disc as a loss. Whereas before I had heard a formless jumble of sounds, I found something beautiful and truly intriguing.
Contrary to their name, Supersilent are anything but, at least once a track like “6.1” gets going. Initially cold and distant at first, the song’s stark, jagged stabs of analog synthwork and ringing bell-like tones slowly begin to drawn in tighter around the listener, like light being drawn into a black hole’s maw. By the time the song reaches critical mass, it’s a virtual roar of tortured, atonal synth notes, melodic fragments, and skittering percussion that loosely resembles the Doctor Who theme being torn apart by a singularity. It’s a staggering track, and a rather forceful one at that, but it only shows one side of Supersilent’s impressive spectrum.
Compared to “6.1”’s overwhelming cacophony, the restraint in “6.2” makes it seem like a totally different band is at work. Anchored by drumming that appears completely formless, the song’s watery synths and placid drones produce a lulling effect. Meanwhile, lethargic horns whisper and sign seductively into your ears. There’s an exotic, worldly feel to the song’s tones, and while nowhere near as obvious, they do evoke shades of Jah Wobble’s more restrained and atmospheric work on “Heaven And Earth” (specifically “Gone To Croatan”).
As random and ambiguous as the song might seem, it never fails to miss its mark, no matter how far afield things seem to go. Whenever the atmospherics need punctuation or feel in danger of falling apart, the drums always seem to appear just in time to provide the necessary “oomph.” So graceful and breathy is Supersilent’s composition that a gentle brush of the ride or a lazy tap of the snare is all that’s required to set things back on course. Any more “oomph,” and the piece would probably collapse from the impact.
While “6.2” shows how Supersilent’s improvisational nature can create a piece that transcends its seemingly random roots, “6.3” barely manages to rise above them and ends up as the album’s biggest disappointment. For the first 9 minutes or so, an assortment of tones, cymbalwork, analog skronkiness, and fluttering horns tumbles out of the speakers. The song constantly feels like an engine turning over, unable to fully engage and get moving. Perhaps the group was trying to keep the listener off guard, as some attempts at creating tension in the piece do surface. However, such attempts feel rather heavy-handed, such as the “creepy” organs that sound like they’re on loan from a cheap Hammer horror film.
Within the last 4 minutes or so, the track does finally coalesce into something resembling a slightly more sinister version of Sufjan Steven’s electronic mayhem, and it’s a nice moment. However, after a few listens, one can’t help but feel that if the group had exercised a bit more focus and restraint a la “6.2,” it would’ve resulted in a much more fascinating song.
After “6.3” disintegrates into a flurry of analog motes, the group returns to form with “6.4.” As with “6.2,” a shambling drumbeat sets the song’s pace, creating an expansive backdrop that allows for all manner of guitar filigrees, violin squiggles, and gentle washes of organ to filter through the cymbal crashes and brushed drumfills. The gentle cascade of guitars and organs hearken back to the Verve’s earlier recordings and one could be forgiven for expecting to hear Richard Ashcroft chime in with “Man Called Sun” or “No Come Down” during certain passages.
“6.5” does away with any sense of rhythm whatsoever (languid or otherwise), instead delivering a dense, heady collage of drones that should easily appeal to fans of Aarktica, Amp, and Charity Empressa. Some drones are almost crystalline in their purity, as if spun from pure ice. Others have a grittier feel to them, as if the group’s analog synths and other sound devices were dragged through Halden, Norway’s grimiest alleys prior to recording.
“6.6” closes the album on a melancholy tone that’s downright 4AD-esque, especially if you’re familiar with Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook’s stunning “Sleeps With The Fishes.” Fragments of piano notes plink away over a slowly shifting bed of grey, fuzzy drones, whispering electronics, and muffled percussion. The piano bits have a drowsy feel to them, as if the pianist was absentmindedly tickling the ivories while lost in reverie and daydream. But rather than come off as clumsy and grating, the piece has a surreal, dreamlike feel to it, as if you’re hearing the song construct itself while still half-asleep. The wordless vocals (think Sigur Rós’ “hopelandic”) only add to that sensation.
It’s funny how records unfold for the listener: They can withhold their treasures for the longest time, only to suddenly dump it all in the listener’s lap without warning. For example, much of this review came from one monumental listening session, as I sat hunched over my desk, my ears literally drinking in a world of sounds they had never noticed before.
Right now, I’m listening to “6.6,” and I find myself amazed at how the song reveals itself. Now that the scales have fallen from my eyes (so to speak), I find myself wondering how I could have ever missed the album’s cohesive and staggering forms.