Nils Petter Molvær
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, samples
Eivind Aarset electric guitar, effects, ambient treatments
Ulf W. Ø. Holand samples
Morten Mølster electric guitar
Roger Ludvigsen acoustic guitar, percussion, dulcimer
Rune Arnesen drums
Reidar Skår samples, keyboards
Recorded 1996/97 at Lydlab A/S, Oslo
Engineer: Ulf W. Ø. Holand
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Ulf W. Ø. Holand
Khmer marks a monumental occasion: namely, the debut leader date of Nils Petter Molvær. Fresh off the boat of Small Labyrinths, the Norwegian trumpet player came out of left field with one of those rare albums that becomes second nature after only one listen. NPM, as he is also known, epitomizes ECM’s transcendental spirit with a collage of unbridled passion and integrity. Combining influences as diverse, if not also as intimately connected, as rock, ambient, dub, techno, and jazz, he deploys his mercurial fleet in a sea of samples, breakbeats, and smooth dives. Also carrying over from the Small Labyrinths session is hard rocker Eivind Aarset, who bookends the album with his e-bow guitar treatments and foils the delicate additions of free improviser Morten Mølster along the way. Mari Boine band regular Roger Ludvigsen adds six strings and more, playing prepared guitar and dulcimer, and along with drummer Rune Arnesen fleshes out the band’s acoustic signature. Yet it is keyboardist Reidar Skår and co-producer Ulf W. Ø. Holand who give the music just the kick it needs to hit the ground running. Holand, whose Lydlab is two floors above Oslo’s hallowed Rainbow Studio, provided samples and enough studio time to help shape the album into what it has become, while Skår brought his magic touch to said samples and others, manipulating them into an organic whole. The result is a classic that fits snugly alongside ECM’s all-time best.
Despite what from the above may seem like a grandiose experiment, the flow of Khmer is built around cells of rhythmic and melodic delicacy. It is only through the skill of the musicians, producers, and engineer that over a modest 43 minutes these cells build into fully fledged organisms. We hear this in the berimbau taps and snaking guitar lines that open the title track, giving plenty of net for Molvær’s distinct lobs. This feeling of pulse, sere and crystalline, burgeons in “Tløn,” which gives our first taste of the album’s electronic spread. A descending trumpet line hooks on to one of the catchiest samples you’ll ever hear (courtesy of Coldcut’s cult dance sampler, Kleptomania!). The mounting drums and talk-boxed vocals send this brew into active fermentation. NPM’s presence is intermittent, offering the occasional fluid monologue (enhanced to an electric guitar’s sheen), thereby allowing the group’s emergence to swing forth. Shawm-like cries throw up their hands to the rhythm of windblown leaves, ending on that same solo line, recycled and returned. The sediment-rich waterway of “Access” chains us to the digital ablution of “Song Of Sand I.” Funk reigns supreme, meshing with orchestral swells suggestive of Cypher 7’s “Message Important,” while also bearing Manfred Eicher’s stamp of focused communication. “On Stream” allows NPM to stretch his muscles more humbly. We hear the preparatory rhythms of his breathing against a subliminal caravan beat. “Platonic Years” continues down this percussive road. If the Bill Laswell influences were already felt in the low-end execution, here they blossom in a sample from his classic Axiom double album, Lost In The Translation, melding with breath and drum. “Phum” gives us a bubble of air to suck on in the rising waters before “Song Of Sand II” unleashes the selfsame track’s grittier side. Thus do we “Exit,” shifting, dreaming of doing it all over again.
Khmer was, for its time, a culmination of everything ECM had striven for in bridging styles, times, and places. An album with a sound, if there ever was one…
…but the journey didn’t end there, for Eicher and company went a step farther when the following year they released ECM’s first remix albums, allowing for even greater expansion into fresh idiomatic territories. The Remixes offers up three re-interpretations, starting with The Herbaliser’s DJ Fjørd Mix of “Platonic Years,” which against heavy beats and filtered pizzicato touches stretches its trip-hop legs. Another twist of the prism gives us Mental Overdrive’s Dance Mix of “Tløn.” What seems like a meditative introduction washes into half the remix before the promised dance begins, rendered all the more cathartic for coming out of such a viscous carriage. “Song Of Sand” also goes under the knife, appearing in a “Single Edit” but finding greater traction in Rockers Hi-Fi’s Coastal Warning Mix. All of this makes for some head-nodding goodness.
Ligotage is a single in the truest sense, its cloudy title track straight off NPM’s follow-up, Solid Ether. This thought-provoking track is couched by an unedited version of “On Stream” and Mother Nature’s Cloud & Shower Show Mix of “Song Of Sand,” which sounds for all like Boards of Canada doing funk (this cut also appeared on a special promo remix edition, ECM 1560/S).
When I first bought this album in college, I played it for anyone who would listen. I brought it with me wherever I went and fed it into every stereo I encountered. On one such occasion, a friend smiled when I asked what he thought and said, “Groovy.”