Iain Ballamy saxophones, electronics
Thomas Strønen drums, electronics
Christian Fennesz guitar, electonics
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Prakash Sontakke slide-guitar, vocal
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet
Recorded 2010 and 2011 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Victoria National Jazz Scene, Oslo
Mixed at Rainbow Studio by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Food
Mercurial Balm is not only the second ECM outing for saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Thomas Strønen, a.k.a. Food, but is also the continuation of an exciting new direction begun in the outfit’s Quiet Inlet. Lest these musicians get roped in by their instruments, they also bring an assortment of technology to the table to expand the possibilities of their immediate means. With trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and electronics stalwart Christian Fennesz at their sides once again, along with new guests Prakash Sontakke on slide-guitar and vocals and Eivind Aarset (recently of Dream Logic) on guitar and electronics, their sound takes a leap of evolution.
As if to drive this analogy home, the malleted gongs of “Nebular” trace the helix of a tense and creaking code, building a genetic slide for the tenor’s slow awakening. Samples of those same gongs slip in and out of earshot, blending ash and ore into the traction of “Celestial Food,” which overlays bright reed lines over a subtly propulsive beat. It is the language of travel personified, the depth of communication demonstrated, the uplift of flight conveyed. Those distant drums brush forward in a digital splash, adding contrast to Fennesz’s temperate climates in “Ascendant.” Solace need not apply, for Ballamy’s is an elemental divination, casting its oracle bones into the ether in hopes they might never land.
“Phase” can therefore be seen as a living segue, wormhole into the deeper biology of “Astral.” From its percussive swamp arises a more naked guitar, its pacing humming with ancient energy. This sets off the tenor and soprano in tradeoffs of augury toward an echoing finish. “Moonpie” unravels fairytale synth textures, over which Molvær breathes his sepia song. Sontakke looses his pliable self in “Chanterelle” and in the title track. He inspires Ballamy to more extroverted heights in the former, and in the latter offsets the ticking of cymbals with spider-webbed guitar. “Magnetosphere” glows with paler fire, an aurora borealis compressed to the size of a match head and lit by the mere act of gazing upon it. Echoes of the opening gongs return and pose us for the “Galactic Roll” that ends the album with Strønen’s own magnetosphere, sparked to life with a gallery of thoughts, each hooked by a god’s pinky and sworn to shine. Glittering and tumbling like a billiard ball dropping into a black hole, it sinks without sound.
In this flowing landscape there are distant footsteps. Plunging and resonant, they cry for sun, forever separated from the giants that produced them. There is in this atmosphere indeed a nourishment of which to be partaken, a diary to be coveted. Its clasp may be gold, its binding weathered, but its text is transparent and fresh.
(To hear samples of Mercurial Balm, click here.)