Nils Petter Molvær: Solid Ether (ECM 1722)

Solid Ether

Nils Petter Molvær
Solid Ether

Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, piccolo trumpet, synthesizer, electronics, bass, percussion, sound treatments
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Audun Erlien bass
DJ Strangefruit voices, beats, samples, ambience
Per Lindvall drums
Rune Arnesen drums
Sidsel Endresen vocals
Reidar Skår vocoder
Recording producer: Nils Petter Molvær
Recorded, edited and mixed 1999 at various floors in Oslo, Norway
Mastering: Shawn Joseph, Masterpiece London
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

ECM left an indelible mark in 1998 with the release of Khmer. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær’s leader debut spread a royal flush across the table when the music industry least suspected it. Solid Ether marks a return to that trending sonic universe, only now it turns away from the idiomatic sources of its predecessor and looks deeper into the mirror for inspiration. This time around, the layers are more archaeologically striated, servile to a beat-driven cartography. Melodically, the album is rawer, rudimentary, and finds its voice through the detailed care of the arrangements. “Dead Indeed” is but one rhythmically arresting example with an altogether sharper edge: a bolder, well-oiled machine. Molvær’s far-reaching introduction surveys a landscape with hand over eyes before diving into a serpentine Nile of its own making. The grinding drum ‘n’ bass vibe raises the dead with its veracity while singing calls harmonize like ancestors with the living: a mummy reanimated and bid to break-dance like it has never loosed a ribbon before. With a wry smile, it cocks its head and throws a handful of sand into those same eyes, that it might have a moment to fade and leave you wondering if it was all just a dream, a vision gone mad the moment you pressed PLAY. This opening track is also significant for being almost entirely played and programmed by Molvær himself, grafting only guitarist Eivind Aarset’s overdubs for effect.

“Vilderness 1” takes its name from Molvær’s daughter Vilde and boasts a cut-and-paste aesthetic of many masks. It is a porous, geometric picture, of which the throbbing bass is an alizarin crimson-loaded palette knife. “Vilderness 2” doesn’t continue where the first left off but dances through its forest once more, hopping from branch to branch like the lithe warriors of Ninja Scroll. After experiencing this slide of Rubik’s plane as if from the inside, the caress of “Kakonita” feels like a wholly different love. Floating primary-colored blocks of notecraft on a bed of infant foghorns, it reworks cinematic DNA into a golem’s playlist. Sidsel Endresen, with whom Molvær plays on the singer’s two ECM recordings, So I Write and Exile, lends her voice to two iterations of “Merciful.” Joined by Molvær on piano, she cuts moving pictures of intense observation, each a morsel of gesture in a world of stills. Her poetry peels alienation away like a sticker, filling in the remaining ghost as if it were a piece of candy in danger of melting.

“Ligotage” first appeared on a Khmer tie-in single and takes a more congealed form here. Its breathtaking scope and depth of language glistens with sun-kissed brilliance. Audun Erlien’s growling bass flushes the sewers of the mind with its grit, heightening the feeling of alarm until it leaps with the unbridled spirit of a dolphin against Ra’s unblinking eye. Drummers Per Lindvall and Rune Arnesen add similar comfort to the concoction of “Trip,” proving definitively that the feeling created by this hip collective sells the music by virtue of its structural integrity alone. From tripping to skipping, we come to “Tragamar.” Striding a fuzzy border between ballad and lament, it drowns in the title track and its biochemical integers. More live drumming adds punch and bites us in the ear with its head-nodding finality.

There is an indigeneity to Molvær’s art that is as far away from pretention as we are from knowing the truth about ourselves. The music is a stranger in its own land, a king without subjects, a dog without a leash. It has only us to turn to.

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