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Spunk - Den Øverste Toppen På En Blåmalt Flaggstang

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Artist: Spunk

Album: Den Øverste Toppen På En Blåmalt Flaggstang

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: Jun. 11, 2002

Improvised music rests in a peculiar space with regards to music criticism. On the one hand it’s very easy to dismiss or criticize because of its sometimes “anyone can do this” type of sound. But on the other hand, it often opens itself up for more praise than is really necessary due to the sheer oddity of the sounds and textures created. Thankfully there are bands like Spunk, whose recorded output makes my job as easy as it can be with regards to such heady and intense pieces of performance. Marking yet another solid, intriguing, and wholly worthwhile release from Norway’s Rune Grammofon records, this female quartet’s second proper full-length (not counting last year’s excellent collection of remixes Filtered Through Friends) den overste toppen pa en blamalt flaggstang mines similar territory that their first record did. While for some artists this would mean little more than stylistic stagnation, Spunk has worked themselves into a niche that would take a few more albums to properly explore. Combining improv, abstract electronics, chamber music, a dash of jazz, and enough punk aesthetics to go around, the twelve tracks on this disc spend nearly an hour confusing, confounding, and in the end, uplifting you in ways that are almost unimaginable.

The album itself seems almost like a neat balance between explorations of the peculiarities acoustic instruments can engage in, and the full-on sounds of Powerbooks that have come completely uncorked. While “Kamelmusikk” begins things on an uneasy and almost pensive note with the sounds of woodwinds, electronics, samples, and cello, “Flagre” is distinctly more chaotic. Maja Solveig Kjelstrup’s voice in the obvious center of this piece, rising in and out of a slow warble, resembling Dadaist poetry more than any other type of lyrical expression. With her voice careening all over the mix, the remaining players weave a sonic maelstrom of electronics, grating strings, and even rumbling brass to a piece that sets a confusing and odd mood, one that still manages to be engrossing nonetheless. “Moff” ditches the electronics altogether, this time focusing on the sheer number of odd sounds that basic acoustic instruments can make. These are once again juxtaposed with Maja’s esoteric vocals, this time sounding more like an amped up Daffy Duck with Tourette’s than anything else. As strange as it all may be, the track still retains a certain level of whimsy, fueled undoubtedly by the subtle phrasings of the Kristin Andersen’s trumpet and Hild Sofie Tafjord’s French horn, with Lene Grenager’s cello forming a steady and at times almost rhythmic counterpoint on which the remaining trio improvise. Of course, this is all before the track gloriously devolves into sheets of improvised noise, until gradually shifting the method of attack towards an emphasis on the spaces in between the swirls of noise created throughout. “Epleslang” begins with slowly undulating ambient electronics before giving way to more ominous clicking samples and nigh-on-melodic woodwind and cello phrases. “Wilderbeast” sounds just like the title, which in itself is an approximation (in English, anyway) of an animal’s name or maybe a comparative form of depravity used to describe an actual creature. Regardless of how you choose to view the title, this tune relies on slowly building instruments and improvisations to back Maja’s half-sung, half –spoken vocal insanity. “Sing-A-Long” is another mostly acoustic song, this time sounding almost like a jazz standard. Lene’s cello supplies a drunken walking bassline, while Maja snaps her fingers to complement Kristin’s almost sultry vocals. Indeed, this is the closest the quartet ever comes to a standard song, and after nearly a whole album’s worth of crazed electronics and improv, it sounds just as jarring as anything else on the disc. “Strom” is perhaps my favorite piece on this disc, eschewing much of what has come before in favor of hushed ambience, allowing hints of the noise and clatter of previous tracks to peek out from behind the gurgles of electronics as they slowly but surely build in intensity. With Kristin’s urgent and almost frightening trumpet lines, and Maja’s processed voice both fighting for space, this is one of the albums brightest highlights.

Despite the fact that this is a difficult record, it is a joyful celebration at the same time. It is the sound of four people pushing the boundaries of recorded music, having a grand old time in the process of making sounds that honestly have to be heard to be fully believed (albeit, understanding will only come here after many repeated listens). The best part of this record is that, while being more easily digestible than their first full-length, it still revels in many of the same curious noises that made that record such a joy to behold. Like some of the best albums I have heard, this is one that also doesn’t come close to revealing itself after a casual listen. Rather, it takes multiple close listenings to even begin to understand just what these ladies are going on about. If you want something quick and easy to listen to on your commute, then leave this one on the shelf. But if you’re looking for careful, yet easygoing music that will run a fine-tooth comb over your brain give Spunk a try.

By Michael Crumsho

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