There is a carefully-crafted aura around Supersilent, more so than around any other band I can recall. That aura comes from the much-repeated fact that they improvise all their music, never rehearsing or discussing it in advance, a fact so often repeated that one must question both its current validity and – more importantly – its relevance. These days, who cares about the means of production if the end product delivers? True, based on the evidence of live performances, Supersilent seem incredibly in touch with each other’s instincts, able to react rapidly and appropriately with a high success rate. Nonetheless, one of the most telling facts about this new studio album is that its 68 minutes were selected from over five hours of recorded material. Overdubs may not have been used but, for improvisers, editing by omission is an important tool in perpetuating the impression of telepathy.
Even more, that aura comes from the uniformly inscrutable album graphics created by Kim Hiorthøy, from the albums’ lack of information, personnel or track titles beyond the simplest numerical designations. All of this may originally have been nobly intended, to emphasize the primacy of the collective over the individual players and to focus attention on the music rather than on such distractions as artwork, sleeve notes or titles. In addition, it now mainly focuses attention on the fact that this is a band with a history and should be heard as such. The message is clear: this is not just an album; it is part of an ongoing body of work.
At once both forbidding but also enticing, that aura now makes it almost impossible to hear Supersilent’s music afresh rather than in relation to their history. When Supersilent 7 - a concert DVD not a CD - was released two years ago, it was rumored to be their last, an end to the series. So, to see Supersilent 8 continue the sequence in every respect is a slight surprise.
Nonetheless, with their last CD release now five years in the past, this is effectively a new start. The music displays clear influences from (not in order of priority – and not an exhaustive list) ambient, electronic, fusion, improv, jazz, modern composition and rock. These elements are not necessarily cross fertilized into a unique hybrid but are often juxtaposed in ways that create a similar effect.
So, “8.1” opens with bass pulses and synth drones, slowly evolving into a sustained rhythmic riff, both brooding and menacing, that lumbers on despite drummer Jarle Vespestad’s attempt to subvert its rhythm. “8.3” is a complex polyrhythmic piece, as each player plows his own rhythmic furrow, irrespective of the others, the whole being underpinned and driven along by Vespestad. It culminates with a Ståle Storløkken keyboard sound, of which Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge would have been proud. “8.4” is notable for Arve Henriksen’s mournful Miles-esque trumpet over a subdued ambient background.
“8.5” opens with Henriksen in very different voice; his incomprehensible robotic vocals create a detached, alienated mood. Oddly, this morphs into a conventional melodic piece, driven by Deathprod’s guitar, which one would swear was pre-composed if not told otherwise: compelling evidence for the existence of the psi phenomenon in improvising. In stark contrast, “8.6” is almost straight out of the John Stevens improv handbook, having many of the hallmarks of a “click piece” – rapid-fire responses between the players, each of very short duration, as if each player must pass the parcel before it explodes in his face. “8.7” is a collective freak-out, attention grabbing and exhilarating. Last autumn, at the London Jazz Festival, the foursome moved the internal organs of their audience with an energy-charged performance that owed more to rock values than to any jazz or improvised music. This track recalled the feeling in the pit of my stomach that night.
If this catalog of styles and influences suggests a smorgasbord approach to the music, the end result belies this. It has a sense of consistency and unity that is difficult to pin down, being based on nothing but the decade that the four members have played together and the knowledge they have acquired of each other. Yes, that history is important, but the break in the sequence that Supersilent 7 provided means that one can comfortably start here, without succumbing to the psychological pressure to know Supersilent 1 to 7.