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Simon Steensland - 2009 - "Fat Again"

(58:41, AltrOck Records)


******
                 
TRACK LIST:                   

1.  Der Klang Von Musik 16:13
2.  Lost in the Ark 2:00 
3.  Merde 0:25 
4.  Memories of Jan Josta 2:27 
5.  Loch Ness 2:20 
6.  Hide & Seek 8:26 
7.  Fral Oss Ifran Ondo 2:05 
8.  The Queen of Sweden 1:52 
9.  Petite Merde 0:26 
10. The Lion Tamer 20:23

LINEUP:

Simon Steensland  bass, cello, guitar; keyboards; vocals
Arvid Pettersson  el. piano; accordion 
Robert Elovsson  keyboards; clarinet
Einar Baldurrson  guitars  
Morgan Agren  drums
With: 
Several female vocalists

Prolusion. Swedish composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon STEENSLAND, nicknamed The Zombie Hunter (from the title of his second album, released in 1995) has been active since 1993. Fat Again is his fifth studio album, featuring (like the previous ones) drummer and Zappa alumnus Morgan Agren of Mats/Morgan Band. Steensland has also released a live album, Live Gang-Gang (2004), and contributed one track, Malaria, to the Magma tribute album Hommage a la Musique de Christian Vander (2009).

Analysis. With over 15 years of activity under his belt, Simon Steensland is certainly no newcomer to the RIO/Avant rock scene. However, it is with this album, and the support of the young but already influential Italian label AltrOck Records, that Steensland seems to have finally got under the radar of more people than just a restricted group of fans of the genre. Fat Again, with a cover depicting a grotesque, ape-like creature, is indeed an excellent way for listeners to get acquainted with Steenslands intriguing musical world. A multi-instrumentalist of remarkable skill, unlike many of his colleagues who choose to go totally solo, he capitalizes on the presence of a group of reliable, equally skilled collaborators notably drummer extraordinaire Morgan Agren, possibly the real star of the album. Another element of interest is the presence of vocals, which often RIO/Avant bands skip altogether: here they are entrusted to a veritable choir of female voices, reinforcing the academic chamber music parallels so often drawn when discussing this particular genre. Steensland himself acts as a mini-orchestra, handling some of the instruments that form the foundation of his sound namely bass, cello and keyboards. The result is music that is richly textured, at times dissonant, (though never in such a way as to render it unpalatable), often grandiose and majestic with surprise pauses of haunting eeriness, dark and light in equal parts. The heaviness of the guitar riffs is tempered by the ethereal quality of the vocals, and the occasional darkness of the mood gets a boost from the Magma-like bombast of those parts in which the instruments work together towards a crescendo. Fat Again is bookended by two epic tracks over 15 minutes in length, while the central section of the album is made up of very short pieces, with the sole exception of the 8-minute-plus Hide & Seek. Because of this distinctive structure, the running time of the disc, in itself not excessive (under one hour), is nicely balanced, avoiding the onset of that weariness that is almost inevitable with albums of this kind when things get overdone. While Univers Zero is the most obvious reference, it would be extremely unfair to suggest that Steenslands music is in any way derivative. Opener Der Klang Von Musik sets immediately the tone for the rest of the album, with its deceptively melodic, acoustic beginning which soon develops into a wild ride of head-spinning complexity and intensity. The fluid, jazz-rock-meets-Zeuhl of the first half, bolstered by some spectacular drum work and rumbling organ, gradually goes into haunting, slow-mo mode, then picks up again in a crescendo of mounting tension held together by stellar bass and drum work. This is one textbook example of when the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach actually works, instead of resulting in a half-baked mess though the track is by no mean an easy listen. Album closer The Lion Tamer, on the other hand, is a decidedly more organic effort, generally somber in mood though occasionally bordering on the bombastic (much in the vein of Univers Zero), built around Steenslands splendid, meaty bass work and Agrens solemn, march-like drumming. The eerie, mournful mood of some sections, underpinned by droning cello and echoing guitar, made me think of Anekdoten, another Swedish outfit with frequent avant-garde leanings. The albums other longer composition, the already mention Hide and Seek, would be an ideal candidate for a horror movie soundtrack the combination of multi-layered, oddball female chanting, solemn drum rolls and sudden spurts of accordion, piano and cello makes for a somewhat disquieting listening experience. The two tracks that precede it, Memories of Jan Josta and Loch Ness, share the same haunting, ominous quality. On the other hand, the vocals on some of the shorter tracks often come across as soothing, almost ethereal, occasionally reminiscent of The Northettes of Canterbury fame. Interestingly, the lyrics beautifully sung by this impressive array of female voices on Lost in the Ark are none other than a list of scientific names of animals hence the title. On the whole, Fat Again is a more than worthwhile effort, and another prestigious addition to AltrOck Records ever-growing reputation as a purveyor of challenging contemporary progressive music.

Conclusion. Highly recommended to fans of intense chamber-prog outfits such as Univers Zero and Thinking Plague, Fat Again will also turn out to be a very enjoyable listen for all lovers of genuinely progressive rock - though those looking for gently flowing melodies and catchy hooks should definitely look elsewhere. This is an album that, while not as harsh or overly taxing as other RIO/Avant efforts, demands the listeners full attention in order to be appreciated in the way it deserves.

RB=Raffaella Berry: October 13, 2009
The Rating Room


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