By Tim Owen
Another compelling slab of muscular post-prog/post-fusion psych-jazz-rock, and a good one. It looks like drummer Gard Nilssen might be Starlite Motel’s bandleader—he has the lion’s share of composition credits, anyway—but the strongest presence is probably the quartet’s only non-Norwegian member, multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer Jamie Saft, whose CV includes Plymouth, The New Standard, Slobber Pup, Spanish Donkey, and New Zion Trio, besides various John Zorn-related projects and many others over the years – it was Saft who oversaw the recording of Awosting Falls in a New York studio, in December 2014.
Of course, Nilsen also has pedigree too. Away from the Motel he partners bassist Rune Nergaard in Bushman’s Revenge and Astro Sonic, and he played in Puma, the shock-and-awe trio fronted by guitarist Stian Westerhus.
The Starlite Motel sound falls somewhere between Bushman’s Revenge and John Zorn’s Electric Masada, in which Saft also played. Saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, who plays alongside Nilssen in Cortex, injects a rich dash of Mats Gustafsson-style testosterone, and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who plays alongside Gustafsson in The Thing, completes a brawny lineup with a collective proclivity for psychedelic expansionism and surging rhythmic impetus.
It’s a buoyant, irrepressible album but there’s very little sprawl. Only one track out of seven spills much over seven minutes, and the whole thing is well paced, tempering overriding urgency with expansive freedoms in group interplay and plenty of textural variety.
With Saft on Hammond organ and Alberts full-throated at the off, lead cut “A Beautiful Nightmare” is roller-coaster free jazz in the spirit of Decoy-meets-Brötzmann (and why that summit hasn’t happened yet, God only knows). Saft plays a fine extended solo, then adds a dash of wildness when Alberts comes back in, wailing. The rhythm section is as solid as it is combustible.
On one of the album’s shorter cuts, “Starlite”, the thin, electronic sound of a combo organ (fleeting hints of Alice Coltrane’s influence) is matched with raw electrical glitchery, presumably ground out of distressed electric bass, and then gets properly skronky. Flaten’s effects-processed bass intro then gives “The Art of Silence” a similarly raw edge. On the body of the tune, the bass throbs menacingly in counterpoint to Nilssen’s ebullient and freewheeling percussion, while Alberts translates their urgency into anguished exultancy and Saft exploits the organ’s full panoply of shimmer and glow effects to give the music an extra dimension.
Nilssen’s “The Prince of the Face of the Bull” is a menacing stomper of bruising rhythmic insistency, laying down some ballast ahead of the avant-hymnal intensities of the twelve-minute mini epic “Suspended Veil”, which shades untamed free jazz—Alberts in stentorian form, invoking Brötzmann and Dewey Redman—into driving rhythm and surging organ sustains. Saft shows his sensitivities in the draw-down, and plays delicious unorthodoxies on the brief, bizarre “Minnewaska”.
They save the best, if slightly atypical cut for last. “A Thousand Thousandths” is a Nilssen/Flaten number, and the only one that features Saft on lap steel. He lays a slippery shimmer of harmonics and melody over gritty, funky bass and a true backbeat. While his bandmates get their groove on, Alberts picks up on melodic hints and extrapolates them into licks with twists of anguish and acidity.
Yes, there’s a lot of this sort of thing around at the moment, but while Starlite Motel play it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better. The balance of drive, lyricism and emotive expressivity, and the production’s reduction of such uninhibited and potent performances to pop song timespans (well, almost) all put Awosting Falls in the best in class category.