Experimental jazz group Supersilent are positively reliant on their own inherent jarring disparities; the assembled members all tugging in sonically different directions whilst simultaneously maintaining a startling collective knowledge of how to make the entirety work – and it is from this melting pot of conflict and cohesion that their impressive cross-genre sound is born. When I saw the group live their group-mind seemed a remarkable thing: all of Supersilent’s music is improvised, and they never practice or discuss their work outside of studio sessions or live shows, and as the four members faced inwards in a square to stress the intense creation of a fragile musical balance, it was clear that theirs was a combination of at times very different components that slotted together to form an extremely organic whole. Which is why the loss of drummer Jarle Vespestad, with the quartet since the start all of twelve years ago, seems a particularly harsh blow. To be fair to Supersilent, they have avoided giving listeners the chance to assess the extent of the damage caused by Vespestad’s exit in a very appropriate fashion: rather than recycle their ‘traditional’ format, the three remaining members have instead released recordings of sessions played entirely on Hammond organ. Yes, that means innovative keyboardist Ståle Storløkken on Hammond organ, virtuoso trumpeter Arve Henriksen on Hammond organ, and arch-purveyor of unsettling electronics Helge Sten on… Hammond organ. Just Hammond organ. What this curveball cleverly demands, given the recent departure, is to be assessed in its own right, rather than in comparison to their previous output. After-all, you can hardly attempt to gauge the loss of the drums when the band have, on this recording, also lost everything else. Apart, of course, from Hammond organs. This also means, however, that this record’s self-imposed limitations prevent it from standing alongside the band’s previous highlights: it is too restrictive, and largely devoid of the ability to truly surprise – but 9 remains a very interesting, impressive and intriguing work that has been released in timely fashion for Halloween: 9 is Supersilent’s kitsch Gothic horror soundtrack.
All of Supersilent’s releases are designated by single digits – 1 through 9 – the songs likewise labelled, and 9 offers four compositions that turn the screw on the band’s trademark eeriness to create a sinister industrial soundscape of clangs and shrill whistles, the overall effect somewhat akin to wandering through a darkened but functioning factory after nightfall. Sometimes you even forget the record is playing at all, and put the metallic judders down to geriatric piping. The limited instrumentation means that the build-up and increasing intrusion of varied elements that characterise their previous work with trademark instruments in tow is here exchanged for a kind of jittery ambient experience. In this Helge Sten’s influence seems particularly apparent – his solo output under the Deathprod moniker specialises in a supremely unsettling dark-ambient crawl, but the choice of instrumentation here means that the crescendos on 9 achieve a rather less frightening atmosphere: it’s more velvet-clad-toothy-figure-backlit-by-lightning-in-a-crumbling-archway stuff.
The thing about Supersilent is that they will always be worth listening to. The sounds and combinations they manage to squeeze from their chosen toy are incredible – anything from fog-horn bursts to watery cave-echoes – but the most breathtaking thing about, say, 6, probably their most successful release, is the way in which extremely challenging experimentation and a broad palette of sonic wares resulted in killer songs. Songs satisfying and catchy that not only, to use a belittling cliché that dogs improvisation, were equal to pre-written material, but positively surpassed it thanks to a powerful and organic life. 9, on the other hand, is consistently elusive, devoid of structure or hooks. We’re (usually) not talking discord here, the meshing sounds interact pleasingly in the moment, but it is eternally fleeting, art-installation stuff. But then this can hardly be called a step back for the band – who could expect results akin to their best bits when their tools are so different. 9 is rather still a testament to Supersilent’s incredible skill, imagination and cohesion. Presumably out of their comfort zone, this album still sounds entirely like Supersilent, and for all its limitations it never feels like it’s crying out for them to chuck in some trumpet or drums – you feel as if they have achieved what they set out to achieve (something even more remarkable given that they presumably didn’t set out to achieve anything: even the choice of instrument must have been a spur-of-the-moment thing). Given the restrictions 9 is a striking accomplishment, and for all its evasiveness it is one to which you will want to return to again, even if you will never truly inhabit it, and one you should definitely grab as your anti-social Halloween party soundtrack.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009