I have only recently become acquainted with the music of Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus. What I’d missed in 2012 was the release of two rather special albums: the exquisite and mysterious Didymoi Dreams (with vocal improviser Sidsel Endresen) in June, and then in August his third solo effort, The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers. With the aid of various effects Westerhus turns familiar guitar sounds into far more abstract creatures, enabling him to produce a rather mind-boggling array of sonics while keeping hold of the improvisational freedom afforded by the instrument. In Didymoi Dreams this is used to great effect in close conjunction with Endresen’s stuttered, desperate vocals (if you haven’t heard it I strongly recommend giving it a listen), but the brilliance of this record should not overshadow that of The Matriarch, an album that reaches similar levels of poignance even without the human immediacy that a vocal component provides.
The album was recorded in the Tomba Emaneulle in Oslo, a mausoleum designed by Norwegian artist Emanuel Vigeland with acoustics so powerful that it forces visitors to speak at a whisper. Inside this vast resonant space sits Westerhus’ guitar, sounding often like synths or percussion or violins or even at one point a trumpet; sounding like just about anything other than a guitar, actually, save for a few maudlin minutes at the end. Though there is one tonal feature of the instrument which is felt throughout. Imagine a picked high note screeching from an amp, drive way up, held at a tremolo until it fades. The urgency of this sound, particular to the electric guitar, is one which somehow pervades The Matriarch even when the instrument is barely recognisable, and why despite its fair share of hollow, spacey moments you could never accuse it of being drone music. It’s an album that wants you on the edge of your seat, not lying on your bed. Its vision is dramatic, never hypnotic.
Over its relatively short playing time (40 minutes) The Matriarch unfurls continuously and with delicious volatility. By the end of the second track you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got it figured, convinced by the measured construction of the pieces that you were listening to a regular modern classical affair, likely to proceed along an elegant but essentially predictable trajectory. But then Silver Sparkle Attraction happens, the chopped and echoed rasping interspersed with moments of near silence and sudden discordant swoops, shattering expectations and steering the whole thing down a darker, more imposing course. After this it is pretty much a case of just letting it fling you where it wills. There are guttural low-frequency outbursts reminiscent of Mika Vainio’s harsh electronics, drawn-out improv squealings, distorted noise blasts, feedback crescendos, and even some more musically orthodox moments towards the end, encased in the tomb’s immense reverberation.
The Matriarch reminds us that the creative restrictions governing one person with one instrument are largely illusory. In fact it is precisely these restrictions which allow a musician to push the form of their composition without threatening the integrity of their sound. This is the hinge that The Matriarch turns on, and Westerhus exploits it to the full.
- The Matriarch
- Silver Sparkle Attraction
- Like Passing Rain Through 9 Lives
- Unchained Sanity On Broken Ground
- Forever Walking Forests
- Kept On Shoulders
- Guiding The Pain
- The Wrong Kind Of Flowers
EDIT: this post was changed on 5 January 2014. I originally stated that The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers was Stian Westerhus’ debut solo album, when it is in fact his third. Thanks to the commenter who pointed this out.