- Magical Content
Back when I was a young and impressionable scamp with a crappy drum kit and too much free time, I used to play Cream and Black Sabbath covers with a kid who desperately wanted to be the second coming of Eric Clapton, complete with a mop of unkempt brown hair and sickly green corduroy pants. The reason was obvious: his father, who weaned him on British rock from the time he could talk, also wanted to be the second coming of Clapton. My buddy’s old man was particularly proud of an impressive collection of live recordings, so I was able to hear myriad renditions of famous tunes across different eras.
Nearly all of the live recordings had something in common: they featured extended solos as part of a jam session that easily doubled the length of each song before ending in one final, bombastic finish. My friend loved this live “classic rock” formula, but I usually found myself preferring the original recording for not belaboring the musical point. Or maybe I wasn’t inebriated enough to enjoy that chorus for the thirtieth time.
Riset Bak Speilet, the second album from Norweigan group Tusmørke, is strong and creative in many ways. It combines a unique style with vintage instrumentation and production, a toothsome treat for any progressive music fan. If the album has an obvious flaw, though, it’s the bland rehashing of a few musical ideas — or the lack of a few more original ideas to explore. I’m reminded of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, where Bilbo tells Gandalf, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I feel that this is an EP that got spread out into a full length album, and it unfortunately diminishes the efforts of an immensely gifted band.
The album opens with Offerpresten, and the magical duo of keyboards and flute sweep you up immediately. Within 30 seconds, however, the song bogs down with an uninteresting verse led by a vocal melody that isn’t at all compelling. It repeats for entirely too long before giving way to a glorious chorus – the layers of sounds, punctuated by woodwind and brass and textured with flute flourishes, are truly spectacular, and this time the vocals fit perfectly and beg me to sing along in my half-assed pronunciation of the Norweigian lyrics. A jazzy little transition at the end of the chorus leads to… more verse.
I should mention that this first track is eight minutes long, and the chorus is easily its best part. This song, like several others on the album, devolves into repetitions of its best material in a kind of extended jam session, with nice little modifications and additions to add variety. Again, this isn’t always a bad thing, as most music is made up of modulations on a theme — and the keyboard solo at about the 5:30 mark is excellent. I enjoyed the journey to the end of the track, but I also felt that there was unexplored material here.
Gamle Aker Kirke is soft and mellow and packed with more magic than unicorn shit. This band conjures up this musical feel on command, and the result is quite pretty. Verses and choruses have played through and the enchanting spoken word section has ended at 5:35, but an increasing tempo section with flute, chanting and (amazing) vibes drags out for two and a half minutes more. Admittedly, this song isn’t particularly stretched in its composition, but you’ll have to excuse me while I set up my thesis.
Black Swift is the song Quentin Tarentino will wish he had heard before he chooses an inferior specimen for his foray into Spaghetti Westerns. Whatever keyboard or Theremin used here is simply brilliant, and plays well against the arpeggios being stuck by the guitar. The motifs are entertaining, and the middle instrumental sections are a nice reprieve, but it’s not enough to dampen the blow of hearing minor variations of the “Black Swift” melody repeat ad nauseam for the last three minutes of the track.
It’s early in my listening cycle, but in my opinion All Is Lost is the weakest song Tusmørke has ever recorded. Give it a try and judge for yourself, or skip to…
Riset Bak Speilet. It’s the best track on the album, and my personal leader for the best piece of music this band has recorded in their young career. This is textbook composition without sacrificing an ounce of creativity, where major themes are addressed, revisited, and given variety throughout. The vocal sections are distinct, always fit nicely with the rest of the music and maximize the range and ability of the singer.
Does that mean this 14 minutes song is bereft of its own vain repetitions and chanting sections? Of course not! And that’s not necessarily what I asked for — I asked for the songs here to feel like a robust collection of musical ideas that had been given the proper treatment and space. I asked for brilliant snippets like the upbeat interplay between flute and organ around the 7:00 mark, not long compositions without defining moments. I asked for more butter on my bread. In truth, I’m projecting what I want to hear from this particular band, not because they should give a damn what I think, but because they’re talented enough to be a truly memorable outfit for years to come and they haven’t yet reached that potential.
Our friends at Progarchives rate Riset Bak Speilet higher than the group’s debut, but I respectfully disagree. When you choose to write an album with five long tracks, listeners expect a wealth of ideas and variety within a few big concepts — the title track is steeped with elements that fit this requirement, two others do a fair-to-good job, and two others fall short. Underjordisk Tusmørke certainly isn’t as mature of a composition or performance, but both of its chambers were stuffed with musical bullets that were unloaded with reckless abandon. It was refreshing and satisfying. I like Riset Bak Speilet, and its polished offering of vintage sounds and an epic track will keep it in my listening rotation… but I can’t help but think that I should be loving it.