- Haunting Soundscapes
Any of us who have been tracing the movements of Roth-Handle Studios Youtube, yes, that wonderful palace of vintage analog gear and strange instruments, is well aware of the many workings of Mattias Olsson (ex-Anglagard), including his work with the acclaimed Swedish composer Matti Bye. Known as one of the most important film composers in Sweden (be sure to check out his brilliant work on the 2013 film Faro), Matti Bye’s work with Mattias includes Elephant & Castle, the album which introduced me to the haunting ability that this collaborative team has for seamlessly blending the decrepit sounds of old-school style film with modern elements; it’s no wonder that Matti Bye’s ensemble keeps getting invited back to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (check out last year’s brilliant performance). With Walrus, Matti Bye (Hammond and Farfisa organs, Wurlitzer piano and Mellotron) and Mattias Olsson (drums and electronic fx) team up with some exceptional talent in the form of Kristian Holmgren (electric and fuzz bass), Henrik Olsson (drums/percussion) and Leo Svensson (cello and Minimoog) to create a thrilling album that exhibits the tendencies of the afore mentioned masterminds and rolls it out into a very modern form of psychedelic rock, what the band itself terms ‘Polar Kraut.’
Walrus kicks it off with “Tromso III,” a rocking, upbeat track that falls somewhere between old school psychedelic and modern post-rock and indie tendencies as it pounds out minute after minute of droning rhythms and constantly modulating in textures. This track is really a perfect introduction to Holmgren’s bass contributions which remain consistently fitting throughout the album as he pounds out lots of low end in hypnotic, trance-like fashion (and no, this isn’t a reference to trance music). Next up is “Signals,” a song played in a slow 3 pattern that delivers fantastic emotions by way of Matti’s organ and a variety of atmospheric sounds; I wouldn’t be surprised if they got out the wine glasses, bow and saw, and other bits of weird things to create this kind of beautiful atmosphere. The texturing and building on this piece is quiet lovely and is exactly the sort of thing that I expect from Matti Bye’s composition: minimalist, uncanny, emotional, and evocative. His organ sounds absolutely perfect in his ability to modify the tone and kick in the fast rotor on the Leslie in just the perfect ways to produce dramatic effects of wideness (there’s this great section around 6:40 where it feels like surround organ!). Throw in some great intensity provided by the percussion and electronics in the second half as it picks up the pace before returning to a ghostly finale and we’ve got a fantastic piece of music.
…Which leads me to “Spitsbergen,” what I consider the finest track on Walrus’ debut album. You know it’s personal when you are brought back to your childhood memories of videogame soundtracks, but honestly, there’s something that really drew me in with that slow moving bass-line and high vocal-like effect. You also gotta love that incredible fuzz bass that pops up about four minutes in. The bottom line is, there’s something in this piece that really reveals to me that Roth Handle Studio and Mattias Olsson had a hand in this album.; you can sort of feel it in the production, little nuances, the way in which Mellotron is employed (especially towards the end), and of course, the creative drumming and well used percussion. In fact, the two-headed drum monster of Mattias and Henrik Olsson serves this one up perfectly with a strong sense of precision and ridiculously tasteful beats and phrasing that maintains a level of simplicity while still being compellingly gripping and creative. To close off the album, Walrus leaves us with “Static,” a wonderful short piece that reminded me a bit of the work Nicklas Barker did for the Spanish film El ultimo fin de semana. Consisting of a slow moving bass-line, gorgeous drumming, and a melancholy mood which is augmented by decrepit solo strings and piano, “Static” proves to be a fantastic way to wrap up a solid album that should catch most prog fan’s attention.
If you’ve heard Walrus and weren’t digging it, you really need to give it a second chance. I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t get into it immediately, but once I did I was really sucked into this mesmerizing mesh of kraut, prog, and film sensibilities. While the roots of this music are solidly in the past, there’s something ultra fresh about this band and how they decide to take the music toward the future. Walrus simply has a crazy knack for subtle shifts in tone, texture, and mood, along with an innate ability for building and destroying tension in mesmerizing ways. Striking a brilliant balance between deliberate and free-form, between simple and complex, this ensemble truly proves that prog can be captivating without having to take you to the outer limits of the universe.