Hydrogen by BardSpecRelease date: June 23, 2017
Label: By Norse
The prospect of listening to an electronica album by the composer of some of the heaviest and far-reaching black metal and progressive extreme music around is intriguing. Ivar Bjørnson has played guitar and written the songs for Enslaved since the band’s inception in the early 90s, and of late he has cast his net much wider. With the release in 2014 of Skuggsjá, a collaboration with Einar Selvik of Wardruna that celebrated Norwegian history with a mixture of folk and Viking-inspired sounds, Bjørnson has shown himself not to be constrained by any musical tags.
Hydrogen, the debut album by Bjørnson’s new project, BardSpec, draws on the composer’s love of ambient electronic music. In the press release he describes a trance-like state induced by listening to Mosaic by Richard Burmer, and you can just tell he totally gets how ambient music can make the listener feel. The album is about stripping back to the barest of compositions, making it as uncomplicated as possible, focusing on base things for inspiration, as reflected in song titles such as ‘Bone’ and ‘Salt’, and it also uses found sounds and field recordings to create the music.
Intro ‘Deposition’ sets the tone, an hallucinatory two minutes of stripped back, swirling almost-techno that sets the bar very high indeed. First track proper, ‘Bone’, weaves a mystic acoustic guitar melody around a trancey beat and far-off sounds. I love the use of a guitar (a simple riff and run of notes) in this way, making it part of the electronic artist’s palette rather than placing the instrument at the front, under the limelight. Apart from the intro, all the tracks on Hydrogen are about 10 minutes long or more, and the repetition necessary to create such mesmerising music is done with a very skilful touch. The music absorbs you, lifts you up and carries you elsewhere, and when they set you back down to earth some tracks actually feel a little short. I could be lost in this stuff all day.
‘Fire Tongue’ moves the vibrancy up a notch, adding an otherworldly swirl along with an urgent, almost tribal rhythm. Here the field recordings creep in very subtly, with spoken voices just audible below the music. A standout track for me, the mystic feel of ‘Fire Tongue’ conjures up desert sands at night, a ride across the dunes on a magic carpet, bringing to mind the best trancey sounds of Underworld and more worldly beats of Astralasia and Suns of Arqa.
With a change of gear ‘Gamma’ lightens the touch with a much more chilled vibe, wispy musical strands rising up through the ether. There are faint voices and ambient field recordings. After the urgency of the two previous tracks the attention does drift slightly, although by and large 10 minutes passes very peacefully.
‘Salt’, the album closer if you don’t have the bonus track, has an ambient Biosphere-esque vibe that builds and develops into spacey dub groove not felt elsewhere. There are far-off guitar sounds and pulsing beats that add to the swirling mix. Bonus track ‘Teeth’ starts with a solemn guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a post-rock setting. The electronic sounds gradually come to the fore, adding hypnotic elements and developing into a more dancey, almost jungle beat that made me think of the vibe of Fluke’s Risotto.
I loved the atmosphere created by Hydrogen, which sits comfortably with the best work of the electronica heavyweights referenced above. The hooks of ‘Bone’ and ‘Fire Tongue’ will stay with me for a long time and it’s an all the more intriguing listen when you consider the album’s progenitor. From creating intelligent boundary-breaking metal to uplifting ambient electronica, I can’t wait to see what Ivar Bjørnson does next.