For the past 12 years, Norway’s Supersilent have been the reliable stalwarts of a particular style of indeterminate, electronics-heavy free improv that the group itself pioneered. As the flagship act of the Rune Grammofon label, a new Supersilent album has been released every few years since 1997, each named in numerical order, each with uniformly minimal sleeves. Judging by the cover alone, 9 is certainly no exception. The same white Helvetica on a solid modernist block of color. Only the color changes with each album; this time it’s a pleasant cerulean. This outward uniformity belies a sea change for the group, however. A foursome since their inception, Supersilent is now a trio, following the recent departure of drummer Jarle Vespestad.
Listening to these four lengthy tracks, it’s tempting to attribute the album’s somber, tentative mood with the unexpected departure of Vespestad. Instead of simply reforming as a rhythm-less trio of trumpet, synths, and electronics, the remaining three have disposed of their usual instruments and taken up the Hammond B3 electric organ. This new configuration — three players, three organs — lends the album a monochromatic palette that stands in stark contrast to earlier outings, which had bursts of romantic horn playing or syncopated percussion to create dynamic patches amid droning expanses. While this provides a somewhat narcotic and funereal tone at times, the way in which the group experiments with the variable modes, tonalities, and textures of the organ is more than enough to keep the album dynamic and interesting for its entire length. The unique qualities of the Hammond itself are exploited here: its tendency to drift slightly out of tune, its affinity for the deeply psychedelic vibrato and tremolo effects usually produced with an accompanying Leslie speaker cabinet.
The synergistic improvisatory interplay of Helge Sten, Arve Henriksen, and Ståle Storløkken takes advantage of the full frequency range of the instrument. Although it’s impossible to sort out who plays what, the group clearly takes pains not to drown each other out; if one player is improvising in the midrange, the other players stay in the bass and treble range. Much of this is no doubt due to the mixing and production of Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod, who has a gift for balancing nebulous indeterminacy with precision and clarity. Most of the playing is sparse: slowly churning beds of textural drone or simple, repeating chord progressions. In passages where a kind of crescendo is reached, the group manages to create tension without playing fast or increasing the volume. Instead, the drama occurs when the ghostly, vaporous sounds either swell and dovetail in a particularly beautiful and complex harmony or clash in a swarm of dissonance. Although the organs have likely been treated with additional effects beyond those available in the original Hammond/Leslie configuration, they retain an organic, analog feel that never breaks the spell, and the album maintains an intriguingly vintage atmosphere, as if it were some lost relic of first-wave kosmische music.
Indeed, at times this doesn’t sound like Supersilent at all, but instead drifts through a constellation of musical references from the 1960s and early 70s: Delia Derbyshire, Popol Vuh, and Gene Moore’s incidental music for Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. By coincidence or design, the “outmoded” nature of the instrumentation, as well as the prevailing retrofuturist trappings reminiscent of vintage TV soundtracks and low-rent horror films, brings Supersilent in line with the contemporary fascination with the Derridean “hauntological” current in music. Labels such as the UK’s Ghost Box and Trunk Records have been mining this territory for years, exhuming and recontextualizing the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and other library musicians, combining it with a fetishist’s predilection for analog synths, psychedelia, and the naïve scientific futurism of generations past. This is the same general obsessive landscape that haunts the work of Boards of Canada and, to some extent, the work of artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never. Supersilent are uninterested in being as explicit with their nostalgia as most of these artists, and their improvising never directly references specific cultural moments, but their vagueness and indeterminacy achieves a deeper level of resonance with hauntology: by pitching themselves at the border between being and non-being, by creating something novel out of outmoded machinery, they evoke a haunted history of lost causes that beckons towards the future.