Stein Urheim is a guitarist and virtuoso musician who crafts moving, mostly instrumental music with an expressive, condensed narrative style on his third record for Hubro. Strandebarm refers to a former municipality of Norway located in the Hordaland county at Norway’s southwest end. Multi-instrumentalist Stein Urheim recorded it in the Strandebarm Church, which is now in the town of Bru, but used to be Strandebarm’s main church until the municipality was dissolved in 1965. A major industry in the area was shipmaking, which may explain the art (Hubro releases always have great art). This record captures a state of mind, a sense of harmony with nature, a portrait of an isolated place, familiar in some ways but utterly alien too. I can’t overstate how pretty these songs are.
Strandebarm is a vacation, a journey by an expert guide, past trees and mountains in faraway Norway countryside, a geography of strings, winds, blues, greens, chimes, corny rhymes, a fretless bouzouki, a Turkish tanbur, mandolins, and wounded tape loops. Stein Urheim’s breadth and skill in composition makes it easy to send his songs down psychedelic tunnels, split them up with jazzy solos, or dance gracefully with dense and exotic arrangements, such as the title track, which is broken up between an introductory passage of stirring ambience and an intimately complex piece for acoustic guitar. The album, sometimes rendered in postmodern colors with synthesizers from Jørgen Træe and sudden, multi-tracked vocals, is an exhilarating tour from start to finish.
Stein sometimes ambles into tranquil acoustic places and buries them in tape loop noise, or sometimes composes a gentle, coordinated blues piece on guitar that dies in a whimsical carnival fire. Songs begin organically, patiently, then twist inside out and back again — major keys go minor, organic goes electronic, the strings go away in the synth snow but come back when the snow melts to sing in the sun. “Fjellbekk” opens as a cathartic choir of mandolins, which is slowly accompanied by a shattered wave of MP3-compression-artifact noise and collapses to a demure blues piece, eventually transforming into a collage of field-recorded rings and buzzing things. Somehow it all makes sense from one form to the next. Or, better yet, as an escape from sense.
Strandebarm breathes and walks and eventually becomes. Autumn turns to Winter, turns to Spring, etc. An immaculate figure traverses, seeking. “Water” flows in a peaceful, blissful churn, hypnotic acoustic guitar flickers and knocks, knocks brown like bark. We splash, experience a “flashback.” We remember before, the water again, what is the water? H2O. We need it. Everyone drinks it. Who? The people, and they all fit together. We all get lost in the current. We ride in the water. I look up. Dragons over the old airport. We’re in Berlin. I have no idea how I got here, but thanks.