One of the many strands of the golden hair of art rock is rooted in John Coltrane’s epic India, where the mighty ‘Trane and Eric Dolphy so caught the attention of a young Roger McGuinn that the Byrd lifted the song’s theme whole, filtering it through his twelve-string Ric and overlaying it on his band’s psych pop masterpiece, Eight Miles High. It was a sincere embrace, in spirit, of modal jazz, and helped launch rock into territories beyond the blues, to points further east, to lands that Coltrane remapped as an astral plane. Four years later and three after Coltrane’s death, the Soft Machine’s album Third became the purest rock expression, from what remains art rock’s best “fusion” record, of what Coltrane had been searching for. Side-long pieces of heavy fuzz bass, driving organ, wailing horns, and Robert Wyatt’s inimitable drumming. This kind of music, like Coltrane’s, is hard, riffy, insistent, will not be denied.
And it’s little wonder that progressive bands with a harder edge often integrate jazz phrasing in their music, particularly in terms of unfathomably weird time signatures and a reliance on a degree of technical proficiency that can solo across maddeningly complex changes. What we don’t hear much is the actual sound of the kind of hard jazz Coltrane and his generation created, a focus on the free and open tunefulness, or dense walls of sound, that their modal searching could create. Disciplined, melodic, challenging, lovely. All of this Norwegian band Seven Impale offer on their new album, City of the Sun. It is a masterpiece debut, its complexity never out-shouting its tunefulness, its heaviness wound round a shimmering swing, and its vocal lines, from singer Stian Økland, beautifully integral to the songs, soaring but with a vulnerability heavily reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, at times even containing the kind of emotional anger/terror that Roger Waters brought to Pink Floyd. Coming on the heels of (fellow Norwegians) Gazpacho’s heavy, heavy Demon, City of the Sun charts a similarly individual terrain anchored by a strong singer who treats his vox like a stringed instrument, with gorgeous results. This is a leap forward from Seven Impale’s EP, where Økland tended more towards a Robert Plant wail that, while powerful (and quite wonderful in its own right), lacked the tonal subtleties he brings to City of the Sun.
And while Økland’s vocal delivers its organic and shivering moods, the band reels and dances in great rotational swirls, aligning before spinning off into distinct orbits. Økland’s and Erlend Vottvik Olsen’s thick guitars join Håkon Vinje’s growling organ — screaming like a malevolent Jon Lord one moment, a whorling Mike Ratledge the next — and Benjamin Mekki Widerøe’s wall of saxophones, to create a tumult as rapturous as the rhythmic foundation of Fredrik Mekki Widerøe’s drumming and Tormod Fosso’s bass. I’ve extolled the virtues of a good Ben Allison record in the pages of Progarchy before, and as a point of reference I would mention Allison again, in the sense that if what Allison has been doing lately is taking his version of jazz closer to rock, what I hear in City of the Sun is a band taking their unique vision of rock closer to jazz, finding the metal possibilities within. The comparisons to Soft Machine hold up, I think, although a parallel might also be early 70s German band Out of Focus, who saw in the free jazz maelstrom a beautiful design, which City of the Sun’s dynamics and melodies generously provide. Take for example the alternately gentle and keening Oh My Gravity!:
This fitting opener segue’s into the mellowing Wind Shears, a breather before the noodly, Zappa-esque Eschaton Horo. Extraction follows, unfolding like an existential Highway Star, full of dark female mystery and a weird groove that persists and tumbles and turns. God Left Us For a Black Dressed Woman continues the theme established in Extraction, and closes the album across fourteen minutes of terrain as intentional and intense, and catchy, as Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black. Økland’s dry vibrato wrings and works his words, and Jeff Buckley turns to Tim Buckley turns to Billie Holiday and back towards Zeppelin swagger. But far from imitative in its eclectic-ness, this music is instead far ranging, expressive, and whole.
I’m glad albums like City of the Sun are still possible, where you know that the artists have been to the well but that they’re also joyously creating their own thing, and making something real and new, something you want to hear more of.
Seven Impale generously answered some questions for us, about how this album and their music come together.
Progarchy: City of the Sun is an impressive full-length debut, following a fairly tremendous EP in Beginning/Relieve. It feels like a leap forward. How did you get from the EP to the LP, and what kind of progress has it been for the band?
Seven Impale: We feel that we’ve come far, both as musicians and composers, in the ~4 years we’ve been playing together. Even though it has only been a year since Beginning/Relieve was released, the material was made in the space between when the band was formed and when our current line-up had just been assembled. Wind shears, the second track on the album was actually composed around that time, but it’s been revisited and rearranged many times since then. The best thing is that we feel like the process has just started when we continue working together, making music that we enjoy, which challenges both the listener and us.
Progarchy: There is a lot going on in these songs. What’s your writing process like, and how would you describe the narrative of the album?
Seven Impale: It differs a bit between the songs, but generally we start off with some guitar riffs or a rhythmic idea, and we jam for a while. Each of us gets to know the new parts and start to find our places, while we figure out what kind of musical landscape we are aiming for. And the songs take their form, one way or anther, often over the course of a few months.
Progarchy: City of the Sun makes the connection between modal jazz and heavy rock seem effortless. The spirits of both inhabit this record seamlessly, as if John Coltrane and Deep Purple are smiling down benevolently. This is what I hear, and it’s wonderful, but was this your intention?
Seven Impale: We have always enjoyed a lot of different music, but I think the progress and musical direction of Seven Impale has been more based on randomness than intentions. It has been our intention from the very start to make complex and exciting music, but the sound we have today has more to do with the individual musicians and what they bring to the table. A lot of details on the album came about through experimenting and/or “mistakes” during the recording process.
Progarchy: How did the band come together, what are your backgrounds?
Seven Impale: Fredrik and Benjamin are brothers (that’s the obvious one), and have grown up in the same area as Håkon and Tormod. The four of them have worked a lot together in various projects for a long time. Fredrik got to know Stian and Erlend through mutual friends, many years before Seven Impale, and the rest of the story is mostly random and about being at the right place at the right time, with the right instrument.
Progarchy: Is there a story behind the band’s name?
Seven Impale: Stian found the name before the band even existed. It came about kind of randomly when he was thinking about what to call the next project, and thought it has a nice feel to it. Also the number seven is often associated with religion, and the word “impale” brings more of a dark or heavy feel. And we are all somewhat critical towards religion, so it fits quite nicely.
Progarchy: What music are you listening to?
Seven Impale: We listen to a lot of different things, and we agree on most things musically. Stian has a bit more of the opera/classical music side, he is currently studying to be a classical singer. We listen to alt./prog rock like Mars Volta, King Crimson, Zappa, Motorpsycho and Porcupine Tree as well as heavier stuff like Tool, Pantera and Meshuggah. And then there’s the weird avant-garde/jazzy side of it, with Jaga Jazzist, TrioVD, Shining(NO), WSP, Ephel Duath, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin. In between there is some hip-hop: Hopsin, Side Brok, Bustah Rhymes and then there’s the electronic music like Noisia, Justice, Aphex Twin, Todd Terje and Venetian Snares.
Progarchy: Do you see yourselves as a Norwegian band, that is, do you have a sense that geography makes a difference in your music?
Seven Impale: Not really. But being from Norway means that we’re probably more exposed to and inspired by Norwegian bands, adopting what has been known to be the “Scandinavian sound”. Otherwise I don’t think it is significant, but what do we know?
Progarchy: Is there a city of the sun?
Seven Impale: There is a fictional book about a “City of the Sun”, by a 17th century Italian philosopher. In reality, I don’t think it ever will be.
Progarchy: What’s next for Seven Impale?
Seven Impale: Get rich or die tryin’
Progarchy: Please don’t die. We like your records too much!