Since 2010, Norwegian guitarist Hedwig Mollestad has been turning heads worldwide with her incandescent fusion of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz. The six albums by her eponymous trio (currently with Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Joe Bjørnstad on drums) recall Motörhead as readily as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin — crushing, distorted power chords tangled up with jagged shards of melody, furiously lurching ahead without regard for purist sensibilities of any stripe. Based on work commissioned by Norway’s Arts Council for the 2019 Vossajazz Festival, Mollestad’s latest album Ekhidna breaks fresh, fertile ground, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. It’s a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste; this is masterful stuff.
Serious jazz-rock heads will immediately think of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew when they see this album’s lineup: Mollestad, Susana Santos Silva on trumpet, Marte Eberson and Erlend Slettevoll on electric pianos and synthesizers, Ole Mofjell on percussion and Torstein Lofthus on drums. To her credit, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid expectations raised by that association, sometimes confronting classic fusion strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them — and these players are impressively capable of tackling the challenges Mollestad mounts. Silva’s impressionistic tone and sense of line readily evokes Miles while forging her own path; Eberson and Slettevoll’s chunky chording and grumbling bass lines simultaneously thicken the midrange and sharpen the harmonic contours; Mofjell and Loftus’ churning beds of polyrhythms relentlessly propel the tunes forward while constantly shifting the ground under their collaborators’ feet.
“No Friends But the Mountains” kicks off the proceedings already simmering: Silva floats over clean Mollestad chords that morph into feedback, backed by sparse keys and atmospheric percussion. “A Stone’s Throw” ramps up the energy; the initial hard rock foundation gives way to a unison guitar/trumpet/synth head that struts atop cooking drums and percussion before slamming into an elegant melody that evokes, of all things, Pink Floyd. Then Eberson solos over Mollestad’s splintery, circular lick and the percussionists’ rhythmic curveballs — and when Slettevoll joins the fun with clustered chording, look out! The agitated rhythmic foundations of “Antilone” never quite settle, with change the only constant through slamming ensemble passages, Silva’s spiraling whorls of painterly color, Mollestad’s grinding breakdowns, and a taut, immense ensemble build to the final thematic restatement.
“Slightly Lighter” clears the air with a tentative trio, Mollestad gracefully leading Eberson and Slettevoll through the changes. Then “Ekhidna” serves up more polyrhythmic metal balanced with a melancholy long-note theme, Silva unleashing her inner Miles, Eberson wailing on synth over Loftus’ lightning reactions, the whole thing ending with a satisfying crunch!
But Mollestad and her crew save the best for last: the gorgeous “One Leaf Left.” A muted duet between Mollestad and Eberson evoke Soft Machine’s cyclical, interlocking counterpoint over Slettevoll’s sparse, insinuating bass; then Mollestad and Silva unspool a seemingly endless chain of melody. Silva stretches out long notes like taffy; synth clouds from Slettevoll lead into a final, raging Mollestad tour de force over a grungy ensemble stomp. Juggling downbeats, building outrageous howls of dissonance, confessing the blues like one possessed, she rides the storm that mounts beneath her, ending both the piece and the album with a fiery, climactic cry.
Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), Ekhidna is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of classic fusion and extending the genre’s reach into realms of vast new potential. This is a real breakthrough for Hedwig Mollestad, and her best effort to date; it shouldn’t be missed! So check it out below.
— Rick Krueger