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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Esbjörn Svensson Trio

Seven Days of Falling

Review by John Pierpoint

Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it progressive rock? The answer, I suspect, is “Yes” to all three! The Swedish jazz/rock masters Esbjörn Svensson Trio (EST) may have begun as a reasonably typical acoustic jazz piano/bass/drums trio, but the musicians' roots were in other forms of music, and over time those diverse influences began to assert themselves.

This album is possibly the high-water mark in EST’s career, being on the cusp of the transition from the traditional jazz trio style that they began with, to the stadium-filling heavy rock leanings of their later work. Jazz enthusiasts will enjoy the purity of sound on many of the tracks, while rock fans will find plenty to get their teeth into too. That’s particularly true as bassist Dan Berglund manages to pull off some incredible solos, with his double bass piped through a Pod effects box to produce intense, screaming overdriven guitar simulations. Svensson and Magnus Öström seem to compete during improvisations, but always working with one another to build a mood. All the while Berglund gets many opportunities to take the spotlight, joining that select rock pantheon of “lead” bassists. This is all the more impressive when you remember that he's playing a full acoustic double bass! The complex interplay between these three well-matched musicians is breath-taking. EST tend to construct their tunes as simple melodies or riffs that build up in intensity, allowing scope for furious improvisation, but then repeatedly return back the start, only to build again. When they build again, though, it’s in a different direction. The effect is of successive waves washing over the listener, each tinged with a different mood. One recurring theme is of ever-spiralling excitement. The shock of the unexpected twists and turns can, of course, be dulled by repeated listening and familiarity with the material. However, this is countered by the added frisson of anticipation when a signature riff begins – the knowledge of what delights are about to be heard!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Ballad for the Unborn

This is all about atmosphere. A distant tinkling looped effect fades in. Spare, un-damped piano chords with swirling cymbals make their entrance. The double-bass comes in later, reinforcing the gentle mood. The piano chords become more forceful, and we start to notice their distortion. More piano fills begin to creep in. The bass becomes more intense, as the distorted channel is faded in, swamping the natural sound. Finally, there is the sound of an instrument being laid down at the end.

Seven Days of Falling
A gentle bass riff begins. A piano riff is superimposed on top. Drums are sparse – just brushes on snare. A sudden sequence of masterful piano chords announces a change. Bowed bass comes in, sounding like a softly-blown saxophone, through a sustain/distortion effect. It comes to a gentle halt, but restarts again with the original bass and drum riffs before the notes die away. Now the drums are treated by effects (which are turned on and off throughout the tune, but generally becoming more apparent). We hear damped notes on the piano (Svensson reaches into the piano to manually damp or peel harmonics off the strings). Over the repeating bass riff, the piano starts to improvise. The distorted, bowed bass begins again. It ends on the tinkling of bells and piano, conjuring up images of a Tibetan monastery.
Mingle in the Mincing Machine
An industrial, distorted bass riff plays over the clatter of a twisted cymbal, followed by a jaunty piano melody, doubled-up by the bass, which then drives forward. The tune stops at intervals, punctuated by tom rolls. Then they include a bass solo. We hear both the natural and heavily distorted channels of the bass, as though Berglund is being accompanied by an off-stage electric guitarist who mirrors his every note. Excitement mounts as the drums kick up a gear to bring back the jaunty theme. There is a sudden change to a repeated scale (plucked and bowed bass double-tracked), over which the piano improvises. Öström's inspired drumming fills the spaces and vies with the piano for supremacy. Scat-singing is faintly audible in the background. The piano melody becomes more dramatic. There’s another sudden stop, and then a return one last time to the original riff.
Evening in Atlantis
A short, languid, piano interlude, this fades into the next piece.
Did They Ever Tell Cousteau?
We hear a snare drum with snare off clattering in. A bass melody plays over this. The piano joins, and other drums. There is a hammering bass riff, with slowly phased/filtered snare. The piano bursts in with a spare improvisation that increases in intensity and complexity, accompanied by vocal groans and outbursts. Drums rise to the challenge, ratcheting up the power by bringing in the kick, then doubling the beat on it, while bass holds the groove. It slows down back to the original bass melody. Piano chords ring out while the flanged snare rhythm peters out.
Believe Beleft Below
This is possibly the most frequently covered EST composition. That's because it's a straightforward love song – but without any words! The drums stick to brushes, and the bass to roots, while the piano handles the chords and melody. Therefore it's the closest to a traditional jazz trio that you'll hear on this album. We will have another encounter with this song later.
Elevation of Love
For me, this was the door into the world of EST music, having first heard it on a BBC Radio 3 jazz programme one afternoon. I was hooked! It begins with a simple, sparse, prepared piano melody, the notes ever so subtly distorted by whatever Esbjorn has shoved under the strings. A gentle electronic rhythm (treated brushwork?) joins, changing to rim-shots. The bass echoes the main piano melody. The rim shots change to electronically treated drums at intervals. The piano starts to build a sequence of chords, whilst drums pile on the power. Then suddenly it jumps back to the opening riff. The bass picks out harmonies to the piano exploration of the possibilities inherent in the original theme. Then another gradual crescendo is heard, heightening the intensity and the delight of this beautiful tune. Bass and piano are circling around each other, fitting together. The drums get heavier. Berglund switches to his bowed, distorted sound for an intense and poetic solo spot. The chord changes underneath serve to heighten the emotion. Then another stop comes and they flick back to the original theme, now with a busy ride cymbal. But this time it is not allowed to build up as before. Instead a gentle repeated piano arpeggio serves as backdrop to a mournful bowed bass and swirling cymbals.
In My Garage
A relentless steam-train drum rhythm drives this mellow piano tune. Electronic vibrato effects come in on the “choruses”. The brushwork is distorted and accompanied by scat-singing. The piano starts to improvise, and the drums build.
Why She Couldn't Come
A melancholy, but grand, theme opens this with brushes coming in after a few seconds. There is an ominous bass and distant, flanged/echoed string-slides. High repeating bass notes fix on the mood, with delicate piano phrases and increased drum-work. Electronic effects on the drums increase. The bass becomes more insistent, as the piano takes a back-seat towards the end. It ends on a single sustained piano chord.
O.D.R.I.P.
Ringing piano notes and chiming cymbals form a dramatic, windswept theme. A bass riff takes over while Svensson reaches inside to engage in more stunt work on his strings, lending an Eastern sound to the tune. As the bass and drums become perceptibly heavier, the now noticeably distorted piano takes wilder flights of fancy, accompanied by more scat-singing. Every member is now striving to outdo the others as they rack up the intensity. By now everything is distorted, as though the whole band is playing through a Marshall backline. The drums in particular become almost brutal in their hammering – a foretaste of the direction they will go in on the industrial-sounding Leucocyte album. A swift key change raises hopes of a quiet and tranquil ending, but then they return to the intense main theme as though nothing had happened. The bass sounds like a digeridoo! Then it winds down, ending on a last few distorted bass notes.
Uncredited Track
EST often put undocumented “Easter eggs” or bonus tracks on their CDs, and this is no exception. After a lengthy silence, we hear a reprise of “Believe Beleft Below” (in fact, it's probably the exact same recording), but this time with an added vocal track “Love Is Real,” with lyrics written and sung by guest Josh Haden.
 
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