If you, like me, often find yourself perusing European forestry statistics then I’m sure that you’d have noted that Denmark is not as big in wood as it is in bacon, lagging far behind its Germanic and Nordic neighbours in the timber tables – League Two minnows when set against the Premier League giants. But with 18.9 million pigs sharing the place with a mere 5.6 million Danes, they do punch above their weight in pork and, as bacon trumps just about everything, they have to be happy with that!
But back to wood and with relatively small national reserves to call upon, Afenginn (which more than appropriately translates from Old Norse as ‘intoxication and strength’) are likely to have used up most of Denmark’s supplies in the production of this latest double album, OPUS. A swift look at the instrument list at the foot of this article will confirm that it involves more wood than you could shake a stick at (Arf!), and for me this is a good thing. There really is nothing as beautiful and resonant as a well spanked/stroked piece of wood and Afenginn certainly know how to do this for mutual stimulation and satisfaction (…!).
Formed in Copenhagen in 2002 by Finnish musicology student Kim Rafael Nyberg and Rune Kofoed from Denmark, Afenginn’s modus operandi has always been to stray from well-worn paths and explore new sounds, their mix of melancholic Scandinavian folk and rhythmic energy proving effective in a live setting. For this, their sixth album, they have certainly pulled out all the stops, moving forward from their initial “Bastard Ethno” style, in a process started on 2013 album Lux, into something much more cultured that pulls in classical stylings to complement the original folk and world music influences. In fact, OPUS is structured like a classical symphony, each letter of the title being a distinct and flowing movement of about 20-minutes subdivided into individual “tracks” that borrow from each other and evolve during the course of the piece with recurring motifs and rhythms. Each movement connects with the greater whole and the result is quite magical; a melodic yet often dissonant and percussive tour de force that works best as a complete work and easily bears repeated hearings, fully revealing itself over time.
The culmination of a series of unforeseen circumstances, OPUS emerged after the bands 2014/15 Australian tour where Nyberg suffered an injury whilst collecting oysters on a rocky beach in Tasmania (as you do) which prevented him from flying home. During the following six weeks Kim “entered into a fruitful compositional flow, having the time, environment, homesickness and general uncertainty to create”. The preliminary compositions were hammered into final shape once back in Denmark, no doubt with the aid of local life enhancing pork products, but the value of the initial writing stage cannot be overstated. Largely recorded at the 1930s vintage and once state of the art hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music – which no doubt also contains masses of wood – by the basic septet appended with a number of other instruments of the mainly acoustic variety, including the cittern of Ale Carr who makes a noteworthy contribution.
The music is highly dynamic, composed and arranged (with the assistance Tróndur Bogason on three tracks) by Nyberg in Afenginn’s own individual style. Original drummer Kofoed left the band prior to recording to be replaced by two new percussionists, Knut Finsrud and Ulrik Brohuus, who certainly make their mark here. OPUS draws the listener into its ambitious aura, moving and reflective in its quieter passages but with an electrifying exuberance when the pace picks up. During some of the epic sections there may be as many as 20 musicians performing simultaneously. Nyberg has likened the sound of Afenginn to being “somewhere between cinematic chamber music and Sigur Rós”, but this doesn’t tell the full story. Rock music this ain’t as Scandinavian and Balkan folk, Klezmer and various classical formations come and go in the beautifully arranged and never less than compelling whole.
There are four vocal pieces, sung by Ólavur Jákupsson and with lyrics by Timo Haapaniemi, in their trademark “Street Latin”, an intriguing stream of conciousness conglomeration of Latin, German, Spanish and Finnish fits perfectly with the wide-ranging nature of the music. The English translation supplied in the artwork makes for an exhilarating and thought provoking read. Of this Nyberg says; “I want to use a unique language which teases curiosity and that suits our musical universe”. It does.
OPUS is a masterful example of what can be achieved when the stars align, it really isn’t necessary to describe it all in depth, so if you want to skip to the closing remarks and listen to it in full via the Bandcamp link, then please do so. In brief, O is the most percussive movement, orchestral elements and delightful melody lines moving in Balkan and South American directions. The brass section is used to fine effect with solo sections for violin, clarinet and cittern. It’s infectious, the rhythms sweeping you away as the music builds to a minimalism influenced finale.
The eclecticism of the influences continues into the sedate and less percussive P, filled with Scandinavian melancholy and coloured by marimba. Violin soars beautifully with brass support, the mournful Vespersong bringing Ed Alleyne Johnson to mind but this is resolutely acoustic stuff. The pulse of a single piano key marks time for a typically Scandinavian melody and it’s the spaces between the notes that make it work, reminding me of an introspective piece by J.S. Bach, a haunting solemnity punctuated by uplifting melodies with the simple piano motif returning before silence. Absolutely beautiful.
U is more quirky, a sinuous Klezmer evolving with North African influences before bursting out on an upbeat rhythm. There’s some Zappa in there amongst the brass and marimba, a familiar clarinet line emerging as the feel builds towards epic. Violin solos over a simple marimba rhythm, urgency added by the brass, the music becoming more frenetic and disjointed, typically Scandinavian folk opening out into a flailing Arabic dance, the finale a pulsating amalgam.
Finally, S returns to metallic percussion, a sedate brass theme colouring a movement which is more expansive in scale. Sweeping and immense with foreboding brass and African rhythms. A choir chants as Jákupsson sings a refrain that is both haunting and uplifting, developing into a section which is Carmina Burana meets Spaghetti Western before entering the grandeur of the conclusion. There is brooding intent as strings build over a minimalist percussive base to become the most expansive part of OPUS, all of the instruments coming together for a fitting culmination to a work of such magnitude, the sparse and drawn out conclusion of strings, sounds and voices an integral and necessary comedown that allows for reflection.
The cinematic scope of OPUS unfolds with the music, sometimes in widescreen but often with a starkly emotional and claustrophobic inwardness. This is not something to be played in the background and demands your full attention, almost insisting that the whole work be heard in one sitting. A piece of art that completely succeeds in achieving what it set out to do; a modern work on a large scale that utilises structures and forms from a multitude of eras and traditions.
I urge you to take some time to get to know OPUS, a genre defying classic that handsomely repays the investment over and over. I love this album more than bacon – and that’s saying a lot! Magnificent.
01. O1: Intro (1:39)
02. O2: Bordrone (2:59)
03. O3: Guzzy (2:26)
04. O4: Luna Televisio (4:53)
05. O5: Quicksilver (5:14)
06. O6: Plantaris (4:12)
07. P1: Lentoperho (5:50)
08. P2: Vespersong (4:26)
09. P3: Partiro Futile (4:34)
10. P4: Gronja (5:40)
01. U1: Tabbouleh Rasa (4:04)
02. U2: Rasende Tabul (3:33)
03. U3: Ether (5:17)
04. U4: Akkapolska (5:03)
05. S1: Fototoksik (3:39)
06. S2: Pandemonium (4:18)
07. S3: Amore Memoriam (5:39)
08. S4: Axiom (9:39)
Total time – 82:35
Rasmus Krøyer – Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
Niels Skovmand – Violin
Kim Rafael Nyberg – Mandolin, Piano
Erik Olevik – Cello, Bass, Synthbass
Kaare Munkholm – Marimba, Vibraphone, Piano
Knut Finsrud – Drums & Percussion
Ulrik Brohuus – Drums & Percussion
Ólavur Jákupsson – Vocals
Ale Carr – Cittern
Katrine Grarup Elbo – Violin
Heiðrun Petersen – Violin
Mads Haugsted Hansen – Violin
Daniel Eklund – Viola
Live Johansson – Cello
Ketil Duckert – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Gustav Rasmussen – Trombone, Bass Trombone
Vokalselskabet GLAS – Bulgarian Female Choir:
– Tine Refsgaard
– Maria Kynne
– Marte Schau
– Katrina Petersen
– Else Schantz Juutilainen
– Marianne Søgaard
Record Label: Westpark Music
Country of Origin: Denmark
Cover Artwork: Jakob Bendix
Date of Release: 29th April 2016