Published on 20th January 2021
Onségen Ensemble – Fear
For all the great bands of Norway and Sweden, I often think it’s a shame that neighbouring Finland seems to miss out on similar acclaim. If anything, I find many of the Finns make far more eclectic and experimental sounds, and draw from quite different inspirations. Bands from Norway and Sweden invariably sound Western, but Finland often has as much of an Eastern sound. Onségen Ensemble definitely seem to incorporate a little of both, but even when comparing to bands from the West, they are all over the musical map. Morricone and Magma meet Tool and Tusmørke in a psychedelic indulgence of Eastern mysticism. It’s trippy space rock that is less Komische than Khanate or Carnatic. The band present and perform a series of epic and mystical enigmas. It’s best not to dwell too much on what you’re listening to and just ride the wave where it takes you.
Apparently this is the third album from the ever-changing Ensemble, and if the previous two are as high a quality as Fear, then they will be well worth checking out. I’ve definitely made a mental note to do so, when I have a chance. (I’m not sure when that will be, as I’m still working my way through a long list of releases from this year I still want to hear, let alone diving into the past.) The most odd thing about this release, though, is not the music but why the album is titled Fear. Of all the emotions I might feel when listening to this album, fear is not one. Even when the music evokes striding forth into the unknown, it is with confidence and swagger. There is no fear.
What really makes this album special for me comes in just after a minute-and-a-half. Until this point, the rich rumble of stoner goodness is quite lovely but when a trumpet cuts through the atmosphere, I was initially dumbstruck. It’s an instrument I never expected to hear, and by crikey, it sounds good! Every appearance of the instrument on this album adds so much to the tone and texture of what are already amazing soundscapes. The choral chanting is another masterpiece, and perfectly placed in the mix. In fact, the mix is absolutely wonderful, with everything exactly where it needs to be, so that the focal point is where the band wants at any one time. It makes the music a pleasure to listen to, time and time again. The seven-odd minutes of opening number Non-Returner are over in what seems no time at all. I had to check that I had read correctly, and that the track was indeed seven-and-a-half minutes long. As I said, this is music to be swept away by, and time and space are exposed for the wibbly, wobbly concepts they are. They have no meaning here.
Generally speaking, vocals (other than wordless vocalisations) are sparse on Fear, the only lyrics to the following track, Stellar, are an incomplete quotation from The Gateless Gate, a well-known collection of teaching stories. They are delivered in a potent and powerful fashion, and provide moments of heightened intensity. About three minutes before the song ends is a passage so exultant, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to listen to this without movement of some part of my body to the insistent rhythm. And, of course, that trumpet. The track has been building to this throughout, and it’s just wonderful when it comes. Stellar climaxes with one more refrain of the sole lyric, before slipping quietly out to the same ambient folk sounds that introduced it.
Over the length of the seven compositions on Fear (the shortest is just over five minutes), my mind never wanders. Or, at least, it wanders where the music takes me, because the mind is encouraged to wander, but I never lose focus, nor interest. Not that I’ve ever had one, but the closest analogy I can draw is to an out-of-body experience – at least as I’ve read it feels like – where you remain attached and aware of where your body is, but outside it. The music has a hypnotic effect, so that no matter how repetitive much of the music is, it draws in, rather than pushes away. There is no room, nor time, for boredom. The kaleidoscopic effect of the brass, choir and some truly nifty percussion, that is liberally added to the mix only further draws me in. When Earthless segues into the title track, it’s through such percussion.
And Fear. Fear. What can I say about Fear? The title track is so startlingly good, I’m not sure anything I can say can reflect how enjoyable it is. It reminds me a little of the music of Indukti, a Polish band who like Onségen Ensemble are mostly instrumental, and inspired by the sounds of both the West and the East. And I absolutely love Indukti, so that comparison from me is high praise indeed. I’m wary of drawing inferences, or attempting to guess what the underlying concept of the album. The particular Zen couplet used in Stellar is warning enough, as it is a caution not to think one’s own insight exceeds another. And yet, I can’t help but think this is an album about death, and a celebration of life in defiance of death. Hence Fear, and why I can hear no fear within Fear. Fear of death is probably a common fear, and yet you cannot fear death, when you celebrate life. Perhaps I am predisposed to think this way, because I have recently been enjoying Astrolabe’s Death: An Ode to Life. Perhaps I am hearing something that isn’t there. And yet….?
Regardless of what Fear as an album is about, Fear the song is a centrepiece of some distinction. I love every song on this album, and Fear rises high above them all. You might then think, after such heights, I might be disappointed by what follows. Far from it. Very cleverly, Onségen Ensemble do not attempt to compete with Fear, and provide a distinctly different sound for Sparrow’s Song, which for the first half is sparse, expansive and minimalist. As light and fragile as a sparrow, I guess. It makes for a great surprise when the piece picks up pace in the second half, and introduces new instrumentation and vocalisations. It’s another track that ends too soon for me, and I wish the Sparrow could sing for me a little longer. I can’t help but think that the use of a sparrow only further adds to my theory of the concept of the album, given it is widely believed to be a harbinger of death.
The Sparrow’s Song, while not particularly jaunty, is positively spritely and chirpy compared to the Lament of Man that follows it. This track is the closest the album comes to representing fear, but even here it doesn’t seem present so much as a dour (dare I say funereal) acceptance of something inevitable. Sure enough, Google translates the sole lyrics as something along the lines of “I look at the fire – the inevitable judgment”. I don’t really know the Bible, as I’ve never been a believer, but I’m pretty sure there’s something about God’s final judgement involving literal and symbolic fire. That said, those lyrics do not appear in the first part of the Lament that sounds like a lament, but in the ensuing chaos that the track descends into. It sounds more like someone fighting their judgment, rather than awaiting it. It’s no longer a lament, but a labour; no longer a cry, but a confrontation, and by the climax, a celebration. There is no doubting the jubilant nature of the closing minutes.
When I write my reviews, I tend to do so as a stream of consciousness on my first listen. I put those notes to one side, and pretend they don’t exist, and I listen again without doing anything but listening, I’ll do that time and time again, without worrying about writing a review, and listening to all manner of other things (including other albums I’m reviewing), until such time comes that I’m listening and realise I’m ready to write. I’ll listen from the start again, and write more notes. Then I’ll go back to my first notes, and see what I can piece together from these two experiences (one when the album is totally novel, and one when I know it well). Why am I telling you this? Because in this instance, I decided I didn’t care for my newer observations, and that my initial thoughts were those most pertinent.
I came to that realisation when recalling the jolt I felt when I first came to the final track, Satyagrahi. Reading the lyrics as I was listening to them being sung, I realised my gut feeling had been roughly accurate. The key lyrics for me were the couplet “The only way to have peace is to live it” (which is fairly self-explanatory), and “The only way to have an unarmed world is to live unarmed”, which seems to hark back to the caution from Zen Buddhism in Stellar. Ultimately, we are all Non-Returners. It’s up to us to either fear that inevitable outcome, or have peace by celebrating living. Even if this year life hasn’t felt much worth celebrating, it’s worth remembering that being alive is better than the alternative. And Fear is a life-affirming album that’s well worth listening to.
01. Non-Returner (7:34)
02. Stellar (8:57)
03. Earthless (5:18)
04. Fear (7:24)
05. Sparrow’s Song (5:05)
06. Lament of Man (8:45)
07. Satyagrahi (6:17)
Total Time – 49:20
Niina Susan Sassali
*Onségen Ensemble has a revolving cast, responsible for all sounds you hear on Fear and listed above.
Record Label: Svart Records
Country of Origin: Finland
Date of Release: 20th November 2020