There has a been a steady stream of quite excellent Norwegian releases in recent months, including new work from 35 Tapes and Professor Tip Top, as well as hugely popular re-releases of Airbag’s discography on super-duper vinyl. The Norwegians are producing some great music at the moment and are prolific in their compositions, taking advantage of the enforced global Covid-19 lockdown to backfill longed-for gigs with new music. Enter Caligonaut and I am left thinking, “that’s a cool name, I wonder what we have here…?”
Well, it didn’t take long for me to find out that here is a new artist, well… not really a new artist; more a new project, because Caligonaut has some serious form, under the watchful guidance and compositional skills of Ole Michael Bjørndal. Some of you may be asking, “Who’s he?” and “I wonder how many albums it might take for him to get into his stride?” Think again, my friends. What we have here is a supremely gifted and experienced musician with all the pedigree of performing with Oak, Airbag and Bjørn Riis. And, blow me down, he only brings in his friends from Wobbler, Airbag, Oak, Pymlico and Meer, with a special guest appearance by Norwegian church organ legend Iver Kleive, in order to create a debut album way ahead of what one might expect from someone “new”. He is clearly respected as a musician with Airbag describing him as “an essential part of our touring band for nearly a decade and both his playing and stage presence have no doubt had a big impact on Airbag becoming a more confident and mature band”. Glowing praise indeed.
The project name intrigued me. A combination of the Latin words for mist (or dimness), “caligo”, and traveller/navigator, “naut”. It’s helpful to know the background behind the name in order to place the music into the context envisaged by the artist, and it is clear that Bjørndal was looking for a separate outlet for his creative juices, in addition to being part of those afore-mentioned prog-greats. I suspect that a man of these talents actually needed a separate outlet and he deftly describes this need as “a growing desire to make an album where I decide the direction of the music and build on my experience as a musical performer”.
What we have here is Magnified As Giants, four tracks with a duration of just over 50 minutes. Well, that’s a promising start for those of us prog-heads who need a regular fix of lengthy tracks with multiple themes and ever-changing time signatures. On top of that, Bjørndal tells us that he is influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Rush, and you can really hear these influences in his compositions. But there’s more. There are bouts of metal and some of the tracks are composed with New Standard Tuning (NST). Now, I’m no guitar player and so I make no attempt to extol the virtues of that, but one need look no further than a Google search of NST to discover this as a development by none other than Mr Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame. I leave you to research that if you are so inclined.
In addition to a depth of influential bands, harking back to the ’70s, you can definitely hear a breadth of musical influences over many decades, with Bjørndal stamping his own unique mark. The album starts with classical grand piano on Emperor before launching into an almost King Crimson-esque drum and bass riff. This rhythm section comes to the fore throughout the album, providing an exquisite balance to the guitars, keys, occasional strings and Bjørndal’s vocals. Emperor also has certain metal overtones, nothing too oppressive, and I am reminded of Opeth from the Damnation era – no growling here. And as if there weren’t enough comparisons to be made, there are hallmarks of Marillion and even Mike Oldfield, with lots of urgency, tempered with delicate passages of acoustic guitar.
Hushed could easily be an Airbag track. Hugely tuneful, it’s a real joy to sit back and soak up the guitars and energetic beat. There is a palpable ‘unplugged’ nature to it, the pièce de résistance being the church organ from Iver Kleive, well known for his fusion of church music with other genres, such as blues, jazz and folk. He can add progressive rock to his repertoire now. There is a real feel-good cinematic ending which would not be out of place in a classy film soundtrack.
The single is the album’s title track. It really shows off Bjørndal’s pastoral tenor vocals, almost falsetto at parts, which allows you to concentrate on the lyrics. There are definite overtones of early Genesis, from the Trespass era, and I had someone comment that they could hear Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake in it too. Bjørndal explained to Prog Magazine that he started out with acoustic guitar using Fripp’s New Standard Tuning before layering up the lyrics, electric and 12-string guitars, all tuned differently. That explains the early ’70s era of Genesis linkage, particularly when Ant Phillips was on board.
The closing track, Lighter Than Air, is a near 20-minute epic that showcases some of the best guitar work I’ve heard in recent years. There’s lots going on here, including an outstanding and engaging guitar solo where one wonders whether there is finger-tapping going on, a technique so beloved of the likes of Steve Hackett. The vocals are reminiscent of Camel and the influence of David Gilmour is self-evident. And at the end, we are treated to a beautiful delicate guitar fadeout that makes one want to cue it all up again.
The lyrics are clearly important to Bjørndal – he has spent a lot of time crafting them, and the album will take repeated listening to fully absorb them; one learns something new from each listen. This album has a very wide appeal; there are some dark passages, something that is a common trait from our Scandinavian friends, particularly as this would appear to have been conceived largely in the winter months. But there is also something very uplifting.
I give a special mention to the album package. The album cover is immensely engaging, with artwork created by Bjørndal’s sister, visual artist Marte Bjørndal, and photography by Anne-Marie Forker, who is perhaps best known for her work with Marillion, and who was responsible for the video accompanying the title track. Time and great thought has gone into this package. I’m reminded of the intent of progressive bands in the ’70s where the album art needed to be sufficiently striking to prompt the punter to pick up the album from the record racks, even if the band was unknown. That’s how many records get traction, and many a prog fan has discovered new music by being intrigued by the accompanying artwork. Well done, Mr Bjørndal, you certainly achieved that.
I mentioned earlier that Bjørndal felt the need to express himself within a separate project. He should be very proud of this album and, whilst it is a debut album, it has all the quality of a seasoned and experienced professional musician, which of course he is. I hope he keeps a strong linkage with the other bands of which he is such an integral part, particularly when touring. We all know what happened to Steve Hackett, following the issue of Voyage of the Acolyte, and I hope that Bjørndal will not only be able to juggle numerous balls, but want to do that as well. That said, if this album gets traction – which it should – one could hardly be surprised if he forges a new path on his own. For sure, this work will be on the 2021 Prog Awards lists the world over.
01. Emperor (14:35)
02. Hushed (10:43)
03. Magnified As Giants (5:46)
04. Lighter Than Air (19:34)
Total Time – 50:38
Ole Michael Bjørndal – Lead Vocals, Acoustic, Electric & 12-string Guitars
Kristian Karl Hultgren (Wobbler) – Bass Guitars
Andreas W. S. Prestmo (Wobbler) – Backing Vocals
Lars Fredrik Frøislie (Wobbler) – Hammond Organ, Mellotron, Grand Piano, Synths, Keyboards
Iver Kleive – Church Organ (on Hushed)
Arild Brøter (Pymlico) = Drums & Percussion (on Hushed & Lighter Than Air)
Henrik Fossum (Airbag) – Drums (on Emperor)
Åsa Ree (Meer & Wobbler) – Violin, Backing Vocals (on Emperor and Hushed)
Stephan Hvinden (Pymlico & Oak) – Rhythm Guitars (on Hushed)
Record Label: Apollon Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 26th February 2021