On 2006's Koralrevens Klagesang, Norwegian avant-prog quartet Panzerpappa were challenging yet never alienating, with Canterbury-esque qualities reinforced by a characteristically polite guest vocal from Richard Sinclair of Hatfield and the North and Caravan. Six years after Koralrevens Klagesang, Panzerpappa finally return with 2012's Astromalist, achieving their widest distribution yet through the Rune Grammofon label. The guests on Astromalist include Univers Zero bassoonist Michel Berckmans, so one might reasonably expect that the band is ratcheting up its more "avant" Rock in Opposition side. Well, not really: although they remain adventurous and certainly haven't made an abrupt change in direction, they have gotten somewhat more conventionally -- even symphonically -- proggy now and then on Astromalist. First, consider their unapologetic embrace of instrumental lyricism: with a prominent place in the arrangement for White Willow/Jaga Jazzist flutist Ketil Vestrum Einarsen and a winding buildup into full-on keyboard string-saturated loveliness, "Ugler I Moseboka" might lead some listeners to sigh in rapturous delight while others reach for the nearest punk album. The composition is notable for its textural layering and dark undercurrents, but even Panzerpappa seem to feel they are beginning to sound too pretty, which might explain the sudden appearance of a pulsing interlude with rat-a-tat percussive bursts and echoed flute effects. That Panzerpappa are able to layer this segment into the full body of the piece near its conclusion -- and make it work -- displays a compositional integrity and depth fully revealed only in the closing moments.
Elsewhere, much of Astromalist is actually rather more assertive than Koralrevens Klagesang -- note the King Crimson "Fracture"-like jagged and angular theme guitarist Jarle Storlokken and his bandmates rip through on "Femtende Marsj" (which includes a broadcast spoken word snippet about the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) and the powerful, pounding attack on the main theme to opener "Bati la Takton!" Rhythmic and sonic inventiveness is not in short supply, either; shifting time signatures and odd meters abound, while even memorably melodious themes are underpinned or contrasted with unusual harmonics and timbres (check out the title track's leaping synth part with discordancies suggesting a telephone keypad more than a conventional musical keyboard). Astromalist succeeds best when the music is at its crispest and most sharply articulated -- the return of guest vibraphonist/xylophonist Ola Lindh helps immeasurably in this regard (and Udi Koomran works his usual miracles in mixing and mastering) -- while Steinar Borve's classicist saxophone and the contributions of three guest string players provide organic contrasts to the group's synth timbres. But given Astromalist's sometimes prominent symphonic prog aspects, it's unsurprising that, of all the album's guest musicians, keyboardist Hans-Petter Alfredsen (appearing on the heavy, even fusiony "Satam") has reportedly joined as a full-time member. Who knows where Panzerpappa are headed next, but more synth-driven symphonic prog and fusion flavors do not seem out of the question. ~ Dave Lynch