Personnel: Even Helte Hermansen (guitar); Ola Kvernberg (violin, viola); Erlend Slettevoll (keyboards); Kenneth Kapstad (drums).
Audio Mixer: Magnus Bormark.
Recording information: Ora Studio.
This Norwegian fusion quintet features the same instrumental lineup as Mahavishnu Orchestra, so comparisons to John McLaughlin's legendary '70s band are probably inevitable. But on the basis of Grand General's eponymous 2013 Rune Grammofon debut, such comparisons would merely scratch the surface. The bandmembers have the chops to match any fusioneers past or present, but they're also fond of the relentless rock pummel, undergirding their pyrotechnics with a powerful rhythm section possessing deep reserves of energy. Motorpsycho fans will recognize the Norwegian psych/prog/metal institution's current drummer, Kenneth Kapstad, and Kapstad is indeed a driving rhythmic force here, but bassist Trond Frones is at least an equal partner. Frones adopts a thick, overdriven bass tone at times strikingly similar to that of Motorpsycho vocalist/bassist Bent S?ther (check out 2010's Heavy Metal Fruit). Kapstad and Frones also play together in the metal band Goat the Head, so they are definitely on the same wavelength. They lock in and never let the forward momentum flag on Frones' 12-plus-minute opening composition, "Antics," as keyboardist Erlend Slettevol and guitarist Even Helte Hermansen throw out jagged, noisy chords and burn through effects-laden, in-the-red solos before simultaneously retreating into a more subtle dynamic, allowing Spellemannprisen-winning violinist (and violist) Ola Kvernberg to emerge at center stage, gliding across Frones and Kapstad's tribal rhythms as shards of guitar and keyboard sounds enter the mix, along with a coalescing chordal build that telegraphs the band's expert mastery of rising tension. Exploding into the theme, Grand General are at their most "Mahavishnu-esque," but the thunderous, pounding attack and nearly orchestral crescendos mark them as a different breed of jazz-rock animal.
"The Fall of Troy" delivers memorable melodicism in its panoply of fusoid themes interspersed with grinding metal heaviosity; Hermansen rips out Hendrixian blues-rock licks but the surroundings are more Sabbath than Band of Gypsys, and the angular riffing accompaniment only accentuates the intensity. Grand General is not 100 percent rush and crush; the four-minute circular blues of "Clandestine" is an exercise in dramatic escalation and slight retreat, but with pizzicato accents and an introduction comprising soft bell-like tones. After the first three Frones-penned tracks, Kvernberg's first compositional moment arrives with "Tachyon," initiated with Frones and Kapstad locked in Morse code-like syncopation of an 11/8 rhythm before the other bandmembers enter in layers; the post-rock-style gradual dynamic build into the 9/8 theme, with the lead instruments sailing above a powerful chord progression, is handled beautifully. "Tachyon" bleeds with tones and drones into Kvernberg's "Ritual," and after an interlude of spacy collective improvisation, the core of the song is revealed as striking modal world fusion with an Asian tinge, the violinist's wide vibrato suggesting an erhu. The album's 11-minute closer, "Red Eye," is aptly a Frones/Kvernberg co-write, cruising and rocking through its changes with everyone given an opportunity to strut. Perhaps it's mainly a jam, but you don't want it to stop -- just like Grand General from beginning to end. ~ Dave Lynch