Norwegian bassist, composer and producer Jo Berger Myhre has long thrived on collaboration, bringing his distinctive voice to a wide variety of adventurous projects. He is best known as one-third of the exploratory electro-acoustic trio Splashgirl and a member for the last seven years of the Nils Petter Molvær Quartet, with whom he’s recorded and co-produced two albums: 2016’s Buoyancy and this summer’s Stitches.
He’s also a frequent duo partner of multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Björn Ólafsson and has performed and/or recorded with the likes of Mariam the Believer, Jenny Hval & Susanna, Geir Sundstøl and Finland, the improvising alt-rock quartet of Pål Hausken, Morten Qvenild, Ivar Grydeland and Myhre.
Now, Myhre makes his solo debut with the release of the captivating and mysterious Unheimlich Manoeuvre. The title is an obvious play on the life-saving technique, though whether the added negation makes the threatening or simply subverted remains ambiguous. More to the point, the English translation of unheimlich is “uncanny” or “eerie” – an apt descriptor for the sounds that Myhre creates. To borrow a phrase from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Myhre conjures aural landscapes that suggest “a place both wonderful and strange,” stunning in their beauty with something alluringly unsettling lurking just underneath.
“Unheimlich [suggests] the intuition that something is rather out of place, on the verge of going wrong even,” Myhre explains. “Familiar but unrelatable, or the other way around! This is the feeling I wanted to channel with this music. Chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and darkness, is a recurring theme in my music from the duo albums with Ólafur Björn Ólafsson to the albums with my band Splashgirl and the songs and productions I´ve done for Nils Petter Molvær in recent years.”
While the 2020 pandemic has led to a definite surge in solo projects necessitated by quarantine conditions, Myhre began work on Unheimlich Manoeuvre in September 2019, long before Covid had intruded on the world’s consciousness. The album is the end result of Myhre’s career-long experimentation with his approach to his instrument, evolved via his work with others yet ultimately yielding rich results in his own personal expression.
“Most of my life in music has been [spent as a] part of groups and collaborations, interactions which are very meaningful to me,” he explains. “Over the years I've been collecting my own sounds and ways around my instruments and equipment, always eager to find my own solutions to playing the bass. A lot of the time when playing with a band or another artist there might not be the right space and time to unleash these ideas to the fullest extent, so I felt the need to create a new space where I could put these sounds and ideas in the forefront. This effort turned into this album, where I wanted to combine my interests for drone, noise and improvisation with ideas [inspired by] my study trips to Iran in recent years.”
While the pandemic may not have instigated the project, it certainly provided Myhre with the significant free time he needed to record it. It also allowed him to invite remote contributions from a number of collaborators, leading to guest appearances by Iranian tombak player Kaveh Mahmudiyan; Iceland’s Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, here playing organ; vocalist Vivian Wang of the Singaporean art-rock band The Observatory; and Norwegian compatriots Jo David Meyer Lysne (guitar), Jana Anisimova (piano), and Morten Qvenild (synth).
“Common for all of them are their pure dedication and focus,” Myhre says of his invited guests. “They are not fooling around and get straight to the core of matters with massive attention, depth and joy. I had to invite them to record one by one, but still they played as if they were performing together. I hope one day to make this happen for real!”
While collaboration thus entered the realm of the soundworlds Myhre crafted for Unheimlich Manoeuvre, it was at a distance and after the fact, making the project – which Myhre recorded, mixed and produced entirely on his own – an exercise in self-exploration. “By making this album alone. I was curious to see what would be left when I couldn´t hide in a band or behind an artist,” he says. “Confronting myself with what is truly the core of my musical vision, you might say.”
The nine tracks that comprise Unheimlich Manoeuvre were largely born out of free improvisation (the sole exception is the dreamlike Gate Opens, penned with Jo David Meyer Lysne’s acoustic guitar in mind. The second half of the two part “Smallest Things” also includes text from writer Raymond Carver’s short story “I Could See the Smallest Things” recited by Wang, who Myhre first heard on an album by singer-songwriter Jenny Hval. The reading plays out over a monolithic, unnerving wash of sound incorporating Qvenild’s synth and Ólafsson’s organ.
“Carver is one of my favourite writers,” Myhre says. “He’s an inspiration in the way he invokes feelings in a very sublime and understated way.” The bulk of the material was generated by Myhre’s improvisations with his bass run through a “rather glitchy” analogue effects chain, which triggers the electronic noises, sounds and rhythms from the bass itself. Much of the music is then transformed through overdubbing, processing and editing, though three of the pieces – “Cynosure,” “Sustainer” and “Inner Relations” – remain largely in their original form. “Cynosure” is one of four tracks that feature the Norway-based Mahmudiyan, allowing Myhre’s passion for Iranian music to color the music.
The album begins on a somewhat menacing note with “Everything effacing,” erupting with a sudden boom and an organ-like burst of sound. An agitated drone emerges underneath before the cavernous sound of reverberant bowed bass scythes through the atmospherics. “Aviary” absorbs the mournful piano chords of Anisimova, who also duets an improvised melody with Myhre on “Smallest Things, part 1.”
The natural sound of Myhre’s upright bass is gradually subsumed by insistent industrial sounds on “Perils,” while “Sustainer” suggests a vast, boundless space echoing into infinity. “Inner Relations” turns that expansiveness inward, with each strike and scrape of Myhre’s bow blooming and skittering into abstract shapes like the firing of synapses.
That suggestion – music moving like the spark of inspiration through the brain – seems to vividly capture Myhre’s creative process, both on Unheimlich Manoeuvre and in the way his various projects feed into one another. “There is always a leak between all the different projects I work on,” Myhre says. “This is why I like to do many different things. The ideas and inspiration flow between them and move my creative process forward.”
1. Everything effacing
2. Smallest things, part 1
5. Smallest things, part 2
6. Gate opens
9. Inner relations