Let’s see, how many of my musical buttons does this new release by Lumen Drones push? Hardanger fiddle? Check. Folk-based experimental music? Check. Nordic music? Check. And of course the big one, right there in the name: drones, drones, drones!
The Nils Økland Band’s Kjølvatn from 2017 is on my top 10 of the decade, and Økland seems to be on track to have a second entry on that list. Umbra is the second release from Lumen Drones, the trio that’s an outlet for Norwegian hardanger maestro Nils Økland’s more avant-garde impulses. Their self-titled 2015 debut, on ECM, was critically lauded, and to my ear Umbra takes things a step or two further.
In addition to Økland, Lumen Drones is Per Steinar Lie on guitars and Ørjan Haaland on drums, both members of the influential post-rock band The Low Frequency in Stereo. It’s a type of jazz trio setup, and indeed this music no doubt incorporates both composed and improvised performance. It’s also very modern or even post-modern in practice, though, with all three members making melodic and thematic contributions, rather than the guitar and drums merely providing rhythmic and textural backing.
By definition the music made by a hardanger includes drone because of the presence of sympathetic strings. But these drones of Lumen (as it were) come from everywhere, as becomes clear on closely listening to the opening track, the sublime “Inngang,” Økland’s scratchy fiddle rising out of a burring background laid down by Lie’s subtly plucked guitar.
It’s a short, LP-format-friendly album with nine tracks ranging from two to more than six minutes in length. Many of them blend seamlessly one into the other. And although many are on the less rhythmic side of the spectrum, not all are. These musicians seem equally enamored of surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale, noise-rockers Sonic Youth and goth-rockers Joy Division as by modern composer Arvo Pärt, as you’ll hear in the third track “Droneslag,” a guitar-led rocker with chop-drone provided by Økland’s fiddle. Guitar and deep toms lay down the droning base for a gorgeous, mysterious fiddle melody on “Gorrlaus Slått,” while Lie’s chiming guitar arpeggios on the title track sound like they were recorded in an empty, cold cathedral. White noise and free-jazz drumming create the throbbing soundscape of “Avalanche in A Minor.” And the album goes out strongly with a one-two punch of the majestic “Etnir” and pensive, atmospheric “Under Djupet.”
Umbra is an album that can be played on background for atmosphere, but it also rewards repeated close listening. For such a late-in-the-year release, it has easily moved onto my list of best recordings of 2019.