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In Freedom We Trust

img  Tobias Fischer

Referring to music as a tool for catharsis generally feels like a lazy journalistic cliché, a pathetic excuse for not finding meaning within the music itself. Or, in the case of Norwegian improv duo Yodok, it might simply be true. "If I were to stand on the street, in the shopping mall or some other public space and tell people about the kind of music we´re sometimes playing, I would probably be sent somewhere with a menu of pills, in a white jacket with arms way too long for me" according to Tomas Järmyr, the band's drummer and the way he's saying this is making it clear his statement is not to be taken metaphorically. Yodok's music is taking listeners to places which make descriptions like 'dark', 'ominous' or 'spooky' seem desperately inadequate, onto vast acoustic planes brimming with a tension that knows neither boundaries nor release. Part of this approach is purely based on aesthetics and a spirit of exploration, the notion that there's more to be found in slow and funereal music than in affirmative and joyous sounds. But equally importantly, it is grounded in a shared musical history, an early love for the forbidden and fearful, for the border between fascination and repulsion: "We grew up with the Norwegian cliché", admits Järmyr's creative partner Kristoffer Lo, "being fascinated by Varg Vikernes (Burzum), all the church burnings and the black metal scene." He pauses for a second to reflect. "It’s vulgar and childish, but that's where it all started."

Vulgar and childisch are hardly the adjectives you'd use to describe the two long-form pieces that make up the debut release of Yodok III, the new trio Lo and Järmyr have just founded with Belgian ambient pioneer Dirk Serries. Black metal is never an open reference here, no blast beats galloping through the soundscapes, no Satanic shreaks piercing this blindfolded balancing act between guitar, tuba and percussion. And yet, just as with the music of Vikernes - a genius and hero to some, a murderer and psychopath to others - a strangely unreal mood is the real musical core here, sustained throughout the twenty ghostly minutes of each side, despite the compositions' discrete, yet constant transformations. Serries himself has perhaps most precisely mapped out this territory on the final releases of his own project Fear Falls Burning, which he operated between 2005 and 2012 and which transplanted the energy and fury of industrial, noise and metal into an apocalyptic sound-art-scenario filled with dense drones, rhythmical scrapes of metal as well as, on closing full-length Disorder of Roots, grunted philosophical poetry. With Yodok III, however, the associations have become even more blurred and opaque, as though the sounds were mere echoes from a far-away turntable, reverberating inside an endless cavern, ghoulish shadows and shapes of what used to be recognisable song formats dancing on the wall in the light of a dying-down torch. 


Uneasy birth
A vision as personal and precise isn't born overnight. Yodok started as a duo between Järmyr and Lo 2008 in Trondheim. For two years, they slowly worked on a common vision, extracting increasingly expansive improvisations from their minimal set-up. The first sessions, as Lo admits, were nothing to brag about, as they were still struggling to find a direction. Listening to records together was an important step forward in terms of finding out what they wanted to do. Somewhere along the highway by iconic Swedish formation Cult of Luna proved to be a first marker on the road towards a shared path, an equally trippy and intense collection of mostly epic psychedelic metal. The music was always tight and dense, yet at liberty to go wherever the moment might lead it, free from any restrictions in terms of duration or style – an invaluable inspiration for what would soon turn into thirty- to forty-minute long compositions. 

And yet, it would take until 2010 before Yodok really took of. In that year, Järmyr and bassist Trond Frønes started a new group called Sunswitch, which dealt with a more attributable form of instrumental doom metal enriched by the musician's shared appreciation of ambient and experimental soundscapes. "Sunswitch was in my opinion the best thing that could have happened to Yodok", reflects Järmyr, while Lo emphasises the growing importance of physical and personal interaction within the formation: "It’s physically heavy because there’s no breaks, just constant playing and really loud." In fact, when performing with Sunswitch on stage, things occasionally got so loud that he was no longer able to produce a tone with his lips and the sound pressure was so intense that he didn't have contact with his mouth piece anymore. Taking this energy as their point of departure, the band didn't waste any time documenting it on record. In 2012, they released their debut, a one-sided LP simply titled Yodok 1, which Hellmut Neidhardt, writing for tokafi, praised for "developing an astoundingly dense vision of in-the-momentness without the disadvantages of either hiding behind an obscure, impenetrable concept or stoically sticking to a single idea or motive throughout the entire length of the performance." Follow-up #2, recorded over the course of two days in the studio, was even more gloomy and powerful, managing to combine a lyrical sense for melody with a subcutaneous mood of impending disaster. 

At the heart of both albums is an utterly unique interaction between two instruments only few people would consider complementary – tuba and drums – and between two musicians playing them in utterly unconventional ways. "I never intended to be a doom/drone/metal tuba player“, reveals Lo, "I grew up in marching bands, and my main tuba inspirations are from the jazz scene, along with Robin Hayward, a Berlin-based improv tuba player. It sort of started with the band Pelbo, a band we formed at the conservatory. I started exploring with my guitar pedals from back in the days when I wanted to be a guitarist." He soon found out that if he combined these pedals with a massive bass amplifier, he was able to create sounds that were even more rich in low frequencies than an electric bass guitar, with much more sustain and with huge distortions. This unparalleled wall of subs would quickly turn into his trade mark. Lo is still constantly challenging himself with evolving both his sounds and expression as well as controlling the distortion created in the process by using a microphone on top of the bell of the horn. For Järmyr, too, his approach to drumming was shaped not so much by concrete planning or intellectual concepts, but by hours and hours of practising, performing and experimenting. When I ask him about the respective roles within Yodok, he tells me he hasn't actually thought about that a lot: "The drums and cymbals are just tools to create sound and contribute to the music. There are no borders, but a deep mutual understanding of what we're creating. We trust each other completely, and that trust gives us complete freedom." 


Breaking through
Another breakthrough moment occurs when Järmyr, searching for music by Cult of Luna and another personal favourite, Switchblade, on the web, discovers a video of Fear Falls Burning live in Antwerp, on which Magnus Lindberg and Johannes Persson from Cult of Luna as well as Tim Bertilsson from Switchblade are participating. He realises in that very instant he has found the music he has always been searching for. The related Fear Falls Burning album Frenzy of the Absolute, released on the then-influential and now sadly defunct Conspiracy Records, is a crystalisation of all of his musical ideals and after spending many hours  listening to it, he finally writes Serries an email offering a collaboration. Against the odds, the response is positive – so positive, in fact, that they decide to book a session at the Athletic Studio, Halden, almost straight away to record music together. The interaction is remarkably easy-going and natural, right from the moment Serries disembarks from the plane, as Lo remembers: "We just picked him up at the airport late at night, drove to the studio, had some beers before going to bed. The next day, we got up, set up the gear, soundchecked and just started playing. Immediately there was an interaction. Dirk just fit perfectly. It sounds different than Yodok #1 and #2, but in at the same time  there was a connection." It is already clear at these early stages, that this is not just another collaboration, but a new band with ties to the core duo, yet enough new elements to warrant a name of its own.  Certainly, with the long road the early incarnation of Yodok had to take in mind, the efficiency of the new ensemble is remarkable: The trio play just two pieces of music during the studio session, 45 minutes in total. Once the tape has stopped running, they know they have the all the material they need for their first album.

Despite the geographical distance, all of the musicians are eager to take the material on the road. After a year spent tweaking the details of the release, a  gig has finally been scheduled for the 7th of June as a lead-up to a short, four-date tour through Belgium and the Netherlands. For Serries, these dates have the additional suspense of serving as initiation rites for his newly founded New Wave of Jazz imprint, inspired by a DIY spirit and artists like Sun Ra. Although few among his audience would have guessed so, jazz in all of its incarnations has always played a vital role for him both as a listener and an artist, with all of his recent releases taking cues from the tone and philosophy of classic modal and electric jazz. Improvisation has become even more important for Yodok, too, since there is hardly any time to practise any more and none of the members has any idea, during a concert, what the other will do ("Sometimes he will start before I’m ready, sometimes he’ll start when I’m done", says Lo, drily). Järmyr stresses the importance of the genre's focus on 'honesty, action and reaction' for Yodok as well, claiming that he would need 100 pages to name all the different points of contact between jazz and his own approach. Perhaps he doesn't need to. The best moments are always the silent ones, the instances when they don't talk after a show. When there's nothing left to be said, the members of Yodok know they've made their point most clearly. 

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Yodok on Facebook
Homepage: Yodok III on Facebook'
Homepage: Tomas Järmyr
Homepage: Kristoffer Lo
Homepage: Dirk Serries
Homepage: The Perfect Hoax Records
Homepage: New Wave of Jazz Records