BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa
Passing Out
CD HMS 013

by John Kealy
May 2008

     As intimidating as it is impressive, this third and final collaboration between Norway's BJ Nilsen and the Icelandic duo (of Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson and Helgi Thorsson) is exceptional. Combining the sort of dynamic and dramatic soundscapes of The Hafler Trio with a darker and less directional approach, the trio have made the sort of uneasy listening that is difficult to bring oneself to listen to but is inescapable once it starts.
     I attempted to listen to this on headphones in the office; normally the quiet background doesn't interfere with whatever I am listening to. Passing Out, however, requires full concentration and preferably proper amplification through speakers. The machine-like hum that begins the single, long piece (which goes by the title "Scandinavian Tourist") never reaches a volume that is satisfying with headphones. This is not music that is meant to be blasted very loud but it is only when a bit of power drives the sound does the full richness of the composition become apparent. The atmosphere is complete when it is listened to in the dead of night when the light is right and there is little noise from outside. Enjoyable as it is under these conditions, it does mean the Passing Out is not going to be in heavy rotation around here as it is not often I have over an hour to kill instead of sleeping.
     This is a shame because, listening environments aside, it is a fantastic piece of sound. It is very difficult to describe what is going on but both Nilsen and the duo of Stilluppsteypa have made a constantly shifting and infinitely fascinating recording. Nilsen's own hallmarks of haunting field recordings (both left raw and tinkered with) are fleshed out with synthesised sounds, weird processed instruments and, at one point late in the piece, what sounds like a Kraftwerkian synth melody dying on its feet. The different segments of "Scandinavian Tourist" bear little direct relation to each other but the album hangs together very well as a whole.
     I have missed out on the previous entries in this trilogy but will be hastily making moves to locate the other two releases. If they are half as good as this, I expect to have more than the usual number of sleepless nights.