BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa
2008 The Helen Scarsdale Agency CD
1. The Scandinavian Tourist
The first chapter found the drink.
The second came after a night of intoxicated shouting.
The third chapter is inevitable: Passing Out.
The Nordic sound artists BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa have authored the last component to a trilogy of isolationist compositions for barren field recordings and lumbering electric drones, thematically linked in the psychotropic effects of alcohol. In doing so, they have issued a brief statement in defense of their research: "It's been four years and three studies, Passing Out being the final. Even in its most general, colloquial usage, Passing Out indicates the occurrence of a state that is incompatible with active behavior. It is possible that the individual could experience both consciousness and unconsciousness at the same time while encountering Passing Out."
Yes, Passing Out is a crepuscular recording, with the flickering of twilight further dimmed by the distant Arctic sun in wintertime and the blackened numbness of too much drink. With one singular track that spans 60 minutes, a nearly constant thrum and rumble of monochromatic low frequencies casts a grim pall upon the precisely dialed-in modulations and vibrations. Spectral guitars, maudlin tunes from haunted radios, angrily growling voices, and field recordings of wind-whipped snow and ice bury themselves deep amidst these subharmonic drones. All of these tease at the edge of perception, sculpting the narrative of the drone into a vehicle for unhinged expressionism of varying degrees of horror, melancholy, beauty, and oblivion.
The Swedish born BJ Nilsen defines his work as "focused upon the sound of nature and its effects on humans, and the perception of time and space as experienced through sound." He has numerous recordings on Touch and has collaborated with the likes of Chris Watson, Christian Fennesz, and Z'ev. The Icelandic citizens Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson and Helgi Thorsson are Stilluppsteypa, whose electronic abstractions engage absurd theatrics that mar the pristine surface of minimalism.
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. -- John Kealy
It's good to see a label committed to a work, and that the trust to explore certain roads further. Passing Out is the third album recorded by BJ Nilsen and Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson and Helgi Thorsson, the later two also known as Stillupsteypa. Passing Out of course refers to drinking, just like the previous albums. Not the drinking as a social habit, but fierce drinking as only the scandinavians can do really good. Or so it seems. For a moment I considered to buy a good bottle of this or that, and wait for the evening, drink the bottle, with pen and paper within reach and listen to this album. But it's monday afternoon and I know I have to get up early tomorrow, so it'll has to do completely sober, sunshine all round and soft spring breeze - all the wrong conditions I guess. Perhaps this contrast of good condition (all around) makes the album even stronger, I was thinking. The complete and total isolation of the music, the long passages of seemingly no action (there is just one piece, clocking it at 68 minutes), with then a sudden break, a melody filters in, the radio starts humming and field recordings - that backbone of so much in Vital Weekly and certainly here - make this an album of not just pure drones or just processed field recordings, but the strange elements thrown in, give this album a stranger, almost alien feel to it. If it's the equivalent of passing out is a bit hard to say: the act of passing out on alcohol prevents you from remembering anything. This is however their best album to date and makes a strong trilogy. -- Frans de Waard