By Peter Margasak
Norwegian duo BALLROGG, aka reedist Klaus Ellerhusen Holm and bassist Roger Arntzen (best known from the piano trio In the Country), have reinvented the intimate, lucid jazz-based sound of their self-titled 2008 debut, where they interspersed originals with tunes by the likes of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. On the new Insomnia (Bolage) most traces of jazz language are gone—instead the music is a sober exploration of pure sound, ghostly harmony, and minimalist composition (one track is a concise adaptation of a Morton Feldman piece). On "Woody Creek," a series of contrasting episodes interrupted by Holm's gorgeously lyrical alto solo, guest violinists Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Ronnekleiv add massed, repetitive pulsations reminiscent of Philip Glass; another guest, Lars Myrvoll, enhances the rustic elegance of "Sleepwalker" with judiciously strummed acoustic guitar and quiet laptop noises. Holm doesn't necessarily need help to create the effects he wants, though. With carefully deployed amplification and feedback, he gives his playing—whether hovering resonant tones or gentle churning patterns—a massive core and an incandescent aura.
Fellow Norwegians VERTEX, aka guitarist Petter Vaagan and percussionist Tor Haugerud, delve even deeper into abstraction on their knockout debut, Shapes & Phases (Sofa), augmenting their instruments with electronics and live sampling. Short pieces like "Blue Shift" and "Hutong" merge fractured lap steel and acoustic-guitar licks (a la Tetuzi Akiyama) with sparse bursts of percussion texture, but for most of the rest of the album it's difficult to tell what's making any particular sound. Vertex's sonic landscapes—ominous drones, bowed strings and metal, terse synthetic crackles, hard-to-identify field recordings, ringing thwacks on what's probably an electric guitar—straddle the gap between free improvisation and collage.