When I first saw Motorpsycho in concert, I had gone along more interested in the support slot by ex Supersilent member Ståle Storløkken’s Hammond-driven power trio, elephant9. But Motorpsycho were unexpectedly magnificent, much better than my patchy knowledge of their 1994 ‘classic’ Timothy’s Monster had led me to expect. In retrospect, it seems the 2007 recruitment of a new drummer, Kenneth Kapstad, led to a new phase in the band’s 23-year-long development. The reinvigorated trio’s three albums to date,Little Lucid Moments, Child of the Future, and Heavy Metal Fruit, are all ambitious prog/metal tours de force built on solid melodic foundations.
After that 2010 concert I heard that Motorpsycho and Storløkken had joined forces for that year’s Molde Jazz Festival, and so I was already looking forward to Unicorn before it was announced. What I had in mind, however, was something that harnessed their phenomenal energies in powerhouse synergy. What we actually get, in the form of their new opus, is an expansive double CD album subtitled “a fanciful and fairly far-out musical fable”.
The Death Defying Unicorn extends the Motorpsycho sound into orchestral realms, with parts for the Trondheimsolistene string octet and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (including Jaga Jazzist mainstay and ECM bandleader Mathias Eick) on brass and reeds, arranged by Storløkken. There’s also a featured violinist (Ola Kvernberg); plus Mellotron, “sonic mayhem” and gongs by Kåre Chr. Vestrheim.
The album, unsurprisingly, sounds rather indigestible at first, but that’s par for the course with Motorpsycho’s long-form structures. It takes just a couple of listens for Unicorm to emerge as just as formally coherent and satisfying a listen as their other recent works. It helps that the lyrics by bassist Bent Sæther, which narrate a seafaring yarn inspired by Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick, are nowhere near as fanciful as the album’s title suggests.
Coming after a couple of orchestrated scene-setting tracks at the start of disc one, album highlight “Through The Veil” is an epic, powerhouse Motorpsycho rocker with a second act in which the track’s themes are richly orchestrated, and yet another in which the various musical strands are deftly woven together. The second CD is, if anything, a little too restrained, with the music succumbing to the very doldrums endured by its narrative’s protagonists, who are adrift and delirious following a shipwreck. But Storløkken’s orchestrations are uniformly superb, and the core trio find a near-perfect balance between the urge to rock and the need for subtlety.