Stein Urheim: Utopian Tales

Utopian Tales may be the most adventurous outing yet by Bergen-based guitarist Stein Urheim, even if it might be more accurate to christen it a release by the outfit assembled for it, The Cosmolodic Orchestra. Credited with guitars, vocals, tambura, Turkish tanbur, bass, samples, and electronics, Urheim's the one in charge, but the six musicians joining him—vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll (with whom he's issued three duo albums), trumpeter Per Jørgensen, woodwinds player Kjetil Møster, double bassist Ole Morten Vågan, Modular synth player Jørgen Træen, and drummer Kåre Opheim—are as critical to the album's sound as the leader. This is the kind of project where acoustic folk reveries and electronic soundscapes rub shoulders with On the Corner riffs like it's the most natural thing in the world. Consistent with that, one could choose to see the release as Urheim's tribute to artists such as Miles Davis, John Fahey, Harry Partch, and Bjørn Fongaard.

Drawing inspiration from literature, science fiction, and multiple music genres, Urheim indulges his omnivorous appetite and explorative sensibility in the ten tracks. Indicative of the imaginative mindset in play, their titles reference the imaginary locales Mikrotonia, Carnaticala, and Just Intonation Island, as well as the Selegrend Movement, a counter-cultural community established in the ‘70s near Bergen. As stylistically contrasting as the album contents are, they're united thematically in being a collective meditation on the concept of microtonality and ideas extending from it. It's worth noting also that much of the material originated out of a commission for the Voss Jazz Festival 2016 (presented under the title Traveling with the Natural Cosmolodic Orchestra), with solo pieces added after the festival for the recording proper.

Memorable moments abound, from the leader's slide guitar playing to Brunvoll's singing. “Ustopia - Part One” tantalizes the ear with the fresh breeze of his acoustic picking and the enticing effect of his slide phrasing, whereas “Just Intonation Island” stitches samples of Partch, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, and others into a wildly experimental, collage-styled soundscape hellbent on venturing into tumultuous territory. Urheim and company dig into ‘70s fusion for “Letter From Walden Two” and “Trouble In Carnaticala,” their combustible blends of sitar, guitars, bass clarinet, trumpet, and drums strongly redolent of Miles's Bitches Brew period.

There's a bit of a hippie vibe to Urheim's sensibility, something that surfaces in the words to the folk song “Hear The People Sing” and the text accompanying its lyrics in the release booklet (“Can you imagine a choir of seven billion people singing together in unison?”); affecting too is “The Clown,” a jazz-blues ballad featuring unison vocals by Brunvoll and Urheim and a nice solo turn by Jørgensen. It's fitting, however, that Utopian Tales ends with a lovely guitar setting performed by Urheim alone. As integral as the other musicians are to the forty-four-minute release, it's ultimately a reflection of his artistic sensibility above all else.

January 2018