The Eivind Aarset 4-tet “Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind Of Journey”

I’ve never been to Norway, but with the latest from Eivind Aarset’s 4-tet, Phantasmagoria, or A Different Kind Of Journey, I get a taste. Aarset’s work always has a tonal richness to it. Phantasmagoria traverses both expected and unexpected zones but combines the varied landscapes into an expansive sonic journey. Laced with ECM leanings and a crystal clear vision, there is a lot of space to explore.

Aarset’s guitar phrasings are his calling card and he shows off an impressive range throughout Phantasmagoria. Opener, “Intoxication,” begins as if it’s descending from cotton candy clouds, diffused with a lightness that rings in Aarset’s rich tones and Audun Erlien’s synth. While the rhythm builds slowly beneath the surface, the temperature rises, and distortion kicks in, changing the sonic scope of “Intoxication,” pushing it back toward the heavens. Aarset’s emotive playing explodes through the speakers like icy tendrils spreading everywhere before the piece exhales, falling back to Earth.

All through Phantasmagoria are these surprising tributaries where Aarset and crew end up on different courses through different wildernesses. “Outbound” climbs with a sense of urgency propelled by heavier rhythms and darker timbres. It’s like scaling a jagged grey mountain knowing there’s an invitation waiting on the other side. Suspended in the warm aqueous flow of “Manta Ray” are formless, shapeshifting figures buoyed by Arve Henriksen’s enchanted trumpet passages. Saturated with a weightless energy, “Manta Ray” is an intoxicating aural cocoon.

Continually, Phantasmagoria builds and destroys, though with a gentle touch. Closing the album is the dueling paths of the massive subterranean howl of “Inbound” and the gentle beauty woven through “Light on Sanzu River.” Together, they create a moment. “Outbound” pushes the heart rate, shooting prog-infused energy shards into every direction with thumping beats and laser-focused guitar beams. Blood pumping, the comedown hits even harder. 

Aarset is clever, though, and even if it is a sort of coda, “Light on Sanzu River” etches itself firmly in the memory banks with ethereal grace and ambiguity. These delicate ambient tones wrap around us like a warm blanket, holding space to embrace stillness and appreciation for the journey we’ve completed. Guitar chords leave a melancholy trail of detritus as a reminder that even though we’ve finally arrived, it was never easy and there’s only a moment to rest before heading out into the wilderness again. Phantasmagoria is a wonder.

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