The Swedish saxophonist Martin Küchen is a really nice guy, but also an intense individual whose music has always had a deeply serious undertow to it. Hellstorm, his new vinyl release on the Mathka label is filled with dark musical imagery reflecting horrific events from Berlin and Poland around the end of the war and Sarajevo decades later. A line taken from his father’s war diary; “Man erkennt langsam das elend, das über uns geokommen ist” serves as a kind of subtitle for the release. My German is close to non-existent, but there is something in there about “the misery being nearly upon us”. In his online notes about the album, Küchen states that the music itself stands aside from all of this, not wanting to have anything to do with it all, but then he admits to “forcing” track titles onto the music that link back to the atrocities of war and the human degradation that comes along with it, hiding in the shadows. Drawing clear links to the sounds here from specific events then isn’t possible, but there is a feeling of anger, despair, and deep sorrow in this music that gives it a claustrophobic edge. This is serious, sometimes menacing, always wretchedly despondent atmosphere to the five tracks here. Its not a happy listen but its a very good one.
The first side of the disc opens with a ten minute long piece named Allemagne Anneé Zero (Hellstorm) after a film by Roberto Rossellini depicting the hardships of living in immediately post-war Berlin. This track, a live improvisation, like all of the pieces here, is for baritone sax with an electronic tampoura and detuned radio providing a soft base for not just slow yet piercing shrieks but also a desolate, solemn and stunningly beautiful semi-melody that I dare anyone not to be moved by. The tampoura purrs a grainy drone as Küchen pours everything into this track. Its less abstract than we have learned to expect from Küchen’s solo material, and thoroughly, humanly, despairingly emotional at a very simple level. This track alone makes the album.
The remaining four pieces are equally intense affairs, staying slow, searching, but the music returns to the more abstract, breathy explorations of the sax we have come to expect from Martin rather than the more soulful feel of the opener. All of the tracks here were recorded together, in one take, inside a large resonant church in snowbound Sweden, late in 2010. Thought the first half of the first side exudes a deeply personal intensity, everything here feels immediate, very human and the connection of the sounds to the person making them, however abstract them may be, alway seems very real and tangible. Whatever he says about the music’s avoidance of the themes driving this release, they are in there, closely entwined around every hiss, purr and squeal.
Hellstorm is Martin Küchen’s fourth solo album, and the finest yet, which is saying something, as the last couple were excellent records. Küchen achieves something special in his solo music in that he is always reaching forward for new sounds, shapes, approaches , and yet he also manages to keep everything very close and personal. He achieves music that pushes at both personal and genre-bending boundaries and yet retains a deeply felt level of passion and soul in his music not often tied to such an area of work. Very impressive then, and a record that left me wanting to read more about the events driving and haunting Küchen as much as it made me want to put the needle back onto the record again.