LM Dupli-cation – 26th September 2016
Thor & Friends is the eponymous full length debut from the avant-chamber ensemble formed by its namesake, polymath percussionist Thor Harris. Anyone who has heard – or, more so, seen – Swans in their current incarnation will be aware of Thor Harris’ remarkable percussion skills, and likely know that he is a man worthy of his name: a burly, bearded, hirsute figure who appears to have been transported from the mists of Norse mythology and onto the stage, surrounded by chimes and gongs, he’s something of a drumming deity and a figure far more fearsome than Chris Hemsworth.
Swans fans may, then, be somewhat surprised by this album. Surprised, but not disappointed. Despite it being Thor’s project, the percussion is not a dominant factor: it’s very much about the contributions of his ‘friends’, namely Peggy Ghorbani on marimba and Sarah ‘Goat’ Gautier on marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, organ, voice, mellotron and piano. Harris also plays, alongside myriad percussion instruments, wind instruments including some of his own devising. The core trio are joined by Jeremy Barnes on accordion, drum, and mellotron, Heather Trost on violin, voice and marimba, John Dieterich on guitar, bass, castanets and special effects and Raven on bone flute, and electronic sounds.
The choice of instruments may provide an indication of what to expect, but to be clear, there are no thunderous crescendos to be found during the nine tracks on offer here, and Thor and Friends is a remarkably graceful, elegant and understated work. In place of volume, there is atmosphere.
Soft chimes ebb and flow and soft, supple droning tones rise and fall before soft, soothing strings layer down over them on the album’s first track, ‘White Sands’. It’s a multifaceted, mood-shifting piece which sets the album’s gentle, hypnotic tone. Airy rhythms bounce from softly struck xylophone bars, and the general leaning toward instruments fashioned from natural materials lends the pieces a soft, organic feel. Supple woodwind melodies drift and trill effortlessly through semi-ambient passages, and there’s almost a sense of playfulness about the light, skipping, rippling motifs of ’12 Ate’. Elsewhere, ‘Lullabye for Klaus’ presents a darker, more brooding outlook, but nevertheless manages to lift the listener with its cyclical motifs.
Many of the pieces would work well incorporated within film or series soundracks, and while the compositions in themselves aren’t overtly evocative of anything specific, they possess a malleability allows their context to be ascribed by the listener. If ‘pleasant’ strikes as being a wet, nondescript word, in reference to Thor and Friends it most certainly is not: we live in a world befouled by unpleasantness, we’re jaded, cynical and mean. Thor and Friends offers a rapturously pleasant listening experience, in many ways simple, natural, and honest. It’s a magnificent antidote to modern times.