Norwegian/British duo Food has just released their third album with ECM, their eighth overall, This Is Not a Miracle. (Get it from Amazon.) The core group consists of Thomas Strønen on drums, electronic percussion, Moog, and Fender Rhodes, and Iain Bellamy on saxophone and electronics. They’ve had numerous guests over the course of their nearly 20-year career, including trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset; on This Is Not A Miracle, the pair are joined, as they were on the previous two albums, by experimental guitarist Christian Fennesz.
In their various incarnations since 1998, the group gradually has gravitated more and more toward the use of electronics in their music, while relying on free improvisation as their primary modus operandi. This Is Not A Miracle, however, inaugurates a new developmental phase, as the initial recordings of free improvisation became merely an archive of source material used by Strønen to construct the final pieces. The end result is a set of songs with a more immediate focus, although one in many ways constructed around mood and atmosphere rather than hooks and immediacy. This is a record that washes over the listener, slowly revealing all of its different merits.
Opener “First Sorrow” sets the tone for what’s to come. Minimal percussion flirts with Fennesz’s guitar, every instrument shifting between acoustic and electronic sounds. One can’t help but to imagine possibly a desertscape, but one with technology floating around the edges, a rural form of cyberpunk. “Where the Dry Desert Ends” certainly continues this motif. The percussion picks up the pace, saxophone tones provide a bedrock with a synth line riding over the top. The drums intriguingly sound like a mix of real-time and programmed patterns.
Starting with the title track, Bellamy’s saxophone begins to play a much more prominent role. Although the solos were apparently pieced together from the aforementioned source material, there is nothing that doesn’t sound like it couldn’t have been played in real time, and apparently the group relearned the final version of the album for future concerts. Bellamy, or at least this version of his playing, comes across as minimalist, even noirish at times. One could almost compare the sound to Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, minus the charnel house atmosphere.
In some ways, This Is Not A Miracle settles comfortably into its purpose at this point. Each song investigates various aspects of the established sound, providing consistency yet also a sense of sonic exploration. “The Concept of Destiny” hints at a slight techno influence, while “Sinking Gardens of Babylon” and “Exposed to Frost” might allude more to drum ‘n’ bass while still retaining the jazz atmosphere and the understated dynamic.
If anything, things seem to get more subdued and quiet throughout the duration of the album, until the last song, “Without the Laws.” Here, the drums return to the forefront, a constantly evolving movement of stuttering beats, the hauntological whisper of drum ‘n’ bass’s frenzied anxiety. The song seems much louder than it actually is, merely in contrast to the last quarter of the album. Certainly, “Without the Laws” provides a short but satisfying contrast to an intriguing album.
Miles Davis certainly started the ball rolling with 1970’s Bitches Brew, not only in electrifying his band but with the utilization of the studio as an instrument. While Food might not be alone in carrying on this tradition, their personal sound is both idiosyncratic and well executed. Strønen and Bellamy continue to produce excellent material, enlisting a variety of guests to expand their sound palette, and in Christian Fennesz, they have clearly found someone they consider a perfect foil. One might lament the future time when this particular collaboration may come to an end, if it weren’t for the intriguing prospect of them finding new sonic spaces to explore. Either way, this is certainly a fascinating group to follow as they continue to evolve.