The Norwegian rock band Motorpsycho have been a global rock institution since the 1990s, releasing somewhere around two dozen studio albums, collaborations with artists like Ståle Storløkken and Jaga Jazzist, and a fistful of live releases. The core duo of guitarist/singer Hans Magnus Ryan and bassist/singer Bent Saether have been constant presences; Tomas Järmyr is their current drummer, replacing Kenneth Kapstad (2007-2016) who had replaced Håkon Gebhardt (1991-2005). Helge “Deathprod” Sten, also of Supersilent and a well-known solo artist, has also been a frequent Motorpsycho collaborator throughout the decades, and the band added a second guitarist, Reine Fiske, for two albums in 2013 and 2014.
Their sound has changed substantially over the years. In the beginning, they blended indie rock, grunge, and alternative metal, but they add elements of prog, jazz, and even country and folk musics on a track-by-track basis. The vocals have the same hoarse, whiny quality not unlike Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, on that band’s earlier, noisier, better records, with wavering, shouty harmonies on the choruses. Live, they’re a throbbing, exploratory force, transforming their material into noisy monster jams tempered by the occasional tenderly psychedelic ballad. As a consequence, their Roadwork series of live albums may be the best introduction to the band for a new listener. Each one showcases a different facet of the Motorpsycho sound, and also demonstrates their willingness to experiment. Four of the five volumes have recently been reissued as deluxe vinyl editions, with CDs inserted in the jackets.
Roadwork Vol. 1: Heavy Metall iz a poze, hardt rock iz a laifsteil was recorded at various European shows in 1998. The band had established a strong reputation with albums like Demon Box and Timothy’s Monster, and their latest at the time, Trust Us, featured the song “Vortex Surfer,” a slowly building anthem that was named the “song of the millennium” by a Norwegian radio station the following year. This set documents Motorpsycho in crush-kill-destroy mode for the most part. They combine “Superstooge” from Trust Me with “The Wheel” from Timothy’s Monster, turning the whole into a 16-minute, mostly instrumental space-rock journey. But that’s nothing compared with the nearly 31-minute “K9 Suite,” which combines “Un Chien d’Espace” from 1997’s Angels and Daemons at Play with a version of Pharoah Sanders‘ “Astral Travelling” and other things. They also cover the MC5‘s “Black to Comm.”
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Roadwork, Vol. 2: The MotorSource Massacre was recorded in 1995 at Konigsberg Jazzfestival, and originally released in 2001. For this one-off show, Motorpsycho were joined by Deathprod and The Source, a jazz quartet featuring saxophonist Trygve Seim, trombonist Øyvind Braekke, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. The result is a startling, if uneven, combination of free jazz and psychedelic noise-rock, with plenty of horn solos, deep bass throb and sprawling jams. The version of “The Wheel” here is over 22 minutes long, and leads seamlessly into the nearly 10-minute “Finske Skoger” (translation: “Finnish Forests”) and the similarly long “Dreams”—taken all together, it’s basically a 40-minute medley that sounds like a cross between Bitches Brew and the Melvins.
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Roadwork, Vol. 3: The Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse has never been available in this format before; it was originally bundled with the double DVD Haircuts. Recorded at the Paradiso in Amsterdam in 2002, it begins slowly and gently, with a version of “Stained Glass” from 2000’s Let Them Eat Cake. It’s a dreamy ballad reminiscent of Mercury Rev or Café Tacvba, but it slowly builds to a massive crescendo, the perfect lead-in to “Custer’s Last Stand (One More Daemon),” from 2002’s It’s a Love Cult, which is built around a staticky roar of a riff deeply indebted to Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. As the set climaxes, they turn “Hogwash,” from their 1991 debut album, Lobotomizer, into a 21-minute voyage through the stars, followed by a stomping 15-minute version of “S.T.G.” from 1996’s Blissard.
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Roadwork, Vol. 4: Intrepid Skronk was recorded at various shows between 2008 and 2010, and serves as a document of drummer Kenneth Kapstad‘s first few years with the band. It’s the only Roadwork album not to be part of the recent deluxe vinyl reissue series, because it’s always been available as a double LP. The first half consists of two side-long explorations—the 21-minute “The Bomb-Proof Roll & Beyond,” and the nearly 19-minute “All is Loneliness.” The latter track was about five minutes long and mostly acoustic in its original version, on Demon Box; here it’s a massive hippie-prog jam, somewhere between the Grateful Dead circa 1969 (endless fractal guitar lines and ragged vocal harmonies) and Träd, Gräs och Stenar (setting up a minimal groove and riding it off the edge of the earth…that is, until it becomes a skull-powderingly loud psychedelic noise epic like Fushitsusha covering the Butthole Surfers. Kapstad’s drumming is jazzier than Gebhardt’s ever was, giving the music a loose, shambling feel that inspires Ryan and Saether to ever more sprawling improvisations. The shortest track here, a version of “Wishing Well” from 1997’s Starmelt EP, runs 7:26, and it builds to a Jane’s Addiction-esque throb as the crowd responds with stunned joy.
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Roadwork, Vol. 5: Field Notes – The Fantastic Expedition of Järmyr, Ryan, Saether & Lo live in Europe 2017 is the most recent installment in the series, and it’s also the longest; it’s a triple LP, or a double CD. Although they were on tour supporting a new album, The Tower, only one track from that record, the opening “Ship of Fools,” is heard here. Indeed, the bulk of the set is made up of material going back to 1990s albums like Angels and Daemons at Play, Trust Us, and Blissard. Again, the presence of a new drummer—this was Tomas Järmyr‘s first tour with the group—inspires fundamental changes to the band. He’s a hard-hitting drummer who’s mostly interested in laying down a groove and gradually building the intensity up to a point where it’s easy to imagine his bandmates turning around and giving him “What the fuck—are you trying to kill us, dude?” looks. The nearly 31-minute version of “Un Chien d’Espace” ebbs and flows like a series of volcanic eruptions; the calm parts only make you anticipate the next blast with that much more fear and trembling. The 24:25 “Lacuna/Sunrise” starts out atmospheric and almost shoegazey, but by the end it’s more like the sound of the world being swallowed by the sun. This album, massive and unrelenting, demonstrates that after nearly 30 years, Motorpsycho are still committed to unscrewing the top of the listener’s skull like a jar.
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