The Norwegian trio Supersilent—trumpeter Arve Henriksen, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, and live electronics player Helge Sten, aka Deathprod—have built a strong reputation in the international avant-garde since first coming together in 1997. (Drummer Jarle Vespestad was the group’s fourth member until 2009.) Their methodology has always remained the same: pure improvisation. They don’t meet up or rehearse before concerts, and they walk into the studio cold.
Their first album was a three-CD, three-hour collection called 1-3, which was also the first release on the Rune Grammofon label. The following year, 1998, saw the release of 4, but 5—a collection of live recordings from 1999 and 2000—didn’t appear until 2001. In 2003, they put out 6, which seemed like a calculated effort to be prettier and more conventionally melodic. Two years later, they released 7, a DVD of a complete 2004 performance, with no track breaks. The music was often quite beautiful, but once you pressed Play, you were in for the long haul. Their 2007 release, 8, was another studio album. After Vespestad left the group, they made the enigmatic and somewhat mournful 9, which documented another entire concert, this one featuring all three members playing Hammond organs. The music was not unlike early Tangerine Dream, and quite beautiful in a dark way.
The material on 2010’s 10 was actually recorded prior to the concert documented on 9, and featured more acoustic instruments, including piano, than usual. They also released 11 that year; it contained additional music from the sessions for 8, and was initially released only on vinyl, though a CD appeared eventually. Their final Rune Grammofon release, 2014’s 12, was a collection of short pieces recorded at various locations and mostly focused on synth drones and abstract atmospheres.
The group are now releasing their music through Smalltown Supersound, but their methodology and the visual presentation of their work hasn’t changed—each album comes in a monochrome sleeve with the credits in lower-case white type.
Supersilent’s first album, 1-3, began with a 29-minute track, and three more equally long pieces appeared on the three-disc set, earning them a reputation for extended exploration that they haven’t always lived up to. Their previous release, 2016’s 13, had two pieces that pushed the 13-minute mark, but two others were less than three minutes long each.
On 14, they’re making the most concise music of their career. The longest piece runs 5:39, and the shortest a mere 1:01. Most tracks sound like interludes on a prog album—ambient synth drones slowly fill the sonic landscape, Henriksen puffs out a few soft notes in his flutelike style, and the music fades away. On “14.4” we get a surprise with the brief appearance of drums, whether programmed or played by a bandmember it’s hard to say. The track sounds like a 90-second excerpt from a tribute to Miles Davis‘s “He Loved Him Madly,” and it’s easy to wish it would have gone on much longer. The slowly shimmering keyboards on “14.5” also sound like they could have come off Get Up With It, though there’s a hint of Tangerine Dream‘s Zeit, too.
There are moments, usually about halfway through certain tracks, where things get loud and even noisy, but the majority of this music is extremely quiet and subtle. It sounds like the score to an existential 1970s European movie set on an abandoned space station. The joy of collective improvisation is the moments that display real communication between group members, but there’s relatively little of that here, and the extraordinarily abbreviated pieces offer no time for anything to develop. The album’s final track is the longest, and it takes nearly a minute just to rise to the threshold of audibility. By the four-minute mark, it’s a suite of ominous synth zaps and gong-like sounds that would go perfectly with the psychedelic conclusion of Saul Bass‘s 1974 the-ants-are-going-to-conquer-us movie, Phase IV. Ultimately, Supersilent are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and 14 has moments of beauty—all their albums do. But it feels more like notes toward a potential future project than a finished release.