Raoul Björkenheim and eCsTaSy – eCsTaSy [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform Rune 373, 45:43 [2/3/14] ***1/2:
(Raoul Björkenheim – producer, electric guitar; Pauli Lyytinen – tenor, soprano, bass saxophone, kalimba; Jori Huhtala – contrabass; Markku Ounaskari – drums)
What is eCsTaSy? It could be an XTC jazz cover band; while that is an overdue idea, that’s not correct. Or maybe it’s a rave-oriented, dance-fusion group named after the ubiquitous party drug? A worse concept; thankfully not a real one, either. In this case, eCsTaSy [that’s not a misprint] is a metal-jazz hybrid quartet which integrates jazz, avant-garde and free improv. The foursome is led by Finnish-American jazz guitarist Raoul Björkenheim (best known for his work with Bill Laswell in Blixt), with three Finnish artists: saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen (a talented, experimental player in Europe’s fringe-jazz scene), contrabassist Jori Hutala (who has collaborated with David Liebman and Billy Hart), and drummer Markku Ounaskari (who has a long list of credits in the Finnish jazz, avant-garde and free improv community).
On the quartet’s self-titled debut, eCsTasy performs music thematically or philosophically similar to Thumbscrew, Sonar, John Zorn’s Naked Truth and other likeminded acts. Thus, if listeners are already attuned to the dissonant, no-holds-barred material from those musicians, then eCsTasy should be another entity to appreciate.
The 45-minute, nine-track outing opens with the furious “El Pueblo Unido,” seemingly titled after a famous South American protest song. While the title is in Spanish, the tune has no obvious connections to Latin jazz, South American indigenous folk forms, or anything else related. Björkenheim’s aggressive electric guitar is at the forefront, with liberal use of sustain, controlled feedback, and heavy-metal flourishes. Lyytinen comes and goes, often maintaining the melody and at other times echoing Björkenheim’s lines. If there’s any samba in “Subterranean Samba” it’s buried beneath a façade of unrestricted noises which include slashing arco bass, machine-like percussion, a potently-processed guitar demonstration comparable to distorted electric keyboards, and deeply wheezed sax. Second piece, “Sos,” has a rock and groove-based foundation, with hefty riffs from both guitar and Lyytinen’s multiple saxes, including some bass saxophone, which takes the place of a typical electric bass. Here, Lyytinen is afforded ample room and space to display his chops, sometimes providing a Coltrane-esque brashness. Near the four-minute mark, the music dips and ebbs and Hutala offers a progressive bass solo.
The foursome can be as forceful as a fanged viper with a bad attitude, but it’s not all screams, bites and lacerations. The Lewis Carroll-inspired “Through the Looking Glass” has an understated imbalance. While the number is not scorching hot, it does have an erratic quality which generates tension, particularly via Björkenheim’s fitful digital electronics, his stuttering guitar lines and the bass and drum’s restless rhythmic bed. The cinematically shadowy “Deeper” is suffused with Huhtala’s dark arco bass, Lyytinen’s breathy bass sax, Björkenheim’s whispery effects and Ounaskari’s spectral percussion. “Threshold,” which comes near the end, also has a quieter demeanor. Lyytinen utilizes his soprano sax to produce an appealing tone, underscored by Ounaskari’s deft handling of brushes on cymbals and gently struck cymbals; and Björkenheim’s pedal effects, which create a ductile characteristic akin to synth rather than guitar. The music builds up to a more stamping sound by the tune’s conclusion, but doesn’t lose a moody feature. A post-bop-meets-rock feel pervades the final cut, “The Sky Is Ruby,” where the group swings and also gets a bit wild.
TrackList: El Pueblo Unido; Sos; Deeper; No Delay; Through the Looking Glass; As Luck Would Have It; Subterranean Samba; Threshold; The Sky Is Ruby