Staggering, career-defining work from Norwegian vanguard Helge Sten (aka Deathprod), who drives relentlessly forward on this illuminating new tome, using Harry Partch's extremely rare metal and glass instruments to pen a major new work that’s been years in the making and somehow resets modern experimental mores. Truly one of the most exceptional, most unclassifiable albums we've heard in ages - one that does a rare thing of having immediate impact - only to further expand deeper into the psyche with every listen. If yr into anything from Harry Bertoia to Harry Partch to Hindustani Classical music or Michael O'Shea - it’s crucial listening.
When Helge Sten was a teenager, he found himself drawn to the outsider experiments of American theorist and instrument builder Harry Partch. He went on to study electronic music at art school, and by the age of 20 was already recording music using homemade electronic instruments and tape machines that helped define the term "dark ambient", despite it existing a few paces outside of the genre's now-established modes. Sten was not academically trained in music theory or acoustic instrumentation, but instead developed listening and production skills that established him as a cult figure in the Norwegian music scene, performing in genre-agnostic ensemble Supersilent and engineering a grip of by-now classic releases for the Rune Grammofon and Smalltown Supersound labels. All of this experience plays into Sten's latest album "Sow Your Gold in the White Foliated Earth" - the most ambitious and bewildering record of his career so far.
Sten might not have done it on purpose, but it sounds as if this album is an attempt to course-correct an experimental landscape that's been plateaued by aesthetic repetition and gobby purposelessness. Crucially, there's very little to link this album to Sten's classic (and endlessly referenced) plates like 2004's doomy "Morals and Dogma" or 1994's "Treetop Drive" other than pure vibes. The wavering, murky oscillations are all but gone, replaced by sonorous clangs and dulcimer-like hammered strings. Sten concocts a brew of complex, mysterious tonality and rich, scientifically-engineered textures that harmonises with a contemporary wave of artists exploring non-standard tuning and pre-baroque instrumentation, while simultaneously pushing the sound into a new epoch. It's really that good.
Sten's starting point for the record came in 2014, when Oslo's Ultima Festival granted him access to Harry Partch's collection of custom-made instruments. Partch's primary interest was in microtonality, a reaction against the Western standard of equal temperament. When the Western hierarchy decreed that music should be standardised using 12 intervals, we lost a system of emotional expression that we've not fully managed to claw back. And while plenty of artists have attempted to break down that system, it's still a controlling - often invisible - force that limits our prospects as artists and listeners: even our contemporary technology is invariably soft-locked into following a system that's no longer materially relevant.
While many 20th century avant-garde composers tried to modify the equal temperament system, Harry Partch was fascinated by a different method of tuning entirely: just (or pure) intonation, an ancient system that allows a much larger number of intervals. More recently, artists like Mark Fell, Kali Malone, Duane Pitre, Caterina Barbieri, Ellen Arkbro - even Aphex Twin - have experimented rigorously with just intonation, helping to re-introduce it into the modern experimental lexicon. And while microtonality isn't alien to non-Western forms such as Chinese, Middle Eastern or Indian classical music, it breaks down the logic of Western hegemony to hint at a flexibility that opens the floodgates for complex emotional expression.
Partch's instruments use 43 intervals, which gives players access to a rich spread of microtones to experiment with. This was a fascinating challenge for Sten's collaborators, the Cologne-based Ensemble Musikfabrik, who were compelled to re-train themselves to play in this mode, even going through the costly and intricate process of assembling an entire set of Partch's instruments. 'Sow Your Gold in the White Foliated Earth' isn't a recording from the shows, but Sten's audio score. He sat with the material for years, and slowly fell in love with its unblemished, unhurried and chillingly dry purity; a snapshot of Sten interfacing with history.
It's impossible not to be moved by the scope of 'Sow Your Gold In The White Foliated Earth', and it's not crucial to have any level of academic training to notice its overlaid nuances - for Sten himself the project was a ritualistic rather than an intellectual endeavour. As a seasoned minimalist and composer, Sten is able to give the instruments space to breathe without ever overdramatising their impact, and as a sonic philosopher he's able to broadcast a musical worldview that's not stifling, nostalgic or familiar, but completely new - rejuvenating even. We've had this one on repeat since it landed on our desks some weeks ago and have been ruined by its seemingly endless hidden layers, slowly revealing themselves with each new listen. For our money. it’s unquestionably one of the most startling, satisfying records of recent times.