Album: Prisoners of Freedom
Review by Reed Burnam
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The newest album from Finland’s Bogdo Ula (Prisoners of Freedom, 2011) is a mind-bender.  Space-odyssey guitars, a cooking jazz-rock rhythm section, spot-on technical musicianship and an overall sense of total artistic freedom combine to make this disc a stellar listen.  Light years away from any hint of pop conformity or herd-music mentality, Prisoners of Freedom is a sonic tour-de-force that relentlessly chases down its own muse and comes out the other end of the rabbit hole with some really beautiful and at times challenging compositions. 

It’s been said that improv music is primarily musician’s music, and though this reviewer has always taken issue with the underlying presumptiveness of the statement, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the logic there.  Bogdo Ula create a sound that, while perhaps not specifically aimed towards a musician’s demographic, is bound to generate plenty of technical oohing and aahing from those possessed of a musical predilection, both in tastes and abilities.  However, one need not have any musical background to enjoy the fruits of these labors.  Bogdo Ula crafts an unapologetically heady, jazzy maelstrom that pulls from a long history of experimental, psychedelic, and avant-garde influences stretching back over half a century.  And they also rock, for good measure. 

Present of course are the free-jazz spasms of Ornette Coleman, Peter Brotzmann, and late-era Coltrane, the freak-outs of Zappa and the Mothers, Metheny, and McLaughlin, the space rock explorations of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, the ecstatic Kraut-jazz-noise of Can, neo-shredders like Vai and Satriani, not to mention a whole generation of Japanese day-trippers receiving psych-communion at the altar of the mighty Acid Mothers Temple.  And of course let us not forget the overplayed but never overrated Hendrix and the Experience.  The Experience’s most insane power trio moments are often referenced herein (see around 1:35 of “Sounds from the Moonbog”, for starters). 

Guitarist Samuli Kristian, Drummer Ivan Horder, and Bassist Jean Ruin comprise a tight, communicative unit, quite adept at extended improvisational excursions due to the mainline running between Horder and Ruin’s propulsive, expressive rhythm lines and Kristian’s inquisitive, volatile fretwork.  There’s a nice overall groundwork of call and response, ideas being hashed out in the open air, riffs and runs being allowed ample space to blossom and bloom; all that stuff that makes good improv so difficult to do, and for some of the less inspired amongst us, more difficult to listen to (hence the “musicians’ music” designation).  Prisoners of Freedom works out in its twelve tracks a road-map of adeptly maneuvered and expertly played sonic and textural landscapes that constantly cross-reference and return one to the overall solidity of this formidably talented threesome.  While the general field of cutting-edge experimental instrumental music (if there can be an actual corralling together of such disparate outfits) has moved on to embrace the outlandishly intense and downright confrontational in recent decades, Bogdo Ula’s brand of probing space-jazz weather reporting is always a welcome old friend at the table. 

Individual tracks on Prisoners of Freedom are more or less distinct expeditions in their own right, compartmentalized units that stand alone as well as contain generalized sonic tangents which crop up across the entire album.  Tracks like “Sounds from the Moonbog”, “Chicane Runway”, “Dolphian Scale”, and “My Heart is on My Sleeve” take on an edgy, frenetic tone that skews more towards classic free jazz and fusion, while tracks like “Lava Flow”, “The Sand of These Dunes is Recommended by the Sandman”, “From Now on we Move only by Night”, and the title track “Prisoners of Freedom” tend to align more with the flange inflected acid-soaked psych-jazz/rock of Hendrix’s finest on-stage moments.  At times tracks take on an aggressive fuzz-drone buzz-bomb approach, such as with the fiery “Identify Yourself”, which comes close to encroaching on the scorched-earth policy of bands like Rhode Island’s mind-blowingly phenomenal Lightning Bolt.  Peppered in for good measure are more atmospheric pieces like “Towards the Star” and “Pick up the Beams”, tapping into a collective unconscious of space-jazz-fusion rhetoric that is a well needed reprieve from the amazing yet near constant guitar heroics found most other places on the album. 

Holding the whole thing afloat is the musicianship, which is animated and top-notch.  Ruin’s bass work is flat-out amazing, and Horder’s percussion is agile and adept at fully committing to whatever the moment demands.  Together the rhythm section is damn-near flawless, a powerhouse.  Kristian’s guitar work, both in tone and technique, is fantastic, and his bag of tricks runs pretty deep.  Coupled with the fact that 99.9% of what you hear on Prisoners of Freedom is both improvisational and single-take recordings (there’s only one overdub on the album), it’s safe to say that this trio is the real deal.

Overall analysis: this record is great.  Really great.  The only complaint is more of an opinion piece rather than any sustained criticism of the album’s contents, which are excellent.  Still, it would be nice to hear on future releases a decision to experiment more with ambient space and more controlled and long-form atmospherics, as the technical side of what Bogdo Ula is doing is well established and could eventually be seen as more theatric than exploratory.  Impressive as it is, the urge to shred is often an easier route to chart than the minimal, and a more nuanced blend of approaches would take Bogdo Ula to the next level.  Can’t wait to hear what comes next from these guys.

Review by Reed Burnam

 

Album: Prisoners of Freedom
Review by Justin Kreitzer
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Finnish avant-garde instrumental jazz-rock trio Bogdo Ula self-released Prisoners Of Freedom, their fifth album in as many years, on September 24th.  The talented and very prolific band was named after a majestic mountain near the city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and formed by guitarist Samuli Kristian and drummer Ivan Horder.  To round out the rhythm section they added bassist Jean Ruin just last year.   Inspired and influenced equally by John Coltrane and Frank Zappa, they create a transcending fusion of free jazz, punk and prog-rock with a free-flowing improvisational spirit.  Prisoners Of Freedom was recorded live in the studio with the one exception of overdubbed guitars on just one of the songs.  It was also produced, mixed and mastered by the band themselves, showcasing their broad talent and DIY approach.  

The aptly titled “Lava Flow” opens the album with tumbling drums and winding guitar notes that flow just like liquid-hot lava down a mountain.  “Sounds From The Moonbog” follows with flickering, funky Primus-like bass licks and scaling guitars while the drums careen wildly off of every note.  The longest composition on the album lasting nearly eight minutes, “From Now On, We Move Only By Night” plays out like a suite with chiming guitar harmonics on the atmospheric beginning, while boiling slowly to a frenzied jam session in the middle, and culminating into a hypnotic end to the song.  On the other hand, “Identify Yourself” is two straight minutes of furious, seemingly out of control jamming with traces of the flighty paranoia the title implies.  “Chicane Runway” is built upon spacey guitar textures with a just a touch of early blues rock’s emotional weight that would surely make Jimi Hendrix proud.  “Sacred Service” represents the middle of the twelve song album and this would be the point where the average listener would maybe start to lose interest, as the noodling may seem like it is starting to meander a little too much.  And in fact, some of the songs are just begging for some sort of release or to settle into a head-nodding groove for even just a few seconds, but that is just for those uninitiated with the improvisational avant-garde art form.  Either way, stand out track “My Heart Is On My Sleeve” and its more traditionally jazz-oriented sound and sweeping drum patterns, overdubbed guitars and an excellent bass line, pulls the listener right back in to the fold.  And one of the more experimental songs, “Towards The Star” is highlighted by shimmering guitars that create the mellow melodies representative of cool Jazz along with an off-kilter rhythm and a plucky bass line for a nice contrast.  “Dolphian Scale” proves to also be titled appropriately as the dueling bass and guitars seem to be having an atonal, underwater conversation while the frantic drums crash like waves on the beach.  “The Sand Of These Dunes Is Recommended By The Sandman” is set to soaring guitars that sound more like confident, rock-n-roll soloing than the jazzy, up and down guitar runs of the previous songs for another standout moment.  The energetic title track “Prisoners Of Freedom” continues with a more rock-leaning sound and some jittery, finger-tapping guitar shredding that showcases guitarist Samuli Kristian’s depth of range and the band’s excellent improv skills as a whole.  The album closes out with the spaced-out and atmospheric breathe of air, “Pick Up The Beams”.   

On first listen to Bogdo Ula’s Prisoners Of Freedom, your brain is almost trained to expect to hear a high-pitched, prog-rock vocal invade at any second but after a just few minutes, you forget all of that as the music captivates and transports you to another place altogether.  And that is what great music does.            

Review by Justin Kreitzer