Album: The Return of the Sons of Ra
Review by Reed Burnam
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

In a fashion true to their dedication to formlessness and improvisational exploratory maneuvers, Finnish native sons and power post-jazz trio Bogdo Ula are back with their newest full-length, The Return of the Sons of Ra.  And it just may be their deepest excursion into open space yet.  The Return of the Sons of Ra comprises nine tracks of long-form experimental compositions that run the gauntlet from cold interstellar panegyrics, to bustling deep space technical wizardry, stretching out laterally to encompass even those wholly disjointed and anarchic event horizons. 

Coming on the heels of a steady stream of recent full-length releases, including most recently 2011’s Prisoners of Freedom and 2012’s excellent Crash Canis Majoris, Bogdo Ula’s newest is yet another gem of a record by a damned talented and versatile band, and another meaty slab of experimental improv and avant post-jazz that is listenable, literate, and often head-turningly well-played.  Add in that the record is nearly 100% one-take, free improvisation centered loosely on themes both visual and theoretical, and you begin to get a picture of what’s in store on this one.  Recorded over five days in the Finnish countryside, The Return of the Sons of Ra showcases once again that the band’s approach of incorporating Zappa’s idea of “instant compositions” into their avant-jazz stew is bearing fruit.  So fasten those seat belts and prepare for lift-off, because this one is a mover and a shaker.

Bogdo Ula’s present line-up consists of guitarist and tone-bender Samuli Kristian, bassist and low-end technician Jean Ruin, and drummer/percussionist Ivan Horder expressive and explosive flourishes.  Since 2010’s Charge, when Ruin’s bass was imported to fill out the duo composed of Kristian and Horder, Bogdo Ula have managed to evolve with each subsequent release.  Culling together disparate lines of influence from Zorn to Zappa (with a dash of Sun Ra, Beefheart, and Hawkwind thrown in for taste), the group’s sounds have oscillated between twin poles of melodic, technical exposition and a nearly all-out postmodern amorphousness, indebted to decades of sonic dismantlement at the hands of everyone from Peter Brotzman to John Cage.  While Bogdo Ula’s compositions tend to accentuate the trio’s penchant for jazz-rock, 2012’s Crash Canis Majoris, and especially their most recent release The Return of the Sons of Ra, have begun to drift even further away from fixed points and firm horizons, drawing the group deeper into the free jazz/ambient soundscape nexus.  A great step for a maturing band that has no problem delivering on the technical prowess, these extended forays into interstellar space are bound to be intercepted positively by their listening public back here on earth, and are a window into an evolving sound being churned out by a group musicians refusing to compromise for the sake of tonal safety. 

Taking off with the hushed whispers of album opener “Yours ‘til the End of Dance”, Bogdo Ula are quick to establish mood and shape, though by the turn of subsequent track “Sons of Ra”, it’s clear that the approach has shifted somewhat since 2011’s Prisoners of Freedom.  While that album tended to rely heavily on a type of meandering, post-Hendrix guitar squall over Ruin and Horder’s competent rhythm substructure, The Return of the Sons of Ra has a lot more space to it, literally and figuratively.  “Sons of Ra” is as airtight as a hyperlock over Ruin’s wandering bass grumble, while adjoining track “Killing Horizon” is moody and restrained until opening up at the midpoint and letting Kristian’s guitar theatrics launch.  “Full Hyperspace” slow builds until letting go, with full tilt skin-bashing by Horder underneath Krisitan’s finger-tapped guitar lines, while “Aludra” starts off (and remains) brooding and congested, skulking about under the fluttering instrumentation.  An album standout, “Io Gas and Coal Company Wish You Bon Voyage” highlights all three players in their own syncopated niches, with a soothing celestial wind of a melody line whispering through the bass and percussion, and does well to illustrate some of the restraint and air Bogdo Ula are allowing into their compositions (a necessary element for any improv instrumental outfit).  Not content to rest long, “Arcs Come Down” is another standout, angular and jostling and never situated in anything that could be said to resemble a ‘groove’.  Good stuff.  “Flank Speed” returns the favor, pumping up the volume to a near fever pitch under Kristian’s tone-shifted guitar lines alongside Ruin and Horder’s propulsive rhythm section.  Finally, “I Left Tomorrow (1,5 Parsecs in No Time At All!)” finishes the album out on the atonal track, sounding vaguely metallic and nowhere near melodic, adrift in some extraterrestrial ocean. 

Bogdo Ula keep on exploring, and in the process, keep on challenging themselves to push onwards and ever upwards.  As a result, The Return of the Sons of Ra stands amongst their best and most mature work, soundly showcasing all the technique and talent this trio has at their fingertips, while pulling back when necessary so as not to drown any one composition.  Kristian, Ruin, and Horder have put together a project that pulls it all together, and you might want to take a listen.

Review by Reed Burnam

 

Album: The Return of the Sons of Ra
Review by Nick DeRiso
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

They gathered for five days at this countryside studio in Finland, plugging in and recording what happened. And what happened, as Bogdo Ula began crafting the completely improvised Return of the Sons of Ra, was one of the most inventive, unconventional and, frankly, quite loud things in recent memory.

Guitarist Samuli Kristian, bassist Jean Ruin and drummer Ivan Horder spend so much time drawing outside the lines here that the point of having paper at all seems silly. Bogdo Ula stripes the walls with their boundless creativity.

“Yours ’Til the End of Dance” opens the project with a spacious intrigue, as Kristian’s dark guitar lines intertwine with a series of layered explorations from Horder on the cymbals. Eventually, a searing cadence begins to takes shape, but only in brief spurts. Ruin’s bass flourishes only add to the track’s abiding sense of certain doom. “Suns of Ra” begins well out into the stratosphere, as Kristian’s experiments with sound take on a decidedly alien bent. A dissonant feedback from Ruin is accompanied by these apocalyptic runs across the kit from Horder towards the song’s end, creating an enveloping moment of brilliant confusion.

The Return of the Sons of Ra continues to unfold in much the same manner of its remaining seven tracks, none of them shorter than four and a half minutes and several going more than seven. These are musical conversations being held in real time, with a premium put on out-of-the-box ingenuity. At one point, for instance, Ruin loosens his bass strings in order to achieve something outside the instrument’s typical soundscape. At another, he simply bangs the bass on the floor.

“Killing Horizon” paints a portrait of enveloping rage, as Kristian unleashes fists full of serrated lines. Horder and Ruin set an active, portent-filled foundation for these journeys of the mind. “Full Hypersurface” returns this project to deep space, as Bogdo Ula work with darkness and silence. There are times when the tension of their pauses is gorgeously unbearable. Then, as if finishing one another’s unspoken sentences, the trio leaps into a scorching, anthemic conclusion.

It’s tempting to categorize this as jazz, if only because of its improvisational nature. But, really, The Return of the Sons of Ra has more to do with the endlessly inventive free-form weirdness of Frank Zappa on albums like Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar. Tracks like “Aludra,” with its girder-shaking bass lines from Ruin, octopus-armed rhythmic explosions from Horder and bloody-fingered riffing from Kristian are simply to rock-focused – to completely heavy – to have a reference point in the world of jazz, even during the 1970s heyday of fusion.

“IO Gas&Coal Company Wish You Bon Voyage,” as if on cue, provides another rocket-ride respite, with Kristian settling into a contemplative vibe while Ruin and Horder sprinkle asteroid dust everywhere. This musical ebb and flow gives the musical narrative found on The Return of the Sons of Ra a few needed moments to exhale. They are grounding moments, even if the sounds are utterly out of this world. By this, the second half of Bogdo Ula’s album, what comes next has become apparent, however: “Arc’s Come Down” arrives like a dirty bomb next, boasting a combination of stunningly guttural, animalistic sounds from this inventive trio. Unlike many of the more aggressive tracks here, this one never settles into anything resembling a groove, though. There are no boundaries on this song – or, really, on this album.

After a series of twilit thoughts, “Flank Speed” doesn’t so much coalesce into a song as begin to fall apart – at full speed, and full volume. Bogdo Ula then closes out this brain-bendingly interesting journey with “I Left Tomorrow,” a suitably weird walk through sounds that are by turns completely mystifying and then utterly ferocious.

Review by Nick DeRiso

 

Album: The Return of the Sons of Ra
Review by Alex Henderson
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Fusion and electric avant-garde jazz are not the same thing.  Yet there are times when the two successfully intersect, and that is what happens on The Return of the Sons of Ra.  This is the fourth album by the Finnish power trio Bogdo Ula, which consists of Samuli Kristian on electric guitar, Jean Ruin on electric bass and Ivan Horder on drums.  Their music, although avant-garde and full of outside improvisation, is not free funk in the Jamaaladeen Tacuma/Ronald Shannon Jackson/Ornette Coleman & Prime Time/James “Blood” Ulmer sense.  And they aren’t fusion in the melodic way that Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Yellowjackets and the Mahavishnu Orchestra are fusion; tracks like “Sons of Ra,” “Aludra,” “Arcs Come Down” and “Yours ‘Til the End of Dance” are much more avant-garde than that.  But when it comes to providing electric avant-garde jazz with a lot of feedback, distortion and rock muscle, Bogdo Ula know what they’re doing.  This is an appealing effort that draws on direct or indirect influences that range from Frank Zappa to Anthony Braxton to King Crimson to space rock.

Bogdo Ula’s publicity bio cities the trailblazing tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane as an influence.  Coltrane, of course, always operated in the acoustic realm whether he was playing hard bop, post-bop modal jazz or free jazz; he didn’t live long enough to witness the explosion of either fusion or electric avant-garde jazz.  But as different as this 2013 recording is from Coltrane’s work, one can see why Bogdo Ula would consider him an influence.  Coltrane was known for having a probing style of playing, and the word “probing” describes what Bogdo Ula do on “Killing Horizon,” “Full Hypersurface,” “Yours ‘Til the End of the Dance” and other selections.  But The Return of the Sons of Ra doesn’t have the crushing density that Coltrane went for during the last few years of his life.  The free jazz that Coltrane recorded in 1965, 1966 and 1967 (the year in which he died) could be downright brutal: it was intense, harsh, unforgiving sensory assault that went for maximum density and didn’t offer the listener much breathing room.  In contrast to that type of relentless intensity, Bogdo Ula’s outside improvisations make a lot more use of space.  That is one thing Bogdo Ula has in common with the avant-garde jazz explorers who came out of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), who fashioned a more reflective, contemplative, less harsh style of outside playing in the 1960s and 1970s.  In that sense, one can compare  “Aludra,” “Sons of Ra,” “Io Gas & Coal Company Wish You Bon Voyage” or “Full Hypersurface” to the AACM explorations of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams (although those artists made their mark in jazz’ acoustic avant-garde and didn’t have the crunching, rock-minded electric guitar that is an indispensable part of this album).

And as abrasive and dissonant as things get on “Flank Speed” or “I Left Tomorrow (1, 5 Parsecs In No Time At All!),” it is something that Bogdo Ula build up to.  Some of the really blistering free jazz recordings (Coltrane during the last few years of his life, saxophonists Charles Gayle and Ivo Perelman, pianist Cecil Taylor) have gone for maximum sensory assault and came out swinging from the get-go, whereas The Return of the Sons of Ra builds up to its more intense and abrasive moments.  That said, no one will mistake this 54-minute CD for straight-bop or an album of Tin Pan Alley standards.  The material has a free-form outlook, and Bogdo Ula never have a standard melody/solos/ melody format like one typically finds in swing, hard bop or cool jazz.  This is definitely electric avant-garde jazz-rock, but it is avant-garde in a way that is quite nuanced.

Albums as left-of-center as The Return of the Sons of Ra are an acquired taste, but for those who like their avant-garde jazz with a lot of rock muscle, it isn’t a bad listen at all.

Review by Alex Henderson