Album: Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation
Review Alex Henderson
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Avant-garde jazz started in the acoustic realm with fearless explorers of the 1950s and 1960s such as alto saxophonist/trumpeter Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor, pianist/bandleader Sun Ra and tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. But eventually, jazz’ avant-garde took a hint from fusion and incorporated the influence of rock and funk. And Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation is a perfect example of instrumental avant-garde jazz that has an abundance of rock muscle and thrives on amplification and the use of electric instruments.

This 2014 release is the fifth album of Bogdo Ula, a Finnish trio consisting of Samuli Kristian on electric guitar, Jean Ruin on electric bass and Ivan Horder on drums. These instrumentalists favor the classic power trio format (amplified electric guitar, amplified electric bass and amplified drums), and even though there are only three instruments, Bogdo Ula achieve a big, thick, full-bodied sound on abstract offerings such as “Total, Kinetic and Poetic Energy,” “If You Can’t Beat Algebra,” “Diamond Head” and “Back in Blue” (as opposed to “Back in Black,” which was the title of a famous AC/DC song and album from 1980). None of the selections on this album adhere to the standard head/solos/head format that has been employed in a wide variety of jazz, from swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion. Bogdo Ula’s improvisations are free-form and free-spirited, and while “A Thousand Plateaus,” “Diamond Head” and the title track have coherent themes, this is not the type of album where one should expect to hear a head followed by improvised solos followed by a return to the head. The performances are much more stream-of-consciousness than that.

Upon hearing Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation described as electric avant-garde jazz, some people might wonder if Bogdo Ula are playing free funk (which is a style associated with electric artists like bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time). But “Back in Blue,” “Total, Kinetic and Poetic Energy” and the other tunes on this 38-minute, six-track album are not free funk in the usual Tacuma/Ulmer/Prime Time sense. Bogdo Ula play electric avant-garde jazz on their own terms, drawing on direct or indirect influences that range from saxophonist Anthony Braxton to electric Miles Davis to King Crimson to space rock. Bogdo Ula is far-reaching when it comes to influences.

There is no shortage of distortion, feedback and dissonance on Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation: Bogdo Ula is not afraid of the abstract or the cerebral. In fact, they thrive on it. But at the same time, none of the performances sound haphazard or arbitrary. Bogdo Ula embrace the abstraction of “A Thousand Plateaus” or “Total, Kinetic and Poetic Energy” with a sense of purpose. They make these inspired performances sound like they were meant to happen, which is much different from simply throwing things up against the wall randomly and hoping that perhaps some of them might stick. And for all their dissonance and abstraction, Bogdo Ula bring plenty of nuances to this album. Put on “If You Can’t Beat Algebra,” “A Thousand Plateaus” or “Back in Blue,” and one hears nuance galore.

But despite all that nuance, music this abstract is not everyone’s cup of tea. Avant-garde jazz, be it the acoustic recordings of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) or the electric free funk of Tacuma and Ulmer, is not designed for mass consumption. Like other releases in Bogdo Ula’s catalogue, Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation is the type of album that must be accepted on its own defiant terms. And for those who are broad-minded enough to accept that going in, this is a consistently intriguing listen.  

Review by Alex Henderson


Album: Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation
Review by Dan MacIntosh
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bogdo Ula’s Cult of the Harmonic Oscillation was recorded live in the countryside of Finland, and due to the odd nature of this music, one might wonder if these Finnish folks may just have a little too much time on their hands.

Bogdo Ula is a trio comprised of guitarist Samuli Kristian, drummer Ivan Horder and bassist Jean Ruin, and the five experimental pieces that comprise this album sure don’t sound like pop songs. Each track was improvised, and you can tell. It’s a little like Ornette Coleman’s free jazz experiments from the 60s, only instead of using acoustic jazz instruments, this trio plays on amplified rock instruments. Oh, and it should also be noted that bassist Ruin utilized an old bicycle and beat-boxes to achieve some of this recording’s odder sounds. He also applied a looping device on his base guitar to create some of the rhythmic patterns that repeat. You may also notice how drummer Horder is never what a musician might call ‘in the pocket.’ He’s not one to create a beat the way, say, rap producers do, for the other musicians to improvise over. He goes to the beat of a different drum, so to speak, which is something entirely in his own head.

Guitarist Kristian is also given free space to do just about anything he darn well pleases. For instance, “A Thousand Plateaus” finds him throwing down buzzing licks that sound as much like a machine as a guitar, while the other two play about the closest thing this act gets to an actual beat or rhythm.

It’s noteworthy that the word “oscillation” is included in this album’s title because this music is truly mechanical. There was a musical movement in the 80s called industrial music, which was built many times by the banging sounds of hammers and buzzing drills. However, that style of music was an ode to the rhythm of industry. Bogdo Ula, on the other hand, is more of a tip of the hat to the modern day electric sounds. It’s almost as though a computer learned how to make improvised music, and this album was the result.

It should be emphasized that Bogdo Ula will not be everybody’s cup of tea. Just as free jazz pushed the boundaries of jazz music, these sounds completely re-contextualize rock music. Much like a game of limbo, where participants shout, ‘How low can you go?’ it’s as though these players got together and asked themselves, ‘How weird can we get?’ To them, though, this is not weirdness, but creativity. These are the sorts of artists that seek to find out what might happen if some of the regular musical restrictions, such as melody and rhythm, were thrown out the window. If you have certain expectations on what a composition must include, you’re already limiting where it can go. Without such expectations, however, the music can go anywhere and everywhere.

The downside to music such as this, though, is that it doesn’t require multiple listens for many. Hit song makers speak about a song’s ‘hook’ often. That’s the part of the song that hooks you in, so to speak, and keeps bringing you back again and again to listen to it. Without melodic a hook, which is how these tracks can honestly be described, it’s not a thing where you would say to yourself, ‘Wow, I really need to hear that one again because I’ve been humming its chorus all darn day!’

Nevertheless, one with ears to hear is suitably impressed with the crazy creativity it took to make this project. There’s a ghost in this machine, and it’s alive and well.

Review by Dan MacIntosh