Cuneiform Records released quartet's third album Doors of Perception in October 2017.
In the mansion that is Raoul Björkenheim’s music there are many rooms, and the Finnish-American guitar explorer opens up a particularly vivid and volatile new portal with Doors of Perception, his third Cuneiform release with his quartet Ecstasy. The album captures an extraordinary working ensemble stretching into transfixing new spaces, settings defined as much by texture, vibe and sinuous melodic lines as by rhythmic and harmonic structures.
Featuring the innovative drummer Markku Ounaskari, Björkenheim’s longtime partner in sonic exploration, the young and dauntingly prolific bassist Jori Huhtala and saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen, Ecstasy continues to expand its sonic palette. Over the course of seven years the musicians have forged a riveting communion. Capaciously inventive, rigorously gutsy and unapologetically Nordic, the music flows from the forbidding Finnish landscape and the hothouse Helsinki scene that gave birth to the band.
“The band has really developed during the last few years, getting to a point that I had hoped we would reach,” Björkenheim says. “We went into the studio with some sketches, but most of the music was created spontaneously, and you get a sense of this ongoing conversation. We couldn’t have done this five years ago. We didn’t have this kind of trust yet.”
One sure sign of the quartet’s deep connection is the way they distill ideas. Sequenced as a stream of consciousness train of impressions, Doors of Perception features 10 tracks that all clock in under five minutes. Rather than exploring extended forms or expansive soundscapes the music is marked by pithy statements and compressed drama. Which isn’t to say Doors of Perception lacks grandeur. The album opens with “Ides of March,” a portentously churching piece that breaks like a thunderstorm, only to clear with a thumping bass passage and a thick, ringing guitar chord. “Buzz,” the album’s briefest piece, is a jittery journey that seems to pass through a multitude of stations, driven by Ounaskari’s spidery cymbal work.
Maybe the group was heading to the beach, as the wary but persistently spacious “Surf Bird,” follows, featuring Lyytinen’s lilting East-meets-West wood flute. The album’s longest track, “Elemental” is also the most pleasingly consonant, a snaky sojourn that keys on Lyytinen’s keening soprano sax and Björkenheim’s meaty strumming. With its blustery bass sax and rearing guitar line, “Talkin’ to Me?” is appropriately pugnacious, while the title track proceeds like an invitation to an enigmatic subterranean realm. The album closes with “Ecstasy Dance,” a righteous blast of joy that whirls off to the horizon, suggesting yet another door well worth entering.
While Björkenheim is no stranger to long musical structures, he was after a different kind of narrative arc on Doors of Perception. Much like each piece is a finely calibrated aural microcosmos, the album proceeds from track to track with its own internal logic. “In a way it is countercultural,” Björkenheim says. “It’s an invitation to a listener to enter in the world that might be disorienting. I don’t hear a walking bass, is this jazz? It might be a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also an invitation.”
With Doors of Perception, Björkenheim and Ecstasy offer something all too rare these days, a musical journey in which the destination is unknown and unpredictable.
Raoul Björkenheim: electric 6– and 12–string guitars
Pauli Lyytinen: bass, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, wood flute
Jori Huhtala: doublebass
Markku Ounaskari: drums and percussion