For anyone already familiar with Madness And Magic, or those who just like 70’s influenced heavy rock with a prog twist, then this trio of releases is well worth exploring.
On the wave of last year’s critically well received Madness And Magic album (reviewed positively by Velvet Thunder), Karisma Records have released remastered versions of Arabs In Aspic’s early output from the first decade on this millennium in both CD and vinyl formats. These releases give us a fascinating insight into the genesis of the band and how their unique Norwegian brand of heavy and progressive rock gradually emerged. The group was formed in Trondheim in the late ’90s by guitarists Jostein Smeby and Tommy Ingebrigtsen, with Smeby taking the vocals too. The line-up was completed by the Nyhus brothers: Eskil on drums and Terje on bass. Of these founding members, Smeby and Eskil Nyhus are still there today although rather incestuously Ingebrigtsen and Terje Nyhus are now operating an Arabs In Aspic tribute band under the name of The Flying Norsemen (the title of a song written by Arabs in Aspic)! This first line-up recorded 2003’s Progeria, a four-track mini-album which if you exclude the two-minute prelude of the title track leaves just three tracks of substance. They are however three good meaty pieces even if at this stage of their career they wear their ‘70s influences on their sleeve. Uriah Heep is the most immediate association thanks to the Hensley-inspired use of the Hammond (courtesy of guest Rune Stavnesli) but the overt ‘70s influences are also neatly mixed with the style of the recently launched (but maybe still not named) stoner movement. That curious mix is evident in the first of the three longer tracks, Silver Storm, which mixes a dreamy stoner melody line with powerfully combined guitar and Hammond chords. We then get a three-part Tolkien-inspired piece: Part 1, Shelob’s Cave is a short bluesy guitar jam which is pleasant enough but failed to give me the creeps that Tolkien’s terrifying creation merited; Part 2, The Great Shelob, which has an excellent grinding riff which did bring to mind Tolkien’s terrifying creature, even if questionable lyrics such as ‘she’s looking so pretty in her disguise’ dissipated the tension and brought to my mind images of Shelob attending a masked ball in Mordor(!); and finally Part 3, Wizard In White, another short piece but with good guitar and organ interaction again. The last track is the ten-minute Megalodon that opens in fine style with another Heep-sounding Hammond-led chord sequence but this soon gives way to more guitar-based work in the middle and later sections which is quite enjoyable but slightly rambling and hence the track does not quite live up to its potential. This is clearly a band still finding its feet but the glimpses of quality that presage some of their later developments are certainly there.
The first full-length effort, Far Out In Aradabia, soon followed in 2004 with the line-up supplemented by Magnar Krytvik on keyboards. One might assume that the recruitment of Krytvik meant they were going to build on the Heep influences, allowing the more progressive side of the band to flourish but strangely the album is dominated by bludgeoning and distorted guitars as the band lurch towards the heavier end of the psychedelic/doom spectrum. Krytvik is barely noticeable as a result. Musically though the results are still excellent. Take Arabs In Aspic II (the title of a song, even though it could have been the title of this album too) which has a brilliant Iommi-inspired riff; or listen to Seventy-two/Hair Of The Sun that is so raw and ponderously heavy that it would sit comfortably on Mountain’s Twin Peaks. These are excellent heavy rock tracks. The aptly named Talking Mushrooms is the most psychedelic piece here and the only one where Krytvik’s synthesisers play a dominant role. These are quieter moments, most notably the excellent power ballad Come To Me. We get thirty-five minutes of good and enjoyable music but then get to the one questionable choice on the album which was to conclude with a nineteen-minute jam. The band might have thought that this duration was concise enough since it apparently is an edit of an original sixty-five-minute studio jam but to these ears it meanders along pleasantly but without its two climaxes being climatic enough to be worth the long wait. Despite that slightly wasteful close, Far Out In Aradabia is a fine effort full of good moments.
By 2006, further line-up changes meant that Erik Paulsen on bass replaced Terje Nyhus, and the departing Ingebrigtsen was replaced by Stig Arve Kvam Jorgensen (try saying that after a few pints!) on keyboards. With all these changes, the band also renamed itself to Arabs In Aspic II for a period. Thank goodness they didn’t keep that name and call the next album Arabs in Aspic III! Krytik initially stayed after the arrival of Jorgensen but had left by the time of 2010’s Strange Frame Of Mind. Not surprisingly, the personnel merry-go-round and the lengthy gap since the previous album meant that Strange Frame Of Mind had a very different sound indeed. The first thing to note is that the guitars are clean – the heavy psychedelic fuzziness has been abandoned and it certainly gives a totally different feel to the material. Take the track Mørket; it’s characterised by a riff which sounds similar to Sabbath’s Lord Of This World but instead of being heavy and doom-laden it’s actually quite upbeat and energetic, and even the curious proggie middle section doesn’t feel out of place. Melodies seem to be more important to the band by this time and the excellent prog ballad Dive Into My Eye is an example of a track built simply on a good melody. The title track is another mostly acoustic and strongly melodic track, albeit with another curious prog middle section. Humour, which certainly hadn’t been present in the band’s DNA previously, is introduced in the hilarious and infectious Have You Ever Seen The Rain, part 2 (no, absolutely nothing to do with the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, folks).
For prog fans at least, the greatest interest will be in the two longer tracks which is where we see the band’s prog side first flourishing. The first of these, Fall Til Marken (sung in a language that I don’t recognise but I assume is Norwegian) has an enjoyable vocal section but the highlight is the magnificent concluding three-minute symphonic prog interplay between guitar and keyboards. The closing piece and probably the standout track is Aradabia. It has a beautiful languid melody and rocking accompaniment that creates a similar Arabic mood to that found in Camel’s Rajaz album. This almost seamlessly and imperceptibly builds up into heavy droning Hammond and guitar chords that are strangely reminiscent of the closing section of Heep’s Pilgrim. This is then followed by a delicate prog-like instrumental section with unusual textures – a glockenspiel, for one – before the Pilgrim riff returns to conclude the track and the album in great style.
Listening to these three albums in sequence, you can sense the band maturing and finding the path it would pursue over the next decade. For anyone already familiar with Madness And Magic, or those who just like 70’s influenced heavy rock with a prog twist, then this trio of releases is well worth exploring.