Somnambule - Writing About Music

Wibutee ~ Playmachine

It’s been a long wait since 2001’s Eight Domestic Challenges, Wibutee’s second album but their first in the musical area they’ve since been happy to explore. What makes Wibutee such an interesting proposition is their stated interest in the textures and resonances of electronic sound as well as a fascination with the possibilities of melding those attributes with improvisation. Although unevenly programmed, Eight Domestic Challenges was brimful of promise. Expectations inevitably ran high that their next album would follow hot on its heels and deliver on its predecessor’s potential. Instead, a recent interview revealed that Wibutee almost split up shortly after its release. Thankfully they survived their crisis and Playmachine is the result.

The title track begins Playmachine sounding tinny, fractured, funky and skeletal – as if made up of moving parts that knock and clatter together. In fact, the sound of this track summons up a very particular ghost – that of Miles Davis’s 1972 album On The Corner. More than three decades since its release, it still represents a gold standard in galvanising alienation, groove and rootedness. What has since come closest to Miles’ vision was music way outside of the jazz pantheon: jungle and techno – percussive, rhythm music as a base for extemporisation - and this is where Wibutee come in. Håkon Kornstad’s sax sounds remarkably like a trumpet: in masking the sound of his instrument he’s part of a long line which can be traced back to Jon Hassell’s harmoniser, to Miles Davis’s wah pedal deployed in his later 1970s work, and right back to Bubber Miley’s use of plunger mute. Shapeshifters all of them, armed with technology to wrongfoot expectation and stimulate attention on the part of the listener.

After five intense minutes, Gloer steps back lightly upon pendant electric keyboards troubled by glitches and soothed by bowed double bass. A clicking rhythm emerges out of this gentle backdrop and Kornstad – his sax now clearly identifiable – traces a gentle melody echoed by supple keyboards and joined by a second version of himself to create a reflexive duet. Country Practice is another piece of gentle loveliness, full of willowy pedal steel guitar (courtesy of guest Bjorn Charles Dreyer). We Are In Space, So Are You spits out Wetle Holte’s sterling percussion like broken teeth, grabs you by the chin with Per Zanussi’s rubbery wah bass and blows hot, treated sax breath in your face. It’s a partial return to the precipice of the title track, leavened by a honking melody and Rune Brøndbo’s space-race digital melodies.

Kornstad is generally the most identifiable soloist – occasionally appearing in kaleidoscopic, multitracked form - against rhythmic and electronic elements provided by the rest of the group. Accommodating the acoustic sound of the saxophone into the group's predominantly electronic soundscapes is one of Wibutee's biggest challenges and it's one they rise to convincingly. Per Zanussi's double bass frequently acts as foil and bridge and the palette of sound colours is chosen with evident care. Ultimately Kornstad's sax serves as a humanising, focal element. While this might appear to contradict one of electronica's primary concerns - that of excising the corporeal and examining the result - it works well in the context of Wibutee's desire to create a hybrid from two such apparently antithetical forms as jazz and electronica.

Playmachine is not as caustically monolithic as On The Corner, preferring instead to opt for a more varied approach. This ultimately makes for a highly enjoyable and convincing fusion (is that word allowed yet?) of jazz, dub and electronica. Place Playmachine alongside Matthew Bourne's The Electric Dr M - both show musicians creating highly contemporary music by exploring the territories first mapped by Miles Davis and Herbie Mwandishi Hancock, while taking account of the key electronic musics that have developed in the intervening years. Repeated listens reveal Playmachine’s wealth of sonic and musical detail. No more crises please: the world needs Wibutee.
Colin Buttimer
August 2004
Published by the BBC