You might expect beady-eyed alertness and fierce discipline, and so it is – no drooling freak folkery from SPUNK, in spite of their mushroom-styled album title. Their speciality is a kind of car-chase excitement combining acoustic instruments, most noticeably Grenager´s foot-to-the-floor cello, with confidently acrobatic electronics. “Bipolarity” is a well sustained example: a buid-up where the cello sounds like running shoes hitting the pavement, then into a hectic race. “Eaten” has a funfair quality, tearing along in a ghost train, or maybe that squelching sound indicates we are tunnelling through an intestine. Tafjord´s held notes on French horn open up orchestral vistas. The tension between sustained tones and racing impulse is very fine, creating an epic feel also found on the opener “Tremble”… “Music has to be strong”, says Ratkje. While not exactly a macho release, “Kantarell” is a fierce one, and its virtues lie in its careening energy and and tight grip on the steering wheel.
The Wire (UK)
This provovatively monikered, allfemale improvising quartet have been working together for over 12 years, but on this, their fourth studio album, they show they´re bang up to date with the further reaches of electro-acoustic, non-idiomatic improvisation. The sounds emanating here sound uncannily in tune with the UK psych-noise underground such as one might hear wafting out of a hipster dungeon in Brighton or Leeds. All the participants are highly educated musicians, choosing to throw off their training and approach their instruments with the playful experimentation of inquisitive children, rejecting any notion of virtuosity in favour of exploring sound as a physical phenomenon. Maja Ratkje´s Dadaist sound poetry adds a further layer of mischief, as she trills and scats and mutters in a pre-Babel language of her own making and the whole thing is wrapped up in subtle electronic throbs and soothing theremin moans. Taken as a whole, this sometimes silly-sounding session is actually worthy of some serious close listening.
Heathen Harvest 2009: “Spunk are a seasoned Norwegian free jazz quartet, and their all female line-up fuse acoustic (cello, trumpet, horns, vocals) and electronic elements in a fashion that is indeed seamless. Consummate improvisers, this band has presented nine tracks of musical spontaneity with this, their fourth album, Kantarell. I’ll start by talking about the last track, “Eaten”. Sultry, sensual even, the music archly coils in a fashion at once seductive and predatory. It could be a sonic snapshot of the inner life of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The sardonic bending notes score knowing, malevolent smirks across the aural canvass, and you know that you’re in for something of a rollercoaster ride as soon as it begins! The piece unfolds with masterful dynamic control, toying with the listener’s expectations, taunting and tormenting, before unleashing into wild cacophonies. Perhaps the thing being eaten is still alive and struggling – the drama of digestion, mastication, bodily incorporation, seems spattered with the blood of a resisting victim. The piece could just as easily be a sexual voyage as a gastronomic one, the seduction and pyrotechnics of the eating in question referring to oral sex rather than some prehistoric lizard chowing down on mythic cave people. Or maybe that is the point: that food, predation, sexuality, pleasure, death, the reptilian brain, they’re all woven together and you cannot really separate them at the root. Whatever the case, this piece is just brilliant. Clever, sexy, dramatic, dynamic, humorous, and dangerous. The fact that it emerged from an improvised process is all the more impressive – not many composers could have created this with all the leisure and reflection in the world. If it seems odd that I should dwell on this one track for so much of this review then perhaps I owe an explanation. Despite the reassurances of the press release that accompanied the CD, the bulk of this album represents the worst elements of experimental, improvised music: directionless, humourless, stagnant, self-absorbed, and incoherent. It sounds like an assemblage of raw materials that could be turned into interesting compositions, rather than an assembly of interesting compositions. Tired and cliché riddled, I fear. I don’t want to dwell on that though, because these four musicians are clearly actually very talented, as the final track proves. I cannot speculate as to where the rest of the album went wrong, but whatever they did differently on “Eaten” I hope they continue to do, and quietly let the rest die a lonely death.” (Henry Lauer)
All About Jazz: “As challenging as free improvisation can be, the truth is that while it may appear to be an aimless mixture of sounds found or otherwise, in the right hands it is something that—best absorbed as a whole rather than a collection of individual parts—can be as beautiful as it sometimes is jarring and off-putting. Spunk pushes the limits of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, as well as voice; but with an injection of humorous absurdity that may, perhaps, be best experienced live as it was at the 2008 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. This all-female Norwegian collective’s ability to create sound collages with a purpose has never been stronger than on Kantarell. Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje may be the best-known of the bunch, a serious new music composer who has contributed to ECM recordings by accordionist Frode Haltli including 2007’s Passing Images, and whose own River Mouth Echoes (Tzadik, 2008) was a compelling blend of tough composition and curious spontaneity. But here she’s just one member of an egalitarian collective who, much like her bandmates, occasionally comes to the front of the mix, but is more often found as part of the overall sonic collage. Jazz may be distanced from the music Spunk makes—its reference points leaning more towards contemporary classicism—but on “Quadralogue,” Ratkje delivers a brief passage of scatting that suggests it may not be as far away as some might think. Cellist Lene Grenager pushes through the opening electronics of “Mosegrodd,” a piece that indirectly references Ligeti, but also an idiosyncratic kind of Nordic cool, as it evokes skewed images of jagged landscapes. She creates angular harmonics that act as a bed for trumpeter Kristin Andersen and French hornist Hild Sofie Tafjord’s long tones. “Ankomst,” on the other hand, pushes the limits of sound in a brief two minutes, combining sawed strings, deeply processed horns and a theremin that reaches up into the stratosphere; while “Ute,” another miniature, builds on percussive sounds, with cello and recorder creating strangely appealing sonics in a curiously traditional-sounding piece. “Tremble” is an appropriately named opener, with percussion and electronics creating an undulating sound that’s at the foundation of a piece that gradually densifies, while “The Lake,” with its long periods of near silence, is Spunk at its calmest and most spatially reverent. The 10-minute “Bipolarity” is, however, Kantarell’s strongest piece, where seeming stasis shifts almost imperceptibly, until greater percussiveness takes over, with Ratkje looping a brief vocal fragment as the piece becomes even more jagged, while Spunk approaches greater extremes both sonically and dynamically. Spunk is never for the faint-at-heart; but for those who can take its music as the evocative (and provocative) soundtrack to an imagined alien landscape, Kantarell yields plenty of dividends.” (John Kelman)
mapsadaisical: “In a spot of Money Will Ruin Everything 2-induced nostalgia, I thought it would be pretty interesting to look back at that very first batch of releases on the Rune Grammofon label, seeing how the label has evolved in the eleven years of its existence. Thinking about the label as it is now, with the likes of Susanna, In The Country, and Hilde Marie Kjersem on the roster, I expected to see a gradual softening round the edges over the years. That doesn’t seem to be the case – amongst the first dozen or so releases were albums described by the label themselves as “vaguely in the Radiohead area” and “trip-hop and minimalist country“. Rune Kristofferson’s stewardship has, it seems, always somehow steered this ship from stormy seas to safer waters and back, and with him on this deck throughout the entire voyage have been two collections of quick-thinking old hands: Supersilent and SPUNK. The members of SPUNK – Kristin Anderson, Hild Sofie Tafjord, Maja Ratkje, and Lene Grenager – seem to reconvene increasingly sporadically these days, with four years having elapsed since their last for the label. In the mean time, the members have been involved in a variety of fascinating projects, Ratkje having released an album on John Zorn’s Tzadik, and Tafjord’s solo work (for massively distorted french horn, no less) on Lasse Marhaug’s Picadisk imprint grabbing my attention a year or so ago. Once again on Kantarell these four classically-trained musicians have produced something which sounds utterly un-classical, something in fact completely un-categorisable. Acoustic and electronic elements blur together so as to render the distinction immaterial, although it does perhaps feel more organic than their previous work. “Mosegrodd” features a cello which squeaks like it is made of rubber, and some electronics which sing like crickets. “Bipolar” builds to a white noise crescendo of bleating horns and squealing strings, instruments swimming for their lives amongst squally white noise. Supersilent are a suitable reference point for the frantic improvisation of “Eaten“, although it sounds like nothing other than that band being sucked into the mandibles of a masticating mantis. The work of these two bands forms a reliably unreliable backbone for the label, and with Kantarell SPUNK are back with a delightful and thrilling career best. It is available now.”
AllMusic: “Spunk’s fourth studio CD sees the all-female free improvising quartet charting more territory. Their playful yet profound music has always been evolving, gaining assurance with each album and changing in a less tangible way. Kantarell (notice the short title, compared to earlier albums) may be a bit more electronic-sounding, although it depends on how you define electronics, and on what track you listen to. There are plenty of analog electronic manipulations of voice and French horn, at least, plus dirty home-made electronic noise amidst the strings, winds, raspy vocalizations, and miscellaneous small instruments that make up Spunk’s arsenal. A track like “Antisolar Point” is messy, noisy, almost childish but so good-humored (and short) that it doesn’t sound gimmicky. And it chronicles an undeniable facet of the group. On the other hand, the ten-minute “Bipolarity” is a master class in group listening and graceful interaction used to brush an alien but very real aural landscape. And “Quadralogue” goes the other way: four simultaneous monologues, a pile-up of solos where serendipity is left to take care of things, or so it seems. Kantarell is proof once again of the creativity and brilliance of this avant-garde quartet. That said, it is somewhat harsher than the previous two CDs, so it may not be the best place to start. The only thing missing now is a document of their live performances, where they successfully apply the same ideas to longer time frames.”
Boomkat: “The fourth album from one of Rune Grammofon’s defining and longest-standing groups, Kantarell reunites Maja Ratkje, Hild Sophie Tafjord, Lene Grenager and Kristin Andersen as Spunk, this time for a step back towards the untreated, acoustic sounds that informed their earlier output, shedding some of the electroacoustic treatments you might encounter in Ratkje and Tafjord’s solo work (or for that matter their combined output as Fe-Mail) in favour of a bedrock sound that’s rooted in naturally observed free-improvisations. ‘Quadralogue’ in particular gives some insight into how it would sound to hear Spunk close-up and live, recorded with clarity but a certain roughness so as to convey the chaotic spontaneity of it all. As musicians the quartet are all highly skilled and classically trained, yet they seem so readily able to shed any notions of conventional form and structure. On ‘Mosegrodd’ the cello seems to transform itself into the squeak of new trainers on buffed wooden floors, while Ratkje’s playfully demonic vocals reach new heights of strangeness on the visceral ‘Eaten’; when electronics do intervene its often difficult to determine what’s being obliterated by software patches and what’s left untreated – so far removed is the Spunk sound from the conventional string/horn/vocal vocabularies. It’s a great pleasure to have a new album from these noisy Norwegian ladies; along with the likes of Supersilent and Alog they helped shape that classic early Rune Grammofon roster, and they’re still very much integral to the upkeep of the more experimental side of the label’s profile. Highly recommended.”
Hair Entertainment: “Spunk is a Norwegian quartet who focus on improvisation. Their various backgrounds, classical through jazz and techno to country, keep the sound from settling in one genre. It transcends the usual habit of categorisation to bring us a sound common only to itself. Kristin Andersen (trumpet), Hild Sofie Tafjord (French horn), Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje (vocals, electronics) and Lene Grenager (cello) have been together since 1995 and Kantarell is their fourth album. Kantarell includes both acoustic and electronic elements. There is little melody and the rhythm is sporadic. It opens with ‘Tremble’ – a piece with an uneasy atmosphere dominated by, well, trembling drums highlighted by insect like noises which climax towards a more restful coda. Later, in ‘Quadralogue’, we hear more clearly the full range of sounds the four accomplished musicians are able to produce. It is the most acoustic of the tracks and pulsating form takes us from complete abstraction to a sound close to jazz. It is rougher and has a more open sound than the other tracks. Some pieces rouse ideas or atmospheres. For example: ‘The Lake’ evokes images of mosquitoes, old creaking boats and crickets breaking the calm of a lake at sunset. ‘Ankomst’ sounds like an answer to ‘who can make the most hideous noise for the longest period of time? And let’s all play at once’ There is no winner. ‘Ute’ has undertones of the Far East in a way that reminds us how far away it really is. Improvisation such as this is not for everyone. The listener needs patience, among other things, to find an appreciation for it. A style without a genre, it is both innovative and interesting, but also gives the impression of sounds searching for something more.” (Anna Johnston)