Annbjorg Lien,
Aliens Alive
(Grappa, 2002)

Aliens Alive is exceedingly well named.

Norwegian fiddler Annbjorg Lien creates amazing alien landscapes with her music, captured here at various locations on her 2001 tour of Norway. Mixing original music with traditional folk melodies, Lien and her band create a tapestry of wonderful musical colors and textures. It's an aural sensation that must be experienced again and again.

Lien plays keyed and hardanger fiddles, sometimes solo but usually accompanied by a broad array of instruments and exotic vocalizations. The music is, in turns, mournful, majestic, soulful and happy.

The album begins and ends with solo tunes featuring the hardanger. On "The Rose" and "Fykerud's Farewell to America," the distinctive drone makes the mournful tunes sound more like duets than solos.

The organ, sampled chorus and distant flute combine on "Loki" for a very eerie, exciting sound. The album progresses into the epic "Origins," with powerful tonal combinations, including more sampled vocals, bass drones, organ crashes, wailing guitars and more. There are also examples of Nordic throat singing; the vocal acrobatics by Ailo Gaup, which includes varied grunts, snorts and whistles, is very unusual, alien to my ears -- and again, very exciting.

"The Water Lily" is a lovely duet for fiddle and organ (with some touches here and there by guitar and flutes). "Morning Mood" is an odd track featuring the hardanger, briefly plucked, and the occasional "ah" by Hans Fredrik Jacobsen; it recalls a piece by Edvard Grieg but serves no real purpose here. "Knepphalling" sounds very much like a traditional folk dance, while "Luseblus" goes for a bluesy feel. "Astra," a moody piece, leads into the jazzier "Inoque." "Aliens Alive" begins with a baroque touch and develops into a delightful montage of music, with the hardanger dancing lightly over all of it.

At times, it sounds like something Dead Can Dance might have produced -- and that's high praise indeed. Lien certainly isn't alone in this project -- she's joined by several talented musicians who help to assemble this exquisite package -- but she and progressive keyboardist Bjorn Ole Rasch get much of the credit for writing or arranging the bulk of the music on this CD. The result is simply extraordinary.

The presence of the audience is very subtle; it's easy sometimes to forget that this is a live recording. But it must have been an amazing live experience for those lucky enough to be there! The penultimate track ends with rousing applause -- and man, I wish I'd been a part of that crowd!

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 November 2003

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