[Rune Grammofon, 2022]
Intro: Dimitris Kaltsas
The first two solo albums of Hedvig Mollestad are both great and quite different, but share one common feature: they are essentially concept albums and although this seems easy any instrumental record, one listen is enough to be convinced, and immerse yourself in a peculiar and welcoming sonic environment. Ekhidna (2020) was a stunning introduction to a multi-layered musical world, with the guitar as a guide without any jazz ambiguity, and what’s more with a clear distaste for any sort of formula. Tempest Revisited (2021) was a pretty risky investment too in this mix of jazz-rock and prog rock (borderline avant-prog), with a stronger atmospheric element, and its final success was equally impressive.
The end of 2022 marks Hedvig’s return with her most ambitious venture yet. Following her inspirations based on ancient Greek mythology and harsh Norse weather conditions, Maternity Beat is based on family life and social justice in a time of immigration crisis. And this time she and her band are accompanied by the great Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. If we also take into account the participation of Ståle Storløkken, the comparison with Motorpsycho’s The Death Defying Unicorn is inevitable. But ultimately, misplaced…
A personal vision, a collaborative wonder
Is there a boat on the horizon? The imposing opening with the female voices and the suspenseful ending (On the Horizon Part 1) is the ideal introduction to the record and its concept, with its cliffhanging ending being justified by an amazing riff, while the jazz fusion / prog rock development with brass and percussion (On the Horizon Part 2) unfolds a side of the flawless orchestration that is revealed in the following tracks.
After this dual introduction, interest is further intensified with the mysterious Do Re Mi Ma Ma. The slow driven noir jazz based on Ellen Brekken’s double bass provides the perfect background for the narrative violin and brass phrases, before transitioning into a darker setting with the dramatic development of Mollestad’s guitar solo that fades into that same bassline.
The drum intro by the great Torstein Lofthus announces a new transition, this time to almost funk jazz and then pure jazz fusion, with Adrian Løseth Waade’s violin reminding us of Zappa’s fusion period, and Ståle Storløkken’s keyboards prepare us for Mollestad’s grand entrance into a triumphant second half. The chamber music opening of Little Lucid Demons/Alfons continues in the same vein. Look for swing, look for flow, look for beat, then take it away…, with the guitar and wind instruments creating a wonderful dipole which gives way to a wonderful vocalese closing.
The next surprise comes from the past. The version of All Flights Cancelled from Ding Dong. You’re Dead. (2021) by Hedvig Mollestad Trio injects groovy rock immediacy and this performance “takes off” (no pun intended) with Storløkken’s stunning keyboard solo and the reminder of a post-pandemic world is added to the social context of the concept.
The subsequent return to a mysterious, noir setting finds words with the seemingly psychedelic narration which ends with absolute clarity. Like a bird I will give her wings, like a tree I will give her roots, like a mother I will let her grow into her own shape. The sweet closing is the perfect precursor to the final section with the two longest tracks.
The atmospheric first half of the title track is one of the highlights of the record, creating depth and building anticipation for the orchestra’s development. The rare imagery power, the masterful ambient build-up and the soothing ending make it probably one of the best instrumental compositions of the last several years and rightfully a future classic. Predictably perhaps (?), Maternity Suite is the exact opposite of Maternity Beat, an all-out electric jazz fusion / prog assault, with all participants contributing to a frenetic, technical, groovy, epic grand farewell. The two Maternity epics are something like Hedvig’s yin and yang, two equal, opposite, yet complementary aspects and perhaps her two best compositions to date.
All in all, Maternity Beat is undeniably another risky success by a very daring artist. The only negative on her third solo album is the uneven flow of the tracks which does not help the listener. However, after the first listen, this feature may actually work the opposite way round. Mollestad’s contribution to the prominence of the guitar as a lead instrument and a compositional tool on her own terms is really impressive. Her multi-dimensional playing style equally flatters jazz, progressive rock and hard rock and this is mainly due to the freedom that her every phrase exudes. However, what makes her really unique is the way she approaches orchestration. What Maternity Beat, Ekhidna and Tempest Revisited have in common is the originality of arrangements and the rejection of compromises. In this album, the partnership with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and the top musicians of her band is a triumph for her, for all the participants and for the amazing contemporary Norwegian jazz / rock scene as a whole.
9 / 10
Right when we (or at least I) started to think that 2022 was just “fine” in terms of new releases, Hedvig Mollestad comes to make a statement with Maternity Beat, and a collaboration with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. And while the resulting album shouldn’t be a surprise, after her previous excellent releases, Maternity Beat still amazes, excites, and surprises with its deep musicality, diversity, and the ability to create soundscapes using the full talents of the Orchestra. Whether we’re talking about the sax and the drumming on Donna Ovis Peppa, the funky bass and theatrical violin in Do Re Mi Ma Ma, or the brass in On The Horizon, Hedvig Mollestad excels with the songwriting here.
While she creates spaces for all of the Orchestra to shine, her guitar performances are also stellar, with great grooves, and deep guitar rhythms and she showcases why she should be considered at the top of her class. The resourcefulness, humor, and emotion of the album are also accompanied by a great concept. Naturally, Maternity Beat deals with Mollestad’s experience with motherhood (Her Own Shape is a moving ode to motherhood) but also deals with also with the experience a family of immigrants has in our age. A magnificent record.
9.5 / 10