By Saffronkeira & Mario Massa
Chance is a fine thing. Eugenio Caria, the man behind Saffronkeira, came across trumpet player Mario Massa on the TV of all places, hardly where you’d expect to be finding cutting edge musicians. The resulting collaborative album is so perfectly constructed that you’d hardly guess that its roots lay in something so coincidental. Massa’s trumpet fits alongside Saffrokeira’s austere electronic beats and ambiences seamlessly. Indeed, when it takes on an atmospheric role, whirling a dense blanket of multitracked abstraction, such as the start of “Variazione”, the two players become virtually indistinguishable. As “Variazione” continues into one of the album’s most beat-heavy passages, trumpet and electronics separate a little more, the former providing the noise that encases the rhythm and cutting through with a higher-pitched melody of long, stark notes. Balanced against this is Saffronkeira’s viscous, liquid beat. Fluid and harsh, broad ambience and specificity, are poised with precision. There’s a hint of Colin Stetson here, although Saffronkeira + Mario Massa are never quite as brazen. But, especially in the most abstract tracks like “Altered State” (which spends its five minutes circling a growing vortex of rumbles, squeals and trills), there is a similar commitment to dense textures of familiar instruments in unfamiliar contexts.
Cause and Effect sits comfortably alongside its Denovali labelmates in its seriousness and scope. There’s a clear link to Bersarin Quartett’s electronics with classical and jazz inflections, particularly in opener “Pity” whose tense, metallic beat and Massa’s wide, open sweeps of trumpet recall II opener “Niemals Zurück”. But where the Bersarin Quartett track is allowed to break and soar, Saffronkeira + Mario Massa keep theirs down, content to wind the tension up and up for nine minutes to chilling effect. This is not to suggest that Cause and Effect is derivative. It may show its influences a little more than Bersarin Quartett or Colin Stetson, but most do and the music is so compelling and individual that this is no detriment. There’s nothing wrong with having influences, after all, and fitting comfortably into the Denovali catalogue can only be a compliment. The album is also peppered with sparks of real originality. One gem is in “Umorale”, which uses what appear to be the sounds of a CD player spinning and whirring as an update on the vinyl crackle so often used in recent years for atmospheric effect even on non-vinyl albums. It’s an ingenious little twist on what can sound clichéd, and a rare hint of humour.
Cause and Effect lets loose periodically throughout its duration. “The Sacrifice”, for example, is allowed to rise from the sound of lapping waves into a pattern of long, bright chords with all the cinematic grace of a sunrise over an oceanic horizon, Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque and pleasingly understated. These moments where restraint gives way to something more majestic or tumultuous are impeccably timed throughout the album, few enough to keep you hooked and frequent enough to relieve the tension, sometimes even oppression, which characterises much of Cause and Effect. Key amongst such moments are the two choral passages whose new tone breaks through “Cause and Effect” and “SouthNorth” with an arresting drama. The simple vocal arrangements bring a hymnal quality to the two tracks (which already show the two artists at their most heavenly), a kind of cosmic gravitas which is important for the album’s theme.
Cause and Effect is, like Petrels’ Onkalo with which it also shares some stylistic similarities in the use of choral passages and more defined beats within an electro-acoustic hybrid ambience, a loose concept album. It is supposedly based around the Big Bang and its initiation of the idea of cause and effect, to which everything since has adhered. Frankly, you can take or leave this when listening to the album. It’s so broad that if a listener is inclined to go looking for it in the music they will find it – at the very least in the fact that music itself is both an effect of musicians playing and a cause of whatever the listener feels on listening – but they can equally as well ignore and the music is more than enjoyable on its own. This is perhaps no bad thing, since it ensures no listeners are alienated because of the concept, although it does seem somewhat unnecessary. It is only those choral passages that seem to specifically allude the Big Bang, in the time-honoured tradition of choral science-fiction scores (brass is also often an important component of such scores, but Massa’s playing here is generally so far removed from that grand, orchestral style that it doesn’t really carry a similar connotation).
The music alone has plenty of weight. The way “The Journey” twists and rolls between slow hammers of piano, yearning figures from Massa and an elastic, undulating beat, never attaining a satisfactory release but always reaching for it, is magnificent. The taut strings and the way the trumpet notes stretch and quiver as if Massa is deliberately playing until he is short of breath in “A Separation” is deeply moving. But these bring to mind nothing more than how great music that is adventurous, ambitious, and exquisitely constructed and timed can be. And for that, we should be thankful for this chance collaboration.