Some people say, “Politics make strange bedfellows” (Don’t say it to Putin – he might take it the wrong way and have you thrown in jail) but the first time I heard Viggo Mortensen had collaborated on an album with the notorious, infamous, riotous, speed metal, punk, over the top guitar player Buckethead, I thought politics has nothing on music. The idea that the actor, poet and painter could find anything in common with the man who had spent the majority of his career hiding his identity behind a mask and wearing an empty KFC bucket on his head strained even my ability to suspend disbelief. However, after listening to a couple of their collaborations I had to admit they had found their own version of common ground.
While Mortensen and Buckethead have collaborated on entire CDs in the past, the latest recording of the former’s music, Acá (Here), from Perceval Press is billed as being performed by Viggo and Friends. As with the majority of his previous releases this one was recorded at Travis Dickerson Recording Studios, which also means Dickerson supplies some of the accompanying instruments on three tracks (one, “Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted”, four, “Summer’s Here” and nine, “Acá”). Two of the tracks (four and nine) feature drummer DJ Bonebrake, of the band X (which is fronted by Mortensen’s ex wife Exene Cervenka). Track nine also features Mortensen’s son Henry sitting in on bass while Buckethead joins the ensemble on tracks one and nine.
However, in spite of all the interesting people taking part, this is still essentially Mortensen’s CD. Aside from composing all nine tracks, six of them feature him performing solo on keyboards. Trying to define the music is a somewhat harder proposition than talking about who appears on the recording. For these are not so much “songs” as atmospheric creations. The title of the CD is a clue to its content. In their own ways each composition defines a “Here” for the listener. However, unlike the ambient music of earlier days (Brian Eno and Robert Fripp come to mind) which were more aural wallpaper than anything else, these pieces evoke the specific places and ideas their titles suggest through their musical content.
From specific locations, track two’s “Walking Up River”, describing a specific experience, “Wind In The Birches” (track three) to the more generalized expressions of emotions in “Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted” (“The Time I Went Away”), each piece manages to find a way to bring the audience into the moment suggested by its title. That this is done without lyrics, and primarily through Mortensen’s solo piano work, makes the work even more impressive.
While track one’s Danish language title (thank you Google translator) obscures its meaning slightly, when taken in context of the rest of material it has the feel of an overture or preface. While a traditional overture usually introduces the various musical themes and motifs that will be heard over the course of a piece of music, “Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted” introduces us to the fact we’ll be going on a journey into nature and the world around us. It begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm which gradually fade into the background while keyboards, guitar, percussion and bass gradually fill in the soundscape. The instruments move to the forefront, creating sounds suggestive of the faintly heard rain storm in the background. With Buckethead’s guitar recreating the sound of rain falling leading, the others fill in the space around his gentle fingering to suggest the feeling and sensations of listening to a storm.
As the English translation of the title suggests, the song not only recreates the sounds of rain, but the sensation of being transported outside oneself that can occur when you become caught up in listening to a thunderstorm. You can almost picture yourself sitting somewhere listening to the swell of thunder and the sound of rain as it patters against glass windows, on the roof and hits the leaves on the trees outside your house. The piece triggers the sense memory of allowing yourself to drift away on the sounds; travelling beyond time and place without having to leave the darkened room you’re sitting in.
“Walking Up River” is the first of Mortensen’s unaccompanied piano pieces on the disc. Instead of doing the obvious and trying to recreate the sounds of a river with his playing, he has taken us to the path by the river so we can appreciate the sensations of walking besides it. He doesn’t try to impose his own vision of the experience on us. Instead the music he has created allows us to travel inside ourselves and relive our own times spent by flowing water. Somehow his music manages to offer sufficient suggestion we can re-experience our own moments in time walking beside a river watching the current flowing opposite to the direction we are travelling.
Each of the pieces between the opening and the CD’s concluding title track take us to a specific time or place beyond ourselves through Mortensen’s ability to suggest emotional connections to them with his music. They aren’t always gentle and easy to listen to, but than again, the natural world isn’t always the idyllic fantasy world some would have us think. “Summer’s Here” reminds us of the power of the burning sun and how it can suck the life out of us while “The Yew” evokes thoughts of stately trees which are often associated with death because of the ancient tradition which sees them planted around grave sites.
As if he’s reminding us of this, the disc’s concluding and title track, “Acá”, begins with the jarring sound of a piano’s wires being forcefully and discordantly strummed. As the song takes shape we gradually begin to notice how elements from previous songs make appearances. However, the piece also serves to bring us back to ourselves by jarring us out of whatever reverie we might have experienced while listening to what preceded it. We are now back “Here”. Yet, at the same time, the reminders of what we had experienced listening to the rest of the music tell us no matter how noisy and unsettling the world becomes we always have recourse to our memories of other places and times to help us combat any disturbance.
A number of years ago I reviewed a collection of Mortensen’s photographs and poems and commented on how with either media he seemed to have the innate ability to capture specific moments in time with both his words and his camera. Maybe it’s through his work as an actor, where you have to be in the moment at all times when you’re portraying a character in order for it to be believable to your audience, that he has gained this ability. However he does it, this recording shows he’s equally capable of bringing an audience into a specific moment in time with his music. Acá is a beautiful and evocative collection of music which will allow you to travel into your own memories of time and place like few others I’ve heard.