Free jazz is hot in Europe; Berlin has become a mecca for all things weird whereas record labels like Intakt and Clean Feed manage to push boundaries by showcasing a wide array of different ideas of improvisation. In the case of the band combining the efforts of Isak Hedtjärn, Lisa Ullén, Elsa Bergman, and Erik Carlsson, the origination of sound is rooted in Scandinavia, where many different universities and ensembles have pushed young musicians to challenge themselves in a less composed setting. On this self-titled debut record, Festen showcase strong playing abilities, but fail to form a unique identity by remaining a bit too conservatively dedicated to the free jazz idiom.
One of the tough aspects of music of this genre is the aesthetic limitations of acoustic instrumentation. Obviously, electricity isn’t required to create engaging musicality, however, the classic ‘four players in a room with standard recording techniques improvising’ album form has been attempted countless times resulting in an especially difficult task for the ideal of originality. The group is not helped by their seeming lack of extended technique. Some of the more intriguing free jazz musicians of the world have developed strong abilities to play with texture and the faults in their selected instruments. In the case of Nate Wooley, the idea of what constitutes a “note” on the trumpet is in constant flux. Despite showcasing a wide range of licks, Festen clarinetist Isak Hedtjärn remains all too close the traditional clarinet work to be considered experimental or unique.
Even the idea of contrast seems to be a difficult concept for this group. All too often the album walks along at a moderate tempo with the rhythm section failing to truly interact with the melodic work of Hedtjärn. The Dynamic levels seem to be all too stagnant as well. On “It Never Gets Better Than This,” a brief moment of space is left on occasion, each time quickly returning to the safety of familiarity.
Overall, I just didn’t find anything memorable about this album upon my first listen. Although the piece manages to engage in contrast, development, and furious energy, the group doesn’t truly break from the pack resulting in a forgettable collection of pieces.