The phrase “rock opera” is rarely used in music literature today—having been reduced to a joke by egocentric rock bands in the late 1970s. I shudder at the thought of those bloated excesses and egos, and even if I’ve never had any love for punk rock, I appreciate that rock had returned to the small clubs by the end of the punk revolution.
So, why then did I go to see a rock opera last night? Well, partly because I have some love for records like Tommy by The Who and Southern Rock Opera by Drive-by Truckers. But the main reason is the fact that the rock opera The Death Defying Unicorn was made by my favorite band of all time, Motorpsycho. This is a band that started out in the midst of the grunge era with the metallic punk sound of Lobotomizer, proved to be indie cult legends with records like Demon Box and Timothy’s Monster, played jazz with The Source and Jaga Jazzist, did outlaw country as The International Tussler Society, defined modern hard rock with Trust Us and soft rock with Phanerothyme.
After they parted with long-time drummer Håkon Gebhardt and released the aptly-titled Black Hole/Blank Canvas to rid themselves of old habits. They returned as a three-piece with Kenneth Kapstad to fuse their entire past into a mighty monster of sound: pop harmonies, heavy metal riffs, prog rock compexity, and jazz improvisation. This resulted in three wonderful rock albums, earlier this year, a live magnum opus.
I was eager to see how they’d play the songs from The Death Defying Unicorn as a fourpiece since the fabric of many of these songs are a perfect weave of progressive rock, eight horns and nine strings. The answer – the band’s ally on this tour and record: Ståle Storløkken. He has been a integral part of norwegian experimental music since he first surfaced as a member of jazz band Veslefrekk and has become a veritable living legend with bands like Supersilent and Elephant9. His Hammond organ, effects, and synths supplement the band’s sound perfectly. Even when improvising around the orchestral parts of the record, it seemed few missed the horns and strings tonight.
In the last year Motorpsycho have played a few concerts that’s improved the visual aspect of their music. Evenings in cathedrals in Oslo and Trondheim showed a band that’s truly stepping out of time and into a world of their own, helping them reach yet another pinnacle in their career. However, the beautiful lights were only the dressing this chilly March evening, as the band entered the stage to the sampled horns from “Out Of The Woods” rolling over the audience.
It’s difficult to point at particular highlights in the setlist; the songs are woven together both in sound and lyrics. But throughout the concert I noticed the fun and outgoing mood of the band; jests and smiles are shared, nods and quick looks lead through the different musical movements. When the lights flashed, Storløkken’s shrouding monk hood and Sæther’s silver-lined bat cape blazed before my eyes. Though, the most dazzling part of the evening is the improvisation: a much-loved aspect of the Motorpsycho saga. The band’s love of Grateful Dead, King Crimson and Deep Purple underpin their own improv; I’ve witnessed the band expanding five-minute tracks into forty-minute mammoths. They expertly adapted The Death Defying Unicorn where necessary; creating refreshing oases in an ever-expanding desert of mainstream music.
Bassist Bent Sæther and guitarist Snah Ryan have been icons since they first founded the band in the early ’90s and their sound is like hearing the voice of old friends; the rumbling, fuzzy bass and the guitars that’s reminiscent of both Ritchie Blackmore, John Coltrane and Duane Allman. But tonight’s concert would not be possible without drummer extraordinaire/technical wunderkind Kenneth Kapstad, and the unquestionable talent of Ståle Storløkken.They were, naturally, cheered back onto the stage for encores.
The first song was an inspired run through their four-part epic “Gullible’s Travails” from their previous studio effort Heavy Metal Fruit. But their second encore was introduced with fair warning from bassist/singer Bent Sæther (“If you want to go home with a warm, fuzzy prog feeling inside – leave now! We’re ‘trøndere’ – we need to act out!”) before launching into a brilliant version of Deep Purple‘s “Burn”—one of my definitive favorites in the Deep Purple song catalog. [Mine, too! ~Ed.] Motorpsycho did a laid back and wonderfully sloppy version of the classic and it was a fun ending to a great evening with a magnificent rock band.