Ågren vs. Ågren: A Tale of Two Albums
Morgan Ågren is quite possibly one of the best drummers alive. The man is a Swedish-born drum machine unfettered by genre classification or artistic ambition. His curriculum vitae includes collaborations with Mats Öberg, Frank Zappa, Devin Townsend, Fredrik Thordendal, Brendon Small and many more. We have written about Mr. Ågren twice in this here toilet, both times heaping praise after praise upon his prodigious talent. To describe the man as a giant in the music industry would sell him short.
It is with no small amount of intrigue then that I practically stumbled upon not one but two new releases bearing the distinctive drum patterns of Mr. Ågren recently. Even more intriguing is the fact that neither of these albums can be described as metal. The first, A Spark in the Aether by the seminal prog rock monsters The Tangent materialized at random in my inbox after Inside Out Music added me to their promotional platform. The other, Ågren’s own solo effort Batterie Deluxe came to my attention after our pal Roshin shared it on Facebook. Neither is music I would typically cover, but the duality here is quite interesting, to say the least.
A Spark in the Aether is the eighth studio release by revolving-door prog rock band The Tangent. Embracing a similar artistic ethos and work ethic to King Crimson (which should come as no surprise since the two acts have shared members and experienced Robert Fripp cross-pollination), The Tangent has never attempted to house a consistent line-up. Instead, world-class musician after world-class musician joins up to lend his or her talents to a studio album or tour set before vacating the seat for another brilliant player. The only constancy is provided by multi-instrumentalist Andy Tillison. This sort of collaborative, multifarious approach to creativity leaves an indelible mark on the music, and though this was my first experience listening to The Tangent, the ebb and flow approach to songwriting is immediately evident in the final product. Every song drifts from element to element in a non-linear fashion, guided only by the preeminent influence of Tillison. However, each song maintains its own unique course, and the tracks never blend together. Ultimately, what results is a brilliant but slightly disjointed prog rock record that I’m certain will appeal to fans of the genre.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sold at first. On the first two tracks, I was off-put by the airiness and levity of it all, and my eyes kept darting around the room searching for the lurking bully who was certainly going to shove me in a locker for listening to such a (well, let’s be honest) dorky album. However, it was on the third track “Clearing the Attic” that everything started to click. This was largely due to the efforts of Morgan Ågren. On this song his peerless drum skills really started to take shape, and fills and time shifts caught my ear. Every note, every fill, and every empty space he injected into the song fit the product so smoothly without ever overpowering. This is a drummer who knows how to anchor and support a band without simply sounding like a battering ram. Ågren’s ineffable precision remained a consistent thread through the remainder of the songs, and by the end of “A Spark in the Aether (Part Two)” I found myself, much to own surprise, thoroughly enjoying the goofiness and self-aware indulgence of the record. I’m still not won over to the dork side, but I can certainly appreciate the talent and abilities on display here, especially those of Morgan Ågren. Unfortunately, I can’t find any streams from the new album, so this will have to do.
In stark contrast to The Tangent is Ågren’s solo debut Batterie Deluxe. While A Spark in the Aether plays like a well-crafted, if not slightly bloated, coherent effort, Batterie Deluxe is a schizophrenic collection of frenetic musical ideas. Tracks flow from jazzy interludes to Indian mystical chants to drum n’ bass breaks to metallic expressions of fury with no discernible rhyme or reason. This is not a bad thing. More than most musicians, Morgan Ågren has the rich background and experience to actually employ and bind those myriad elements into his own vision. His is a wild and multifaceted oeuvre, so it only makes sense that a solo effort would explore the many aspects of his own career.
Even more impressive than the wild diversity on display though is the fact that Ågren wrote and recorded the majority of this music himself. Nearly every instrument you can imagine is used at some point on this collection, most of them played by Ågren himself. However, several guest musicians do lend their immense talents, including long-time collaborators Mats Öberg, Fredrik Thordendal, and Devin Townsend. Still, it is Ågren who always remains at center-stage, and his immense and inhumanly varied talents are always on display. In fact, that’s probably the most mind-blowing aspect of this release; As Ågren transitions from drumming rooted in jazz to neo-classical to house to metal, it all feels so natural. Jarring time-shifts flow into restrained signatures and again into amen breaks. Fills and crashing cymbals give way to a steady, rhythmic tattoo on the snare and bass. The fact that one man can bind so much chaos to his singular will is equally baffling and laudable.
Ultimately, Batterie Deluxe is my favorite of the two albums here. It’s mercurial in nature without ever losing my interest. Others may get bored or find some of the songs less to their taste, but in my opinion every single track was just another excellent display of musicianship. There are few musicians who could pull something like this together, and I hope you appreciate it as much as I do. Stream “F Files” below if you want to hear the most metal song on the record.