REVISIO: International Harvester | “Remains” 5LP Boxset

Remains collects five LPs worth of material by the one of the most incredible Swedish outfits of all time: International Harvester, formerly known as Pärson Sound, later International Harvester, then Harvester, and finally Träd, Gräs och Stenar.

These name-changes made marginal difference to what was a tightly knit group of musicians and their wholly unique sound.

This box-set is released by Swedish label Silence and presents an ideal opportunity to visit (or partially revisit) what the band was doing in the period between 1968 and 1969. It contains the album Sov gott Rose-Marie [1968] by International Harvester and the following year’s Hemåt by the renamed Harvester. Tantalizingly, it groups together a further three LPs of newly discovered music. Or, as I thought the moment I heard about the project, a sonic wet dream. Because of the importance of this release, I’ve decided to present this review as three interconnected segments

Deciding on International Harvester as a name—it was the best-known combine harvester of the day—symbolized the mechanization of farming, the commercial world, and the gateway to the artificial constructs of commercialism and consumerism. International Harvester would frame their influences and process them in their own unique way. Ever the thoughtful and democratic collective, the lineup consisted of Bo Anders Persson [guitar], Thomas Tidholm [vocals, saxophone, flute], Arne Ericsson [cello], Urban Yman [violin], Torbjörn Abelli [bass], and Thomas Mera Gartz [drums].

While a product of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the group sound like they could have recorded much of its music yesterday. Many have mentioned early Pink Floyd and Hawkwind as influences, but to me, there’s a stronger link to The Velvet Underground and early Amon Düül and the avant garde they grew from. International Harvester (and Harvester) also sound like they helped form the blueprint of everything from Faust, post-rock, Earth, and The Myrrors.

The cultural and creative atmosphere of the late sixties is well documented, and the scene in Sweden clearly had its own signifiers and nuances: counter-culture, a swelling of creativity, experimentalism, and the energy of new political and social dynamics. Don Cherry playing organic music in Stockholm under Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Folke Rabe laying the foundations for What??, and a band called Pärson Sound playing support to Terry Riley.

It’s tempting to look at that time through rose-tinted glasses, but the band undoubtedly channeled a potent blend of political and cultural activism. Organic produce, left-wing politics, pollution, and significant one-fingered salutes to the man. The music was an angry snarl wrapped in a cosmic blanket.

As with all the best strategies, simplicity was at the heart, as Thomas Tidholm once stated: “We talked about making the music stop and stand perfectly still. And that did happen sometimes. We never let go of the drone. We hardly made any key changes and never changed chords.”

Sov gott Rose-Marie (1968)

Pärson Sound had played live, but nothing they’d ever made was released until a collection of their work was released in 2001 on Subliminal Sounds. It remains the most aggressive-sounding entry in the collective discography.

Sov gott Rose-Marie was in fact the group’s first release. It’s clear from very early on the disc, this is a very different brand of psychedelic rock music from many others. The unusual dynamic of their sonic world is introduced within the first 15 seconds of the opening track Dies Irae. A minimal brass cycle fades out into the sound of birds singing—yes, it fades out. The album seems to have drifted off into a snooze before its even began.

In the Boundless Woods adds soft hymnal drift to the bird song. A framework of ambience is established. So There is No Other Place comes on like a thunderclap, a thrashing caveman groove that highlights its instrumentation as a rough stew of overlapping elements signalling the birth of a new civilisation.

The Runcorn Report on Western Progress is a mini-ceremony circling on pollution observed in the sky on a trip to England. Out on the Left and Ho Chi Minh state a very clear message…

Like any great psych album, Sov gott Rose-Marie twists and turns; there’s pockets of silence, unusual pace changes, textural flourishes. A weird resonant sense in the sound gives you the impression the music has an energy that’s going to eventually mesh into something truly spaced out. The beautiful repeating It’s Only Love feels like a distilled bubble stolen from bloated pop elsewhere that’s just become so much more powerful by having everything extraneous removed. The Summer Song comes in at a radio friendly 2:51, but it feels like it could easily go on for a season.

Side A is sketchbook of 11 ideas—the longest is still under four minutes. Side B is a two-track that expands the idea of extended minimal rock, this time with I Mourn You and its 60-second fade-in. A flute-punctuated groove that just sits. The song is a soapbox in tribute to Georg Arne Borgström’s concepts, a radical thinker of environmental concerns, natural resource usage, and the doomed direction the world was heading. At almost 13 minutes, it slowly fills the space with an ever-growing and defiantly uplifting sound. It peaks and reformats itself into an amazing, strangely ambient coda… a vast droning monument to issues that are, sadly, still relevant to this day. The album concludes with the campfire gathering of How to Survive.

If Sov gott Rose-Marie flirted with flashes of psych rock, it ends in the embers of acid folk. This was a rallying call to return to the land. It’s hard not to imagine some beautiful Swedish rural landscape seeping out every note, occasionally polluted with heavy news from the outside would.

Hemåt (1969)

If Sov gott Rose-Marie was defined by several short tracks and changes in direction, the following album is more interested in scoping out larger textures. A rock-band boiled down to its genetic level and rolling out these slow-motion passages. An almost completely instrumental political manifesto. The album was even recorded at a café owned by the Swedish Communist Party.

Beautiful Crystal tumbles around an impossibly groovy drum, voice, and flute loop. There’s always some element of growth, but the peaks in the music are always just beautiful minute deviations. Cock Polska is a drunken dance in a straw-littered barn. It’s impossible not to be pulled into the warmth.

The bucolic imagery of the sleeve frames a watercolor landscape of generally interlocking greenery. As yet another chugging groove builds, Nepal Boogie is a significant moment somehow. The resonant quality of the sound here seems to be not quite as clear as before. Oddly, the magic is an extra layer of lo-fi fuzz that makes the whole thing even more powerful. Even a little sonic mist couldn’t lessen the clarity.

The band’s strategy seems to be this continual boiling-down of music it its bare essentials. In many ways, the rock music of the day had become bloated. The gargoyles and whimsy of prog, the mannerisms of blues, and the plastic nature of pop. What International Harvester and Harvester were pushing around was riffing on the tiny most active parts of music. A model in joined-up thinking, collaboration, and a loss of ego. The subtle light-and-shade your ears and your brain pick up always bring you back to the undercurrent of drone.

Everybody (Needs Somebody to Love) is an astonishing meta cover version. The sound of the words dictates the instrumental tracing around them. Like a beautiful cousin of the Soft Machine’s We Did It Again, pop fractalizes into jaw-droppingly gorgeous avant garde soul. That again its elements just slowly grow rougher as the track goes on proves this band really had found some golden section sweet spot in everything they turned their minds to.

It’s also fitting that Hemåt ends in the same birdsong space of that started Sov gott Rose-Marie —like the two albums formed one massive infinite loop.

Remains 1, Remains 2, and Remains 3 (1968/1969)

It’s very clear the telepathic connections the band had developed came out of continual live playing. A confidence to set up things and improvise within the parameters. So, despite this box-set being broadly presented as a 50th anniversary celebration of Sov gott Rose-Marie, the real deal as a listener very familiar with original two albums was, “What can be expected from a further three albums of never-before-heard material?”

The story of its discovery itself is charming. Thomas Tinholm was asked if he had any old tapes. He wasn’t sure, but had a look in a closet, and found two crates full. It would be easy to imagine the reason these tapes were hidden away was that they were just inferior sketches and aborted takes. Work that formed the basis of more fully realized pieces, throwaways, and meandering jams. It might just be two crates of old junk…

However, more than it’s reasonable to expect, these newly discovered tracks have only made me love this band’s entire trajectory even more. Remains makes International Harvester’s creative process three-dimensional, and this new material outlines them as total masters of some sound-based Fibonacci spiral.

If the constant in their music is the marrying of rock textures into drone — the colors and meshing coming from the instrumentation — what happens when they add different sounds, or remove elements? At what point does it not work? Adhering to the simple parameters they employed, the evidence presented by this two hours of unearthed music proves it worked for every second.

This new world opens with Cello Spear, caught in the drift of Ash Ra Tempel’s Trammaschine. The long sweeps of vibrating strings slowly give way to a peeling psych guitar part. It’s music to stare into the sun to.

Deep Sleep and Whatever After is the sound of a room filled with interlocking rhythms, everything bleeding into one huge overwhelming wave of sound. Harvest Times is a vast 25 minutes that gives the fields a voice, endlessly in cycle.

Serge Gainsbourg’s Lunatic Asylum channels back through time as the jaw-harp electronics of Medieval Machine establishes itself. This new sound is absolutely dazzling. Traces of Miles Davis’s Black Satin hug at the metronome groove. And the vocals slowly swell like some interstellar barber-shop quartet. Eleven minutes of exhilarating music that exists outside any genre I know.

Blowing the Wind is a beautiful brass spider-web. It sits comforted along Harold Budd’s Bismillahi ‘Rrahman ‘Rrahim and Terry Riley’s time-lagged saxophones. It’s sensual, mathematic, and dappled in the Scandinavian sunshine. The strangled flurry of notes gathered at the end feels like some squawking compositional weirdness.

An acid-fried burnout spawns the swaggering glory that is Hoarse Horse, another sax-and-rhythm duel that can’t be played loud enough. Quite how music so simple can be so moving is almost impossible to describe. Daring Drums smashes together funk and Jean Luke Ponty. Milano Mess throws you head-first into the broken fury of Tangerine’s Electronic Meditation. The references and overlaps just keep coming, but as always, nothing is a carbon copy. This is pure in-the-moment splendor. The plaintive final track Remains is an atmospheric wind-down to speakers falling into silence. A beautiful unravelling of the three-and-a-half-hour hug through radical magical Sweden.

Considered as a whole, Remains is a major statement. The newly discovered material almost eclipses the original studio albums. Of course, the story only continued under the banner Träd, Gräs och Stenar with the same unwavering high quality. Whatever spell these absolute legends were under, they burned brightly, way brighter than huge swathes of far more celebrated bands.

Remains is a fitting last piece of this particular puzzle. The excitement, disbelief, and ultimate high quality of this previously unheard music makes this box-set release totally unmissable. An epic and truly monolithic instalment. It’s only April, and I’ll be surprised if my brain is as tickled and blown away by another release this year. This is fucking brilliant stuff!

Remains is available via Forced Exposure.

Review orginally appeared in Brown Noise Unit April 2018


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