Hans-Peter Lindstrøm isn't taking any chances on his latest LP, but it's hard to blame him for doing so. Back in February, he made a misstep with Six Cups of Rebel, an LP that moved daringly away from the "space disco" tag he's had since 2003. And while it did explore the other aspects of the Norwegian producer's personality, it the effort was weighed down by prog-rock pretensions and psychedelic overreaching. Now, he's back with Smalhans, a return to his old self that alternatively plays things a little too safe by offering six tracks of Lindstrøm-by-numbers.
Lindstrøm's return to form is coded throughout the entire release. Though "smalhans" means "scarcity" in Norwegian, it the word also contains a dual meaning that refers loosely back to the artist himself—it could also be translated as "thin Hans," a reference to Lindstrøm's first name and the fact that he's skinny. Furthermore, each song on Smalhans is named after a Norwegian comfort food. Lindstrøm sent along a short translation of the tracklist, and it reads like a Lonely Planet cheat sheet; all sorts of foods are represented, from lamb and fish to a dessert composed of mixed egg whites and sugar. These items are basic dishes of Norway, nothing like the Nordic haute cuisine that became popular a few years ago. The foods are a good metaphor for the music itself, as it's simple and without frills.
That said, in Lindstrom's world, simple does not mean minimal, and the LP operates on a gargantuan scale, unfurling epically spiralling arpeggios and constantly rising chords on nearly every song. Halfway through, it feels like the whole thing is less of an album and more like an extended single track—something akin to a lesser version of Manuel Gottsching's "E2-E4." Nevertheless, monotony never quite sets in—Lindstrøm's sound design and production are both too solid for that. The synthesizer tones are richly programmed, and seasoned in such a way that they almost evoke taste and sensation over mental imagery. This is a testament to the assistance of Todd Terje, who did the mixdown and, according to Lindstrøm in a recent interview with SPIN, "added some subtle analog stuff." What this stuff is exactly is hard to pin down, but the overall palette shares much with Terje's recent hit, "Inspector Norse."
Track by track, Smalhans is a mixed bag of attempts at the same thing. And while there's nothing on the level of his seminal "I Feel Space," there are a few standouts. "Raakost," the LP's first track and lead single, cruises along in a Maserati of its own creation with a driving Italo bassline and a floating melody. It's the most streamlined song with the least amount of cheese, making it the finest cut on the album. Yet because it's the opener, the song sets a high bar for what follows. And while that mark is never surpassed, "Lammelaar" and "Eggedosis" both get within reaching distance, though they float a little further into space.
At its worst, the album sometimes sounds like Mannheim Steamroller or music designed for a VST installation screen. In fact, listened to in the wrong mood, Smalhans might sound like both of those things. "Faarikaal" and "Vafler" are particularly questionable, displaying a sound that's so baroque and huge, it could almost pass for trance. Granted, this has always been an issue in Lindstrøm's music, and his best work tends to find a balance between his cosmic aspirations and his more Earthly reality. Six Cups of Rebel went too far in one direction, and now Smalhans has swung a bit too far towards the other. The difference, however, is that Lindstrøm has a stronger blueprint to work from when he's operating out beyond the stratosphere.