Considering Fat Again’s front cover artwork, one might suggest that Swedish multi-instrumentalist Simon Steensland “apes” Univers Zero on this 2009 AltrOck label release. But for the moment let’s just say that UZ discs like 1981’s classic Ceux du Dehors and particularly 1987’s near classic Heatwave are a big influence. Steensland took his time on this, his fifth studio album, which was composed, arranged, mixed, and produced between 2005-2008, and the time and effort expended are clearly evident. In Ruggero Formenti’s liner notes, Steensland is quoted expressing discomfort about being labeled as an “experimental” musician, comparable "to people who bang kitchen utensils or sing in cookie jars, an approach that is seldom gratifying for anyone else but the performers.” In fact, Steensland doesn’t bang, hit, or pound much of anything here -- perhaps having gotten the drums out of his system on 1999’s Led Circus -- and on Fat Again he turns the drum stool completely over to Morgan Ågren, an ongoing Steensland collaborator, Zappa alumnus, and co-leader of the Mats/Morgan Band. However, Steensland does prove adept at a variety of string and keyboard instruments, put to good use on the 16-plus-minute “Der Klang von ‘Musik’" and 20-plus-minute “The Lion Tamer,” epic tracks that bookend the album. These multi-sectioned opuses -- also featuring several other musicians on keyboards, clarinet, accordion, and guitar -- balance driving rock and even doomy/sludgy metal-infused passages with quieter but no less dark interludes in which clarinet, accordion, harmonium, glockenspiel, and wordless female vocals rise to prominence. Ågren is often in Daniel Denis mode here and on the eight-and-a-half-minute “Hide & Seek,” whose martial rhythm is a tad too close to Heatwave’s title track to be deemed original in conception.
But despite the relentless drive and escalating tension of Fat Again’s lengthiest tracks, the dark dissonances and the unsettling atmospheres, it would be a mistake to hear everything here as a rip -- or, ahem, ape -- of UZ. The clarinet interlude by Mats/Morgan’s Robert Elovsson in “Der Klang von ‘Musik’" may suggest Heatwave’s Dirk Descheemaeker, but rougher sonic territory is staked out by Steensland’s impossibly heavy and fuzzed-up bass, together with Nice/ELP-flavored organ voicings from either Steensland or Elovsson. A Magma influence might also be heard in the wordless vocals of eight female singers on the aforementioned “Hide & Seek,” which otherwise includes only Ågren on drums and Steensland channeling UZ keyboardists Andy Kirk and Jean-Luc Plouvier. But those less than enamored by the operatic qualities of Magma’s Kobaïan chants need not fear anything quite as severe on Fat Again -- the singers on “Hide & Seek” are far lighter and nicely counterbalance the track’s otherwise disturbing mood. Of course, the juxtaposition of angelic and demonic can be particularly chilling, as the singsongy, childlike vocals by Aurelia Le Huche and Eva Rexed on “Fräls Oss Ifrån Ondo” aptly demonstrate (the title of this two-minute track, one of several shorter numbers filling out the disc’s midsection, translates from Swedish as, naturally enough, “Deliver Us from Evil”). As for other spices scattered into the stew, one might note Elovsson’s Middle Eastern-tinged clarinet or the Dave Stewart/Hatfields-style burning keyboard tone and Allan Holdsworth-like legato guitar phrasing that crop up during “The Lion Tamer” -- jazzy Canterbury bleeding into dark RIO -- for evidence that, if Simon Steensland hasn’t come up with something entirely new here, at least he has combined some worthy influences in new ways. And he took the time needed to get it right.