Mats/Morgan Band
Thanks For Flying With Us


If memory serves, it was March 1992 and I was looking at some pictures of Zappa's Universe, the show that - for three nights - had paid homage to Frank Zappa while the man was still alive; an orchestra and a rock group, and on stage familiar faces such as: Scott Thunes, Mike Keneally, Dale Bozzio, Steve Vai; but who were those two unknown guys sitting at their instruments? I soon learled they were two young Swedish musicians: Morgan Ågren, a drummer; and Mats Öberg, a keyboard player; it goes without saying that they were players of formidable technical skills. Time passed. It was in 1998 that - while I was looking at the new edition of the RéR catalogue - my attention was directed towards a group of CDs by a Swedish group called Mats & Morgan; "very Zappa-influenced", it said; so I immediately remembered the mysterious duo from Zappa's Universe. And thanks to Per Wikström, the duo's manager, I soon found a small package waiting for me in my mailbox.

The duo's technical skills were really something else. The excellent album of covers titled The Music Of Captain Beefheart showed Morgan Ågren playing at perfection some really complicated drum parts; but it was on the albums featuring their own material, obviously, that the duo really showed all their complex - but highly communicative - features. Their first CD, Trends And Other Diseases (1996), presented a fresh, colourful mix of styles, where Zappa, the Beatles, something by Keneally, classical and "northern" airs, heavy rock and so on inhabited the same place quite naturally. The largely instrumental Radio Da Da (1998) and the collage-like The Teenage Tapes (1998) showed the duo's long trip and appeared the perfect compulsive purchase for completists. The double CD titled The Music Or The Money... (...That Is The Question, 1997) was their masterpiece, and it's still the best introduction for newcomers. The "Matt" CD features intelligent and communicative songs - If I Only Had A Clavinet, Coco, I Wanna, Spinning Around - where psychedelia, Beatles and Beach Boys go hand-in-hand with Zappa, and brilliant instrumentals such Hjortron Från Mars, where the violin and the melody make one think of an unreleased track off Hot Rats "starring Jean-Luc Ponty"; the "Morgan" CD is maybe more difficult to grasp - here electronic textures sometimes similar to Zappa's Jazz From Hell share space with oppressive climates that - thanks also to the use of oboe and bassoon - remind one of Belgian group Univers Zero.

In 1999 I had the opportunity to interview Mats & Morgan, just home after a Swedish tour (the line-up was a quintet); I was told about their intention to release a "double live album". Live (2001) left me more than a bit puzzled: it was really well played, and the group (three keyboard players!) worked as a charm; but to me the music sounded too much like the dreaded "f-word": fusion - though it has to be said that it lacked the bad, tacky side that quite often is part of this genre; while I had hoped for a stronger compositional framework, here their technical skills seemed to push the group towards "more gymnastics". Shorter tracks, a few guests, diverse climates (and a different mix?) made the following album, On Air With Guests (2002), recorded "live in a controlled situation", quite better; but I was left with the impression of a cul-de-sac. Time passed.

Released under the name Mats/Morgan Band, the new Thanks For Flying With Us is not the record that I feared it could be, but is not yet the album I know these guys still have in them; and since in the case of Mats & Morgan the record I'd like to listen to and the one I'm willing to settle for can be very different propositions, listeners are invited to make up their own minds. In my opinion the album appears to get back to some compositional climates appearing on The Music Or The Money... The only "fusion-sounding" track (but the melody is quite nice and personal) is Proppeller Häst, which - appearing as track #9 - finds the listener already at peace with the album; but it's the kind of fusion that Tony Hymas and Simon Phillips played on the album There And Back, so no real danger. A good opening track, Sinus, with a nice melody and a good guitar solo by Jimmy Ågren (but this is not a "guitar group"; Ågren's excellent music is to be found on his solo, bluesy albums). Mats Öberg's contributions are in a "classic" mode - check ADAT Dropouts I Love You, played solo, with keyboards and a harmonica played like a "cool" saxophone; the beautiful Softma, with violin and klaviharp; and check his keyboards and harmonica contributions to the complex La Baratte. Morgan Ågren's contributions are quite different, sounding as being the fruits of a drummer/percussionist perspective; most of the times results are fine - listen to Thanks For Flying With Us and JF's Tati Car, where hypnotic-sounding ostinatos reminded me of Daniel Denis from recent albums; also good are La Baratte, Wounded Bird and the rhythm-and-zurna of Allan In The Rain; while I liked Not Us and closing track Please Remain Seated a lot less.

A few long live bonus tracks round up the picture; they are all very good, and they succeed in presenting a different palette: Coco is nice, Live Neff and Alive In Eskede are two long, complex tracks played only by the duo, the former being for piano and drums, the latter for keyboards/harmonica and drums; in closing, a demo for a new kind of drums makes more sense from a technical - as opposed to musical - point of view. Let's not forget: the CD is very well-produced, and it sounds great.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Nov. 10, 2005