Waging eternal war against both men and gods, the giants of Norse mythology stalked the icy wastes of their mountain haunt Jotunheim. The giants may be long gone, but the towering peaks, craggy hillsides and frozen lakes that define the image of wild Norway very much remain, and the land of the giants has lent its name to Norway’s highest peak region – Jotunheimen. Surrounded by numerous dizzying rocky spires, under the shadow of the nation’s highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen, lies the lake Bygdin, its icy depths providing the moniker for this electro-kraut effort from Arne Stöy Kvalvik and Kjetil Ovesen, drummer and keyboardist of Oslo-based 120 Days.
120 Days 2006 self-titled debut was one of the finest products of the krautrock revival that has seen artists such as Secret Machines, The Early Years and Fujiya and Miyagi blend that genre’s mechanical textures and motorik beats with elements of prog and electronica, and in the (overlong) interim between that and their upcoming follow-up Bygdin offer up this largely instrumental interlude that may take its track-titles from Norway’s most imposing and bleak landscapes but is rather a pulsing and dark effort that finds the duo gleefully careening down Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, the rhythmical flickers of streetlamps flashing by to the hum of a thousand growling engines.
Opener ‘56%’ stumbles into life in a clatter of distortion and tinny drums, weaving a repetitive hook out of this fog of jangles, screeches and fuzz. This formula sets the tone for the rest of the album – Kvalvik and Ovesen grasp at hooks out of an ethereal mist and then slowly (as is the krautrock way) get their kicks from slight fluctuations and evolutions within the repeated strains. There are lingering reminders of 120 Days self-titled breakthrough. ‘Setesdal’ recalls ‘I’ve Lost My Vision’ once the repeated synth swells emerge from a Lindstrøm-esque raindrop beat, and it is tempting, and indeed would be easy, to dismiss Bygdin #1 as an instrumental 120 Days album, and the slowly-evolving swell of their long tracks perhaps encourages the sensation that they are just waiting for the forceful guitar and echoing vocals that the missing members could lay over these soundscapes. As the songs build on one another, however, emerging oh-so-satisfyingly from the smouldering ashes of their predecessors, it becomes apparent that Bygdin are undoubtedly journeying into sonic territory more probing and dark than their band ever explored.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at Bygdin #1 it would indeed be that they fail to justify the length of the tracks, fail to capitalise on the stunning song openings and ensure that they go somewhere, but if there is a particular note of praise to be struck it is that seldom has a set of songs featured such a strong range of starts. At times it almost feels as if this is a record shaped around the ultimate effectiveness of the intersections between the individual tracks: just as one effort seems to have run its course, begins to lag, it winds down, dissipates airily, but then, starting with a pulse, or a grinding shudder, the next number reshapes the lingering sounds of the last, weaves the fragments into something so vital and so satisfying its physically hard to restrain some kind of satisfied exhalation, a gasp of admiration. ‘Gjendebu’, perhaps the most essential moment, thrusts into life with a funky industrial judder, ‘Huldreheimen’ pulses and quakes before being overlaid with stock-krautrock distorted vocals, ‘2114’ marries tribal percussion to a deliciously dark generator throb.
From club-wielding giants straddling rocky crags, through snow-covered Norwegian mountain panoramas, to krautrock’s desire to find music not in the musical past but in the clangs and bleeps of burgeoning technology, a desire embraced by the laptop generation, Bygdin #1 melds its inspirations into a dark, guttural and absorbing musical experience. If Kvalvik and Ovesen explore far more interesting sonic territory than their full band, embrace a wider range of sounds (and in so doing discover some fucking awesome ones), it is also true that what they lack could be made up by the rest of 120 Days. That band’s debut managed to blend krautrock with indie vocal hooks, to ensure that their songs always had an urgency and purpose that their influencing genre often overlooked. If their next effort can combine that attribute with the musical breadth of Bygdin it will be a very exciting record indeed. As it is, however, this duo have produced an album that stands alone with utmost ease.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009