Numusic Festival 2009 pt.I

Lama, Bjerga/Iversen, Casiokids, Shining, Braving the Glacier, Navyelectre @ Numusic Festival. Stavanger, Norway.
September 9th and 10th 2009

Stavanger’s Numusic festival overcame funding problems to celebrate its 10th anniversary this September with a diverse line-up spread across several stages in the city. The build-up to the event was dominated by the news that special guest composer Arvo Part would be unfit to travel to Norway – but the five presentations of his minimal classical compositions continued sans their talisman in the imposing red St. Petri church and Stavanger’s soon to be replaced Stavanger Konserthus (the first foundation stone of a new concert hall down by the waterfront was laid during the European City of Culture closing ceremony last year). The bulk of the rest of the programme was divided between the Student Union venue Folken (for the better-known acts), and Tou Scene, the shell of a former brewery that gives every act taking to its atmospheric stages the air of an art installation.

Wednesday:

I make the trip to Folken on the opening day to see two equally eccentric foreign acts. First Swedish husband-and-wife duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums whip up what can only be described as the sound of Amy Winehouse improvising blues wailing over a frantic drummer, but rather than the stripped-down percussive shtick getting tired I warm to them increasingly over the course of their set, willing on two virtuosos pushing their talents to the limit. When a couple of members of Deerhoof join them to flesh out the sound with bass and guitar it all became a little too easy-listening: far more impressive is the sight of the blurred arms of Andreas Werliin and, eschewing the microphone, Mariam Wallentin howling until her voice is breaking and sore. And Deerhoof themselves? They’re very much an acquired taste: guitar so sharp it would lop a finger off of Gang of Four, vocals that you can hardly reference without prefixing with an italicised ‘those’…  they’re good tonight though, raucous, infectious and bouncy.

Thursday:

The first full day of the festival finds the bulk of the programme at Tou’s two stages. Lama kick things off on the larger of the two, supporting the release of their second album in just nine months. Led by Nils Martin Larsen, formerly a keyboardist for celebrated Norwegian experimental-jazz collective Jaga Jazzist, Lama offer a multi-instrumental take on post-rock – something like Mew on a Mogwai day. Lama tick all the post-rock boxes (quiet-loud build-up, guitars played with violin bows, dreamy vocals and walls of sound) – but they do it wonderfully well, and at its best their show is atmospheric, powerful and beautiful. I hop briefly across to Tou’s second stage to peek at ambient duo Bjerga/Iversen and find them crouched on the floor knob-twiddling. I get the impression that their set is the kind of gradually building experience that would be pretty immersive if you let yourself be lost in it, but I’ve already made up my mind to catch rising stars Casiokids across town, especially after missing their free ‘for kids’ concert in the city centre the day before. I leave the prostrate pair brewing up what I imagine to be the sound of a rocket taking off in a freezing arctic wind.

Casiokids are irritatingly late, especially when you have a festival timetable to keep to, but when they do arrive their enthusiasm is so infectious they are soon forgiven. The stage is decked out with fruit, sparkly throws, oversized carved heads (and that of a big furry Gorilla) and cymbals in feather-boas – a collective theme something along the lines of Hawaii-glam, and from the minute they kick into the cheery bleeps of opener ‘Togens Hule’ (something like Battles on kids TV), they have the enthusiastic and substantial crowd on their side. It’s easy to see why Casiokids look like bucking the trend of Norwegian-language bands failing to find success in the UK and US – bouncy and charming; they are the latest in a modern series of Bergen successes (Ralph Myerz, Datarock, Kakkmaddafakka) to ensure that they put on a fun and entertaining stage-show alongside the tunes: whether it’s eating fruit and laying banana skins cheekily behind bandmates, shaking hands with the crowd, or just looking like they are genuinely enjoying themselves, the band are consistently a joy to watch. The tunes are endearing too, from a delightfully silly spoken-word effort about animals, through the charming naivety of ‘Grønt Lys I Alle Ledd’ (sample vocal: ‘can it be good… to eat sweets all day’), to the addictive electro pulse of ‘Fot I Hose’, and they even throw in a real surprise with an electro-kraut cover of Scottish weirdo-poet Ivor Cutler’s ‘Marry Me Twice’. Maybe we can label them the Norwegian Hot Chip. Since they were late, though, I punish them by leaving early.

Back at Tou, Shining – the reason for my rush across – greet me with a relentless barrage of glorious noise. The four-piece are stunning. They are exhilaratingly heavy, but none of their dexterity is lost in the rampage. Guitars howling and rumbling they are at once incredibly tight but also apparently partially improvising. Frontman Jørgen Munkeby urges the audience to vote in the forthcoming elections (since won by the same people as before), with a sly suggestion that they should avoid FrP (a right-wing party that planned to cut culture funding), and his general affability in between numbers is contrasted with a muscular intensity when the band snap into gear. Whether Munkeby is grinding out mountains of noise from his guitar, howling devilishy into the microphone, or, more unexpectedly, blasting away at a battered saxophone, the results are hugely satisfying and the talented band do brilliantly to keep pace. By the time Shining slam into the awesome signature riff of ‘In The Kingdom Of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster’, the highlight of their brilliant last album Grindstone, nothing would be able to wipe the smile off my face.

After that anything would be a disappointment, and sure enough Braving the Glacier prove a little forgettable. Like Lama they cook with familiar post-rock ingredients (frontwoman Kristin Svanæs can’t resist a bit of bow-on-guitar action), but unlike Lama they fail to make anything particularly fresh out them. It’s pretty and lush, but Explosions in the Sky have done this already – and better.

Much of the crowd sit against the walls or lie sprawled on the cold concrete floor of Tou 1 to let the buzzes and glitches of Austrian Fennesz wash over them; the perfect way to experience what is evocative and beautiful IDM. As the waves morph into screeching white noise I move across to Tou 2 to try Jonas Sjøvaag’s project Navyelectre, fleshed out here to a four-piece band. This one is a curiosity. They open reliably enough: sleepy alt-country with vocals a dead ringer for Conor Oberst, but suddenly the soporific strains are warped into a brooding electro wig-out – all synth pulses and wild organ psychedelia, frantic jazz drumming gradually winding down until they carry on as they left off at the start as if nothing untoward had happened. The rest of the songs rather repeat the trick without the initial element of surprise, but though the vocals, and indeed the song-splitting conceit, may be a little clumsy, and the overall effect a trifle dreary, Navyelectre are still an ambitious and at times beautiful curveball, and a very welcome one at that. It is a surprising end to my second day at what is, all told, a festival that thrives on surprises.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009

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