Low Frequency in Stereo, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, Mum, WhoMadeWho, Biosphere, FM Belfast, Captain Credible, Arvo Párt, dodpop, Faust, Boyz of Caligula, Liquid Liquid, Filastine, Trevor Jackson, Kode9 & the Spaceape @ Numusic Festival. Stavanger, Norway.
September 11th and 12th 2009
Tou Scene, the venue hosting much of Numusic’s bill this year (and indeed all of the weirder bits) is a wonderfully atmospheric locale. Exposed piping and peeling paint are intentionally integrated into the general industrial art feel of the space, stencils sprayed at various points on the wall and floor assert the legend ‘this is culture’, and this interactive instillation feel is extended to the concert-goers: canvases are up on the walls complete with indelible pens on strings, although the visitor contributions largely don’t extend beyond predictable childish scrawls, and one guy has taken the liberty to use the pen to liberally daub his name in big letters on the wall behind. Alongside Norway’s requisite breathtakingly expensive beer the venue serves a selection of organic and vegan dishes – we savour the celery burger: they’ve done well with it, especially considering the dish was handicapped from the start by the inescapable fact of the burger itself being a great big chunky lump of celery. There’s free fruit. Flickering visuals are projected on various walls. Above one exit can be made out the fading proclamation, presumably a relic of factory-life in a time gone by, ‘Arbeidsglæde er Livsglæde’ – ‘work-joy is life-joy’.
Appropriately enough The Low Frequency In Stereo’s apparent lack of delight in their work hampers any real audience enjoyment. The first band on today, the Haugesund five-piece make a good deal of psychedelic organ-infused retro noise without ever really getting started. If there are tunes and subtleties to be enjoyed they are buried in the bluster, and the grumpy demeanours don’t encourage me to do much digging.
In hope of better things I hop across town to give Susanna & The Magical Orchestra a go. The duo are impressive, but I somehow feel I should like them more – everything is in place for something special. Morten Qvenild’s verdant, glitchy, electronics wreath Susanna Wallumrød’s echoing vocals like an icy mist, as precious melodies soar over a rapt capacity crowd, but somehow the whole affair falls short of greatness. ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ has the Bond-theme gloss and domineering vocals of Portishead, but without the genuine menace, and it is telling that a slow-motion cover of the (surely done to death) Joy Division staple ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ offers the most essential moment in terms of melody. At their worst Susanna & The Magical Orchestra evoke the flighty sentimentality of musical-theatre ballads, but they remain a transfixing and at times beautiful spectacle.
The duo have been warming up for one of the festival’s biggest names, Iceland’s-third-most-celebrated-act, Múm. Despite lacking many really memorable songs the general warmth and glee of the collective’s show is winningly infectious. A canvas of glowing electronic pocks and plips is painted with a menagerie of parping kazoos and multi-instrumental stomps, as the three vocalists harmonise lyrics saturated with a childish fascination with nature. The ivy and the flowers. How I fell over in the snow. Would you marry me if I was a fish? Sometimes they skip the formalities and just imitate beasts and birds with whooping, wild-eyed, innocent abandon. ‘Arbeidsglæde’ indeed.
Unfortunately the lateness of events at Folken means I miss Mungolian Jet Set, and have to content myself with the (admittedly pretty entertaining) sight of three moustachioed, sweaty, topless Nordic dudes beating out an electro romp at Tou 1: Whomadewho. Kind of like a Danish Datarock the trio work the crowd effortlessly and offer the kind of very-loud-and-bouncy-music-you-can-jump-up-and-down-to-waving-your-arms-around-and-smiling experience the festival has perhaps been missing these past few days.
After this I’m afraid I rather shame myself. I’ve a choice to make, you see. In one room is local ambient legend Biosphere; a whole awesome geography of glacial soundscapes at his fingertips, and numerous recordings, soundtracks and collaborations to his name, many considered genre benchmarks… in the other are four Icelandic misfits and an Apple Mac, belting out party rallying cries like Scissor Sisters at Euro-trance karaoke. It’s regressive, weak (not to mention unprofessional), of me, but I can’t help myself. FM Belfast boast a couple of Múm amongst their ranks. Their lead singer is dressed like a big nerdy schoolboy. They play a stonking version of ‘Killing In The Name Of’, and everybody loves it. Yes it’s silly and I wouldn’t buy it, but I bet Biosphere didn’t pull his trousers down and run on the spot whilst shouting about a party in the Caribbean, did he now?
Then comes the final act of the night. Suspicions are aroused by a table loaded with strange and colourful contraptions, and confirmed when the Captain himself takes to the stage armed with a remote control which sends a doll mounted on a precarious podium of pots and boxes into paroxysms of unwieldy percussion with a pincushion of chopsticks: Captain Credible is batshit bonkers. And wonderfully entertaining. With a petite moustache and slicked-back hair he bashfully (and very Englishly) introduces his ‘drummer’ as Dr. Testicles and waves dismissively at his array of electronic toys, insisting he hasn’t a clue what all the buttons do. And then, with a flick of a switch and some twisted knobs the Captain’s beeping, squealing, ADHD assault begins; every squeak and shudder accompanied by a flapping, twisting jerk of his body as he flails his limbs in manic accompaniment. Brave audience attempts at head-nodding or foot-tapping are soon derailed by unexpected changes in pace or reality – despite the addictiveness of the Nintendo-influenced beats on offer only the Captain himself seems to have found a way to actually dance to the heady concoction: the answer something along the lines of ‘epileptic in a room full of hotplates’. In fact Captain Credible’s act is almost, almost, more a comedy performance than a music show. Each song is preceded by a daft anecdote centring around his adventures in a kind of robot/alien British Empire, the telling helped along by constant inappropriate vocal pitch-shifting. But that’s not to say the banter outshines the music itself. ‘Those zombie-aliens – they are so small!’ I find myself shrieking on the way home, still internally spasming to the manga-music-meltdown of the Captain’s aural pinball.
It wouldn’t be right to attend this year’s Numusic without taking in at least one of the special Arvo Pärt arrangements, so my festival Saturday finds me in the unfamiliar surroundings of Stavanger Konserthus to see the local symphony orchestra bring a selection of the Estonian’s compositions to life. I am familiar with the ‘Fratres’ that make up half of the first section, and the swirling hypnotic repeated arcs of mournful glacial strings that sweep through the red-brick concert-hall (which has the air of a sixties-built lecture theatre) are, as anticipated, stunningly beautiful. After the interval a pint-sized pianist is dwarfed by a looming piano which he strokes with softly fluttering hands for the ‘Arbos for messingensemble’. My conversion to high-culture is only slightly cheapened by the gradual realisation over the course of the performance of how much world-renowned conductor Tõnu Kaljuste looks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski – I keep expecting each ovation to be met with a nodded assent of ‘The Dude abides’.
Then it’s across to the familiar climes of Tou for the final Norwegian act of the festival: dødpop. The Norwegian arm of the Scandinavian skweee scene (wondering what, who, why it is, check out our lowdown here), Oslo-based label dødpop come here as a three-piece made up of a trio of DJ’s on their roster: the wonderfully named Sprutbass, Beatbully and Melkeveien. Skweee’s hip-hop links are apparent even before the music has begun – the trio look every bit the hip-hop crew; all chunky caps, bulky jackets and low-slung jeans. When the high-pitched synths and creaky beats snap in it’s clear that that influence carries through into the tunes too, and the lazy funk rattles and a bass capable of colonic irrigation soon attract more stragglers into the formerly sparsely populated Tou 2 for a skweee party the Scandinavian way.
After that it all goes by in something of a Norwegian-free daze. Faust feel a bit geriatric and turgid despite their legend status, Finnish Boyz of Caligula ramp up the skweee invasion with more pumping beats and a topless Michael Black Electro yelping over the top, Liquid Liquid are atonal and awful, Filastine combine electro bursts with violin and Middle-Eastern visuals and vocals to intriguing effect, Trevor Jackson contributes some good old-fashioned alternative club thrills. After that it’s just left to Dubstep pioneer and Hyperdub supremo Kode9 to close proceedings with the help of regular collaborator The Spaceape. It’s a brilliant end – dirty, bleak beats and the Spaceape’s dark reggae mantras are doused with regular interjections of the most stunning bass manipulation that seems to bypass the ears and just thunder in the belly and the bones. Leaving before their set is quite over we look back to see the walls of the old brewery literally shaking; the windows rattling in their frames; a faint rumble in the ground beneath our feet. The rumble of culture. Because, you see, ‘this is culture’.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009