Early darkness and persistent drizzle can mean only one thing – the onset of another Bergen autumn. But every cloud has it’s silver lining, and if you follow the raindrops that fall from this one in a shimmering fog, follow the water twisting its way twixt islands of cobbles downhill, see it trickling in a single-minded stream through tight streets – a maze of wooden houses –to collect in puddles for the tight-trousered, nerdy-spectacled, moustachioed crowds outside the former sardine-smoking warehouse on the waterfront to tramp soggily through, you find that silver lining. Because of course another Bergen autumn brings with it the welcome advent of another Ekko festival – the West coast city’s annual electronic music and art bash. Now in its second year at the atmospheric USF Verftet venue, with its industrial minimalism inside and a killer view of a galaxy of twinkling lights across the fjord outside, Ekko continues its gradual expansion this year to swell to three days instead of the previous two, with a requisite price-hike coming hand-in-hand. In truth this expansion seems not to have greatly increased the number of bands – the first two days of the festival both boast relatively few acts and utilize only one of the possible four rooms, but there is still a wonderful range of experiences on offer and a slew of surprising and progressive artists from both the local region and far afield.
This avant-garde ethos is borne out in the first act I catch on the opening night, as the murky and sparsely populated main hall, Røkeriet, plays host to the shadowy ambient of Svarte Greiner, whose translated moniker, ‘black branches’, gives a reasonable indication of both the music itself and the monochrome projections of eddying leaves that dominate the backdrop. Svarte Greiner labels his eerie reverberations ‘acoustic doom’, and as the immersive sound experience – all subtle but sinister echoes and fuzz, combines with the suggestive images – insects, skulls, bodies – that the mind decides to distinguish from the fluctuations of the projections (which are really nothing but mirrored images of gently rustling leaves), it’s clear why this unsettling but intensely evocative experience has seen Svarte Greiner support Fever Ray recently: in mood if not in sound, a perfect marriage.
Then it’s time for one of the festival’s main draws: Danish collective Efterklang, whose multi-instrumental minor-key soundscapes suggest something of a post-rock Arcade Fire, or Mum with childish innocent joy replaced by a bit more gloom and realisation. By the time the brightly clad (and of course moustachioed) Casper Clausen sagely proclaims “this war is for the best” in set-closer ‘Mirror Mirror’ the crowd have genially warmed to their nearly-neighbours, and although some language-based heckling prompts the frontman’s puzzled query “should I speak Danish or English?”, it is all immaterial. Because thankfully Efterklang speak the universal language of rather lovely music.
Bulky televisions stacked amidst speakers on stage throw discoloured and sinister footage of a jolting striptease flickering out over a darkened audience as The Megaphonic Thrift & Sten Ove Toft stagger their entrance. First a sole figure blasts out growling distortion that swells with the static glimmers of the images, and then the full band join bit by bit, fleshing out the drone wash with churning guitar. It’s an intriguing stage-setup; the squalid imagery and shoegaze sullenness intentionally arty and moody, but when the vocal harmonies kick in it’s clear that the Thrift aren’t as weird as they might have you think, which is probably quite a good thing. Superior (live at least) to The Low Frequency In Stereo, with whom a couple of members overlap, this Haugesund outfit peddles a reasonable line in wayward Jesus & Mary Chain indie hooks rapped in distorted fuzz. And burlesque videos.
I stumble in a bit late on Ekko’s second day to find Karin Park already underway. A Swede who has lived in Bergen since childhood, if Park can make headway in the UK she would be doing it at the right time, as she shares a good splash of musical DNA with some of the names of the moment who’ve seen to it that 2009 has been unofficially named ‘year of the electro-pop girl’ (or something similar but more snappy…) – La Roux, Little Boots et al. In truth it’s the conflict between the pop sound and the insular stage presence that detracts from the impact of Park’s music. There are some cracking tracks on her debut album Ashes To Gold – not least flagship single ‘Can’t Stop Now’, which is belted out penultimately here – but whilst Park shares a haircut and dress-sense (both questionable) with electro-pop queen Robyn, live she lacks the latter’s warmth, passion and flamboyance. She pondered on this very site on how to look cool with a keytar, but maybe attempting to achieve this was her undoing: flailing and gurning, Robyn throws cool to the wind. That said her dark(-ish) synth-pop, cooked up onstage by just her and her instrument-swapping brother, and a voice with the accented edge of her namesake Karin Dreijer-Andersson, is both catchy and a perfect warm-up for the day’s – indeed the festival’s – big headliners.
The last (and indeed first) time I saw Royksopp was at a huge concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall, and so it feels fitting and exciting that the second time should find them here – in a tiny venue back home, the first time back for seven years. It’s a chance to see both sides of Norway’s biggest band: the international stars, with glitzy guests and industry types in thousands of plush seats in the city of corporate success; and the local boys, back in Bergen, the city where the whole Royksopp story began, urged on by friends and native well-wishers. That first time, in spite of some initial scepticism on my part, the duo were a revelation. This time they were just good, despite not really doing anything differently. Or rather, perhaps because of not doing anything differently. It’s my fault really, being all romantic, but I couldn’t help hoping that this homecoming concert would be, I dunno, a really special event – maybe even intimate… Of course Royksopp don’t really do intimate, though, at least not on their last (and in my opinion pretty awesome) album Junior, and so it’s basically the same show I saw before. Which means Svein Berge intoning the chorus to ‘Happy Up Here’ with his head inside a massive plastic bowl, Robyn leaping on to brilliantly flail and gurn her way through ‘The Girl And The Robot’, and an almost ever-present Anneli Drecker to paint all of the lesser songs with her rather formulaic nineties-throwback vocals. The show is hampered by various hurdles: the crowd has been swelled by loud and drunken day-ticket holders keen for a raucous night out and baying for the hits. The sound-system doesn’t really do them justice and means that some of the less recognisable songs wash together, and a live violinist is totally lost in the mix. And Junior highlight ‘Tricky Tricky’ as sung by Drecker strutting in a creepy owl mask loses the punchy thrill of hearing the humorous side of Karin Dreijer-Andersson that hasn’t really been seen since The Knife’s Deep Cuts be resuscitated. But the high-points are peerless, and it does feel a little bit special to hear the iconic bleeps of ‘Eple’ echo around this little fish factory in Royksopp’s home town. Basking in genuine pleasure the duo return after an epic run through of ‘Only This Moment’ to play things out with both ‘Poor Leno’ (sadly sans Bergen-native Erlend Øye), and lastly the unreleased ‘Fat Burner’, both Drecker and Robyn on stage at the finish, dancing and singing the fish-smoky roof off.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009