The world has gone mad. When someone with a close resemblance to Mary-Kate Olsen is pointed out to me on the dancefloor at this year’s Ekko I dismiss the possibility of it actually being her out-of-hand. ‘Can you think of anywhere more unlikely for her to be’, I posit, ‘than at Ekko festival. In Bergen. In Late September. In the rain. Dancing on a nearly empty dancefloor. To whatever obscure Norwegian experimental ambient weirdo happens to be on at the time. There’s no way it’s her’. Of course it is her. The tabloids confirm as much – something to do with a boyfriend visiting Oslo. And of course this isn’t anything I should find even remotely interesting; I don’t know which one of the two is which, and I have never seen her in anything – in fact I don’t even know what she does, aside from being famous. She’s one of those American things – like corn-dogs, baseball and crystal meth – that I hear about all the time and somehow become familiar with without ever encountering or actually understanding. But seriously, Ekko? What am I to expect next? Hannah Montana at the Haugesund herring and jazz festival? But then, what do I care. It does at least mean that The Field has a more credible ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ than the fact that he looks extraordinarily like David Thewlis (it is uncanny). Besides, they have a perfect right to absorb underground Scandinavian culture in whatever form takes their fancy. And indeed who can blame her for choosing this form, as the final day of Ekko boasts eighteen acts over five stages in a flurry of pumping beats and screeching distortion – in fact, fuck it: all the LA It girls should be flown over to absorb a bit of this cultural smorgasbord – do ‘em a world of good.
Up the tightly winding stairs, past a little balcony hosting a couple of plush armchairs that juts out into the entrance hall, past a strangely situated architects office that still houses some hapless planners designing long into the night with a trickle of drunken revellers periodically peering in, paradoxically down some more stairs, and I find myself faced with the flashing lights and thumping bass of Bodi Bill, the first act on today at the Studio Stage. Sounding infectiously like someone slipped their countrymen The Notwist a dose of the funk and shoved them out onto a dancefloor, Bodi Bill’s sweaty singer barks out totemic remonstrations from in the midst of the crowd, who form a cautious but bobbing semi-circle to accommodate him like it’s the best high school dance ever. Then it’s time to re-navigate the labyrinthine corridors to make it back to the main Røkeriet stage to catch Jonathan Johansson plugging his latest album En Hand I Himlen. Crooning dreamy indie-pop Swedish-language vocals over the chirpy electro provided by his backing-band, the Swede praises the beauty and friendliness of Bergen before tempering this sycophancy with a request to ask him over again when it isn’t raining. An invitation may well be extended, because despite being a little bit samey Johansson has a broodingly energised stage presence which is at its most engaging when the twee-tendencies are eschewed in favour of bluesier stomps.
So far, so not very Norwegian. Which local-boys Real Ones set out to rectify. Commissioned by the festival to compose a special instrumental piece, which has been given a limited vinyl release under the fitting name Ekko, the Bergen quintet are faced with the challenge of making their seventies throwback folk-pop function sans the charming vocal melodies that are in truth their strongest asset, and sadly they do not really succeed. I am a big fan of their most recent record, All For The Neighbourhood, which manages to avoid coming across as pastiche by channelling its period influences – West Coast harmonies, Neil Young guitar, Beatles oriental experimentation – into restrained and catchy three-minute pop gems. Unfortunately whilst that album distilled the best bits of seventies psychedelia, this instrumental effort falls victim to that movement’s rather more regrettable tendencies, and comes across as an extended and self-indulgent jamming session that never really feels like anything more substantial than a drawn-out version of the instrumental interludes that contributed to All For The Neighbourhood’s enthusiastic charm but never merited full-length status. The first two tracks here indulge in long guitar boogie meanderings that serve only to evoke a kind of Lynrd Skynyrd electric-country pomposity, and whilst more light and restrained movements utilising banjo and repeated acoustic swells make the whole affair a bit more intriguing, the fact is that Real Ones are unable to justify Ekko’s instrumental form. It is all perfectly nice, the musicianship commendable, the band affable and engaging, and it is at moments very pretty, but you know when you go and see a band live and to ensure that you get more than just the studio experience they play a song through and then go off on an improvised instrumental tangent, tearing that melody you love into an overlong improvised guitar-wank. Well sadly Ekko is a bit like that, but with the song you liked that the interlude sprung from taken away. Or like an untenably long intro that plays out as you wait and wait for vocals to kick in that never do. Perhaps it’s understandable that a band used to relying on vocals should respond to a task of this nature (one they have visibly enjoyed taking on) in this manner, but ultimately it’s a little too decadent, and just not that memorable.
A peek at Detachments’ brooding electro post-punk (with a singer imitating Ian Curtis in dress, poise and voice to such an extent he should sue from beyond the grave) and Nite Jewel’s wishy-washy electro-pop is enough to convince me to keep on walking, and the description of Rishaug/Watz in the cinema stage sounds rather more promising. This collaboration finds Norwegian electronica veteran Alexander Rishaug and artist and designer Mariuz Watz improvising soundscapes and accompanying visuals and lights to purportedly offer an immersive crossover experience, but whilst the ambient sounds are evocative enough the projections recall nothing more complex than a millennium-era Windows screensaver, and the set fails to provide the sensory experience I had perhaps hoped for.
Leaving them absorbed in knob-twiddling I instead nip over to the main stage to await the headline act of the night; Sweden’s lauded minimal-techno magician The Field. Despite being a fan of Axel Willner’s hypnotic glacial electronica, I never fully understood the hyperbole surrounding his successful crossover debut From Here We Go Sublime, and I am further sceptical of how his minimal and moody strains will translate to the live arena, but it is clear from the off that any doubts were spectacularly wide of the mark. Backed up by live bass and pounding, tinny drums, Willner stands behind a black table loaded with his toys, weaving his icy spell with the burning intensity of a preacher, his signature fringe flopping out from beneath the black hat of a hijacker. Remarkably the atmosphere and subtlety of his music remains intact even as the songs are transformed into dark and charged dancefloor fillers. What is most startling is the extent to which The Field’s compositions sound evocatively organic even as robotic voices loop in an endless chilly stasis. The rapturous swell of ‘Over The Ice’, enlivened by the manic contributions of the drummer, soars to fill the room with an impossible synthesis of machine and nature, every bass pock and synth burst simultaneously suggestive of clinical technology in all its dehumanising uniformity, and a vibrant, writhing and forceful natural world: Scandinavia in all it’s northern, icy, expansive, unnerving and chilly glory.
Apparently years of storing fish in what is now the Sardinen stage meant that the seafood stench had embedded itself in the walls, the floor, the very fabric of the room, lending an unwanted olfactory element to any gigs held there. The odour has thankfully faded now, but as I sidle in to check out Todd Terje it’s clear that it remains an unsatisfactory venue. Bundled off to the side at near ground level, the low ceiling and overly bright lights mean Terje is already struggling against a muted atmosphere. A product of the Oslo Italo-Disco scene that has seen Lindstrom and to a lesser extent Diskjokke explode onto the international circuit, Terje is as notable for crafting tongue-in-cheek space epics out of guilty pleasures like Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder as he is for being a more cutting-edge producer and remixer, but despite the exciting waves and pulses of his creations the room and the crowd (a handful of drunken swayers) drive me away to try a different Norwegian act for size. Of Norway were always going to have a tough time of peddling their own minimal techno what with genre darling The Field still going next door, but the handful of punters who ease themselves into the rows of seating in the cinema are in for a treat all the same. Lil’Wolf and Chris Lynch describe their music as the sound of ‘being lost in the woods in Norway’, and they certainly build up a tangible world of clicks, tweaks and burps – from an evening tide washing up on a beach of shingles, to the chattering of insect life in the forest floor, their house-tinged soundscapes are redolent and absorbing, although some of the vocal additions that emerge dreamily from the mist sound a little stilted.
And that’s nearly it – just time to clamber to the Studio to dabble in Clark’s distinctively Warp IDM; a broad and exciting dancefloor-friendly assault that is delivered with cheeky exuberance, and then I’m away, the festival over for another year. Past the sweaty dancers in the Studio, past the drunken stragglers on the stairs, past the hangers-on in the hallway, past some folks in the entrance who soak up the art exhibition with sagely nodding heads, past the smokers who huddle and mutter just outside the front door, and then I emerge once more in the biting Bergen air, the fjord stretching out from the dock-side, black deep and beautiful, and the sounds of a myriad musical treats still ringing in my tired ears.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009