Pow Pow, The New Wine @ Ekkofestival
Hulen, Bergen, Norway 21st October 2010
Probably the biggest draw at Ekko 2010 was the first Saturday, an evening boasting some pretty hefty names in international electronic music. I arrived just in time for a blistering show from LA’s blog-darling Nosaj Thing that found him throwing everything from dubstep to hip-hop into a twitchy million-ideas-a-minute set in front of twisting monochromatic projections. It was all over far too soon. Niki & The Dove were less compelling – it was so-eighties-it-hurts, soundtrack-to-Patrick-Swayze-films stuff, with its irony all in a twist – but Danish disco collective Vinnie Who made for a fun live experience, if a little lacking in truly memorable tunes. This was followed by a blast from Aussie troupe PVT, who combined math-rock textures, stargazing synths and bursts of hairdryer bass to winning effect, before headline act Moderat took to the Rokeriet stage. More accessible than I had expected (there’s a good chance I don’t mean this as a positive), the German ‘supergroup’ were cracking none the less, bringing a real sense of spectacle to Ekko that it might otherwise lack; pumping out killer singles like ‘Rusty Nails’ from worstations adorned with choreographed strip-lights and taking it in turns to nonchalantly puff on cigarettes (illegal indoors in Norway). Someone in the crowd in front of me gleefully saw this as the first stone cast in a smokers’ uprising, and lit up defiantly too, only for a steward to appear impossibly quickly in the middle of the scrum to stamp out the offending tuber. There’s one set of rules for the famous, and another for us… After Moderat it was just left to Warp’s Tim Exile, who admitted that his set was ‘part stand-up comedy show’, crafted impromptu songs out of looped shouts from audience members and showed us the umbrella he’d brought as a precaution, before using his partly self-built equipment to accusatively ponder ‘where’s the rain?’. Lots of different acts on show, in other words – all of them interesting, some of them great, and a fun night in general. Unfortunately for No Music, however, not very Norwegian. So instead it would fall to The New Wine and Pow Pow, appearing the following Thursday, to prove that Ekko glory was not just the preserve of international types.
In the interim the snow fell, coating autumnal Bergen in a picturesque blanket that turns out, as I trudge across town to Thursday’s venue, to be unpleasantly wet and sludgy close up. As if this early wintry onset has triggered an instinct for simultaneous hibernation me and other stragglers head for the suitable comfort of Hulen, which is, literally, a cave. There is clearly no sleeping to be done in here, however. Welcomed into the belly of one of the city’s hills by a dj set from Pastor and Touchable Terrence, Ekko festivalgoers are ushered into the series of chambers that make up this atmospheric venue, most in feverish expectation of Bergen up-and-comers, and clearly local favourites, The New Wine. It’s an Oslo offering first, however. Pow Pow are signed to Fysisk Format, and are here trumpeting the release of their recent sophomore effort Last Days On Earth. They are not as heavy as most of the output on their worthy label, instead what they whip up is a pretty invigorating blend of cheesy prog, space disco and flighty krautrock – and they do it with aplomb. There’s clearly a lot of love for 70’s kraut and prog in the Oslo disco scene, but by mashing this into a live band experience, at least in concert, Pow Pow avoid many of the accompanying pitfalls that sometimes derail this channelling of the outdated by their contemporaries in the capital. Ironically their strongest asset in this department seems to be their willingness to push things beyond the limits of reasonable good taste. If a song calls for it, why not throw in a Mark Knopfler-esque guitar lick, or some simulated pan-pipes. And when they do, you thank them for it. As strobes pulse over a sweaty Hulen crowd, Pow Pow’s disco throb works precisely, you sense, because they pursue what feels melodically natural. Similarities to Prins Thomas’ space kraut productions abound here, but whilst he is all too often caught noodling into banality, Pow Pow, whilst not verse-chorus linear, brings things to a satisfying head: kraut-rock is a notoriously monotonous muse, but when the group stray into explicitly kraut territory on the aptly monikered ‘Cowboy Kraut’ (if I heard right) they temper any potential dryness with a Morricone style guitar twang that almost strays too far into the comic, but just about works. Pow Pow are at their best when they prog out – during more dreamy efforts the crowds’ concentration drifts a little – as their comic-book-fight evoking name suggests, though, Pow Pow may be slightly cartoonish, but they sure know how to strike a killer blow. Even if their prolonged exit has a ‘it’s still not finished?’ quality worthy of the end of Lord of the Rings.
Every year or so a new Bergen act makes it big nationally, and The New Wine have had their names down on the waiting list for years – managed by local mogul Mikal Telle and featured on his and Erlend Oye’s Opplett compilation a couple of years back, these guys have been playing to packed houses locally and selling merch since before they even had a single out. Not that I begrudge them being earmarked for success: with an endearing combination of bouncy computer-game synths, a funky rhythm section and singer Stian Iversen’s knack for catchy phrasings, they were a prodigious quartet from the start. It’s some time since I last saw them, though, and with their debut full-length Waves (surely earmarked as the title for the follow-up to The Whitest Boy Alive’s Dreams and Rules – but then the similarities between the two bands are many) just recently hitting the shelves I was curious about how well The New Wine were aging.
There have definitely been some changes. Iversen has squeezed out some semblance of facial hair, there is an attendant gaggle of shrieking female fans, and I’m pretty sure there is a bit more bounce to Johan Hatleskog’s signature perm. But it’s the music that matters, and the new The New Wine aren’t quite the old The New Wine on that account. Much of the fresher material finds them taking a more serious tone; an echo lending scale to Iversen’s axioms, and a grand swell replacing the previously lo-fi electronics: maybe it’s just live, but you could almost say The New Wine have gone epic. Which, as numerous recent commercial-success stories have demonstrated, is a dangerous artistic road. But I’m not sure it is here. Watching them eat up the cave space in Hulen it becomes apparent that for all the accrued sideburns and groupies the most significant development during the gestation of their debut is the continued musical maturation of Geir Hermansen, whose synths and keyboards underpin the group’s musical direction. Hermansen has been exploring the sonic possibilities of his role in a series of increasingly confident disco releases and remixes under the solo guise of Velferd, and his musical journey has clearly paid dividends when it comes to the density of his band’s output. Swirling disco textures, pulsing bursts and pops, and warm sheens of Fred Falke-esque house electronics ensure that even when the band are in danger of, incredibly, evoking U2, their sound is complex and satisfying enough for this to work out. Melody-wise, though, it is the more naïve-sounding early tracks that still hit the mark most effectively. The drummer from Pow Pow reappears to harmonise on the wonderful Pet Shop Boys chorus of summery ditty ‘Delete, Rewind’, and The Whitest Boy Alive recalling ‘Communication’ gets the crowd dancing, its distinctive Nintendo synth line bent into something altogether more astral. As these more lighthearted moments demonstrate, The New Wine don’t seem to have quite found their direction: things don’t always come together, and there is a bit of tension between pop sensibilities and a more ambitious scope that isn’t quite resolved, but what is most positively evident is their supreme confidence. Iversen has been singing these songs for long enough that he plays around with the cadences and guitar lines, at one point starting with the hook from the next track while the rest of the band are still playing the last one, and Hermansen crafts effortlessly sweeping contributions from behind his stack of synths and keyboards, sometimes playing a couple of his toys at once with an infuriating youthful inference of ‘I don’t even need to look to make this sound awesome’. This ease with their material is encapsulated when the burst into a rendition of the signature riff from Daft Punk’s ‘Robot Rock’ midsong, before nonchalantly cracking back into their own stuff. ‘Oh, did we just throw in some Daft Punk – we didn’t even notice. That sort of stuff just happens all the time’, their aloof expressions seem to airily offer. And so, after a final sweep through ‘I Had To Tell You’, probably their catchiest track, they worm their way offstage through the crowd to get back in the queue for the Big Time. The New Wine haven’t quite matured, but pop the cork early and they go down easy all the same.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010