Svarte Greiner, Kim Hiorthøy, diskJokke, Telephones @ Ekkofestival
Landmark, Bergen, Norway, October 2010
The final weekend of Ekko comes as Bergen plays host to a late October explosion of cultural activity. We are midway through the ever-expanding Bergen International Film Festival, which showcases an intriguing array of foreign films (among other things I catch the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee, in which a man’s lost son returns as a gorilla spirit with glowing red eyes and a princess has sex with a fish; and the cruelly named My Joy, a Russia-set parable in which any act of kindness results in being killed – it took me two days to get over it). Adding to the intercontinental flavour is Bergen International Week, which is to thank for the fact that earlier on Ekko’s penultimate day I am met with the sight of a Cuban salsa troupe wrapped in scarves and rubbing their cold legs as they bust out funky tropical rhythms in a snow-covered bandstand.
Just across the road from the bandstand, looking out across the man-made lake that dominates Bergen’s city centre and is ringed by the Munch-sporting art gallery complex, stands Landmark, which houses the final two nights of Ekko’s arrangements. A trendy, sleek affair, Landmark is used to blurring the boundaries between art gallery and bar, and with a thrust stage draped in white sails, the experience of watching a band perform here is similarly self-conscious, with none of the relaxing anonymity of Hulen or Verftet. The ambience works perfectly for the first act on, however.
Svarte Greiner played Ekko last year, and though his performance on Verftet’s main stage was an enthralling one – with atmospheric projections of rustling dark leaves playing out behind him as he spun eerie dark-ambient webs – the claustrophobic space and proximity to the audience this time around definitely suit his music more. Kneeling on the floor to flick switches and trigger swells of fuzz as looping vinyl crackles beside him, Svarte Greiner gives the impression with his intense appearance and measured interventions of conducting some kind of questionable shamanistic ritual. Stage lights are eschewed in favour of a ring of yellow light-bulbs that glow intermittently around him, casting flickering shadows on the suspended white drapes above – and leaving the audience basking in what could pass as the flames of an open fire. Opening with jittery percussion and tidal orchestral samples the minimalist aesthetic at first recalls such bleak classical composers as Pärt or Reich, but Svarte Greiner’s one man show stirs this potion into increasingly scary territory: live guitar reverb snaking in and then roaring its way to musical domination. It is avowedly cinematic (horror-cinematic, to be precise), and it is with cinema in mind, I think, that you have to approach Svarte Greiner. This isn’t music in the conventional structural sense – try to latch onto a melody and you will very quickly become disenfranchised, but treat it as a soundtrack to unseen images (and it is with this approach that the aesthetic of the environment becomes paramount) and this is hugely engrossing stuff. You seem to hear creaking floorboards, growling monsters, and shivering tension with every note of Greiner’s strange spell, and for one man to pull that together, seemingly improvised, whilst kneeling on the floor, is an impressive thing indeed.
Kim Hiorthøy is something of a Norwegian Renaissance man. He is the artist in residence for Rune Grammafon’s array of near-iconic covers, he is responsible for the charmingly distinctive illustrations that accompany bestselling author Erlend Loe’s children’s books, he has made films, presented television programmes, written books and somehow found the time to make music too. On record his electronic musings lean towards the lo-fi, but live he proves a different beast altogether. Winningly scrawny and bearded, Hiorthøy doesn’t look a million miles away from one of his own disproportionate character drawings, and though his music starts off with a subtly intertwining evocation of pan pipes a la mid-period Peter Gabriel it soon becomes apparent that what Kim wants the most is for people to dance. It is cerebral dance music, perhaps, but massive pumping beats are what he peddles none the less – like Four Tet gone acid-house – and such is the directness of Hiorthøy’s approach that I feel somewhat sidelined for not being steaming drunk. As his concoctions swell into an epic techno storm Hiorthøy’s rhythmic head-nodding, like a frantic dashboard dog, turns into frenzied pogoing; skinny limbs flicking switches as a scraggly beard bobs up and down. It is probably Ekko’s most danceworthy hour – and it’s a welcome one too.
That salsa group in the snow might have seemed to juxtapose two absurdly incompatible cultures, but Friday’s headline act has done much to demonstrate that a cold Nordic sheen and glossy tropical ingredients can be woven into something very special indeed. Clad in sparkly sequinned lycra diskJokke and his accompanying musicians seem a promisingly flamboyant proposition from the start, but unfortunately the Oslo-disco A-lister’s live band incarnation doesn’t wholly satisfy. The first couple of tracks sound like they are being heard through the wall from another room, and the live bass, guitar and drums aren’t always as tight as Joachim Dyrdahl’s precise and polished compositions would seem to warrant: what I take to be the usually tautly burring ‘Cearadactylus’ comes across as a bit of a krautrock mess. Things perk up with the brilliantly effervescent ‘Some Signs Are Good’, though, and although the setlist finds no time for ‘Folk I Farta’ any reservations about the delivery are largely forgotten as huge white balloons cascade onto the heads of the audience, guitarist Vinny Villbass struts glimmering and sweaty into the crowd, and scented fog swirls around Ekko-goers dedicated enough to dance into the small hours. Who says Norway and congas aren’t a match made in heaven?
If diskJokke is one of the leading proponents of Norwegian disco, Ekko’s modest final Saturday provided ample evidence that the country’s rich seam of disco producers shows no sign of being exhausted. It is fitting that Bergen’s electronic music festival should give opportunities to local talents; and in live performance terms they don’t come much rawer than Telephones – this was Henning Severud’s first live show in his hometown, not that it showed. Taking his cues from seventies and eighties disco tunes, Telephones is more pop-oriented than somebody like Lindstrom: you can hear shades of Michael Jackson, or cheesy action flick soundtracks, but it’s a meticulously fleshed-out soundscape nonetheless, populated by chiming synths, tinny cowbells and bouncing percussion. With this year’s Ekko logo – whirling cassette spools – projected in deep red behind him and his band, Severud compels with both his infectious funk-infused house and an unmistakable enthusiasm. This is recognisable a proud occasion for the moustachioed producer – his grey-haired parents stick out like a sore thumb in the youthful crowd, but their boy done good. At times his tunes are perhaps a little fleeting, and as his set draws to a close I do wonder if perhaps he lacks a breakthrough hit, but then, to order, his final track delivers a hook so catchy that what criticisms I might have had are well and truly shelved.
I wander out into the chill air, the sounds of revelry receding behind me, and with that Ekko 2010 is over: another success for Bergen, nestled within its seven mountains, its seemingly boundless creativity confirmed.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010