Category Archives: Album Review

Montée – Rendition Of You

Oslo band Montée’s debut album Isle of Now won them the Spellemann’s prize for Best Pop Act back in 2009, but if you thought they were unashamedly ‘pop’ back then, just wait till you hear their second effort Rendition of You. Whilst Isle of Now was a twitchy new-wave take on melodic pop, their latest makes no concession to coolness.

Disco has long been considered ripe for plundering by cutting-edge Norwegians, but whilst the Oslo-disco crew of Lindstrøm et al twist the framework of the genre into something steely, modern and hip, Montee appear to harbour no qualms about nabbing the more tasteless tics of seventies and eighties pop in their pursuit of something as quaint as a massive chorus and a brash dancefloor-ready beat. This is an album that is completely unironically framed by an opener, ‘Faith’, which sounds like what White Lies would come up with if they had a penchant for Village People choruses, and a closer, ‘Paper Thin’, which is a brazen homage to the work of Sting. It should, of course, be extremely painful listening. But by and large it is quite the opposite.

Trying to genuinely channel classic disco-pop into songs fit for a modern audience without just slipping into the novelty aisle is a tough balancing act, and there are moments when the po-faced brashness stumbles into the cheese counter. ‘Find My Love’ is too smooth and throwback for these ears, whilst ‘Souvenir’ is just about saved from greasy funk inanity by a sweet little chorus. Most of the rest, though, is catchy enough to force you to like it whatever your supercilious intentions. The influences may be unimaginably kitsch, but there are enough changes of pace and splashes of colour here to make a varied listening experience, like watching a ‘Best of the 80’s’ video countdown on VH1. The urgent melancholy of the catchy ‘Rendition of You’ snaps into the swirling camp of the catchy ‘Staying Up’. Hell it’s catchy all the way here really. Indeed it’s ‘catchy’ that saves Rendition Of You, because if sixty years of pop music have taught us anything, it’s that we’re suckers for a hummable tune. “Don’t hold back in fear, when I try to place my arms around you” – could flagship single ‘Ghost’ really be taking inspiration from the least cool film of all time, the pottery-starring Swayze vehicle of the same name? I can’t pin that one on them for sure, but judging by the available evidence; probably. But then it’s got a high-pitched male choir and it’s so damn catchy! Such is Montee’s resilience in their pursuit of A Tune that it is frankly hard not to get swept along.

There are songs that it feels okay to like too. Highlight ‘Gone Today’ marries a moody Talking Heads verse to a stadium-sized triple-barreled pouting pop chorus. Without a wasted note, it is exquisitely-formed pop perfection. ‘Crystal Shore’ conjures a twinkling falsetto folksy refrain out of pulsing downtempo, and even the backdrop of lilting block-flutes can’t tip it too far into the saccharine. Overall, though, you will have to let down your guard to get the most out of Montee. This is a band who have determinedly decided that the intersection between Cut Copy and Alphabeat is worth exploring, and have then had a very decent stab at convincing you they were right. Two-thirds of these songs would make great singles whatever the decade. If you like your pleasures guilty, Rendition of You may well have you in the throes of orgasm.

7.6/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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Beatbully – Kosmisk Regn

Oslo’s dødpop label have been gradually making a name for themselves as the Norwegian arm of Scandinavia’s upstart skweee scene, and their progress has been largely built on three producers: Melkeveien, Sprutbass and Beatbully. Their latest offering, their first non-compilation full-length – and thus by default probably Norway’s first solo skweee album release – gives the latter the opportunity to explore his brash but leisurely brand of ‘scandinvian synthetic funk’ in depth. The result, Kosmisk Regn, aptly demonstrates both skweee’s charms, and also why the genre has not yet cracked the mainstream, and, in its current form at least, perhaps never will.

The album gets off to an assertive start, ‘Råkks’ offering wobbling synth shimmers in call-and-response with pocking bleeps and a stripped-down funk beat, before it slaps right into the irresistibly shiny ‘R’n’Bully’, the twee beeps and sleazy bass of which embody skweee’s often glorious dichotomy by being like someone playing a gameboy with one hand and squeezing a hot girl’s arse with the other. Beatbully’s strengths lie in his undeniable ear for catchy hooks, and his obvious command of ‘production values’ – everything here sounds colourful, crisp and clean. Far from bullying his beats, Beatbully strokes them seductively out. As the context of dødpop’s two compilations proves, however, Beatbully is also very much at the laid-back end of the skweee spectrum. And that’s saying something. There is certainly never anything frantic about the nine short tunes on Kosmisk Regn, and by and large the low-key nature of the songs on offer works just fine. ‘Bølleboogie’ and the appropriately named ‘8-Bits Drøm’ both sport hooks worthy of massive club tunes, but deliberately downplay them – the latter’s quasi-anthemic refrain could have had sweaty clubbers pounding an Ibiza dancefloor; if it wasn’t played out in rudimentary radar-blips. Such is skweee, of course, and ‘8-Bits Drøm’ is perfectly judged, and indeed probably the record’s high point.

At other times, though, too much energy is lacking. Beatbully is better at high-end hooks than he is low-end bass manipulation – sometimes proceedings lag while you wait for a melody to kick back in. The title track boasts another killer squelching instrumental chorus, but you long to inject just a little bit of pace into the whole affair – it’s like Ikonika in a tar pit – whilst ‘Expecting Company’ takes this a step further, slowing the skittering, limping beat down to an almost queasy pace, although here the lopsided rhythm is so disorientating that it becomes an asset, and another twinkling chorus section ultimately renders it a winner. The final track ‘Buddah Nr.2’ makes explicit skweee’s links to dubstep, and also Beatbully’s firm intention to give that shared territory his own spin, with mixed success: it’s like dubstep stripped down to two-dimensionality; shuddering bass and an irregular beat used not as a driving force but as dreamy atmospherics, the sheen of twinkling chatter that drifts alongside it perhaps as close as the record gets to its seeming misnomer ‘Cosmic Rain’, as a voice simply echoes the words ‘bullet boy’, perhaps a nod to the gun-crime movie that put the territory of dubstep’s London on the big-screen.

The problem, though, is quite what to do with a whole album of dance music, that, by and large, you can’t really dance to. ‘Move Your Feet’ achieves its goal to an extent, and the opening salvo of ‘Råkks’ and ‘R’n’Bully’ both have some propulsion, but whilst Eero Johannes in charge of these hooks might manage to both retain skweee’s principles and deliver a club-worthy jolt, in Beatbully’s hands these by and large ain’t dancefloor fillers. Try jumping up and down to ‘Buddah Nr.2’ and you’ll be left poised in a crouching position waiting for the beat to come around again. If you can get over that, though – and let’s face it; most of us are listeners and not movers – what Beatbully leaves you with is a record that is almost always fun, funky and charming. You’ll have some of the tunes in your head for days, and if it seems slight at first the record will soon worm its way into your affections. What Kosmisk Regn ultimately seems designed for isn’t dancing, but chillin’ – this is the perfect record to nod your head to, one hand on the wheel and the other resting on the open window of your car, as you cruise along a serene street on a scorching summer’s day. If you like the sound of that, you’ll like the sound of Beatbully.                     

                                                                                                            7.2/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011.

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Casiokids – Topp Stemning På Lokal Bar

Norway’s latest hopes for global success break the mould of previous exports in one notable fashion: they sing in their native tongue. Rather than signifying a greater willingness amongst Anglo-Saxon tastemakers to absorb Norway’s lilting idiom, however, the imminent success of Casiokids is rather testament to the extent to which the other aspects of their music make understanding the lyrics unnecessary.

Casiokids’ 2006 full-length debut Fuck Midi played with all the elements that make the group such a compelling proposition today – creaky keyboards, a blend of indie-pop hooks and bubbling electro instrumentals, energy and sincerity hand-in-hand – but, despite a surplus of ideas and enthusiasm, largely failed to coerce them into anything particularly striking. After that record the band vowed to stick to singles only, and spent the next few years honing their craft and periodically releasing a series of double A-side gems that were, almost without exception, utterly delightful. This follow-up album collects these eight singles and packages them with a second disc of remixes and covers. Which does mean that if you’ve been following Casiokids at all over the last few years chances are you will have heard most, if not all, of these songs before; even the remixes have been doing the rounds for some time. But by no means should its compilation status be allowed to devalue Topp Stemning as an album. The record is no less cohesive for not being the result of one session push, and if you have heard the bulk of the material before, well, it’s largely so good that there can be no real excuse for not listening to it quite a lot more.

The quality of the music on the first disc is superlative. ‘Grønt Lys i Alle Ledd’ is a disarming indie pop charmer, ‘Togens Hule’ squeezes ancient-sounding squeals and bleeps into a compulsive and sweet instrumental ride, and ‘Verdens Største Land’ gives the impression of a more D.I.Y Cut Copy, with a driving beat, smooth bassline, chiming synths and falsetto harmonies. The two songs forming the centrepiece of the album are also Casiokids’ strongest to date: ‘Fot i Hose’ and ‘Finn Bikkjen’. If you’ve heard one Casiokids track before, chances are it’s ‘Fot i Hose’, which has achieved quasi-ubiquity in the group’s native land and won a fair few fans abroad. And no wonder. Bouncing synth rolls over echoing bass to produce one of those musical instances where simplicity begets almost infuriating addictiveness.

One of the band’s hallmarks is their childishness – gigs (often specially for children) have included fruit, furry animals, shadow puppets and giant heads, the instrumentation has a playful naivety, and the lyrics deal with seemingly simplistic and ‘immature’ themes and diction – but these youthful imaginings have a bittersweet edge. ‘Grønt Lys’ lists simple pleasures, but the composite effect is a melancholic questioning of their validity, as if the band’s own light-hearted play breeds insecurities of its own. This restlessness recurs in ‘Finn Bikkjen’, the vocal high-point of the album, which marries wistful falsetto to a ripe synth beat. Ostensibly the song translates as ‘find the dog’, but the band have hinted at the title having its roots in a derogatory Bergen expression instead, where ‘bikkjen’ denotes something bad. Does the lamenting chorus then represent a hymn to negative experience and upheaval? No matter, a mournful synth wash and yearning vocals meander through a melody of the sweetest kind. It is the moment at which Casiokids’ recent tour pairing with Hot Chip seems most fitting.

The remainder of the first disc is similarly strong. ‘Gomurmamma’ is another persuasive geriatric instrumental effort that quickly puts down roots, and closer ‘Min Siste Dag’ is an intimate indie-pop singalong with a cute swinging refrain that recalls fellow Bergen natives John Olav Nilsen og Gjengen’s recent debut. If the disc has a weak point it would probably be ‘En Vill Hest’. There’s a cracking tune in there, but somehow this penultimate ditty, perhaps the band’s tribute to Paul Simon, ends up sounding a little off-key. Even then, though, there is enough in the afrobeat intrusions and curveball chorus-melody to more than entertain.

The ‘bonus’ disc almost holds its own with its partner, and it’s refreshing that the remixers are largely upstart locals – Captain Credible’s two efforts in particular are first-rate, his ‘Fot i Hose’ managing to retain the character of the original whilst making it more dancefloor-friendly and also immediately recognisable as his own glitchy and hyperactive work, and Velferd (of Bergen newcomers The New Wine, and signed solo to Untz Untz) bathes ‘Verdens Største Land’ in persuasive disco swathes to provide a worthy companion to the original. ‘Det Snurrer’, a cover of Familjen’s Telle-released track from a few years back, is similarly successful. The remainder of the remixes, and an undemanding James Yuill ‘translation’, are solid if unspectacular, but by this point nothing could stop Topp Stemning from going down as a resounding triumph. Apparently the album title comes from a text from one of the bandmember’s mothers, telling him that there was a ‘great atmosphere in the local bar’. Stick this, the finest Norwegian record of the decade so far, on in the local, and a ‘topp stemning’ is guaranteed. Casiokids just grew up bigtime.

9.0/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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Thinguma*jigSaw – Ghoul’s Out

Around the start of the noughties Freak Folk (or Psych-Folk, or any other derivation or synonym of ‘beardy-weirdy’ you care to prefix to the folk designation: people thought of lots) was de rigeur. With Devendra Banhart as their king and Joanna Newsom their queen scores of guitar-strumming hairy types realised that after a thirty-year break they could get naked, call each other ‘dude’ and warble whimsical campfire ditties again, and not only would nobody chastise them, but for a couple of years they would be the darlings of the indie set. But Devendra has moved away from endearing lo-fi and towards increasingly misjudged doo-wop, and Joanna has cast off her more eccentric tendencies with progressive maturation and in the mean time the rest of the freak-folk crowd have, let’s be honest, been largely forgotten.

So it feels a little like Norwegian duo Thinguma*jigSaw, releasing a wilfully quirky folk record populated by saws and accordions, might have missed the boat a bit – folk may be coming back into fashion in the UK in the sanitised form of Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling, but Ghoul’s Out is unmistakably part of a freakier tradition. Good music is good music no matter when it drops of course, but without a wave to keep it afloat Thinguma*jigSaw’s effort, whilst undeniably lovely, feels a bit too insubstantial to make much of a splash.

The brainchild of Martha Redivivus & Seth Horatio Buncombe (good, solid Norwegian names), Thinguma*jigSaw have surrounded themselves with a carefully cultivated and nicely comprehensive image (what we might these days call Burtonesque), and have also strapped on a handmade genre appellation: ‘splatterfolk’. This might sound like a musical extension of the Saw and Hostel franchises, but it in fact proudly (and none too modestly) trumpets the duo’s embracing of the dichotomy of ‘intensity and sincerity’ and ‘unpredictability and wit’.

Banjos are plaintively plucked, guitars achingly strummed, saws weep and flutes flutter their breathy eyelashes, as Buncombe’s pleasant and evocative voice, often in falsetto mode, paints these eight tracks with increasingly morbid lyrical exhalations. ‘We’re All Doomed’, the first track is unapologetically titled, and from there on the lyrical moroseness doesn’t let up. ‘Ghoul’s Out’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘The Reaper Cometh’, ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’: it’s fair to say these guys think about death quite a lot. But if plumbing the depths of the soul was the object I’m not sure it was achieved. The musical accompaniment to these sinister postulations is too airy and resignedly content, and the vocal tone too placid for us to seriously invest in Thinguma*jigSaw’s morbidity as something intense and vital – I See A Darkness this is not. There are some special songs here: ‘Ghoul’s Out’, a reimagining of Paranormal Activity with a happy ending, is charming in its fragility, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is a winningly cheery Celtic-folk suicide note, and beautiful album highlight ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’ is softly reminiscent of Nick Drake, but arguably Ghoul’s Out’s failing is in not being freaky enough. The splatter-folk claim and hubristic assertions of complete musical originality suggest a project far more striking than the reality of Thinguma*jigSaw. James Joyce, rather than any musical peers, is highlighted as a major audience (the band even base themselves in Dublin), but the only real nods to his writings come in the pretty half-hearted attempts at Joycean language in ‘The Perfidious Sarcophagus’: ‘milky mucus as our pumps rick-tock in our jumping jock flesh’. Joyce was content with nothing less than redefining the whole English tongue and spent decades writing several hundred pages of minutely studied incomprehensible gibberish. If you’re gonna evoke the guy you might as well go the whole hog.

Ghoul’s Out is assured, well-executed and charming, but it’s also a bit too short, a bit too musically insubstantial, not quite melodically memorable enough, and ultimately not quite as weird as you feel it ought to be. The duo have hinted that whilst this is a ‘lighter… more commercial’ set of songs, another upcoming record dealing with ‘infanticide, snuff-killings and other unpleasantries… will be Thinguma*jigSaw`s darkest and grimmest outing yet.’ I’m willing to wager that’ll make a bit more sense. Until then, though, Ghoul’s Out is a decent placeholder that hints at lots of potential.

6.8/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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Velferd – Aspens Turning Gold

A strange match it may be, but over the last decade Norway and disco have become increasingly productive bedfellows, with acts like Lindstrøm, diskJokke and Prins Thomas giving out a string of seminal electronic records that have firmly established the country as a world leader in this throwback field. Up till now the onus has been on the capital – the ‘Oslo disco’ moniker that has been attached to the string of releases confirming its Oslo-centricity – but being the staggeringly creative musical melting-pot it is, Bergen was always going to want a slice of the disco pie. Bjørn Torske and Skatebård have done their bit, of course, but this highly promising debut solo EP from Geir Hermansen, synth maestro with hotly-tipped upstarts The New Wine, suggests that Bergen might well have given birth to another disco standard-bearer.

Velferd’s confidence has been apparent from the start. His track ‘Driveby’ on local label Untz Untz’ first release was a dreamy effort that swayed pleasantly between twinkling downtempo and pristine disco funk bleeps, whilst a pair of standout remixes included on the bonus disc of Casiokids’ excellent debut betrayed a kinship with Nordic remixer-extraordinaire Fred Falke, and The Aspens Turning Gold builds on all of this to offer up four tracks which, through drawing on numerous sounds familiar from the last decade of Norwegian disco (and as such acting as a decent primer for the wave), largely manage to do so with such assurance that what is created is far too sure of itself to come off as reductive.

Of the four efforts on show the central two are the least remarkable. As soon as the echoing bleeps kick in ‘9092’ is immediately reminiscent of Bergen’s most famous electronic offspring – a murky take on the cascades of ‘Happy Up Here’or ‘Eple’ springs to mind. There are some delicious sounds bouncing around, but the track never quite takes off to reach the melodic heights of Røyksopp’s hits. Similarly ‘Drum Squad’ kicks off with a compellingly powerful live-sounding percussive assault, but unfortunately the funk bassline that forms the backbone of the track, if equally tangible, is irritatingly simplistic. ‘Drum Squad’ is structurally interesting – Velferd evokes the march suggested by the title with the forcefully repetitive rhythm section, but the fluid noodling that is draped over this backdrop doesn’t quite manage to subdue the feeling of monotony.

It is the two efforts that bookend this E.P., however, that truly shine. The opening title track stirs an evocative synth sheen that establishes it firmly in Lindstrøm’s space-disco tradition, but from this assertive soundscape another fleshy bassline confirms that Velferd is more than capable of giving the genre his own distinctive spin. There are unforgettable synth hooks galore, but rather than run them into the ground ‘The Aspens Turning Gold’ constantly shapeshifts, seamlessly segueing in a new cosmic direction. Upbeat disco melts into a dark prog excursion – Pink Floyd guitar licks effortlessly blending with the live-sounding bass and chattering synths, each musical layer managing to evoke a different musical era without this juxtaposition feeling at all unnatural. The stargazing breakdown two minutes from the track’s conclusion could have been cut verbatim from Lindstrøm’s ‘The Long Way Home’, but it is so brilliantly executed that Velferd is forgiven being unable to escape the long, long shadow of the Oslo producer. The track is a precocious delight.

Equally compelling is the closer, ‘Cobalt’. A charming naïve synth hook offers the E.P.s catchiest melody, but again on this song Velferd refuses to push one idea beyond a couple of minutes – giving much of the E.P. the feel of an expertly meshed mixtape. Our hook bubbles into rhythmic disco pulses, which then explode into lush melancholy, this vision of a house-infused The Field itself exchanged for clean but dreamy guitar which hints at crystallization through a synth haze. Just as you fear that Velferd is letting things stew for too long he slams his foot on the gas and we burst back to that opening hook as naturally and satisfyingly as could be, a whimsical disco journey bringing us back home.

The Aspens Turning Gold is still the sound of a producer finding his feet, but such is the feeling of confident control exuded on this release that it would be surprising indeed if Velferd did not go on to play a significant role in the evolution of Norwegian disco.

7.7/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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Nils Bech – Look Back

A deeply divisive figure, Nils Bech has split the Oslo underground more starkly than most, with those taking sides increasing by the day as the hordes of the inquisitive are drawn to this camp curio. Formerly of distinctly tongue-in-cheek quartet Snuten, most notable for the cheesy lo-fi of the admittedly irrepressibly catchy ‘Easy’ (chorus: ‘it’s not easy being gay’), Bech’s current musical incarnation has seen him emerging from Oslo’s contemporary art scene, singing from atop a step-ladder, surrounded by the sculptures and paintings of his artist friends at exhibition openings, the gallery-goers, cross-legged on the floor, divided between awed worship and stifled laughter.

Bech ascribes his desire to present his music as a crossover between pop and art installation to a ‘flirtation’ with the theories on ‘the symbolic power of art’ advanced by the recently deceased social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. To many, however, his dancing is daft, his status within the art-world makes his success a textbook case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’, and his singing is nothing short of embarrassing. For there’s the rub: Bech’s ‘Norwenglish’. A classically trained vocalist with a background in opera he may be, but there is no denying that Bech’s pronunciation on his debut full-length Look Back veers on the side of comical, and combined with his earnest choir-boy delivery the most lost-in-translation Eurovision memories are evoked by some, alongside, perhaps more cruelly, German electro-punks D.A.F., whose own garbled lyrics were intentionally parodic.

So for all the apparent art-world baggage, it is in fact Bech’s English that is the only audible stumbling block, and it is a curious one. Strangely the lyrics themselves cause no real problems; if they are occasionally clumsy they at least avoid the hollow clichés and recycled phrasings of so many Scandinavian singers who have perfected their Anglo-American drawls to a tee, and Bech’s position as a creative force within the global village of an art world that is increasingly international suggests there should be no reason for Bech’s English to lag behind the general youth populace to such an extent. Perhaps then, this pronunciation is, if not an affectation, at least deliberately exaggerated. Not for satiric purposes though. Some of the most celebrated (and discouragingly dense) writings of Bech’s beloved Bourdieu advance a theory of artistic autonomy that suggests that “‘pure’ works of art are not accessible except to consumers endowed with the disposition and the competence which are necessary for their appreciation” – in other words, ‘pure’ art should intentionally embrace the rejection of the commercialised masses; novel attributes that may alienate the many (just like Nils Bech’s English) are commendable both for their refusal to pander to existing taste and because they define the emerging artist. Could Bech be deliberately limiting his appeal?

The truth is though, that like the pop-diva of the moment Lady Gaga, whose artistic pretensions, evocations of Warhol and Grace Jones, and distinctive visual stylings and idiosyncrasies are merely distractions from the reality of her music: that it is just generic pop; strip away Nils Bech’s art-scene background, his image and the surrounding furore, and what we are left with is some pretty decent and accessible electro-pop. And whilst the voice has caused all that fuss and may provoke a chuckle at first, with repeated listens familiarity begets fondness, and Bourdieu’s maxim on the importance of novelty proves true: Bech’s music wouldn’t be half as interesting without his distinctive vocals, and his voice, which might at first have seemed shaky and risible, is discovered to sway instead between sultry provocation and wide-eyed prettiness, with a good dose of post-modern humour in-between.

The first half of the record is probably stronger, with a string of cracking singles showcasing Bech’s versatility. ‘Brown/Blue’ is a sweet love song that states its position in disarmingly simple terms – ‘I want to lean in’ Bech primly trills over swelling muted electronics and occasional chiming piano. His ear for a charming melody is ever-present, and his unashamed individuality and willingness to embrace the naïve make for a thoroughly enjoyable ride. ‘Contemporary Dancing’, a plea to dance schools everywhere to let boys participate, could come across as silly, but for all its ingenuousness it gains a kind of honest joy from being sung by a not quite grown-up boy who genuinely places solemn significance in the ability of dance to aid his own self-expression. Plus you’ll be humming that chorus for days.

Bech’s voice may be what grabs headlines, but the contribution of his musical collaborator Bendik Giske is considerable. A saxophonist with contemporary jazz trio Listen!, Giske both sets down the arrangements and produces here, and his deft handling of the musical accompaniment plays a major role in making Bech’s vocals seem appropriate. Warm saxophone loops, bursts of house synths, and chattering electronics lend the whole album a subtle vibrancy: on ‘Don’t Worry’ Bech’s dark swoon is bathed in percussive choirs as an ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ riff chugs along intermittently in the background, upbeat piano and angelic harmonies give way to bursts of Giske’s bouncing sax on the delightfully smooth ‘Curious Love’, ‘French Affairs’ recalls The Knife, and Eighties-tinged synths and pulsing electronics drive the guilty pleasure of pop-throwback ‘Space/Time’, a duet with Mirejam Shala, whose early-Kylie bubblegum vocals make Bech’s classical-tinged accompaniment sound wonderfully anachronistic.

The most fitting musical comparison to Look Back is probably Antony Hegarty’s contributions to Hercules And Love Affair’s self-titled debut – whilst Bech’s voice is not nearly as heart-stopping and often lacks control, both singers are marked by a cabaret influence and effeminate edge to their unusual vocals, combined with an unusually-phrased emotional forthrightness, all against a background of warm, horn-infused electronics. This similarity is probably most evident on this album’s titular highlight ‘Look Back’, as Giske’s saxophone builds into an electro disco stomp until Bech’s looping vocals overlay the chorus’ mantra in layers of danceable jubilation.

This is a record to enjoy rather than to fall in love with – despite the fact that Bech’s vocals are probably more palatable on the slower efforts it is the more upbeat songs that leave a lasting impression – but with repeated listens Bech’s lyrics and voice, whether tender and self-revealing or supercilious, just increase in charm, and the proximity of the whole affair to silliness just adds to the fun and makes Giske’s musical achievement in reigning it all in all the more impressive. This is posturing electro-pop of the highest order, and, contrary to expectation, you’re not a snob if you like it, you’re a snob if you don’t.

8.0/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

Prins Thomas – Prins Thomas

Oslo’s Prins Thomas is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the decade’s king of disco Lindstrøm; the two friends giving out a pair of joint swirling prog-throwback electro albums (I and II) and arguably forming the bedrock of the capitol’s thriving disco scene. Given that Lindstrom’s success thus casts a formidable shadow, Prins Thomas’ full-length debut follows a markedly familiar formula to Lindstrøm’s triumphal solo tour de force Where You Go I Go Too.  Like Lindstrøm he has opted for a banal casual photo portrait to adorn the record cover, like Lindstrøm his chosen tools are a swelling blend of dated prog guitar licks and driving disco soundscapes, and, as with Lindstrøm, the fact that this is really Prins Thomas’ first full album of original material (his previous sizeable full-length, Cosmo Galactic Prism (2007), was a collection of remixes) is immediately surprising given the vast number of EP’s, collaborations and, in particular, remixes, that the self-crowned Prins has churned out over the last eight or so years. Giving that those many hours of craft-honing and genre splicing were arguably building up to this release Prins Thomas is ultimately a disappointment, albeit a perfectly pleasant one.

Opener ‘Ørkenvandring’ opens stridently enough with sanguine percussion and a resolute bassline, but the jangles of prog guitar that take the reins largely fail to build into any kind of impressive conclusion – over eight minutes seems rather long for a song that, by and large, doesn’t really go anywhere. This is increasingly the case across the rest of the album too. Rather than opting either for a stirring build-up or heightening of tension, or an instrumental verse/chorus structure, Prins Thomas instead drags out simplistic melodic arrangements, allowing them progress only in the most subtle and gradual ways. Shaky Eastern guitar echoes give way in leisurely fashion to driving strumming on ‘Uggebugg’ before one of the album’s few memorable instrumental hooks kicks in – a tight ascending guitar refrain – but with the average song length creeping towards the nine minute mark such minimal progression isn’t enough to entice repeated listens. Similarly disappointingly given the length of the tracks and his choice of genre touchpoints, Prins Thomas makes little discernable effort to lend the album any kind of conceptual unity. Perhaps the song-length and studious shifts in tone could gain relevancy if elements recurred later in the record, or if songs blended into one another effectively, but instead we are left with seven isolated offerings.

The most striking thing about Prins Thomas’s solo productions is the extent to which his largely electronic music doesn’t sound electronic, or, where it does, sounds like decades-old electronic forays. Creaky synths, dated guitar licks, tinny tangible drums and psychedelic organ are the order of the day here, and whilst the extent to which it is possible to forget that this is electronic at all may be remarkable, you also sense that this devotion to the outmoded may be hampering Prins Thomas. There is the odd transcendental moment, as when the dirge-like ‘Slangemusikk’ takes a brief dark turn in its second half, or when the hesitant disco of ‘Wendy Not Walter’ achieves a bubbling serenity after five minutes of dithering, but whilst Lindstrom happily absorbs all the hallmarks of bloated outdated genres and explodes them in a glorious starburst of epic, airy beauty, Prins Thomas here feels far too pedestrian. As if to confirm this embracing by an electronic producer of the physical, Lindstrom himself and Todd Terje, arguably the two other leaders of Oslo’s italo-disco scene, make appearances here contributing – of all things – keyboard and clavinet and trumpet respectively. Perhaps I’m too harsh – this album is a grower, improving over its second half, its hypnotic sequences growing increasingly multidimensional with familiarity – but whilst Where You Go I Go Too’s twinkly electronics seemed to transport us to a distant sheen of stars, Prins Thomas’s ship never quite has lift off.

6.7/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

Jaga Jazzist – One Armed-Bandit

Jaga Jazzist emerged as one of the leaders of the Scandinavian-spearheaded ‘nu-jazz’ movement in the late nineties, their vibrant style blending the energy and multi-instrumentation of improvised jazz with Warp-influenced electronics and indie-rock melodic sensibilities. With the precocious vision of Lars Horntveth at their centre, the sprawling collective have, either directly or indirectly, made contributions to many of Norway’s most innovative musical efforts over the last decade or so: former or current members playing with Shining, Lama, Motorpsycho, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, Turbonegro and Adjagas, among many notable others. This shifting and evolving melange of blazing creativity has ensured that, over the course of their three full-length releases in the first half of the 2000’s, Jaga Jazzist increasingly blended genre barriers and pushed their distinctive sound into uncharted waters. Thus A Livingroom Hush offered airy pop hooks, The Stix toyed progressively with glitchy electronic percussion, and 2005’s What We Must, the band’s last effort, opted for full-on post-rock epic structures.

So how the band would sound on this long-awaited studio return was understandably a burning question. Sure enough, Horntveth has claimed that ‘everything fell into place’ when a late-night listen to Nigerian legend Fela Kuti spawned the titular flagship single ‘One Armed Bandit’. That track, the first proper one on an album opened by a crackly intro sampling Smalltown Supersound-signed Scandinavian free-jazz trio The Thing, does indeed represent a welcome sonic shift. Irresistible afrobeat horns writhe over breathless percussion and chiming keyboards that immediately evoke and justify the delightful slot-machine album artwork. It is a cheery, addictive and alluringly danceable opening salvo, which also sounds unmistakeably like Jaga Jazzist. But if afrobeat provided the creative impetus for the record, it is a shame that its influence is largely absent from the remaining songs – the vitalising festivity and humour of the title track swapped for more familiar sounds here on in, follow-up ‘Bananfluer Overalt’ sapping the momentum with its (admittedly agreeable) proggy downtempo.

If One-Armed Bandit largely fails to blaze a revelatory new direction though, Jaga Jazzist on default setting still represents an eminently listenable and intriguing musical proposition. Driven throughout by Even Ormestad’s brooding bass, the album takes in punky soul (‘220 V / Spektral’) funky grandeur (‘Music! Dance! Drama!’) and looping classical-tinged swells (‘Toccata’). It is left to closer ‘Touch of Evil’, however, to remind us of how vital Jaga can be when they are truly on full throttle, the industrial horns and glistening chatter building to bursts of thrilling guitar menace and a swaying storm of gothic organ, shaking the listener out of a stupor we hadn’t known we were in.

Admittedly all of Jaga Jazzist’s attributes are on show on this record: their superb musicianship, lack of respect for traditional genre boundaries – which is accompanied by an enviable knowledge of how these seemingly disparate strands can best be meshed, their ear for a catchy melody that never begs out for vocal accompaniment, and their general effervescence. But if One-Armed Bandit is an enjoyable listen, a fine album, it is not the one to take them to the next level, either musically or in terms of popular appeal. Despite the album name and artwork, Jaga Jazzist don’t take enough of a gamble.

7.5/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

Shining – Blackjazz

Shining’s music has always been an intellectual proposition. Emerging as one of the more cerebral and frenzied of Norway’s celebrated jazz collectives at the tail-end of the nineties the band have gradually embraced darkness and bite as playful jazz whimsy gave way to huge snarling riffs and metal menace. On their latest album Blackjazz Shining embrace their metal tendencies to such an extent that the whole affair has the air of a calculated project: the aim being to channel black metal through their supreme jazz-informed musicianship to produce a semi-conceptual metal record that is not only technically impressive, thought-provoking and boundary-pushing, but also oh-so-fucking heavy and downright scary. Their study in darkness is a profound success.

On Shining’s last record, 2007’s epic Grindstone, there was still a reasonable argument for labelling the group an experimental jazz band that just happened to dabble in occasional prog-metal intrusions. Not any more. Blackjazz crunches and screeches from beginning to end; every aspect of the record – the packaging, the song names, the semi-audibly barked vocals, and of course the music – adopts and adapts genre clichés and tries to simultaneously inhabit and reinterpret them. The cover art is angular and steely, the liner notes find what are presumably the lyrics printed in black on another shade of black. Good luck reading that. ‘Exit Sun’, Fisheye’, ‘Omen’ – the song titles hint at apocalypse, brutality, horror and destruction in contrast to previous albums’ allusive and bookish track designations, whilst the lyrics are totemic portents growled and howled through the bluster.

But to call these adoptions mere parodic affectation would be to do Blackjazz a crass injustice. Shining’s metallisation feels both natural and fully justifiable. The band have long been a tinnitus-inducing live prospect, and the highlight of Grindstone was the body-slamming opener ‘In The Kingdom of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster’, so to ‘go metal’ feels like an organic musical evolution that finds Shining playing to their strengths, and also suggests a willingness to generally tighten up and give out a more coherent product. There is no time here for fluttering flute solos, for morse-code evocations of Bach, or nods to Milan Kundera. Where there are intertextual citations they are twisted to the dark side. ‘The Madness and The Damage Done’ opens the record with a reverb-heavy shriek before pounding riffs tighten and swirl amidst addictive chanting and pained klaxon cries. As if to compound the notion of Blackjazz as an experiment in genre this flurry gives way to a repeated guitar shriek that thrashes and squeals in a seemingly endlessly held loop. Some bands might perform such a trick in a bid to show off intricate musicianship – and Shining certainly possess that in reams – but here the groove is stuck almost to the point of absurdity, the repetition becoming deconstruction.

There is a sense in which Blackjazz is a metal album for people who don’t like metal, its heaviness and atmosphere rendered acceptable by the musical journey the group have been on, their avant-garde background, and by the feeling that the metal touchstones are nothing more than a skin the group have chosen to slip into – the black adornments, howled vocals and evocations of destruction stemming not from any psychological bleakness or angst, but because they go hand-in-hand with the chosen musical direction. When I saw Shining live frontman Jørgen Munkeby howled and gurned until veins stood out in his neck midsong, but in-between tracks he was soft-spoken, genial and friendly; and by seemingly separating what they do musically from how they are able to reason their endeavours Shining appear to be able to shape their musical output on a level that refuses to be influenced by convention or the genre hallmarks they so gleefully wink at. In the end Blackjazz manages to satisfy both followers of the group’s earlier acoustic jazz and staunch metalheads.

‘Exit Sun’ opens with chaotic percussion tumbling over a sharp heavy-metal riff that speeds into a frenzy before nailing breathless progressions to the shin of Muse’s ‘Hysteria’ bassline, all of this followed by guitar crunches and reverberating vocals that are inaudible aside from the repetition of the track’s title. If the sun does pack in then this should be odds-on to soundtrack the doom-mongering newsreels. Being Shining, though, this beast is followed by ‘Healter Skelter’ which spills epileptic saxophone yelps over clattering drums and thrashing guitars. If the album closer, a black-metal cover of King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ (another knowing evocation – Shining are oft compared to the prog experimentalists) is the most pertinent example of the album’s explanatory title, with wailing free-saxophone adorning prog guitars as Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson growls rumbling black-metal vocals over the whole affair, there is plenty to suggest that influences come from other areas too. There is a recurring industrial edge to the guitars that hints at a more meaningful relationship with Nine Inch Nails than the similarities of the logo on the cover art, and album stand-out ‘Fisheye’ opens with a barrage of screeching rave-metal guitars that make this perhaps the band’s most powerful track yet, whilst the vocals – sounding like a twisted call-and-response between a demonic killer and his hysterical victim, alternately barking or stuttering out a hypnotic and frightening cryptic verse – ensure you will come away both spooked and hooked.

Shining are built on contradictions, and the album title, whilst seemingly meshing two diverse genres, in fact confirms that the band’s strength lies in exploiting disparity. Grindstone broke off passages of extreme noise with airy trembling wind intrusions, but here there is far more ‘black’ than there is ‘jazz’. But whilst this feels continually intellectual and calculated, Shining’s project also comes across as wholly natural, the organic next stage of a band who have enough ideas, skill and power to mould a genre rife with wearying clichés into a shape both exhilarating and compulsive. ‘Same old same old’, Munkeby can be heard snarling at one point, but ‘same old same old’ Blackjazz defiantly is not.

8.3/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

Lindstrøm & Christabelle – Real Life Is No Cool

It’s seven years since workaholic Italo-disco producer Lindstrøm dropped his solitary collaboration up till now with a sassy vocalist then known as Solale – ‘Music (In My Mind)’. That was right at the dawn of his career, and since then, well, he’s pretty much established himself as the world leader in the disco resurgence, defined perhaps by his anthemic signature cut ‘I Feel Space’, offered up as part of his full-length E.P collection It’s A Feedelity Affair. That track’s brooding synth hook, combined with its grandiose title, cemented the conception of Lindstrøm as the NASA of contemporary electronic music; finding his way to the stars by mechanical means, distilling the sounds of the universe with a funky ‘space-disco’ beat. His 2008 debut album proper Where You Go I Go Too took the notion a step further, updating the epic, sweeping vibrancy that prog-rock clumsily groped for over three swirling lengthy tracks that were both stunning and satisfying in their shaping of a rich but unpretentious twinkly musical universe. And so, having earned his chops over the past decade, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm returns to where he began to expand that single collaboration with Christabelle (the moniker Solale has since reverted to) to a whole album of sweaty and chaotic disco belters: Real Life Is No Cool.

Whilst his ever-bulging canon finds Lindstrøm increasingly experimenting with electronically-rendered prog soundscapes, the addition of vocals courtesy of Feedelity Records’ ‘first lady’ steers Real Life Is No Cool away from the ‘space’ part of Lindstrøm’s output and firmly towards the ‘disco’. Yes, this is a thumping glitchy stomper of a record that gives all the funkier bits of the seventies a distinctly 21st century sheen. The lyrical contributions from Belgian national Christabelle – whose full name, Christabelle Silje Isabelle Birgitta Sandoo, was understandably trimmed down – were apparently entirely improvised and then handed on to her collaborator to be bent and edited into shape alongside the beats, and this willingness to warp her singing, one of the most important factors in the ability of this album to modernise and distance itself from its dated disco influences, is apparent from the off, as opener ‘Looking For What’ kicks in with Christabelle’s a cappella vocals twisted and overlaid until they are nothing more than garbled stuttered gibberish. Whilst Where You Go I Go Too was notable for the seamless flowing of one track into another, the shifts via gradual sonic progressions, here Lindstrøm is constantly chopping and distorting, stopping tracks abruptly short to emphasize the changeovers, so that the album comes across as a messily assembled mix-tape stuffed with enthusiastic flourishes, or, increasingly, and surely intentionally, as a constantly equalizing radio – tracks vanish until more of Christabelle’s vocals tune-in, sometimes to be rejected after only a few seconds.

This chaotic approach (improvisation, chopping and changing) makes for a surprisingly vibrant listen, propelling the record forward in an energetic torrent, and whilst at times Christabelle inevitably sounds a little too wishy-washy, and her off-the-cuff mantras fall short of properly thought-through melody, frequently the surprise is rather at hearing a classic soul gem emerge fully-formed from the confusion. ‘Lovesick’ drops a massive creaky old-school hip-hop beat as Christabelle sassily chants echoing remonstrations at some spurning lover, before the sexy strut merges impulsively into the hypnotic harmonies and staccato synth spurts of ‘Let It Happen’. Shifts in pace and atmosphere slice up the record, without ever blocking its driving funk danceability, hallmarks of classic disco, funk and soul are referenced constantly, but kept from receding into pastiche by resolutely modern intrusions, whether it be the cut-up vocals or the essential pulsing beats that assert themselves through the nostalgia to remind us that this is still very much an electronica album. This melding and tension throws up numerous impressive moments, with Christabelle’s vocals as versatile as her producer’s beats. On ‘Music In My Mind’ she sports an Annie-esque sweet airy croon, whilst on ‘Let’s Practice’ she momentarily howls like Annie Lennox over a thumping, groaning, swelling pulse. Real Life Is No Cool’s centrepiece, ‘Baby Can’t Stop’, could well be the duo’s tribute to the late Michael Jackson: chirpy big-band brass lilting over a Quincy Jones funk growl as Christabelle does her best vocal and lyrical impression of a fledgling Jacko, the refrain, ‘baby I can’t stop/ I can’t get enough’, surely a nod to ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’. As if charting a night out the record winds down with the curious backwards washes and tape loops of ‘Never Say Never’, before closing with the sweet and leisurely ‘High And Low’,  which even boasts a smooth seventies guitar solo (albeit also offered up in rewind), and could pass as one of the lovelier moments on Lykke Li’s debut.

After the disappointment of Lindstrøm’s last full-length collaboration – his and Prins Thomas’s II – which aimed at musical authenticity but ended up sounding like it had been thrown together on Garage Band from default seventies guitar stems, Real Life Is No Cool is a welcome return to form. These are throwback thrills of the freshest kind, with a clear fondness for the dormant excesses of the glory days of funk, soul and disco, but brought thoroughly up-to-date by Lindstrøm’s supremely inventive and organic production and Christabelle’s vocal fearlessness. Real life doesn’t get much cooler (or sweatier and sexier) than this.

 7.8/10

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009

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