Category Archives: Live Review

Numusic Festival 2011

Emeralds, Knalpot, Next Life, Killl @ Folken Stavanger 23rd September 2011

It is three years since Stavanger – Norway’s oil-rich 4th city – was named European Capital of Culture, and despite the looming hulk of the impressive soon-to-open concert hall that dominates a section of the seafront there still seems to have been some cultural belt-tightening in evidence since then. Stavanger’s sprawling celebration of, well, new music, Numusic may be making a welcome return for the twelfth time, but the constricted line-up does seem to lack some of the bigger foreign names of previous years. At a festival that prides itself on tracking the intersections between various shades of progressive music and art, both Norwegian and international, though, there is still of course plenty to take in.

My first taste of 2011’s offering draws me to Folken, where a night that seems to have been specifically paced to track the meeting point between electronica and metal is set to culminate in what promise to be visually compelling shows from two of Norway’s most celebrated experimental metal acts. For all that the student union venue is skeletally empty at the start, and the abundance of lanyards suggest that of the ten or so people who have made the trip to catch the first act of the night, US ambient trio Emeralds, very few have actually paid. Emeralds’ introverted swirling blend of everything from krautrock to drone has the odd scintillating progression, but in a room this sparsely populated it is hard to get sucked in. Knalpot do a better job of engaging the (now slightly swollen) crowd. Purveyors of a kind of multitasking bipolar glitch blues, the Amsterdam pair, sporting extraneous visor caps, alternate between powerful riffs and restless electro, although if it is a fair accusation against such a spasmodic act, they ultimately come across a little samey.

If Knalpot took Emeralds’ electro aesthetic and injected it with sporadic bursts of noise, this progression is taken even further by the next act: Next Life. The Tønsberg trio have had twelve years to perfect their singular brand of sample-heavy metal, and indeed every track finds them punching for ever greater heights. Their set opens placidly enough, with founder Hai Nguyen Dinh toying meticulously with the projections that are to play out on a vast back-screen, but when they do launch into their musical barrage the senses inevitably sit up and take notice. Scrolling Tron-like visuals pixelate their way across the taut trio as they deliver incredibly tight and blistering chunks of epic noise. What Next Life write aren’t exactly songs, but rather variations on an explosive theme. Instead of aiming for traditionally structured musical perfection what the band seem to strive for is instead scale. Every time they slam back into motion, every muscle tensed, every body-crushing note synchronised to perfection, they seem to be gathering up the building blocks of the previous emission and trying to reassemble them into something more massive. Projected skyscrapers and mountains loom over them, bubbling Nintendo gurgles try and get a word in edgeways, and at one point the three of them snap into sudden silence after a particularly colossal crescendo and drummer Anders Hangård simply points his stick in the air to cue what sounds appropriately like a sampled avalanche. Next Life won’t stop until their sound moves mountains.

If that was a spectacle, live-only sideproject Killl make it clear from the off that they are gonna go out of their way to trump it. A lurid curtain is draped all across the back and sides of the stage, its multi-coloured optical illusion diamonds already swirling before the eyes – and that is before Killl turn on their dizzying array of lights. Where to start with these guys? The name Killl, with that assured extra ‘l’, suggests a drawn-out death, and that is exactly what Killl subject you to: extended audio-visual murder. It is also (for twenty-five minutes or so at least) pretty damn awesome. Including such genre-hopping luminaries as Erlend Mokkelbost of Montée and JR Ewing and Martin Horntveth (who always sits at the drums at the back with Jaga Jazzist looking like he wants to fuck something up), Killl live plays out like some piece of modernist theatre about four stocky bearded men trapped in a nightmarish neon cube, hoping that if they make enough blistering noise they might somehow make it out alive. At some juncture in the band’s existence (indeed judging by this show it might have been its founding moment) one of the members of Killl obviously walked into a strobe shop and said ‘I’ll take the fucking lot’. As bursts of tense tearing uproar thunder from all around a flickering, corroding, blinding light show turns the claustrophobic backdrop into a hallucinatory reality spasm, as fluorescent bursts organically co-ordinate with every detonation of noise. This is largely an instrumental affair, although the band-members do take it in turns to roar into the microphone for good measure, and it is also clearly a live experience – if you were callous you could say Killl are a novelty act. Truth is, this isn’t even a concert, more of a thing that happens to you. A sensory violation. In fact Killl are almost not a band, just a kind of blinding mindfuck. Like a Red Bull-fuelled explosion directed by Gaspard Noé, by the end I wasn’t sure what hurt more; my ears or my eyes. Killl are definitely something to see before you die, although they might also be what killls you.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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Hove Festival 2011

After the sordid demise of the nearby Quart Festival Arendal’s Hove has inherited the challenging responsibility of being Norway’s largest rock festival. With competition from Oslo’s ace Øya and cheaper options abroad the event has not had an easy ride, however. Hove itself had financial problems from the off, and after filing for bankruptcy in 2007 founder Toffen Gunnufsen was forced to elicit the aid of experienced UK event moguls Festival Republic, the team in charge of Reading, Latitude and half of Glastonbury. Since then the going has been smoother, and Hove has reached the modest but meaningful fifth anniversary milestone this year. After bedding down in the relatively restrained camping area it swiftly becomes clear what has proved to be Hove’s niche – the crowds are overwhelmingly Norwegian and of post-high school age, a sea of late-teens still sporting soiled Russ T-shirts. That said, the line-up is a reasonably eclectic affair, and the setting – no doubt what attracted Festival Republic – is charming. Strings of lightbulbs hang like engorged fireflies from the pines as you wander along forest paths, the Main Stage looks out over traditional wooden huts and bare rocks, the Amfi second stage is a stunning auditorium cut into a forest clearing and lined with chipped bark, and the artists, lucky bastards, get their own stunning private sandy beach. It is a pricy affair, though; there is no escaping from that. At some £250 you would struggle to find a more expensive festival anywhere, and with beer at £6 and sorry food at £8+ filling your belly becomes a daunting task. And the rain, that habitual scourge of the festival goer, is the unwanted holder of a festival pass too, before the sun finally tracks it down and evicts it from the final, balmy day.

Wednesday:

My first day at Hove starts with a glance at wistful Bergen surf-pop collective Young Dreams, who would be the perfect summer afternoon festival booking if they weren’t dwarfed by the gargantuan Main Stage and it’s requisite paltry early audience. Tracks like ‘Young Dreams’ are delicious nonetheless, but at a festival with leafy hideaways to spare it seems a shame not to stick this lot in one.

Kasabian swagger about parodically, but they have a scattering of hits that you can’t help but appreciate as part of a big festival crowd, and a rousing sign-off with last year’s disarmingly overblown ‘Fire’ hits the spot. Over at the Amfi stage Tinie Tempah, by contrast, seems initially a bit more interesting than I had had him down for, efficiently channelling the raw beats and London-centric rhymes of underground grime. This isn’t to last, alas, as any credibility is swiftly traded in for massive vapid pop-choruses and faux-heartfelt drivel, so an early exit is beaten to grab a decent spot for The Strokes. What is there to say? Their last two albums have been shoddy at best, live they veer close to self-parody – the feigned disinterest that made them languidly exciting exchanged for genuine disinterest – and today a good half of the show is phoned in. And yet, when they scroll through the early hits – which to their credit they do at length today – you are reminded of what a great band The Strokes can be. ‘Reptilia’ sizzles, but it is the highlights from Is This It that really stand out, leaving you pondering at once how good that record was, but also where it all went dull afterwards.

Soulstepper Jamie Woon is the latest articulate floppy haired UK post-dubstep act to get bloggers in a twist, and his James Blake meets Timberlake murky pop proves every bit as winning in the flesh. Armed with a stunning voice and a shameless willingness to exploit this for all its emotional and catchy potential Woon cuts a charmingly bashful figure. During the interlude of closing hit ‘Lady Luck’ he looks embarrassed at being forced to briefly dance, and one of the highlights of his set is a stonking singalong cover of ‘Would I Lie To You’. His magnum opus ‘Night Air’ is sadly swallowed by its own burping beats, but a moving take on ‘Spiral’ more than compensates.

After that there is just time to catch the tail end of Brandon Flowers’ show at the twilit Amfi, which ends with a curious euro-trance reimagining of Killers hit ‘Mr Brightside’, flooding the venue with latecomers in a manner which must be a trifle demoralising for Flowers’ solo pretensions. Now untz he’s untz having untz a untz smoke untz and untz she’s untz taking untz a untz drag. It went down well, anyway. After a glimpse of Bright Eyes late set (he’s got a massive coat on), which confirms that I’m probably not likely to get into him any time soon, it’s time to crawl into a disconsolate sleeping bag and listen to the patter of insolent rain.

Thursday:

The different factions of precipitation seem to have been united by a common goal and agreed to march in drilled formation on my second day, so shelter is all the rage until I venture to the mercifully roofed tent stage. These New PuritansHidden won numerous plaudits last year, including the questionable honour of NME’s ‘Album of 2010’, but it’s a sparse crowd who have collected in the tent to soak up their horn-infused progstep churning. It’s not too hard to see why, either. The band have hit upon a great sound, but the tunes they have are hampered almost irreparably by Jack Barnett’s (self-acknowledged) struggles with staying in key, and the band have trouble translating the grand scale of the album live. What should be the crunching dystopian epics of ‘Attack Music’ and ‘Three Thousand’ instead end up a little woolly and half-hearted. It’s still reasonably compelling stuff, but deeply flawed.

Over at the main stage Big Boi reliably dishes out a party atmosphere. Generally considered the less exciting half of Outkast, Big Boi went some way to dispelling that assumption on his cracking 2010 record Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, and although his show here never feels quite as theatrical or three-dimensional as you would expect a full Outkast effort to be, it does finds him trawling through the hits satisfactorily. Their luggage was lost by the airline he explains, although new clothes were provided by one of the stalls in the festival site (surely a once in a lifetime coup for that lot), and although welcome takes on Outkast hits ‘Bombs Over Bagdad’ and ‘Ms Jackson’ feel a little like karaoke renditions, proceedings really light up with effervescent takes on Left Foot highlights ‘Fo Yo Sorrows’ and the anthemic ‘Shutterbug’. Getting a gaggle of nineteen-year old Norwegian blondes on stage to grind is on the pervy side of magnanimous, but Big Boi is a hit nonetheless.

The main draw on the Thursday is resurgent Swedish pop princess Robyn, and sure enough the Main Stage is heaving. Dressed in peacock print leggings, a hideous bitty jumper and an oversized American Football shirt, sporting a terrible bowl haircut, and throwing laughably aggressive dance moves Robyn might seem to be the ultimate incarnation of our post-ironic internet-fuelled obsessions, but she proves here that no zeitgeist-citing excuses are necessary when it comes to explaining the appeal of her music. It’s just great. She focuses on the beats here, ramping ‘Cobrastyle’ into a pumping beast and twisting ‘Be Mine’ into a house banger, but whatever her incarnation she is an expansive entertainer. Perhaps Robyn is more suited to a dark dance tent than this open stage, but tunes like ‘Dancing On My Own’ and the brilliant closer ‘With Every Heartbeat’ would work anywhere.

It’s Magnetic Man’s job to continue the party, which they manage largely by dint of being seriously loud. Sans Skream – who we are told may be becoming a father ‘any minute now’ – the supergroup dish out pretty hackneyed dubstep-by-numbers. Which is fine seeing as individually they played a big part in defining what that would be anyway, and because the bass is so bone-marrow-extractingly loud that it is hard not to be generally impressed, or to resist the impulse to move around (even if only to stop yourself being blown over backwards).

Friday:

I’ve never seen Rumble In Rhodos before, and late-afternoon at a largely unoccupied main stage wouldn’t seem to be the ideal place to start, but the indie-pop tinged post-hardcore act gamely do their best to combat any obstacles with a catchy and energetic show. Vocalist Thomas Bratlie slips easily between sweet pop croon and punk yelp, and his total commitment is hard to resist. The songs are increasingly in place too: Rumble are touring their well-received third album Signs Of Fervent Devotion, and, after a dedication to the watching Erlend Mokkelbost and Anders Tjore of Montée who produced the record, an increasingly rosy-cheeked and sweaty Bratlie launches into latest single ‘Soft Insulated Days’, which, like this sparkling performance, showcases Rumble In Rhodos at their buoyant best.

It seems Montée are everywhere (they’re not really, only there and here), as they are next up in the tent, and in fine fettle too. Giving a whirlwind tour through the glitzy nostalgia of their fine recent full-length Rendition of You, Montée are at their best when they embrace their poppiest impulses, and a singalong take on recent hit ‘Ghost’ has the crowd in raptures.

The Mars Volta’s ok, but not having any particular investment I opt to collect cups instead. What? I was never into At The Drive In, and what’s the point in a band that is mostly for people who used to be into another band anyway? I get money for the cups!

I want to hate Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. With a heady combination of vitriolic lyrics detailing killing women, homophobia and general recklessness and the overall impression that these are wild kids in charge of something adults would struggle to control (the members of OFWGKTA range from 17 to 21 years old), this LA collective have swiftly become the most hyped and the most vilified act on the hip-hop landscape. I want to hate OFWGKTA. But they are just so scintillatingly thrilling. With an aggressive energy and caustic belligerence that feels truly momentous Odd Future bawl out blasts of sheer bile-filled dynamism, and this is before leader Tyler, The Creator has even taken to the stage. He is in a wheelchair. He has a broken foot. He doesn’t give a fuck, and dances like some drunken scarecrow, swaying dangerously with every furious stomp of his one good peg. Other members leap bodily into the crowd off speaker stacks, or encourage the frenzied mosh pit to even more violent extremes. The lyrics are shocking and unfortunate, sure, but they are expressed with a wry articulacy, and smack of a mixture of blog-baiting and ‘this is the world I grew up in, so fuck you’ realism. And beneath the ‘Most Wanted’ exterior you get the impression that these are a bunch of kids genuinely amazed by the opportunity they’ve been handed. Tyler has never been abroad before. This was the first time he saw a lake. He throws his camera into the crowd for a few snaps, and of course he gets it back intact (he did admittedly use a few small threats). He had expected, he tells us, to be plonked in front of a bunch of white guys who ‘didn’t know shit’, but he is pleasantly surprised (I suspect that beneath the bravado he’s a rather sweet soul). He’s not the only one. Despite the themes this stuff doesn’t compound the stereotypes of hip-hop; rather it blows away a bunch of cobwebs. Every beat may reprise that engorged cicada chirp of ‘Yonkers’, but A it’s an awesome beat, and B it’s laid down by a child of about eight years old. After a final rallying cry of ‘Kill people, burn shit, fuck school’ the crowds clear, and lying on the chipped bark a prone figure is revealed being tended to by medics – hopefully not a direct result of Odd Future’s questionable crowd-control policy (get ‘em riled). There are many reasons to hate OFWGKTA, but a lot more to think, live at least, that they are something very special indeed.

This is Hove Festival’s fifth birthday, and, fittingly, their first Norwegian headline act are celebrating their tenth. Kaizers Orchestra may have made little impression on the Anglo-American market, but in Norway they are in truth probably the only band with the live chops and the young fanbase to pull off a top-of-the-bill appearance at a bash of this scale. I’ve never particularly managed to warm to them on record, but, led by the inimitable Janove Ottesen, the group are a famed live prospect. Vast oil drums are rhythmically slammed with crowbars, the sinister organist sports his signature gas mask, and – swiftly shedding his trademark waistcoat – bare-chested Ottesen has the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout. Their shtick is an admirably comprehensive Weimar steam-punk, and from the resistance-themed Germanic lyrics to the vast velvet drapes and chandeliers that are revealed halfway through, this theatrical bent makes for a great stage show. The band may be in the midst of a staggered three album 2011, but they rummage through the greatest hits here, and by-and-large the crowd know every word, accompanying their mass chorus with Kaizers’ ubiquitous dainty clapping. ‘Resistansen’ and ‘Ompa Til Du Dør’ are wildly received, and whilst a “Kaizers rap” feels a mite ill-conceived, by the time they bid Hove farewell with explosive closer ‘Maestro’ there are few who would begrudge them their headline slot.

Deadmou5e fills the Amfi arena fit to bursting, and has packed the stage out with expensive looking huge digital cube things and tube lights and screens and stuff. And there he is at the top of the lopsided pixelated podium thing with that mouse-shaped hat on. What a joker. Take it off! He never does. Is this the same song? No? Oh. It’s loud, isn’t it? Does that make it good? I dunno…. do you think he always wears the hat so he doesn’t have to listen to his own music?

Honningbarna won the most recent edition of NRK’s Urørt, a nationwide search for the best unsigned act in the country, and despite the draw of Deadmou5e the nearby tent is full enough to suggest that the band caught some ears during that competition. If OFWGKTA showcased America’s disenfranchised youth, Honningbarna, whilst equally shouty and lively, represent rather Norway’s contentedly franchised youth. The Wolf Gang and the ‘honey children’. That said, however, this straight-outta school punk proves thoroughly entertaining with the tunes to boot. Frontman Edvard Valberg, dressed knowingly in a British-style school-uniform purple jumper, squirms and writhes with infectious enthusiastic sugar-high energy and belts out his band’s curt anthems with the voice of one beyond his slender skinny years. Signature hit ‘Borgerskapets Utakknemlige Sønner’ may be the pick of the bunch, but in the call-and-response interaction between Valberg and his fledgling bandmates Honningbarna have hit upon a stonking, albeit repetitive, live formula. This is basically exactly the sort of music you would expect teens to make if they had few pretensions and liked shouting in public. There are fret-straddling guitar solos, head-banging riffs and Neanderthal thudding drums. It may be Kvelertak Jr., but then Kvelertak are Black Metal Jr. and when was being Jr. a bad thing anyway? Martin Luther King was a Jr. The fact is that being in Honningbarna looks like sooo much fun, and watching them isn’t far behind.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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Bergenfest 2011

Marina & The Diamonds, Montée, Real Ones, Mount Kimbie, Young Dreams @ Bergenfest

This last proper day of Bergenfest also marked my last day as a Bergen resident. After two years of living in this beautiful rain-sodden cultural haven, cradled in the tumbling arms of its towering seven mountains, it seemed fitting indeed that my last glimpse of Bergen should find the city at full tilt. Sure enough the full cast of supporting characters were out to see me off. There is Lars Vaular clutching a McDonalds by the seafront, there Erlend Øye weaving his way through a crowd on his lonesome. Wild-bearded Homeless Swedish Man plays a fumbling goodbye refrain on his trusty recorder by the roadside, the city’s teens, clad in their red Russ get-up, drag sloppy dead fish around on strings or swig drinks on grassy verges. The sun shines, the streets teem, and, come dusk, I lope out for one last weary but excited binge on Bergen’s musical offerings.

English warbler Marina & The Diamonds is up first, at the former fish-smoking factory USF Verftet, and she is pretty much what you would expect. Somewhat tame Kate Bush-inspired faux-eccentricity, which is a bit samey but skilfully delivered. She clearly has some decent lungs on her, and the packed house goes wild for the robot song. All in all it’s just fine.

But what of the Norwegians, you impatiently cry? I’m on my way to them. Bear with. It’s a light jog, though, to Hulen, the cave-venue that bites into the rock under the city’s needle strewn central park, and I am there just in time to shuffle through the crowds to be near the front when Montée take to the stage. I had reasonably high hopes for this one, having warmed to the band’s recent second album Rendition of You, but it becomes apparent pretty quickly that Montée aren’t really going to fulfil them. Not that there is anything wrong with their performance per se. A bracing rendition of album highlight ‘Gone Today’ kicks off proceedings, and ‘Crystal Shore’ and early hit ‘Isle of Now’ follow with similar polished gusto, but for me it’s just not fun enough. There are big choruses, fancy coloured lights, and the girl has a crazy perm, sure, but this is music that gleefully chomps on the multi-coloured tropes of disco and pop, and yet here it is live being delivered with a defiantly straight faced earnest epic-ness that robs it of much of its potential power. Where is the endearing indulgent silliness I had envisioned? Maybe I’m just too used to fun local bands putting on a stonking stage show, but it turns out there is a bit of a gap between how I imagine Montée, and how they imagine themselves.

Downhill again, then, to the town centre, to lurch for the tail-end of Real Ones’ homecoming show at Ole Bull Scene. There is certainly more to see here. Huge block letters arranged at intervals on stage spell out the band’s name, and the hairy members of Real Ones clutch everything from violins to a liberally called-upon sitar. I’ve heard good things about the band in the live forum, and, for the four songs I catch at least, they don’t disappoint. It’s not forward-looking music and the more ‘adventurous’ moments can stray into pastiche, but Real Ones have a sure grasp of melody and a refreshing taste for variety that renders them ample entertainment. I squeeze into a free space on the upstairs balcony just in time for the double whammy of their 2009 album All For The Neighbourhood’s best two songs. If ‘Outlaw’ isn’t quite the gleeful pop anthem of the studio recording, ‘Every Dog Has It’s Day’ is every bit as liltingly lovely. There is no appearance from Susanne Sundfør for the duet ‘Sister To All’, which is both a shame and a good thing (as the song is a bit crap). But when Real Ones, with all their colour, verve and slight antiquatedness, sing ‘every dog has its day/ And mine’s today’, I feel compelled to agree.

Back at Verftet UK post-dubstep duo Mount Kimbie offer an immersive and exciting flow of echoes, chattering beats and disembodied vocals, but from the crowds packing the larger downstairs room it is clear what people are still here for, in the early hours of the morning. Everybody in Bergen is talking about Young Dreams these days, and the chatter is starting to spread far and wide. To be fair there are enough members in the sprawling collective (I count nine today, but it varies) for the considerable whooping crowds to just be close friends, but there is a genuine buzz in the air as Matias Tellez leads the ‘supergroup’ onto the cramped stage. Members of everyone from The Megaphonic Thrift and Put Your Hands Up For Neo-Tokyo, to The Alexandria Quartet and Casiokids have a role to play here, but it soon becomes apparent that their sound is rather different from any of those component parts. Summery harmonies and drifting warm melodies abound here. If Panda Bear made synth-infused catchy three minute pop songs, this delectable concoction might be what he’d dream up. As jostling girls shriek from the throng and everyone who’s anyone in the Bergen music scene (who isn’t on the stage, which narrows it down considerably) looks on in solidarity, it is clear that Young Dreams are pretty confident with their product and very much enjoy sharing it. The finished-article singles, including the swirling delight of ‘Flight 376’, are stronger than some of the working material, but the potential is dripping from every honeyed note. Their irrepressibly catchy mission statement ‘Young Dreams’ is delivered with a deliciously messy sheen of handclaps and surf-pop backing vocals, but there is a poignancy too to their nostalgically childish golden haze – this bunch of Bergen boys clearly haven’t quite come to terms with growing up, but they have matured musically enough to articulate that wistfulness in a very exciting way.

From a clear sky shimmering stars shine over this special city. I may be leaving now, but Bergenfest has provided yet another compelling argument for coming back sooner rather than later.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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Jenny Hval @ Kvarteret, Bergen

Jenny Hval @ Kvarteret, Bergen
25 March 2011

‘It’s more than two years since we were last in Bergen’, Jenny Hval sheepishly reveals two songs into this show at Bergen’s recently renovated student venue, but despite this prolonged absence only around fifty people seem to have roused themselves to attend Hval’s return. Those of us who have made the effort, however, are in for a treat.

Hval is doing the rounds in support of her third album, Viscera, (her previous two came under the Rockettothesky moniker), and despite the often confrontational and theatrical nature of the material on that record, the initial impression projected by the singer is mild and almost shy. Sporting a silvery blonde bobcut and a traditional Norwegian jumper over a long chequered shirt, Jenny Hval exudes a tomboyish take on glacial femininity as she launches straight into the first lines of latest single ‘Blood Flight’, with only a mumbled ‘hi’ by way of introduction. Backed simply by drums and electric guitar, it is Hval’s distinctive vocals and febrile acoustic guitar that take centre stage, and whilst the sound system at Kvarteret has muddied many of the artists I’ve seen here before, today either they have got it bang on, or Hval’s voice is so pure and controlled that she can shine no matter what. A mixture of the two no doubt, but there’s no denying that Viscera is presented in crisp perfection. Indeed for an artist who largely eschews traditional song structure and embraces minute fluctuations of often jarring sound, Hval presents these songs in a form almost identical to that on the album. Which is not to say that she is unable to shed new light on her music in the live forum.

The simple picked guitar motifs that are woven throughout pristine renditions of ‘Blood Flight’ and ‘How Gentle’ are rendered altogether more majestic and ominous on this grand scale, and every startling fluctuation of Hval’s distinctive and often intentionally abrasive vocals feels even more effortlessly impressive. In these opening moments I can’t help feeling, though, that there is something wrong about the visual side of the show – these songs feel like they would flourish as the soundtrack to some eerie or surreal projections, the life and chiaroscuro of the music married to a comparable visual experience. Instead we have only Hval and her two bandmates, bathed in simple blue or red light.

Throughout those first two songs Hval largely sings with her eyes closed and when she does peek at the crowd she looks quickly away again. By the third track, though, she seems to settle down and start to revel in the theatricality of her music, and the viewer/performer relationship becomes a more comfortable one. She feels like the progenitor of her songs, not just the vehicle, and develops into a quietly mesmerising presence. ‘Not all limbs have… erections’; she opines at the start of album highlight ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’, rolling the last word around in her mouth as – eyebrow raised – her glance flits provocatively over the audience. When the song explodes into exhilarating torrents of powerful guitar Hval proves equally adept at matching this musical shift vocally, effortlessly easing her otherworldly croon into a quasi-snarl.

Perhaps the most controversial moment of Viscera is its first: ‘Engines in the City’ opens with the immortal lines “I arrived in town/ With a toothbrush/ Pressed against/ My clitoris”. Quoting this in the headline of their review, Hval muses conversationally, ensured her ‘most read’ status on Norwegian national paper Dagbladet’s website for the first and only time. Her demeanour here, if nothing else, supports her suggestion that that paper took her far too seriously.

Critics frequently dismiss Hval’s work as obscure and dense; the reality is that it is music of subtle shifts, of sudden eruptions of melodic beauty, of imagistic poetry, and of carefully wrought flights of fancy. In other words it is music that needs you to listen carefully. Perhaps because by definition concert performances require your undivided attention, Hval seems easier to accept in the flesh. The tracks from Viscera reveal all their nuances and contrasts, from the lush Kate Bush-esque rallying cry ‘Milk of Marrow’ to the gothic drama of ‘Golden Locks’, and there is even time for a haunting rendition of Medea’s most unforgettable moment: ‘Grizzly Man’. “Something with bear lyrics”, she offers afterwards, her summation falling absurdly short of what is a simply stunning song.

For the encore microphones and drums are set aside as the onstage trio deliver a breathtaking unplugged take on folk ditty ‘Silver Fox’. It’s a moment of intimacy that bridges the gap between sound and presentation most effectively, but long before this there had been no denying the singular talent of Jenny Hval.

 First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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Ekko Festival 2010 pt.III

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.

Friday:

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?

Saturday:

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

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Ekko Festival 2010 pt.II

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.

Thursday:

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

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Ekko Festival 2010 pt.I

Casiokids @ Ekkofestival
USF Verftet, Bergen, Norway 15th October 2010

Another year, another expansion: this is an echo that just keeps getting louder. Two weekends play host to Ekko’s festivities in 2010, and although the headliners perhaps aren’t as hefty as last time around the line-up further cements this little festival’s status as a unique, up-to-the-minute and, effortlessly trendy shindig. From prodigious local talents and Oslo electronica mainstays, to some of 2010’s biggest underground movers-and-shakers from genre-defining labels such as Warp, Kompakt and DFA; this year’s Ekko might require the average punter to do a bit more digging, but there’s a seam of gleaming gold to be uncovered by those that do.

Friday:

One of the many ways in which Ekko establishes both its distinctiveness and its links to the hub of the local scene is in its annual commissioning of a specially prepared composition that drags a Bergen act out of their comfort zone and gives them the blank canvas to try something with no creative boundaries. Last year saw Real Ones performing a fully instrumental piece which, whilst it wasn’t hugely musically compelling, was perfectly pleasant and added to the feeling of Ekko being a special event – plus you’ve gotta credit them for trying something a bit different. This year’s special commission went to Casiokids, a ramshackle group who have deservedly whipped up a considerable buzz with a string of killer singles (collected into an irrepressible album), and a glut of madcap live shows. Given the performative focus of their concerts and the soundbite nature of their success, their collaboration here with choreographer Henriette Slorer and dancer Sigrid Hirsch Kopperdal to explore the impact of the shuffle function on music is actually more appropriate than it might at first seem, but you’ll understand nonetheless my pre-show puzzlement over just what ‘Shuffle’ would actually entail…

We are asked on entrance if we have an mp3 players, and I hesitantly offer up my iPod, but any fears about its fate are swiftly forgotten. There’s a lot to see upon entering the relatively small room that is to house Casiokids’ performance, but the venue setup merely adds to the enigma. The stage itself takes the form of a catwalk, jutting out into the crowd. But any expectations of a sleek fashion show are undermined by dozens of shabby objects hanging from the ceiling, suspended by white ropes that snake behind a backlit curtain. There’s a skirt. A chair. An umbrella (it is Bergen after all). A Winnie-the-Pooh inflatable beachball. Clearly the objects’ significance lies in their randomness. As the glow of the lights varies pulselike in intensity, and I begin to wonder when the whole thing will start (or if this is even it), a head appears from a small trapdoor concealed in the catwalk, and this mute countenance rises from the floor to reveal the white-clad body of one of the dancers. With calculated dinosaur jerks and effortlessly controlled writhing she accompanies the music that swells from behind the curtain. After a while another dancer emerges, and the two begin a curious series of interactions that are perhaps intended to investigate the effect of shuffled songs on the music listener’s emotional state. Every so often one of the suspended objects is lowered on its string, and, when approached with animal curiosity and touched by the dancer, the music is interrupted by blasts of half-remembered songs from the assembled iPods. The lead dancer tugs each item from its clasp and thrusts it onto her partner, who reacts to the acquisition with a flurry of customised dance-moves and an expression of fear, anxiety, surprise or submission. So far shuffling has provoked a selection of largely negative emotional responses, so we can read as much as we want into that fact that when they back curtain rises to reveal Casiokids themselves (who have up until this point appeared only as flickering silhouttes), the two dancers react with overflowing pleasure and delight. As the duo dress up in the hanging garments to add splashes of colour to their neutral Apple-advert body-suits and crack out cheery choreographed boogies, the focus turns to the band.

Musically ‘Shuffle’ has much in common with the material on Topp Stemning Pa Lokal Bar, although here it takes on a more wistful and meandering shape; their lo-fi synths playing out homemade proggy space-disco textures that swell and bubble, Ketil Kinden Endresen’s distinctive falsetto taking on a dreamlike quality, imbuing the vocal sections with a wide-eyed longing. They may be sonically experimenting more than we are used to, but Casiokids also prove throughout ‘Shuffle’ that they have an impeccable ear for melody: catchy synth lines abound and the piece grows increasingly confident as it progresses. It’s less immediate fare, sure, but to write Casiokids off as a chirpy pop act would be hasty in the extreme. With ‘Shuffle’ over they take a bow to the strains of ‘Born Under Punches’. Casiokids aren’t the new Talking Heads, but in showing a willingness to examine music’s relationship with performance, to deconstruct its emotional effect, and to confidently play around with their sound, they are going in the right direction. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure that ‘Shuffle’ harboured any ‘deep’ meaning, or even addressed any important questions adequately, but it was damn fine entertainment.

This year’s Ekko theme is ‘mixtape’, and the special installation that runs throughout the festival and beyond is Lasse Marhaug’s ‘Kassett’; a vast collection of Norwegian tapes that plays on the recent nostalgia for the format to celebrate both the lost age of the cassette and also a distinctive era of Norwegian music. It is fascinating on both accounts: seeing the tracklists and artwork for numerous late eighties and early nineties Norwegian bands is educational, occasionally hilarious, and provokes waves of submerged childhood memories. The friendly Australian volunteer (who has come all the way from Stockholm to experience the festival – proof of its cache) points out his personal favourites – a funny track name, a lurid cover, or a thundering sound – and indeed it’s hard not to be won over to the cassette cause when wandering through Marhaug’s labour of love. The buttons that allow you to switch at an instant between tapes serve only as a reminder, though, of how they were never this easy to use in real life.

In truth, though, ‘Kassett’ is perhaps even more modern than ‘Shuffle’ was. Everybody has an iPod these days; only those at the forefront of fashion are reclaiming the cassette tape – and at the forefront of fashion is where Ekko has firmly positioned itself.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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Numusic Festival 2010 pt.II

Numusic Festival, Stavanger
11th September 2010

This year’s Numusic had as its theme the notion, poetically packaged, of ‘Rhythm, The Rhythm’. This might seem absurdly general, but as the festival’s artistic director Martyn Reed explains it, the event’s philosophical (or perhaps sociological) concern is more specifically with the fact that “the concept of rhythm is still to a certain extent, regarded as a fundamentally ‘low’ culture, and in general, not worthy of serious academic study. That ‘dancing’ is a lesser act than ‘listening’. With this in mind this year’s festival set out to explore “the gap between the mind and the body… to establish narratives and build bridges between genres of high and so called ‘Club’ or ‘Rhythmic’ cultures.”

Saturday:

At the centre of this reappraisal of ‘rhythm’ lies Steve Reich, the hugely influential American composer whose three appearances tie together the week or so of the Numusic festival with a tissue of tape loops and eddying orchestral waves. Well, I say ‘appearances’, but for the first Reich performance the composer is absent, so he is here in rhythm form instead. Bookended by two Benjamin Britten pieces it is Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ that is called upon to demonstrate Reed’s merging of ‘disparate cultures’ of the ‘high’ and the ‘rhythmic’, with its clacking, sweeping journey across America, interspersed with snippets of train-going chatter – looped into disconnected eeriness – and the similarly staccatoed recollections of Holocaust survivors on another, entirely more sinister train: that to Auschwitz. Reich’s piece is riveting, but you can’t help but feel that this enactment by the four-piece selected from the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra isn’t perhaps ‘Different Trains’ at its most vital: much of the orchestral meat of the composition is provided via playback as well as the train sounds and announcements, meaning that at times the quartet seem to do little more than provide the odd embellishment, and the voices themselves are hard to decipher over the soundsystem.

But the beat has been set in motion, and I rush away after ‘Different Trains’ to catch Bergen jokers Datarock at Folken. The transition from memories of the Holocaust played over the string-replicated atmosphere of a train as experienced by a dislocated child, to a tracksuit clad foursome inviting you to take a ‘Nightflight to Uranus’ could not be more marked. But when one of Datarock’s first tracks is ‘True Stories’, patched together from Talking Heads song-titles, the essence of Reich’s experimental loops and samples – the concept of sewing music together from experience and baggage – seems alive even here. Plus Datarock more than know how to bring The Rhythm. Much of their newer stuff, whilst still melodically hitting the spot, lacks the D.I.Y charm of their debut output, but when they crack out some of their early hits: ‘Dance With My Daddy’, ‘Fa Fa Fa’ and particularly the wonderfully silly Grease-homage ‘Computer Camp Love’, Folken truly comes alive. The first time I saw Datarock, uninitiated, was some four or five years ago, and they were delightfully shambolic, with a whole horde of friends along just to bust rubbish dance moves. They are more professional now, and not quite as enjoyable for it, but there is no denying they can put on a hell of a show. With the effortlessly entertaining Tarjei Strøm permanently on board, a willingness to whip out their less than impressive stomachs at any opportunity, a catalogue of danceable tracks and the grand finale of ‘I’ve Had The Time Of My Life’ karaoke, Datarock would have to really be off their game to be anything less than loads of fun. They do under an hour though, and generous claims that we are the best audience they have ever had are rather undermined when I later discover that the reason for their short set was that they rushed off to do another show up the coast in Haugesund that very night, where they also informed the crowd they were not only the best ever, but specifically much better than their Stavanger rivals. The cheek of it!

Over at Tou Bergen label mogul Mikal Telle is trying in vain to coax people onto the dancefloor with a slightly fumbling DJ-set that featuring remixes of former associates Annie and Erlend Øye’s Whitest Boy Alive. It’s pleasant stuff, but not quite the adrenalin shot needed, so it is left instead to Trondheim newcomers Ultra Sheriff to ramp things up. And boy are they into ramping. Dressed in matching white spacesuits (or at least what sci-fi movies keep telling us space-suits should look like), the trio are about as epic as Tou’s humble ex-brewery setting allows. With apocalyptic animated visuals playing out on the screens behind them and an obvious penchant for showmanship Ultra Sheriff give the impression that their very mission statement would be ‘ramp it the fuck up!’. “Firestorm, Firestorm/ Blowing everything away!” they bray into vocoders for one early anthem, whilst during the irresistibly catchy ‘Destroy All Humans’ a projected population counter scrolls down until all six billion are dead – it’s like that Flight of The Conchords robot song covered by Pendulum fronted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And of course you’ll say that sounds terrible, but you just know it would be great really. And it’s probably true that I am far too susceptible to novelty, and I did enjoy watching The Darkness at a festival once; but in refusing to make any concessions to modesty, subtlety or good taste Ultra Sheriff have delivered a live experience that is just brilliant. Crap, maybe, but brilliant crap. Think Starship Troopers: The Musical – and who wouldn’t love to see that.

My Numusic 2010 is capped off by another Bergen stalwart: italo-disco producer Skatebård, in collaboration here with likeminded Italian Marcello Giordani. The duo continue the evocation of space, but this time through supernovas of swirling disco and wispy krautrock nebulae. It’s an often dark take on disco with synth echoes and pulsing bass threading through the intergalactic mist. The self-styled ‘Norwegian Italo Deviance Tour’ never quite feels like anything more than a diversion, however, with the music never quite putting down roots, and the duo flitting on and off stage as if merely there as caretakers for the equipment: it’s hard to get truly absorbed.

Heading off out into the cold it is hard not to be distracted by the rattling of the window-panes in the old brewery – the rhythm taking hold of the very building even when the nuances of the music can no longer be discerned. It is a reminder on departure of how valuable and interesting Numusic and its intentions are: it mixes the aloofly arty and conceptual with the unashamedly populist, traces the development of electronic music from its pioneers to its wildly different modern strands – and is unafraid to throw them together. It’s expensive, sure, but a good education is worth the money. And what Numusic ultimately leaves us with is the reminder that we are not slaves to the rhythm; rather freedom can be found from giving ourselves up to it. The myriad ways that Numusic’s acts are experimenting with rhythm is a testament to that.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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Numusic Festival 2010 pt.I

Numusic festival, Stavanger,
September 9th-10th 2010

Last years Numusic festival was an undoubted triumph, attracting a heavy-weight roster of international and local talent to the West-coast oil city of Stavanger including everything from Arvo Pärt, Casiokids and Deerhoof, to Shining, Biosphere, Faust and Kode9. On paper this one looks equally good, with a healthy dose of foreign pioneers and a decent selection of contemporary boundary-pushers, but funding cuts have hit the festival, and, seemingly as a result of this, the acts have been stretched out over two long-weekends – and arguably spread a little thin. There is no festival pass available to the average punter this time around, which means that going to every day of Numusic would cost more than three thousand kroner (£300), which is clearly a bit steep even in Norway. But whilst immersing yourself in the festival completely might now be financially untenable, there is no denying that Numusic is nonetheless bringing some stellar acts to a part of the world they wouldn’t usually visit, and with a day pass or two that still makes it quite a treat.

Thursday:

Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums put on a well-received show with a sizeable choir in the cathedral as the opening show on the Wednesday, but my first Numusic ’10 experience took me to the student union on the following day for dub legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. First though is the Norwegian warm-up act, Bergen house stalwart and Royksopp collaborator Bjørn Torske, complete with live band. With all the lights dimmed and a heavy black curtain drawn across the front of the stage, Torske’s arrival is heralded by a single dangling glow-stick thrust through the gap in the drapes. This proves to be attached to a giant papier-mache head, one of which all four members of the group sport, each shaped like a different, brightly coloured, grotesquely imagined deep-sea fish, the glow-sticks acting both as an anglerfish-style esca and, presumably, a light by which they can operate their various electronic devices (which they peer clumsily at through the jagged teeth of their headpieces). It’s an imposing start, and, dressed all in black, against the black backdrop in the dull lighting, they offer up an opening five minutes or so that attempts to provide a musical accompaniment to this home-made ocean-floor murkiness. Radar blips, echoing horns, washes of static and sudden bursts of noise are married to more juvenile video game bleeps to create a pretty compulsive mix, albeit in the short-term, and just as I am starting to wonder if a whole hour of this might not start to drag the four fishes shuffle behind the curtains, which are then drawn aside to reveal a surreal multicoloured cardboard farmscape, with band-members (this time manning live instruments) strapped into massive homemade flower flower costumes. They’ve clearly made an effort, and for a while the music matches the décor. Thumping krautrock gradually gives way to the swirling psychedelia the wobbly props (a kind of freakishly wrong version of The Wizard of Oz (which is basically just The Wizard of Oz)) are crying out for, and vocal contributions come courtesy of a giant buzzing bee and a screaming bird (think Sesame Street by early Genesis (which is basically just early Genesis)). But whilst the whole mixture is exciting at first, it soon becomes clear that no real musical surprises will be sprung, and the melodies prove too intangible and wandering to grab any real hold, so I’m getting a little restless for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry by the end, who proves to inadvertently continue the deep-sea theme by wearing a cap so covered in ridiculous bling that he looks like some kind of wrinkled reggae whale, encrusted with shimmering barnacles. Now seventy-three, it’s good to see that the Jamaican legend is doing a pretty entertaining job of growing old disgracefully – mumbling preachy incomprehensible rasta messages into a diamond-studded microphone, preening and bopping with the swagger of an adolescent and showing off his newly-died blue beard and bright red hair (the significance of which he expounds at great length, though what he said I haven’t a clue). Oh, and he’s not bad musically either – shadowy dub beats and chugging reggae guitar overset with his bravura mantras – even the guy continually bellowing ‘legalise da ganja!’ in my ear can’t detract from that.

Friday:

The main draw on the Friday night is the intriguing collaboration between celebrated nu-jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and German electronic producer Henrik Schwarz, for which cosy candle-lit tables and chairs have been set-up on Folken’s dancefloor. Wesseltoft is a major figure in Norway’s recent jazz history: a virtuoso piano-player who has garnered international acclaim after an early drift towards electronic-tinged jazz experimentation, and his pairing with Schwarz proves inspired. Both sporting shiny bald pates and glasses, the duo could pass as brothers – and indeed their musical connection is verging on the symbiotic as they brilliantly anticipate and complement each others improvised sonic twists and turns. Wesseltoft’s airily beautiful piano structures loop and echo, strung through with Schwarz’s jittery minimal techno glitchtronica – less unpredictable perhaps, than something like Supersilent, but also more accessible. The pair lose some impetus when the pianist swaps his grand for an organ and keyboard after the first two tracks, drifting in a more proggy but less striking direction, but when Wesseltoft returns to the piano, wires streaming out from under its sleek black lid in an image that sums up the collision of light-fingered beauty and cold machine-music, the build-up towards some perfectly judged finale ensures most of their efforts are magnificent.

Nite Site/ Awesome, two scarily fresh-faced local DJ’s, are first up at Tou, the shell of an old brewery that hosts most of Numusic’s arrangements, and they sling a decent line in populist dubstep and electro at the hesitantly tapping scragglers who wander in early. It’s a bit premature for this kind of club stuff, but they crack out some big tunes. Publicist, the solo guise of Trans Am stickman Sebastian Thomson, is a bigger draw next door. With a drum-kit set up on the dancefloor in front of the stage Publicist proves a visually arresting if musically straightforward proposition. Underlit by a pulsing strobe the sweaty whirlwind of Thomson’s flickering limbs is initially utterly hypnotic, and at first the music seems to match up – his solo shtick is not just visual; it is also a reminder of how visceral live drums can be when this high in the mix – but as it goes on the sub-par DFA dance-punk grows a little tired. He tries to get everyone to undress. One guy takes his shirt off.

The time is right for Harrys Gym to take things up a notch, but unfortunately the atmospheric four-piece prove a bit of a disappointment. Never really getting going the group are a little too unassuming, and – not helped by a slightly callous soundsystem – too much of their material feels completely throwaway. They have a lot going for them: the coupling of cold electronic rhythms with Anne Lise Frøkedal’s soft but resolute vocals (and natural beauty) is potentially distinctive, and when they aren’t afraid to go pop they bag some cracking melodies. Unfortunately their best attributes are too often suppressed, however. Tracks like ‘Attic’ and ‘Brother’ are electric here, but for long stretches the band frankly stray towards boring. They seem genuinely pleased to be at Numusic, and their best bits are great, but they need a few more top tier songs to flesh out an hour show – a plight not helped by their mind-boggling decision not to give an outing to ‘Top of the Hill’, probably their finest song. If you’re Wales you don’t rest Ryan Giggs. Let’s just hope they hit the right dark glitch-pop note on their upcoming sophomore album, because they could yet be grand.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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The Fix 2010

The Fix, a collaboration between the organisers of the fantastic Ekko festival and Bergen’s sprawling Bergenfest returns for a third year with undoubtedly its strongest programme yet. This largely electronic evening is both reasonably priced and packed with options (to the extent that there are several annoying clashes), and the three venues that play host to the international line-up are all conveniently little more than a couple of minutes walk from one another in Bergen’s picturesque city centre – particularly practical given that the city’s infamous rain has also decided that this event is too good to be missed.

First up is Femi Kuti at Ole Bull Scene; a moderately sized but high ceilinged theatre venue that offers the option of gazing down from a seated balcony on the synchronised swaying of the Nigerian’s sizeable band who are crammed convivially onto the small stage. I think fourteen squeeze on in all. At first it seems that Femi lacks the firebrand charisma of his groundbreaking dad, but as the show goes on he gradually animates, waving his fists, accompanying his rich totemic vocals with the jerking gestures of a zealous preacher, and channelling the spirit of Fela as he powerfully sermonizes on the reasons ‘the African man and the African woman find it hard to succeed’, before breaking down in endearing giggles as he offers a final answer: ‘because we drink too much beer’. The groggy crowd can certainly relate to that. There is perhaps not a great deal of musical variation, but as his talented fluorescent green-clad brass section alternate between smooth jazz and rousing afrobeat rhythms and three beautiful dancers do biology a favour by shaking bits of themselves I don’t think have been discovered yet, Femi, radiant in a white silk suit, flits between several wind instruments and his own rich voice, building the whole affair into a frenzy of sweaty and hypnotic African funk that dares the feet to stay still. Of course they cannot.

But I can’t stay for the end, as Jaga Jazzist, fittingly influenced on their last record by late-night listens to none other than Fela Kuti himself, are set to take to the stage just across the road in Logen. Another balconied theatre venue – more cavernous this time – Logen’s painted pillars and looming chandeliers, whilst pleasant, feel just about parodic enough to suggest one of those expensively tacky Vegas casinos that Jaga are invoking with the huge representations of slot machine symbols (as per the interchangeable artwork for their most recent album) that are placed at intervals on the stage and lit with intermittent flashing red lights. It’s the first time I’ve seen the leaders of Norway’s nu-jazz movement, and in a way it proves a slight disappointment. The nine piece’s trademark sound – vibrant horns, writhing bass and jittery electronics exploiting an experimental palette to grasp at repeated pop hooks – is reliably fantastic, but, partly because of an unsympathetic sound-system, and partly because their set is almost entirely populated with songs from the patchily brilliant but overall somewhat underwhelming One Armed-Bandit, some of the show blends into a slightly indistinguishable musical morass. The high points, though, are fantastic. Just as on the album it is the titular opener and the closing ‘Touch of Evil’ that feel the most exciting here; the afrobeat guitars and slot-machine chimes of ‘One Armed-Bandit’ exploding onto a rapturous audience, and the bursts of vital guitar on ‘Touch of Evil’ building to a breathtaking post-rock finale. The musicianship throughout is peerless; with bandmembers frequently playing two or three different instruments in the space of one track alone, virtuoso trumpet solos from Mathias Eick (who increasingly resembles Paul Giamatti), and an energetic Lars Horntveth at the heart of everything at the centre of the stage painting his brother Martin’s passionate percussion with parps of jaunty saxophone. When the imposing figure of Martin Horntveth takes the microphone to shout through a giant red beard that Bergen is the band’s favourite city to play in, and that they have been away too long, the crowd give a predictable roar, but despite the group’s energy this concert still feels a little like it just misses the mark.

Bergen’s Student Union concert venue/bar Kvarteret finally reopened in February after three years of protracted renovation and expansion, and it’s here that the bulk of the smaller acts gracing this year’s Fix are to be found. First up are Ost & Kjex (‘Cheese & Biskitz’?), who stepped in at the last minute as a replacement for Glass Candy. They are already halfway through when I find my way in, and they prove to be bags of fun. With a back-catalogue that includes the album Some But Not All Cheese Comes From The Moon and singles with names like ‘How Not To Be A Biscuit’, it’s fair to say that silliness can be expected from this eccentric duo, and as the one who is presumably Kjex, in brown suit and hat, lays down an addictive line in crunchy electro funk beats, Ost, in a hideous yellow get-up, belly hanging out of an unbuttoned shirt, struts the boards providing generous helpings of cheese in the form of mock-soulful falsetto vocals. It’s tasty winning combination.

A quick glance into Kvarteret’s newest addition, Tivoli, a spacious concrete box of a room, reveals a pulsing DJ-set from Untz Untz lynchpin Pastor which might not attract too many stragglers but has those that are dragged in dancing themselves silly, before Brighton post-punk outfit Fujiya & Miyagi offer a twining take on thumping hypnotic kraut-funk rhythms to a scrolling backdrop of projected doll’s eyes. Then it’s back out to Logen to see how Serena Maneesh’s recently released album Abyss In B Minor has affected their live show. I’ve seen the band twice before, probably about four and three years ago respectively, and whilst I enjoyed the first show the second was a bit too obtuse, with none of the killer riffs that drag proceedings back from the chaos on their excellent debut discernable from amidst the howl of reverb. The gig even ended with frontman Emil Nikolaisen returning to the stage alone to deliver thirty minutes (no joke) of screaming feedback by playing the guitar with his teeth on the floor as an encore. It had a certain je ne ce quois, to be sure, but tunes? Je crois que non. This time a streamlining is evident from even before the band take to the stage, as the equipment is arranged in a steely symmetry, underlit by futuristic green LED’s. Like a scaled-down take on the trailer for that Tron remake. The only anomaly is what looks like some dying foliage draped over the microphone stand, but when the band, here as a five piece, emerge it transpires that this is of course Emil’s shoegaze shawl, which he disentangles and drapes over his neck, before crunching into a wall of sound. With the doll-like blonde hair atop unfeasibly long legs that is sultry ice-queen bassist Hilma and the art-pirate bandana-sporting intense figure of Emil himself dominating the stagefront there is no doubt that visually Serena are certainly engaging, and their sound is far tighter too. Fleeting vocal washes occasionally penetrate waves of powerful guitar, and whilst it is still not worth catching the band in the hope of hearing your favourite song played by rote, and the new material doesn’t always impose itself melodically, there is a certain thrill to suddenly recognising the strains of the familiar from within the tumult – the sweet stupor of ‘Don’t Come Down Here’ distils suddenly from a fierce howling storm. If there is another dental encore I don’t get to see it though, as it’s back to Kvarteret for Lindstrom & Christabelle.

Shrouded in shadowy darkness as the first throb of their recent Real Life Is No Cool LP echoes through a tightly-packed Tegleverket, tired/drunken revellers jostling for position near the front, Oslo’s italo-disco king and his big-lunged cohort Christabelle Sandoo prove to cut very different figures when the shifting patterned lights reveal the duo. Hunched behind a compact workstation, three layers of keyboards and synths at his disposal, Lindstrom cuts a skinny geeky figure in trademark t-shirt and headband, accompanying his singer with falsetto backing with the aid of a vocoder. If he makes little effort to engage with the audience, or even demonstrate awareness that they are actually there, Christabelle’s outfit shows that she has certainly made an effort to impress, albeit a strange one. Like some befuddling fusion of Fame! and a wolf, body-hugging lycra is padded out at strategic points with grey fur for a combo that is somewhere uncharted between sexy and ridiculous. From the off it’s clear that, despite the attire, the throwback thrills of the duo’s record have been updated for the live forum. The tunes are less reminiscent of Georgio Moroder and Michael Jackson and more in line with the italo-disco space-scapes that have made Hans-Petter Lindstrom the world leader in his field. Soaring synths, burrowing tribal percussion and pumping galactic beats accompany Christabelle’s tidal vocals that hypnotically wash in and out of focus. ‘Don’t you wanna dance?’ Christabelle pouts after nobody but a bobbing Erlend Oye, solitary near the front, really goes for it, before the Neanderthal bassline of album highlight ‘Lovesick’ kicks in deliciously. Given that the retro feel of the album is partly exchanged here for swirling space-disco vibrations it is the sudden materialization of the duo’s more radio-friendly pop efforts that provide the biggest rush – ‘High And Low’ is airy and essential, and ‘Baby Can’t Stop’ a breathless disco stomp. And then, with not so much as a goodbye, they are gone – vanished into the dewy ether – and the Fix is over.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010