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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“Dick AIN’T gonna suck itself”: an interview with Pirate Love

“Pirate Love, is what I’m looking for” bawled Johnny Thunders on his superlative slice of lost junkie-punk ‘Pirate Love’. Suitably turbulent years of drug abuse followed until he died in suspicious circumstances lying ‘in the shape of a pretzel’, but Thunders was gone but not forgotten and thirty years later five Thunders fans adopted his battlecry and set out to peddle dirty garage rock on the clean streets of Oslo. With their winning combination of top tunes and scuzzy filth listening to Pirate Love was aptly like being amorously pursued by some salty seadog, caressing you with a metal hook where his hand should be, and the dark assault of debut album Black Vodoun Space Blues flung them to the forefront of Norway’s production line of bands with bite. It is three years since that breathless release made waves, but finally Pirate Love are coming in to harbour again to drop off a similarly confrontational cargo in the form of sophomore effort Narco Lux High School. With interest severely piqued the journalistic coastguard of Nö Music cornered Pirate Love frontman David Dajani to get the lowdown on everything from working with The Strokes’ producer to seeing Jay Reatard implode.

Fittingly, given their musical lineage, Pirate Love have always cast themselves apart from the Norwegian musical establishment. “‘Part of a scene’ doesn’t ring too well in my ears”, tuts Dajani, “we’ve always operated on the outside. Or was it the inside…? Whatever. I guess the common denominator for us, and our friends’ bands, is that we’ve found our own sound, on our own terms and we´re not asking anyone for permission.” That sound might nod to Norway’s hard-rocking history, concedes Dajani, but Narco Lux High School has “more in common with Black Sabbath than Black Metal!” Indeed it is names like The Stooges that most commonly crop up where Space Blues is concerned. “I firmly believe you can hear echoes of the Stooges primitive futurism in songs like ‘Sick of You’, which was geniously mixed by Emil Nikolaisen [Serena Maneesh]”, confirms Dajani of one of the last album’s rawer moments, “this time round though we’ve let ourselves be influenced by everything from Steely Dan to The Germs! And it sounds excellent!” If their latest single is anything to go by Pirate Love are indeed both on form and evolving. Three minutes of Jesus & Mary Chain-esque woozy squalid surf-pop, ‘Thirteen/Clean’ has the makings of the perfect summer anti-anthem – just don’t drop the ‘s’ word. “Shoegazey? Please. Other bands can stare at their laces as much as they want”, sneers Dajani: “we´re into Eyegazing.”

Pirate Love might be confident about the finished product, but getting there wasn’t always plain sailing. “It´s like an addiction”, says Dajani of being in a band, “so we just have to keep on going. Like daytime TV soap operas or something.” Bidding to take things to the next level on the new album, the band roped in regular Strokes producer Gordon Raphael, responsible for the zeitgeist defining Is This It, but whilst Pirate Love might claim to be the “laziest band ever”, it seems that they struggle to cede their independence. “Well, Gordon was a really nice guy and it was fun hanging out with him in Oslo and all”, recalls Dajani rather guardedly, “but at the end of the day, I think we knew how to produce our own record. He ended up recording the drums, but nothing else, so yeah – we collaborated, but not to such an extent that his vision eclipsed ours.” But then Pirate Love have seen enough of the world in the last few years to bring considerable experience to any autonomous creative endeavours. “I think we have more fans in, say, Italy and Switzerland than we do in Norway”, notes Dajani, and indeed much of their efforts have concentrated on foreign climes. The group have toured extensively in Europe and the US, taken in prestigious Texan showcase SXSW, and accompanied several heavy hitters on tour, including Black Lips, The Damned and the late garage-punk maverick Jay Reatard. “Supporting Jay Reatard was an awesome experience”, recalls Dajani, “seeing him play was like witnessing the early Ramones or something. I remember being in the front row in Copenhagen and Hamburg, and my jaw dropped. Like, for real! The sheer energy of his performance was kinda scary. He really did give it a 100% – and then some. He was a pretty cool cat to boot; polite and down to earth. But after the first night of the tour he apparently drank a bottle of gin and kicked a fan in the face, or something. But shit like that happens when you´re strung out.”

That said, part of Pirate Love’s appeal has always been the impression that they too are teetering on the brink of self-destruction. The Norwegian broadsheet Dagbladet observed that it would take a long search to find a ‘blacker’ album than Space Blues, and lyrical titbits like “I’m gonna end your life… you’re a slut you’re a cunt” (from the admittedly winningly catchy ‘In A Dirty Cellar’) support the image of Pirate Love as aggressively nihilistic. Whilst Dajani admits that “’Thirteen/Clean’ is our darkest song, like, ever” he is rather more dismissive of any suggestion that Pirate Love are coming from a bleak place. “Angry is sooo 2008/9. We´re a happy band and we wanna rock out with our cocks out. You know, contrary to what you may have heard: Dick AIN´T gonna suck itself…” In the interests of getting head this self-styled ‘Norwegian Psychedelic Space Boogie cartel’ will be unleashing “a varied, dark and sexual mix of punk rock from the 60s, AOR rock from the 70s and obscure 80s adult contemporary soft rock”, in the form of Narco Lux High School. “We considered going to Africa or another third world country to get inspired”, Dajani glibly proffers, “but found out that a few visits to the local tanning bed house would be equally effective. I think we might lose a few fans with this album, but then gain new ones, too. Spend a buck, earn a buck, ya heard?!” “I get high, on my own supply”, sang David Dajani on Space Blues highlight ‘Skin Deep’. He’s not the only one getting his kicks from Pirate Love’s supply of moody punk pleasures. You could do far worse than spend a buck on this buccaneering crew: “Pirate Love, is what I’m looking for” indeed.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2011

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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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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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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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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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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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