Tag Archives: NuMusic

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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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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