thu 29/02/2024

Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 12 | reviews, news & interviews

Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 12

Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 12

Alien Icelanders, stratospheric Danes, creepy Swedes, spluttering Norwegians and more

Iceland's Rökkurró: their 'Innra' album is about understatement

The voice is unmistakably Icelandic. Fluting and dancing around the notes, the words it carries are broken into segments which don’t respect syllables. Although singing in English, Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir hasn’t sacrificed her Icelandic intonation.

The music itself is also unmistakably Icelandic. As with fellow Icelanders múm, electronica has been assimilated bringing a glitchiness which knocks the lush, ebbing and flowing arrangements off balance. Yet the totality is folky and warmly intimate.

Innra, the third album from Rökkurró, is a lovely thing – a musical postcard from a world where, even after a turbulent journey, all landings are soft. As the follow-up to the local best-seller Í Annan Heim and their first release to incorporate English lyrics, it might be expected that some of Rökkurró’s identity would be lost in this bid to reach a wider audience. In the event, it’s made no difference. With nine songs in English and two in Icelandic the album still sounds enthrallingly alien. Touches veer towards the anthemic – on “The Backbone” it seems stadia might be calling – but the rising cadences are reined in. Innra is about understatement. An enchanting album.

Listen to “Blue Skies” from Rökkurró’s Innra

Loveliness also defines Pizza, the third album from Denmark’s Treefight for Sunlight. A glistening kaleidoscope of choirboy vocals, pulsing Balearic rhythm patterns, Smile-era Beach Boys arrangements and otherworldly melodies, it seems to have beamed down from the stratosphere. As a psychedelic experience – third track “Thought Walker” could have been conjured up by The United States of AmericaPizza works a treat, but it is also a pop album. For anyone fascinated with Broadcast, The Soundcarriers and latter-day Damien Jurado, this is essential.

Listen to “Thought Walker” from Treefight for Sunlight’s Pizza

Somewhat more direct are Sweden’s Brothers of End, whose second album Shakers Love shares its ethereality with Rökkurró and Treefight for Sunlight regardless of its different musical perspective to both. Despite a couple of guest vocals from ex-Cardigans' members Bengt Lagerberg and Lars-Olof Johansson’s (the trio is filled out by Mattias Areskog) former colleague Nina Persson, the predominately acoustic, jazz-tinged Shakers Love is not a return to former musical territory. The album showcases a moving, stately suite of songs which, while hinting at the creepiness of Winding Sheet-period Mark Lanegan, share a desolate grandeur with the early, solo David Crosby. The heart-rending, spacey “Cut to Heal” is particularly poignant.

Watch the video for "Heat" from Brothers of End's Shakers Love, featuring guest vocalist Nina Persson

Back with Denmark in less emotive territory, the adoption of the handle Dad Rocks! suggests either a worrying kinship with or maybe a satirical take on the “dad rock” insult thrown at Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller when their clod rock grew tiresome. Instead, the Danish band, on the Year of the Flesh album, are a string-infused, folky, baroque outfit with busy, word-cluttered songs positing them as a 21st-century Hurrah! or Prefab Sprout. Dad rock they are not – folk-indie they are. Also looking beyond her own region for inspiration is fellow Dane and pedal steel player Maggie Björklund, whose downbeat Shaken is a sparse, jazz-tinged, acoustic-centred affair with touches of New Orleans funeral marches, Willie Nelson and a countrified Nick Cave. Fittingly, she has played live with Mark Lanegan and Jack White.

Doubly downbeat is the Danish but Iceland-dwelling Tina Dico and her Leonard Cohen-esque album Whispers, a brave left turn from a pop star whose previous choice when telegraphing emotion was the lushly anthemic. The stark, assured Whispers takes as its jumping off point a man singing to the unattainable woman downstairs. As heard below, Dico unnervingly adopts his persona.

Listen to "The Woman Downstairs" from Tina Dico’s Whispers

There’s no such musical classicism with the best of the Finnish arrivals. The prime export is Pöllöt’s fantastic Finnish-language eponymous album which shares a world-weariness with Robert Wyatt yet marries it to a dreamy psych-pop in the Euros Childs or Gruff Rhys region. Det Går Runt Igen by the post-Shogun Kunitoki duo Jarse is as fantastic but constructs its compelling and peculiar instrumental psych-pop from Terry Riley and other serial music practitioners with an almost militaristic precision. Although correspondingly exploratory in terms of its theme – a middle-aged American hits rock bottom and become a drug courier – the Pet Shop Boys/Electronic/OMD electropop of Sin Cos Tan’s Blown Away album doesn’t quite lift off.

Watch the video for "Tapetaan Aikaa" from Pöllöt

Equally unsatisfying is the twinkling, semi-Mumfords, anthemic-leaning indie-pop of Helsinki’s Koria Kitten Riot and their Rich Men Poor Men Good Men album where each song has too-predictable a trajectory despite odd interjections of electronica noise. Similarly likely to remain a local flavour due both to size of the pond he’s swimming in and a lack of a singular voice is the Americanised, Burial/Tricky-influenced Finnish rapper Gracias whose Elengi album says little new discursively or musically.

As ever, Norway's contribution is hefty. And just as predictably most contibutors do say new things and say them forcefully in a reassuringly left field manner, breaking down barriers between electronica, folk and jazz – or with an indifference to genres.

SPUNK’s Adventura Botanica features a quartet of voice, cello, French horn and a doubling on flute/trumpet. Composed for a dance piece, the album nods to John Cage’s more fragmented works but that’s about it for reference points. Spluttering brass is underpinned by shimmering cello which gives way to keening vocal overtones. Adventura Botanica is the aural equivalent of moving through a forest and hearing musical conversations fractured by the presence of giant trees acting as sonic baffles. Arve Henriksen’s The Nature of Connections is more settled, but nonetheless a moving dialogue between his plaintive trumpet, a string quartet a subtle percussion. Drawing on traditional, circular fiddle brings the album has an ancient, worldy tone.

Watch Møster! descend into the inner earth at the Bergen Jazz Forum, September 2014

The primordial rears up too on Inner Earth, the second album from the quartet Møster! It begins with the four-part composition “Descending Into This Crater”, a disconcerting evocation of entry into a volcano treading the many lines between No Pussyfooting Fripp & Eno and the improv-jazz-rock of John Stevens’ Away – as the band acknowledge, this is a prog-slanted voyage.

Even more wayward is Star System, by the tuba trio Microtub. As their handle suggests, they deal in micro-tones. The appropriately minimalist album features just two 20-plus minute pieces sounding like the echo of the doors to the underworld slamming. As sombre, and even more minimal, is the disturbingly hypnotic Tomba Emanuelle by cellist Michael Francis Duch. Recorded in the mausoleum of Norwegian sculptor/painter Emmanuel Vigeland, it soundtracks venturing over the threshold into the underworld itself.

Listen to "Phaselift" from Null

A trio of debut albums from the Trondheim label Just for the records are less unsettling atmospherically but suggest however that musical borders are habitually disturbed in Norway. Hard-edged, fusion-stoked trio Null are dominated by the wild drums of Stian Lundberg on their self-titled album and come over like a sore-headed jazz take on early King Crimson (Robert Fripp again). On their eponymous set, piano-focussed trio The Sticks are cooler and exhibit tinges of Keith Jarrett. The skittering, syncopated, percussive “Dr. Pizza” is a particular treat. As is the whole of Nosejob by the wonderfully named Caffeine Patrol, whose hot guitarist Gudmond Bolstad Skjær enthusiastically melds the post-rock of Tortoise, the instrumental rock of Santo & Johnny and Bill Frissell’s nuttiest moments.

Listen to The Youth's “I’ll Call Your Bluff"/You’ve Done Me Wrong” single

After all this envelope pushing, a return to Denmark and the retrospectively inclined The Youth resets the musical dial to 1965. The Copenhagen quartet’s new single, “I’ll Call Your Bluff”/"You’ve Done Me Wrong”, is lacerating, screaming garage rock as impulsive as it’s scholarly. Like our Norwegian musical boffins, The Youth know exactly what they’re doing and do it to the max.

Always the best policy, and one shared by the highlights of this round-up.

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