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Northern Winter Beat 2023 review - Panda Bear, Sonic Boom and Širom amongst the highlights in Denmark’s north | reviews, news & interviews

Northern Winter Beat 2023 review - Panda Bear, Sonic Boom and Širom amongst the highlights in Denmark’s north

Northern Winter Beat 2023 review - Panda Bear, Sonic Boom and Širom amongst the highlights in Denmark’s north

Agreeable Aalborg accommodates a festival integral to its environment

Panda Bear summons warmth at Northern Winter BeatAll photos © Northern Winter Beat / Ellen Høg Thuesen

It’s the sound of the sun. Panda Bear – born Noah Lennox – is singing in a voice with the purity and warmth of Brian Wilson. Beside him, Sonic Boom – Pete Kember – has more of a growl, a timbre which might make announcements in a railway station. The contrast works well. Sweet and slightly sour.

And, in another way, it is the sound of the sun. Kember and Lennox both live in balmy Portugal and here they are in Aalborg, at the top end of Denmark at the Northern Winter Beat festival. It’s freezing out, with the Jutland wind coming off the Limfjord a few streets away bringing it down to a level which gets into the bones. Southern Europe has come to northern Europe and its wind-chill.

Northern Winter Beat _sonic boomPanda Bear is a founder member and mainstay of US oddballs Animal Collective, whose crazy quilt music can confound. Sonic Boom was in UK psychedelic voyagers Spacemen 3 and is now a sought after collaborator and producer – Beach House, MGMT and the solo Panda Bear are amongst his credits. As a duo, the pair issued the Reset album last year and this is the first date on their tour to promote it. (pictured right, Sonic Boom at Northern Winter Beat)

The main part of their set is Reset, in track-by-track order. In front of each of them, knobs are there for twiddling. The closest it gets to a traditional instrument is the whistle blown by Kember. Nonetheless, and despite the technology, this is an enfolding, passionate experience. The album is a weird mixture of old pop records found by Kember which, after an initial messing with by Lennox, were transformed by the pair into strange yet coherent new songs with a bubblegum tinge – Buddy Holly goes into orbit. Live, it’s terrific. Fun too.

Northern Winter Beat _Širom_Samo KutinNorthern Winter Beat centres on Aalborg’s Studenterhuset, a sparkling two-stage venue with a bar done out in a stylish mid-century modern way which services the city’s university. Nearby, 1000Fryd (pronounced “tusen-frid”) is a more conventional, dank tunnel-like place. Huset, an arts complex in a former church school, is also co-opted for the festival as are unconventional settings such as the crypt of the city’s medieval Franciscan friary and Budolfi Kirke, a cathedral dedicated to St Botolph. There are also shows at the fjord-side Utzon Centre, designed by the Aalborg-born architect Jørn Utzon, also responsible for Sydney Opera House. (pictured left, Širom's Samo Kutin at Northern Winter Beat)

Over three days, this agreeable city accommodates a festival effortlessly knitting together hip names from across the globe and local flavours. Extremes complement each other, from punishing noise to church-organ atmospherics, from forehead-wrinkling experimentalism to the outer edges of folk. A great ad for the city.

Northern Winter Beat _Širom_Ana KravanjaAfter a two-day drive from their native Slovenia, the trio Širom (“sheer-om”) are on at Huset. They must have a big van, because they are surrounded by instruments – a couple of banjos, a hurdy gurdy, violins, metal pipes as percussion, wind instruments, what seem to be pet-food bowls, enough for seven or eight musicians. Their three-song set includes the winningly titled “Wilted Superstition Engaged in Copulation” from recent album The Liquified Throne of Simplicity. Each piece is around 20 minutes long. They describe themselves as "imaginary folk.” This entrancing performance helps provide more specific definition. There is a kinship with late Sixties / early Seventies Swedish bands like Träd, Gräs & Stenar, who set traditional music and instruments in a psychedelic rock context. For the wonderful Širom, drone-bedded space-rock folk about sums up their questing music. (pictured right, Širom's Ana Kravanja at Northern Winter Beat)

Some bands are less difficult to figure out, even though they are as idiosyncratic. At 1000Fryd, super-charged Swiss trio Schnellertollermeier are technically amazing musicians whose math rock-inclined instrumentals conjure the idea of a quad-speed Discipline-era King Crimson. Guitarist Manuel Troller summons the spirits of a million ants scurrying in circles. In the large Studenterhuset hall, the UK’s Coby Sey veers between house-based electronica an amorphous, jazz-rooted music with a kinship with trip-hop which doesn’t quite gel. Climaxes seem to come, but never arrive.

In the smaller side of Studenterhuset, local outfit Heathe’s apocalyptic rock also has jazz inclinations. Their singer screams “my face is covered in blood…the world is burning” and references an ice age. There is a gong and tubular bells. If the Sean Bean film Black Death needed a suitably doomy soundtrack, here it is. Just as bracing are the US trio A Place To Bury Strangers, who take the My Bloody Valentine of “You Made me Realise” to beyond the nth degree at mind-melting volume with strobe lights. An experience rather than a musical performance.

Northern Winter Beat_Coby SeyThe festival begins in a similarly immersive albeit less challenging manner in the Budolfi Kirke, the city’s 14th-century Lutheran cathedral. Sweden’s Maria W Horn plays the church organ alongside electronic musician Mats Erlandsson to create an initially ambient series of swells which build to layered crescendos. Not as austere as fellow Swedish organ minimalists Ellen Arkbro and Linnéa Talp, and less ominous than Anna von Hausswolff’s expeditions into similar territory. The set was recorded in real time and then reinterpreted immediately afterwards by Norway’s Punkt (named after the festival of the same name), whose line-up included trumpet player Arve Henriksen and guitarist Eivind Aarset. This figurative remix, with its Fourth World Music character, did not have the impact of what it drew from. (pictured left, Coby Sey at Northern Winter Beat)

Along the road, in the crypt of the former Franciscan friary, UK artist Keeley Forsyth was also well-suited to a historic setting. Three meters below the street are the remains of the ecclesiastic complex, founded in the 13th century. Amongst the displays in the narrow space is a skeleton from the graveyard. Alongside this, Forsyth emerged to Nico-esque organ figures, moving as if trying to pull her broken bones back together, like a puppet with strings of random length. She obscured her face, stretched her arms crab-wise and intoned in a deep voice with no microphone. Spooky, arty and perfect for this disquieting place.

Northern Winter Beat _Keeley ForsythAt the Utzon Centre, Sweden's Alice Boman was less challenging. With Hey Elbow as her band, she drew on recent album The Space Between and gave it an added power. What was spectral on record became more forceful and pulsed like the surface of the fjord, visible through the large window behind her and the other musicians. (pictured right, Keeley Forsyth at Northern Winter Beat)

Maybe it’s the unusual venues or the balances struck by the programming and scheduling, but Northern Winter Beat draws from and reflects the nature of the city. Alice Boman’s ebb and flow is in tune with the surface of the fjord, meters below where she was playing. The area was a centre of Viking-period activity and A Place To Bury Strangers and Heathe reflect the era’s turmoil. Keeley Forsyth is a reminder that darkness is never far, while Alice Boman and Maria W Horn stress that contemplation is always needed. Medieval and post-Reformation Aalborg was an active and wealthy trading centre, attracting a mix of people’s from and around the region – an analogue to Širom’s use of diverse instruments to create something unique.

All of which makes Northern Winter Beat integral to the past and present of its environment. The psychogeography of the festival and its host city are inextricable.


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