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Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 15 | reviews, news & interviews

Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 15

Just in From Scandinavia: Nordic Music Round-Up 15

Distinctive voices in Faroese, Icelandic and Sámi show that singing in English is not necessary to make a connection

Norway’s Sámi musician Elin Kåven: for anyone open to direct expressions of musical emotionFreddy Ludvik

Is language a barrier to international recognition? Is English necessary to make waves worldwide? Musicians from the African continent and South America regularly perform in their native tongue beyond the borders of their home countries. But often they are – rightly or wrongly – marketed or pigeon-holed as world music, a branding which allows for eschewing the Anglophone. The always problematic label of world music can be and is debated endlessly, but one thing is certain: for Scandinavia, most internationally successful music is delivered in English.

Of course, after setting quirky micro-genres and the avowedly traditional aside, much that is exported from Scandinavia conforms to recognisable stylistic types: dance music’s manifold forms, electronica, indie rock, metal, singer-songwriter introspection and so on.

There are outliers though. Sweden’s Dungen have always stuck with their own language. For political reasons, Norway’s Motorpsycho recently released En konsert for folk flest, their first album in Norwegian. Iceland’s Sigur Rós neatly dodge the issue by penning lyrics in Hopelandic, a confabulation of Icelandic. Their countryman Ásgeir Trausti recorded his 2012 debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn in Icelandic. Two years later it was reissued with English-language lyrics as In the Silence. The commercial reasons and potential necessity for recording in English must be recognised: Iceland’s population is 330,000 and, internally, it can only support so many aspiring artists. However critically acclaimed his album was in its original form, Trausti’s appeal was going to be limited without adopting English.

Against this knotty background, any new album which is not explicitly traditional and in a native language is always going to stand out. And with three new releases, each is so striking it would stand out anyway. Each demands to be heard by anyone, no matter where they are from. Norway’s Elin Kåven sings in Sámi and also employs the wordless vocal style yoik. Eivør sings in Faroese, the language of the North Atlantic islands where she grew up. Iceland’s dj. flugvél og geimskip sings in her own language

Watch the video for “Hiras” from Elin Kåven’s Eamiritni-Rimeborn

Elin Kåven’s Eamiritni-Rimeborn is her third album. She is Norwegian but also Sámi. As such, her lineage is with a people indigenous to the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and to the east in Russia. Their language – which, like Finnish and Estonian, is Finno-Ugric – has historically had a rough ride in Norway and was not taught in schools in a widespread fashion until the 1950s. Teaching of it was forbidden into the 1930s.

As Eamiritni-Rimeborn is so strong, Kåven side-steps any obligations to know her background or the circumstances of the Sámi. It is her most coherent album to date. Previously, she set traditional-sounding folk material alongside acoustic singer-songwriter compositions, dives into electronica and crunching, Sonic Youth-like experimental rock. She was covering all bases. Now though, Kåven has unified it all to find her core musical voice. It also sounds like she has found herself.

Eamiritni-Rimeborn begins with “Jàvkan” (“Vanished”: the titles and lyrics appear in Sami and English in the album’s booklet). The tone is set by Kåven delivering a circular melody. She builds it to keening climaxes. The musical bed seamlessly travels through acoustic guitar, jagged electric guitar, violin and traditional rhythms. As the album unfolds, whether the vocals have words or are wordless, texture comes with an ambient keyboard wash, acoustic guitar flurries or strident rhythms. In the end, it all comes back to the voice and the lament-like melodies it carries. Eamiritni-Rimeborn is for anyone open to direct expressions of musical emotion.

Watch the video for “Brotin” from Eivør'Slør

In terms of Scandinavia’s geo-social ecosystem, the singer-songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir occupies a space as liminal as Kåven’s. From the Faroe Islands, Eivør was brought up in a place administered by Denmark but with its own cultural identity. In the English-language world, she has recently enjoyed her greatest level of exposure after lending her voice to the soundtrack of the TV adaptation of The Last Kingdom. Slør, her second album of 2015 and tenth overall, is entirely in Faroese. Since her eponymous 2004 album, each has been partly or totally in English. Effectively a companion piece to its predecessor Bridges, Slør (Veil) is as sinuous, subtle and affecting. Using a language with an unfamiliar inflection brings a dream-like air and, with Bridges and its predecessor album Room, Slør confirms that Eivør has hit an artistic peak.

Iceland is celebrated more extensively for its musical exports than the Faroes. But none are like dj. flugvél og geimskip (DJ Airplane and Spaceship: Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir to her family). Nott A Hafsbotni is her second album. The title translates as Night at the Bottom of the Ocean. She sings in Icelandic. None of the bald facts hint at how much of a one-off the album is. dj. flugvél bills her music as “electronic-horror music with a space twist”. Add the craziness of Joe Meek’s fascination with the other-worldly to Raymond Scott’s cartoon-like, cut-up music, a large dash of early techno/acid house and vocals which sound like Arabic and Japanese, and the picture of this unique sound-world emerges. Nott A Hafsbotni would be a wonderfully weird trip to an alien world in any language. In the sing-song lilt of unalloyed Icelandic, it’s sensational.

Watch the video for “Jarðætan” from dj. flugvél og geimskip’s Nott A Hafsbotni

After these own-language pleasures, two albums stand out amongst the other current releases. Both are Norwegian. Blackwinged Night is the second album by Phaedra. Featuring seven intense chamber pieces with delicate orchestration, it suggests a Dory Previn grounded in string quartets and the slo-mo drama of crossing mirage-ridden desert on foot. A beautiful album. Band of Gold’s eponymous album is more immediate. An assured collaboration between singer-songwriter Nina Elisabeth Mortvedt and producer Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, Band of Gold is a trip-hop tinged, baroque confection with leanings towards the jazz-inflected Laurel Canyon sound of David Crosby’s first solo album.

The guest musicians on the Band of Gold album include Morten Qvenild and Jaga Jazzist’s Lars Horntveth. Amongst the deluge of other albums from Norway is a solo set by the latter band’s Marcus Forsgren. Narcissus, credited as by Bror Forsgren, features Horntveth amongst its players. Ambitious, airy, and fully orchestrated, it has hints of vintage Kings of Convenience and Lalo Schifrin. Qvenild’s Personal Piano is, surprisingly, his first solo album. The experimental pianist has played with In The Country, sPaceMonkey, as one half of Susanna & the Magical Orchestra and appeared on around 50 albums. Personal Piano teams disquieting minimal ruminations with interjections of speech, ominous grinding and washes of white noise, resulting in a David Lynchian power to disturb.

Also in from Norway is No one Knows That you are Lost, the largely acoustic debut solo album from the Oslo-based Tina Refsnes which, with its low-key, Americana-tinged sensibility, is going to find gaining an audience hard as there is just not enough to grab on to. The same applies to Ost & Kjex’s sub-Casiokids Freedom Wig, as it can’t decide whether it’s loungey, Balearic-influenced electronica-pop or more interested in arms-aloft anthems.

Watch Asamisimasa perform “Williband Motor Landscape” from Asamisimasa Plays the Music of Øyvind Torvund

Tina Refsnes and Ost & Kjex’s fellow Norwegians' stream of albums take in a group blurring the boundaries between jazz and the experimental. The Espen Eriksen Trio’s Never Ending January is the piano-led jazz trio recast as rain pattering on a window, Møster’s When you cut Into the Present is the tension of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway to yr Skull” rendered as jazz, while Geir Sundstøl’s Fur u Lund evokes John Fahey and endless highways covered in tumbleweed. The strangest Norwegian release comes from the ensemble Asamisimasa, whose Plays the Music of Øyvind Torvund does exactly that with the titular composer. The opener, “Williband Motor Landscape”, is a reading of a piece where Torvund transcribed the sound of passing traffic and other environmental noise. It gets weirder as the album unfolds.

More easy to assimilate is Few More Days to go, the forceful debut album from Icelandic electronica-duo-turned-full-band Fufanu. Agitated and hard-edged, it suggests a yen for the nexus of techno, acid house and goth rock: imagine The Chemical Brothers sharing a hangover with Bauhaus. Also showing clear roots is Sunburst, a four-track EP from Swedish instro outfit Valley, positing them as a Tortoise-like, down-tempo analogue of Explosions in the Sky.

Like Fufanu, Denmark’s Asbjørn has electro-dance archetypes on his mind with Pesudo Visions, but the album fails to gell as his sweet voice doesn’t carry melodies strong enough to stick, and an over-reliance on punctuating its Balearic-flavoured, Euro-house-type pop with glitchiness does not allow them to breath. There’s no such lack of focus on Inversum, the sixth studio album from Finland’s Dark Buddha Rising, which takes a trip through two doomy, ever-building, 20-plus-minute soundscapes which descend into a black hole that's already swallowed Sunn O))).

Watch the video for "Your Collection" from Fufanu's Few More Days to go

In a similar spirit, the borders of Scandinavia are breached by non-natives based there or transplants to other countries. Alberta Cross are the vehicle for Sweden’s Petter Ericson Stakee. He was resident in Brooklyn but now lives in London. The third, eponymous and glossy Alberta Cross album is Arcade Fire-infused Americana nodding to Bruce Springsteen. It might appeal to Of Monsters and Men fans, but is hard to warm to as its passion is overegged.

Sudakistan are in-your-face, less deliberate and more interesting. Four-fifths of the Stockholm-based band are from different South American countries and their clattering debut Caballo Negro fuses chanting, Latin percussion, motorik and psychedelic guitar. Goat fans, take note. Boundaries are broken further by the Popul Vuh-like, Belgian outfit Illuminine whose hypnotic album #1 was mixed in Iceland by Birgir Jón Birgisson at Sigur Rós’s Sundlaugin studio. Sigur Rós fans, take note – especially of “Llÿr”, the album’s second track, which shares its impressionism with that of second-album Sigur Rós, who Birgisson has produced.

While borders are there to be crossed, it is noticeable that much of what escapes Scandinavia musically is in English. And it is a two-way trade. The Nordic producers who create international dance-pop hits are engaged to help American million-sellers out, and other less-minted musicians look to Scandinavia to augment what they do.

But, as Elin Kåven, Eivør and dj. flugvél og geimskip show, those expressing themselves in their native tongues, in the voices they grew up with can easily connect with an audience. More of this please.

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