Scandinavia's Hot Music from the Cold North
By:Larm 2007: Part 1—The Music
Held deep in the ice-bitten annals of Trondheim, Norway, By:Larm 2007 gathered hundreds of Scandinavian musicians for a massive, three-day music-and-arts festival. Primarily held in a multi-room bunker on the industrial outskirts of the picturesque Norwegian town, the gathering doubled as an industry showcase, drawing journalists and label gurus from around the world. Huddled behind nine-foot thick walls—the unshakable beast of a building was actually built as a Nazi bunker—acts played to upwards of a thousand people, working wild rock riffs, dastardly dance-punk, and everything in between.
As a journalist, there’s something liberating about a festival filled with no-name acts (or, more accurately, acts whose names you don’t know). Supposedly heavy hitting hypesters are judged on their merits alone, and fledgling fawns have as much chance as anyone else. I got my fair share of both—and a bit of near-frostbite to boot—but emerged with a slate of world-class talents on my radar. In fact, there were so many, that it seemed a crime not to share, so, if you feel like listening along, give that mouse a click, and stream the PopMatters’ exclusive By:Larm 2007 mix or download MP3s of individual tracks in the collection.
You can check back next week for By:Larm 2007: Part 2 -– The Mayhem, an all-encompassing account of my adventure (which included nasty slips, hotel lock-outs, a nice trip to the local police station, and plenty of backstage bonding). For now, though, what say we skip straight to the sounds?
Belles of the Ball
In a recent review, NME‘s “new bands” editor posed a question to hypothetical haters: “Doubting Datarock is the future of indie dance? You’re taking the piss, right?” I’m not usually one to pony up with hype-hawking posses—especially when they’re led by the world’s most pistol-happy publication—but damned if Trondheim’s Datarock don’t deliver like honest-to-god dance-punk deities. Drawing one of the largest crowds at By:Larm, their meticulously rendered Talking Heads riffs jangled proudly over Fredrik Saroea’s Devo-esque vocals as the band’s members—dressed in matching red tracksuits (unzipped to expose pale, hairy chests)—worked the room into a body rocking frenzy. Tailor-made for the LCD Soundsystem set, their most recent release lands in the US via Nettwerk later this month with a tour to match, so hop on the horse—this one’s actually worth riding.
Mining the untapped ore of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s carnivalesque debut-album opener, Tommy Tokyo infuses sparse psych-outs with a sense of dark mischief. In less outwardly invigorated moments, the band takes its cues from old-school Modest Mouse and off-kilter Americana acts, exploring the genre’s seedier side with slow-burning acoustic numbers and haunting mid-tempo freak-outs. Looming large over his audience with a face full of Will Oldham whiskers, namesake Tommy Tokyo intones like a man possessed, as his bandmates dispassionately reiterate the speaker’s wisdom and witticisms with the detached poise of a wuthering Greek chorus. The band’s forthcoming record, deliciously titled Octopusdrunk & Arms to Prove It, is outrageous, original, and—with the exception of the uncharacteristically insipid “Flower Power”—a through-and-through stunner.
A pleasant caricature of ‘80s excess, New Violators pair the precious electro-outrageousness of acts like New Order with the affected bass-vocal boom of Depeche Mode. Live, singer Per Boten gesticulates wildly, strutting the stage as he swivels his hips in grand, dramatic gestures. The sure sign of a Morrissey in the making, his uber-stylish, all-white attire is as entertaining as it is outrageous, and, as declared by By:Larm’s in-house newspaper “so tight, you can make out the shape of every last hair on his buttocks, but one suspects that’s not where the girls are looking.” It’s tough to pack it all in (the sounds, silly), but the band’s Cure-style keyboards and a preening pink-and-yellow leopard-print guitar blend into ferociously faye, full-bodied anthems. It’s a dangerous move in the annals of cool-obsessed indie rock, but then, their sound is too big for bars and basements anyway—these boys are gearing up to shake the ass off an arena.
More than just the most stunningly beautiful band on the By:Larm block, Swedish tweesters Raymond & Maria (named after a Stockholm sex club), may also be the festival’s sweetest songwriters. Singing in Swedish, the band expose the inadequacies of English-language love, tugging heart-strings in the universal voice of ultra-pristine indie-pop. The band’s unflinching positivism may be a figment of my embarrassingly un-fluent imagination (I’m told their lyrics are actually rather biting and intellectual), but there’s no denying that double-acoustic jangle and stunning vocal harmonies are among the most salacious under the sun. Bedecked in conservative-but-adorable one-piece dresses, sisters Maria and Camilla (first names only for these folks) level well-practiced claps as they bop their heads energetically to the beat. Already acclaimed in their native Sweden for the hopeful and harrowing Hur Mycket Jag Än Tar Finns Alltid Lite Kvar LP, their recent English-language EP (available on itunes) couldn’t come a moment to soon.
A sultry Swedish/Iranian Feist-alike, Laleh layers her warm pop hooks with light, bouncy beats and confident, catchy croons. Alternatively playful and super-serious, her songs work both sides of the pop-rock strata, sprinkling sugar on deep-seeded emotion. Her more ruckus sing-alongs are invigorating, if strangely impossible to shake (I’ve been humming one for days). Her ballads, on the other hand, build delicately around tentative, aching vocals, working brilliantly toward a deeply emotional denouement. In 2005, her stunning self-titled debut was nominated for seven Swedish Grammys (it took home awards for Artist of the Year, Producer of the Year, and New Artist of the Year), and her recent follow-up swims with the same street-savvy puckishness. A no-brainer Belle if ever there was one.
Other Outstanding Acts
Bedecked in green paisley, Lionheart Brothers lead singer Marcus Forsgren sounds like a Brian Wilson wannabe, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still the frontman of a beach-pop bombshell. Reverent to Elephant 6-style retro-rockers like Apples in Stereo and Of Montreal, their Pet Sounds-style pop builds in soft sonic swaths as organs fall across soft cooing vocals and falsetto harmonies. Some songs harness an Oasis-style fuzz buffered by the warm interjection of spacey, shoegaze sounds. It’s true, in contemporary indie rock, Beach Boys bands are a dime-a-dozen, but still, if I had a couple of Norwegian kroners, I’d buy these guys by the barrel.
While all-girl power pop has a way of prizing titillation over talent, Cables are clearly in it for the right reasons—to outplay every man (and woman) on earth. Inger Hellgren sings like a methed-up Joan Jett, as Silje Dybedahl plays a blood-red guitar behind her neck. Surface comparisons to acts like Sahara Hotnights and the Donnas are inescapable, but Cables do distinguish themselves—not by posing as big-boy cock-rockers, but instead, by beating the hell out of their ruckus power-rock riffs. And where other all-woman acts might go sweet and savory, Cables’ mid-song breakdowns kick things into overdrive, pummeling the listener with street-punk speed.
Draped in blue gels, the boys from Heroes & Zeros look like a gaggle of smiling smurfs treading meekly through a jangly pop-rock intro. But when the song really kicks in, everything goes green, and the band rise like embittered mini-Hulks, barreling through a series of fiery chords. Pristine garage-rock poppers, their songs land with an embittered dance-punk fury, building slowly before being overtaken by the singer’s gravely, impassioned groan. The band’s pristine hooks mirror neo-garage punk-poppers like the Killers or Fall Out Boy (and even a few less likable emo acts), but their intangible emotive angst bangs things up a notch. That, and one of the greatest emo names ever…
Post-rockabilly for the impossible to perplex, Powersolo‘s trad-rock riffs are interrupted by biting post-punk breakdowns and undeniably outrageous vocal interludes. When lead singer Kim Kix—a redwood-tall, deviously mustachioed mischief-maker—breaks from his rudimentary rock warbling, he’s like a cat in heat, mewing and barking gibberish. Live, he commands the stage like a five-story Eugene Hutz, dipping his guitar in Chuck Berry-style knee-jerks and running into the crowd with the eyes of a maniac. While the band’s newest record (released this month and distributed in the US by Rykodisc) can’t hope to capture their in-person aesthetic, it is an adequate primer for an inexplicably intense live show.
Every bit the Viking overlord, Keep of Kalessin lead singer Thebon barks orders from the underworld as his bandmates unleash a barrage of super-tight, black-metal riffs. Headbanging violently, their hair becomes defiant balls of fire whirling in a washing machine, blurs of long, tangled locks. Straightforward where others are showy, the band skip the solos, concentrating instead on a muddy, all-encompassing mix of simple, speedy grindcore licks, booming bass, and demonic grunts. They might not make you want to hail Satan, but after an attack this unabashedly evil, you’ll be a lot more willing to at least say ‘hello’ to him.
Lampshade may over-layer the antics—bopping back and forth like b-grade, Blondie-bred bad girls—but their records display a more mature sense of song. Pleasantly accented vocals fall over rudimentary rock riffs with a Björkish buoyancy, and ballad-equse breakdowns betray an innocent, Jenny Lewis-style likeability.
120 Days labor in the world of dark pseudo-schmaltz where U2 does eternal battle with Joy Division. Live, their otherworldly electro epics reach successfully into the sky, only to rain back down with stadium-flipping force. But try as it may, their self-titled debut—out in the US on Vice records— is weighed down by the muddiness of the mix, a tragedy which obscures their otherwise energetic anthems.
Elliott Smith re-embodied, Lars Wiik captures the disturbed alt-American crooner’s aesthetic to a T, delivering haunting, deeply melancholic melodies with doubled vocals and aching acoustic guitars. While some songs play like XO carbon copies, it’d take a cold heart to deny the band’s doleful, if not entirely original, embrace—especially in a world as sad and meaningless as this one.
Download: “There is nothing” by Lars Wiik & the Laughing River
Working the same disembodied alt-rock whirl as ostentatious singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, the Alexandria Quartet mix acoustic melody with the swell of lush strings. While the vocals don’t crack quite like Bird’s inexplicably beautiful eggs, their massive Rufus Wainwright-style breakdowns are a mysterious production all their own.
Arne-J Rauan (aka Bellman) soars through the stratosphere like Wayne Coyne’s long-lost moonbrother, leveling sweet-toothed vocals over succulently layered indie-pop atmospheres. Eschewing the oddball antics of Flaming Lips (though not their sense of thick, melodic structure), his songs are relatively simple by comparison, but no less bunny-suit brilliant.
It’d be easy to imagine Hanne Hukkelberg‘s off-kilter indie experiments emerging from America’s freak-folk forest, but truth told, she’s climbing much taller trees. More eccentric torch singer than weirdie beardie, Hukkelberg meshes elements of folk, jazz, and the avant garde into quirky minimalist compositions with piano, accordion, super-quiet clarinet, and vocal allusions to everyone from Björk to Billie Holiday.
Downtempo indie troubadours touting melodic, chamber-pop lullabies, Loney, Dear are twee to the nth degree. Still, there’s a seriousness to their songs that transcends the bell sounds and barreling acoustic guitars. It’s that intangible something—not to mention their inspired badabadabs and out-of-nowhere belts—that drove Sub Pop to sign them earlier this year.
There’s tremendous pressure for upwardly mobile Norwegians to make their music accessible to English-speaking audiences. While other acts fumble to imitate the flow of foreigners, A-Laget‘s three MC’s excel in their own language, boasting a uniquely paced Norwegian delivery and a boatload of raw, booty-shaking beats.
A soul-bearing balladeer with booming vocal bravado, Christer Wulff sinks into the darkness with desperate Elliot Smith resolve, only to emerge a radio-friendly pop-rock troubadour. While his John Mayer-esque moments aren’t the most original, they demonstrate a depth of talent that, given time to distinguish itself, could easily set the Norwegian native a cut above other similarly minded, acoustic-toting warblers.
Far-flung Finish freak-folker Islaja makes her American counterparts seem somehow stunted. Immersed in deeply avant-garde explorations, the dissonant, bare-bones jangles are interrupted by the hiss of feedback and effect-heavy, one-off intrusions by harmonicas, melodicas, banging sticks, and whatever else is around.