In 1999 I found an album by Alec Empire which he had produced under the rather cheeky moniker of Nintendo Teenage Robots. The title of the album was We Punk Einheit, which loosely translates to “incoming goods punk unit”. There’s some nonsensically dense Alec Empire boilerplate agitprop text on the back of the jewel case, but you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in revolutionary politics to see that this album was a satirical attack on bourgeoisie bubblegum pop of the type that clogs Europe and America’s airwaves every day. You see, We Punk Einheit was composed entirely of “music” sampled off a Nintendo Game Boy.
Back at the turn of the century, it was satire. Now, in the year 2004, a group like Tøyen can come along and claim with a totally straight face that they have recorded their latest album, Did You Bring Me on National Television to Tell Me This Too?, entirely on a Sony Playstation. It says on their promo sheet that during performances they actually perform the music live on two Playstations. Their rider apparently consists solely of two television sets. I do not know why they do this, but this is what they have done. Disturbingly, you can’t detect any real loss of fidelity in their music when compared to that of your average electro-pop artist.
Tøyen is a pair of Norwegians, Tollef Berger and Torstein Mwaniki. They make music that sounds delightfully naïve, and yet is, on closer examination, intricately constructed. The album begins with “1 of a Kind”, a jolly drum & bass track that introduces the Bollywood strains that are one of this album’s recurring motifs. I am tempted to call “In Space” a Bjork homage, because Rita Augestad Knudsen’s vocals are very much of a kind with that Icelandic pixies’. But despite some similarities in timbre, Knudsen’s voice is much less ambitious. It’s a great pop song, though, with adorable bleeps and some strange jazz guitar flourishes that pop up at just the right moments. If there is any one way I could say that Tøyen’s peculiar production methods have influenced their music, it is in the fact that these tracks feel very light, almost delicate. There’s breathing room in their arrangements, of the type that is missing from so much of the maniacally dense electronic music these days.
“ABC of Love” is a pop track in the same vein as “In Space”, only constructed around a spaced-out vocal sample instead of a full vocal line. It has the odd and not entirely unpleasant effect of sounding just like you imagine an MJ Cole dub plate to sound like after an hour on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. “Pop Song” is an instrumental that seems to have been directly inspired by the digital tones of video game music, and again, despite their somewhat novel approach, Tøyen again succeed in tapping a richer vein then their whimsy might imply.
“Cafe” is another track which features the vocal talents of because Rita Augestad Knudsen, and as with “In Space” this track takes full advantage of the dichotomy between her smoothly pristine Nordic voice and the slightly shrunken character of their bleepy soundscapes. “(The) Face”, featuring barely-sung vocals by Berger, doesn’t work nearly as well, mostly on account of his bland lyrical delivery. “Pakistan” is one of the album’s most oddly compelling compositions, a surprisingly warm-hearted homage to the music of the Middle east, featuring the trilled, percussive strings and odd melodic structures native to Islamic music.
“The Girl”, the album’s most pointed attempt at the type of electro-pop popularized by groups such as I Am The World Trade Center, falls strangely flat, perhaps again because of their reliance on muted, uninflected vocals. The album’s final track, “Schleswig-Holstein-Haus”, is actually a remix by The Center of the Universe (of what track, it does not say). It doesn’t really make a lot of difference: despite the presence of a guest remixer, Tøyen’s central ethos remains sharply focused from the beginning of Did You Bring Me… to the end. They have created their own very distinct universe of immaculately defined composition, which may seem purposefully small but which, on closer examination, reveals many multifaceted layers of satisfying complexity.