by:Larm 2009: Hot Music from the Frost-Bitten North

[15 April 2009]

By Kevin Pearson

With a Little Help From My Friends

I am looking for Stratos; no, it’s not a long lost Greek god or a forgotten Musketeer, but a venue in Oslo, Norway, one of the 32 that is playing host to the annual by:Larm festival (pronounced by the locals as “bee larm”). According to my map, it should be right here in front of me, but all I see, through a slew of snowflakes, is an empty shopping mall. I ask someone, a kind Norwegian gentleman, who not only tells me where Stratos is, but actually takes me there. And guess what? It was right in front of me all along: Albeit inside the shopping mall, up 11 floors on a rickety elevator, through a strangely barren bar, and up a narrow, winding staircase. It is one of the festival’s most interesting venues as it allows panoramic views of the snow-covered city sitting below. And as I stand outside on the building’s balcony, shivering in the cold, I think to myself –- how could a city, let alone a music festival, exist in such conditions?

Youngstorget

Youngstorget

Icicle Removal at Mono

Icicle Removal at Mono

These conditions include ice and snow, slush and mush, slippery sidewalks, and kamikaze icicles that drop from the roofs of buildings as the days warm up. On the festival’s first night my entrance into Mono—one of by:Larm’s best venues—is hindered by a team utilizing a mechanical ladder to remove these sharp objects from above the doorway. In fact, everywhere I go during my three-day stay—from the pedestrianized shopping areas in the center of town, to the deserted harbor, to the upscale neighborhood of Grünerløkka—icicle removal is taking place. Whole streets are cordoned off as workmen chip the offending appendages off gutters before gravity turns them into projectile weaponry. (Surprisingly, all my research—well, a quick gallivant around Google—brought up no recent icicle related deaths in Norway. I am shocked.)

Not only does a city of 500,000 inhabitants exist in these extreme conditions (though I am told by many locals that this is Oslo’s worst winter in many years and not indicative of the season), it actually thrives. Which is maybe why, after eleven years as an itinerant festival wandering around Norway without a permanent home, the organizers of by:Larm have put down roots in Oslo, utilizing it as a permanent base for the area’s premier music festival. It seems like a solid choice. While Sweden and Iceland proffer a well-known (yet slightly stereotyped) sound, thus exporting more bands to the US and UK, Oslo is actually Scandinavia’s music capital, hosting, on average, as many shows as New York or London.

Take a quick walk around Youngstorget, a set of side streets flowing out from a central square in downtown Oslo, and you soon understand why. In five minutes I walk past at least 10 venues. Sure, some of them, like the Dagbladet tent, set up in the central square specifically for by:Larm, are not permanent musical homes, but the majority of them—Rockefeller, Sentrum Scene, and Mono –- host music on a regular basis. Of course, in order to host such a festival, one with 50-plus bands from five different countries, by:Larm takes advantage of all of Oslo’s venues. From small, crowded and claustrophobic bars, to lecture-like auditoriums, to tents that smell of pine and melting snow, Oslo offers up a variety of places for people to play. Folks who attended last year’s festival talked about having to hop taxis to make it to certain shows, but this year, with four additional stages of varied size located in the conveniently placed Oslo Kongressenter, show-hopping has been made much easier, which is all well and good given the wintery conditions.

Dagbladet tent by day

Dagbladet tent by day

But it isn’t just the geographical conveniences that make by:Larm such an enjoyable experience, it is the people in attendance as well. To really get the most out of a city, you have to get into the mindset of a local. And in order to live like a local, you have to think like a local, and to think like a local you have to talk to locals, and fortunately for me, Norwegians are amongst the most affable people I have had the pleasure to meet. The Norwegians I met not only pointed me in the right direction, they actually took me by the hand and led me there. The friendly guy who took me to Stratos on my first evening in Oslo spotted me two nights later in a different bar, walked over and offered to by me a drink. (My British reticence made me decline.) While waiting in line for fish and chips that same evening, another Norwegian fellow, upon learning I was reviewing the festival, thought it was high time I saw some Scandinavian metal and led me directly to the demonic onslaught of Monolithic. At one particularly crowded show, as I struggled to take photos that didn’t predominantly feature the backs of people’s heads, a taller Nordic concertgoer kindly lent a hand, taking my camera from me and returning with several decent to great shots.

Walking to Grunerlokka

Walking to Grunerlokka

And so it continued… During my first evening, while sitting in a VIP area (well, a cordoned off area for artists and press people with access to tee pees and roaring fires) I was plied with free drinks —no, not because I am important, but because the local folks who befriended me knew people. At the same table I started talking to a member of local band, the Shitsez, who pointed me to a part of town called Grunerlokka, describing it as Oslo’s version of Soho. It wasn’t, but it was still cool enough that I ended up spending an afternoon wandering around the neighborhood. What made these people stand out was the gregarious manner in which they grabbed my map and drew routes, marked places to get drinks, told me about record labels to check out, and venues to visit. One kind gent even gave me the cell phone number of one of the festival’s artists. “Call him,” he said. “He knows everyone.” (My British reticence kicked in again and I never did.) But through reaching out I reaped the benefits of insider knowledge.

A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide

A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide

Oslo Harbor

Oslo Harbor

The organizers of by:Larm were also kind enough to hand out free copies of a hefty little travel book titled: Oslo – A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide to Happy Living in One of the Most Expensive Cities in the World. It was as helpful as the advice I gleaned from the people I talked to, but didn’t come with a friendly smile or free beer. Then again, my new friends never offered up interesting tidbits such as the sentence I found on page 14 of the Guide that read: “As a Scandinavian Gulf state, all airborne star architects like to compete in will waving contests, ejaculating their hedonistic secretions onto the seafront of Oslo.” Unfortunately, unless you are going to catch a ferry, I would advise against taking time to visit Oslo’s harbor and the “hedonistic secretions” ejaculated upon it. I trundled down there expecting a Manhattan-like sprawl of giant fjords only to be met by a flat, slightly hilly horizon. The guide’s advice, however, was an important tool in my treks around Oslo, as the rumors are true: Norway is expensive. Yet, thanks to the handy guide and friendly folks, I managed to find cheap Indian food, cheap coffee, and cheap-ish beer. The Norwegians, it seems, drink a lot of beer (and weirdly a lot of Sambuca as well).

Tim Wendelboe

Tim Wendelboe

Beer, in fact, was probably my biggest expenditure while attending by:Larm, but coffee came a close second. And while there is a slew of American-style 7-Eleven’s dotted throughout the city –- pretty much every second corner is home to one -– good, gourmet coffee is the only way to go in Olso. Apparently, Norwegians drink the most coffee in the world, and if you want your fix while visiting, there’s no better place to go than Tim Wendelboe. I happened upon the nondescript coffee shop while walking around Grunerlokka. With just a bar and two stools, it’s not your traditional coffee shop -– no sitting for several hours sipping on a latte and updating your Facebook profile here. Behind the counter sits several trophies proclaiming Wendelboe as the best barista in Norway as well as several well-placed World championship positions. Unfortunately, Wendelboe wasn’t there when I popped in, but Tim, an Australian transplant living in Oslo, was an informative barrista suggesting two types of espresso to me. Of these, the Aricha #32, a fruity flavor from Ethiopia, was the best, mainly because I’d never drank espresso before that tasted like strawberries. Tim, as well as suggesting great coffee, also told me about his favorite bar, Oslomekaniskev, situated in the former old town area of Groenland, now an immigrant enclave that was also home to the cheap Indian food I had found during and earlier excursion. The “circle of life” as Elton John might say.

Oslo City Center

Oslo City Center

It was while walking through Groenland that the several Scandinavian stereotypes jumped out at me: People walking around with skis slung over shoulders, parents pulling children in plastic sleds instead of pushing them in strollers, and bar after bar televising several varieties of winter sports. Back in Grunerlokka, it was the housing stock that had struck me – all differing shades of pastel, giving the area a slight fairytale-like feel. Oslo has obviously came a long way since it was known as Kristiania and nicknamed the City of Tigers due to its dodgy nature. In fact, the only dodgy situation I found myself in was self-imposed. On Saturday morning I joined an organized trip that found a busload of international delegates traveling up a winding mountain road that—and I am sure there is a decent amount of hyperbole stuffed in this next phrase—was reminiscent of a snow covered cousin to Bolivia’s Yungas Road—aka the Road of Death. Half way up, we meet another bus coming down. Something’s got to give. Unfortunately, it’s us. We mount the snow-covered roadside tipping the bus to a 30-degree angle. Any more and we’d start to wobble. Fortunately for all of us, we make it to our destination: A lodge with panoramic views of Oslo (though, with the weather we can’t see a thing) where coffee and sticky buns, plus an a cappella performance by Norwegian folk artist Kim André Rysstad awaits us. Unfortunately, at some point, we have to drive back down. We do. It’s a lot better than the journey up, and we make it safely back to the center of Oslo in time for the rest of the day’s festivities.

It’s this mix of warmth and welcome amidst unsavory conditions that sets by:Larm apart as not just another music festival, but an endeavor and an expedition. It would have been easy to stay at home as the snow fell, but the crowds came out in full force with ticket lines wrapping around Youngstorget and certain shows being impossible to get into unless you were already there for the previous band.

Cowboy in Sweden

Cowboy in Sweden

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit at Mono was such a show; the BBC allegedly left waiting outside unable to gain access despite the fact that they were supposed to record the duo’s set. Fortunately, I was there early enough to secure a space, though not one with good sight lines. No matter. The only thing you need for First Aid Kit -– two Swedish sisters aged 15 and 17 –- is a set of ears. Far and away the best show at by:Larm, First Aid Kit were sparse and minimalist – just two voices plus acoustic guitar and, on occasion, keys or autoharp – yet the siblings, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, fill their songs with an intense amount of emotion. So much so, that you could actually feel the music seeping into your skin. Mixing robust originals with a few covers –- Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” plus “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Man in Black” –- the duo showcased a musical maturity that belied their young age. Simple but powerful, their songs packed an emotional punch I haven’t been privy to in a live musical setting for some time. Drawing on a backwoods-y blend of country and folk, their short set worked best when both sisters sang, their voices intertwining and complementing, coercing and coaxing. I see them the following day at the larger Dagbladet tent during the daytime, and while the harmonies were still in place, Mono’s intimate setting added an extra layer of musical allure. Like the different colored houses that dot the pastel streets of Oslo, First Aid Kit used a pleasing pallet of well-worn musical hues to create a simple sound that was crisp, classic, and captivating. At Mono, the packed and jubilant crowd called for an encore, but the strict timeline of the festival format curtailed our calls. It was unfortunate as First Aid Kit—more than anyone else I heard all weekend -– definitely deserved it.

Jens Carelius

Jens Carelius

Continuing the country/folk trend, Jens Carelius and his four-piece backing band played a strikingly poised set that flitted between sounding like Nick Drake if he’d grown up playing the blues, and a less urgent Okkervil River. Bearded but fresh faced, kind of like Fleet Foxes, Carelius started off solo, with intricately intimate fingerpicking. It took one and half songs for the rest of the band to chime in, and when they did it was with a thud of jazzy percussion and shimmering guitar. As the set drew on—and Carelius swapped his seated, acoustic position for an electric guitar—a smidgen of Bob Dylan began to emerge as well. A trumpet intermingled with many of the songs, which, like “Faces Leaving on a Train”, swung from smoke-y jazz to blues to country, all tied together by Carleius’ deft voice and simple yet stunning songwriting ability.

Tor Konstalij

Tor Konstalij

Simple yet stunning songwriting ability is a term that also applies to Tor Konstalij, whose stage was actually an auditorium floor that made him seem like a professor and I guess he was… kind of. As we sat in lecture-like seats with foldaway desks (perfect for note taking!), Konstalij gave us all a quick lesson in folk and blues, albeit it a variation of these genres filtered through Tom Waits’ off-kilter approach to songwriting. Like many other artists, Konstalij sang in an affected English accent, but talked between songs in his native Norwegian, meaning that many of his jokes (I assumed they were jokes – people were laughing) were lost on me. Fortunately, the music was not. Cutting a lonely figure on stage, and seemingly in song as well, Konstalij was a commanding solo artist trading in old musical commodities with an affable ease.

Ingunn Ringvold, aka Sailorine, also displayed a similar amicability as she sauntered onto Mono’s tiny stage to get Friday night’s festivities underway with an Americana-tinged set that sounded more Nashville than Norway. Backed by a three-piece band, Ringvold—who is also a member of the Mark Olsen Trio (she’s currently the opening act for Olsen’s US tour with his former Jayhawks partner, Gary Louris)—added hints of bluegrass instrumentation into the mix, making her sound more traditional than many American country artists. Unfortunately, the set lacked a certain amount of musical differentiation, making it a pleasant way to pass 30 minutes if not essential listening.

The New Wine

The New Wine

Small

Small

While the country and folk bands were, for the most part, pretty good, it was the groups that dabbled in electronics and the dance-punk-pop mix that wavered. In fact it was this fairly new amalgamation of sounds that actually seemed dated, not the archaic country or folk sounds. The New Wine—a four-piece hailing from Norway’s other musical hotspot, Bergen—are purveyors of the dance-punk sound, but sounded perfunctory in their execution of the genre’s musical staples. Utilizing the softer end of this genre’s spectrum, they recalled the poppier exploits of groups such as Phoenix. The New Wine were short on definable hooks and the hooks that were there were unfortunately pretty weak. While the New Wine were bland, Small, an incredibly young-looking Danish quartet, were sheepish, but showed promise. Much like M83’s synth-driven pop, Small balanced their sound on the precipice of rock and electronics, utilizing a retina-burning light show to overcome some obvious shyness. I Was a Teenage Satan Worshipper fared better though, with a fierce set of Faint-like songs that was hindered by technical glitches and a noisy, packed bar. Despite these obstacles, the Finish group were energetic and frenetic and made songs such as the punky and poppy “Art School Creeps” sound nowhere near as trite or teenage-lite as the titles may suggest.

K-X-P

K-X-P

Also not trite nor light were the Finish trio K-X-P, who, despite a Goonies T-shirt-clad drummer and a fretless bass, powered there their way through a pulsating set of driving songs that mixed Krautrock, techno, and industrial influences with harsh lighting and even harsher vocals. Despite their repetitive musical nature, K-X-P, who also serve as Annie’s backing band, were rousing and heavier than any metal I saw over the weekend.

Captain Credible

Captain Credible

Unlike K-X-P, who I continued to listen to post-festival, some music is meant purely for a live setting and unfortunately loses its meaning on record. Captain Credible, plays this type of music. With a mass of equipment on stage – including a wired motorcycle helmet, a drumstick wielding doll, and old school Nintendo game pads – Captain Credible huddled behind his electronic mountain coaxing out a series of squelching 8-bit riffs, rhythmic tumbles, and vocodered vocals. He’s a little like Dan Deacon minus the musicianship and games. Live, it’s passable as a spectacle—the manic, speed-induced music mixed in with a narrative arc that runs from comical to course. On record, however, it’s all slightly annoying, which is a shame as everyone should see this kooky Captain at least once.

Dog and Pony Show

Dog and Pony Show

Pony the Pirate

Pony the Pirate

If the word to sum up Captain Credible was kooky, perplexing is the best word to describe Pony the Pirate. How could a seven-piece band featuring trumpet, sax, and steel guitar, sound like England’s spiky and stuttering Futureheads? It doesn’t make sense and left me scratching my head while I should have been taking notes. They fared better when they realized the arsenal of musical weapons at their disposal and attacked their songs with Arcade Fire-like zeal, actually making the number of band members on stage work in their favor. If they can figure out what they want to be, Pony and the Pirate could be a band to keep tabs on.

The Shitsez

The Shitsez

Some other bands I will be keeping an eye on due to their by:Larm performances included the Shitsez, Fjorden Baby!, and Rockettothesky. Like an amalgamation of the Go! Team, Santogold, and Toni Basil circa “Mickey”, the Shitsez, playing only their second live show, were a hyper kinetic act that got better as their set wore on. Mixing elements of ‘80s pop into their musical mix (which they have dubbed cheerleader rock) and sounding, at times, like Tiffany on steroids, the Shitsez offered up the shortest set of by:Larm, but also one of the best.

Fjorden Baby!

Fjorden Baby!

Like the Shitsez, who bounded onstage in prime ‘80s gear, perhaps Fjorden Baby!’s clothing should have given them away as well. The singer wore a long, white KLF T-shirt, the group’s guitarist climbed onstage in a red, gold, and green vest, while the drummer wore a Nerves T-shirt. These influences seeped into their set, along with elements of Madchester, Krautock, ska, reggae, and dub, for a mongrel-like musical mix that was as mesmerizing as it was perplexing. And while it wasn’t perfect, this five-piece band (who released their debut album last October) managed to funnel it all through an energetic performance that pegged them as one of by:Larm’s premier bands, even if their sound is difficult to pin down.

Rockettothesky

Rockettothesky

Not as difficult to pin down were Rockettothesky—essentially a solo project for the bobbed and platinum blond Jenny Hval—who sounded like perfect 4AD fodder. A minimalist mix of Mazzy Star, Galaxy 500, and the Cocteau Twins, Hval—backed here by two auxiliary musicians – mixes folk and electronica with plenty of effects pedals to create a ghostly sound that throbs and flows in equal measure. The first time I saw Rockettotthesky, they were playing the claustrophobic confines of Oslo Kongressenter’s Mesaninen. The place was so packed that space could only be found in a stairwell or balcony, and the fact that both of these areas were six/seven people deep made it impossible to really hear anything, especially with all the chattering. Despite all these obstacles, they still managed to impress, so much so that I sought them out again later on in the weekend, fought my way to the front, and was not disappointed.

Einar Stray

Einar Stray

Unfortunately, at any festival the law of averages indicates that there are bound to be disappointments. I had high hopes for Einar Stray and his delicate take on chamber pop, yet I was initially disappointed in his short set, which, like the Oslo weather, left me cold. Stray’s tender songs—backed by a six-piece band that included cello, violin, and a backing singer—came off as too clever, too intricate, and too over-thought. Looking like Thom Yorke circa Pablo Honey, Stray lulled me to sleep with his subpar Sufjan Stevens impression. And then he played “Arrows” and it was a minor musical revelation, all militaristic drums and Sigur Rós atmospherics, soaring strings, and slowly accumulating vocals. It was moments like this that will make me keep an eye on Stray’s career, but it was hard to reconcile a set full of duds with this one sublime gem.

My Little Pony

My Little Pony

Pop quiz: What would you expect a band called My Little Pony to sound like: Cute, twee, boy/girl vocals, glockenspiel, xylophones, air melodica, vintage dresses, acoustic guitar? Correct on all accounts. Okay, so the music was nowhere near as trite as their name suggests, and the country-ish tint to their songs toned down the twee side of things just enough to make them more than tolerable, but there was something lacking throughout their set that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s because, despite playing 80-plus shows since forming two years ago, My Little Pony still sound better on record than on stage. Perhaps another 80 shows will rectify this situation.

Norma Sass

Norma Sass

“I was born in the ‘80s sang Norma Sass’ vocalist, Thea Glenton Raknes, and by the looks of it, so was the rest of the band… probably the late ‘80s as well. This young, female-filled five-piece are an obvious work in progress, a musical science project still figuring out which elements work well together. The effort and enthusiasm is there, though, and if the band can continue to write songs in a similar vein to the New Wave-y “Japan”, with its wonderful four-part harmonies and catchy melody, the band might meld into a proficient indie/pop band.

Under Dogs International

Under Dogs International

The Captain & Me

The Captain & Me

On paper, the prospect of Under Dogs International, an Oslo-based world music group fusing Balkan music with jazz and Latin/African rhythms, piqued my interest, but in person they were slightly perfunctory and devoid of any pep that would peg them as essential. The problem, it seemed, was the depth of their influence, not the influences themselves. Like a fusion restaurant that likes to meld too many disparate ingredients, I left the show satisfied but with a weird taste in my mouth. Fortunately, The Captain & Me washed away this weird world music aftertaste. Also utilizing Balkan influences, but fusing them with folk and country affectations, the Captain and Me were a musical melting pot, even pulling out what looked like a lute for one song. Technically a duo, here the group was nine-strong, which was all well and good considering the amount of instruments on stage with them.

Freddy & the Casuals

Freddy & the Casuals

It was surprises such as Captain and Me’s vast instrumental range that helped several bands stand out when I expected very little. I never figured out which one was Freddy in Freddy & the Casuals, which is possibly due to the band’s 14-strong collection. A mish mash of high school band, old people, rap, samba, and tropicalia, Freddy and the Casuals utilized a four-piece horn section, three backing singers, three separate percussive players, plus the usual guitar, bass, drums setup, and topped it all off with two rapping front men. They drenched the tent in a party atmosphere with choreographed dancing and a set of songs that swung and swayed and, most importantly, signified that everyone should have a good time despite the late hour.

John Olav Nilsen

John Olav Nilsen

Erlend Øy, possibly Norway’s most famous recent musical export (Kings of Convenience / The Whitest Boy Alive) called John Olav Nilsen the most important songwriter in Bergen. I have never been to this coastal town that sits on Norway’s western shore, so can’t really grasp the gravity of this statement (though I do know Bergen has long been described as a musical hotspot), but at by:Larm, Nilsen and his seven-piece backing band certainly put themselves forward as one of the festival’s best live acts. While the songwriting side of things was slightly lost on me (they were all in Norwegian), it was hard to fault the group’s effort or energy, coming across, as they did, like the Hold Steady if they had been influenced by Mod, mid-‘70s English rock, and soccer sing-alongs.

A Change of Pace

A Change of Pace

While John Olav Nilsen had the crowd on its feet, not all the festival was standing room only. In Oslo’s Kongressenter, there were several chances to sit down and rest up. Maia Hirasawa was one such opportunity. Hirasawa – a Japanese/Swedish songwriter who fronted the band Hello Saferide – made things more comfortable for everyone by also sitting down for her stripped-back set. First with an acoustic guitar, and secondly when she switched to piano. Backed by another pianist and a brass player who alternated between saxophone and clarinet (though without the strings featured on her album, Though I’m Just Me.), Hirasawa’s jazz-tinged pop songs made for a nice change of pace. Bridging the gap between Britain’s current set of female songwriters (“And I Found This Boy”) and Scandinavia’s established songstresses (“Gothenburg”), Hirasawa’s set was positively swoon-worthy.

I know it might not sound like one, but I mean this as a compliment: Ólafur Arnalds’ music put me to sleep. Not literally. But the 21-year-old Icelandic composer – who has already in his short career sold out London’s Barbican Hall and toured with compatriots Sigur Rós – was so soothing in his musical approach that as soon as he finished I abandoned my original plans, drifted back to my hotel, and settled, satisfyingly, into my bed. Sitting at his piano, and backed by a string quartet and percussive-playing laptop, Arnalds’ music mixed orchestral sweeps with minimalist electronica, for a sound that swelled with grandiose pockets before retreating into passages that lulled, so much so, you could just about hear the laptop battery whirring away. Perhaps it was the Kongressenter’s comfortable seating, or Arnalds’ meditative musings, or the beers I drank earlier that evening, but I slept soundly following this set.

Corpse and Children Playing in the Street

Corpse and Children Playing in the Street

I also sat for Children and Corpse Playing in the Street (albeit at a bar) and despite the group’s death-indulging name, they were instead a cutes-y combo fronted by a pair of macramé wearing woman, who whistle along to the laid back French pop and singing through Fisher Price microphones. Backed by Farfisa, mandolin, and a minimalist rhythm section, the front women weaved their way through a set of acoustic-led songs that sounded like Tanya Donelly’s weirder musical moments or a lighter, airier St. Etienne.

Monolithic

Monolithic

Lighter and airier are two adjectives I can’t use to describe the next two bands. You can’t got to a Scandinavian music festival and not see any metal. The area is famous for it. Not the hair metal Americans are used to, nor the hipster metal that seems so popular these days, but real metal—death metal, speed metal, “I can’t believe how many hours of darkness there are” metal. As a genre it’s not something I listen to without coercion. Sure, my first album was Def Leopard’s Hysteria, but I never graduated beyond the British group’s faux metal posturing. So it’s no wonder the metal bands I saw were chance happenings. Monolithic were never on my musical radar. Why should they be? They weren’t even in the program. A late replacement band, I get taken to their show by a kind, longhaired Norwegian who I meet while waiting in line for fish and chips. “You haven’t seen any metal yet?” he asks. I hadn’t. It was time to rectify that situation. When we arrive, the duo is already thrashing around, shirts off, riffing up a storm on a set of instrumental songs that sound like “Ace of Spades” sped up. It’s definitely not something I would listen to in the confines of my own home, but live, the impressive musicianship is a site to behold. It was super loud, super heavy, super raucous, super unexpected, and super fun.

Merlin

Merlin

My other metal experience is also accidental, but less impressive. Tempted by a Theremin I see being set up keeps me in the Dagbladet Tent just as I was about to rush out. Unfortunately, I never get to hear its sweet tones as three songs in, Merlin, the band who consequently took the stage, have worked their punk/hardcore/metal magic and have made my ears hurt. Now there is no exaggeration or hyperbole here – my ears really did hurt so bad that, over the following days, I came close to making a doctor’s appointment. Luckily the pain subsided, but unfortunately my memories of Merlin have not. Despite what their name might suggest, there was no musical wizardry during their set.

Men Among Animals

Men Among Animals

Nils Bech

Nils Bech

I saw snippets of several other groups as well. Sweden’s Fatboy, whose rootsy set of rockabilly tunes came complete with dapper suits and a double bass. Denmark’s Men Among Animals, whose infectious energy made up for a lackluster indie/rock songwriting. And Norway’s own Nils Bech, who spent parts of his avant-garde, saxophone and laptop fueled set standing statuesquely still. It was this peculiar musical mix that makes by:Larm a uniquely interesting festival. Oh, and the people.

I would still be looking for Stratos without them.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/72676-bylarm-2009/