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
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.
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.
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
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.