The press materials for Norway’s Mall Girl describe the band’s debut album as “math-pop”, a succinct and relatively accurate moniker for their sound. Some of the tracks on Superstar work like languid dream-pop songs, while others feature the fast tempos and technical playing of math-rock. They often find a way to work both styles into single tracks. It makes Superstar a fascinating listen.
The album opens with “Pink NASA”, a 70-second intro that features a wash of sound that quickly rises in pitch. After about 35 seconds, the sound separates into heavily processed guitar arpeggios, titanic fuzz bass tones, synth chords, and a slow, steady hi-hat beat. It’s a striking start to the record, especially listening in headphones. The track has a short synth fade-out, which immediately launches into “Lilies Dew”.
This song begins with a super-fast snare drum pattern, echoed for a few seconds on guitar. The guitar then shifts to squalling notes, the bass comes in, noisy and overdriven, and the trio go all-out for a brief 12 seconds. At the 17-second mark, however, Mall Girl stop on a dime, and vocalist Bethany Forseth-Reichberg enters for the first time. “Let me tell you about the things I’ll never do / It’s like I’m standing here in search of something new,” she sings sweetly while the rest play a slow but bright accompaniment. The forward motion increases just a bit as the chorus hits, and then the band returns to the opening chaos for exactly one measure before starting the second verse.
“Lilies Dew” is a fascinating combination of two very different types of music. Mall Girl are already playing with expectations before the song even ends. The second chorus wraps up with a brief silence, exactly where they returned to the math-rock after the first chorus. Instead, the refrain repeats with the background music digitally manipulated into sounding lower and slower even though the vocals are the same. The band does go back to the math-rock section after this, but Forseth-Reichberg stays in, singing wordless “ahh’s” over the frenetic music.
A full album of tracks like “Lilies Dew” would likely be exhausting. But Mall Girl is savvy enough not to try this on every song. “Bubbly Cool Drink” is a little more representative of their sound. It’s a mid-tempo rocker with dynamic drums, more fuzzed-out bass, and a chiming guitar riff. Forseth-Reichberg’s cooing vocals are perfect for the chorus, “Makes me wanna settle down / Find a real good life / For nights and days / While I drink my bubbly cool drink.” Interestingly, the drums and bass drop out on this chorus, leaving just the chiming guitar riff and the sweet, sweet singing.
Similarly, “Close My Eyes” is a high-powered rocker. Eskild Myrvoll’s catchy, muscular bassline and Forseth-Reichberg’s energetic singing give the track its drive. The crunchy refrain is followed by a post-chorus where guitarist Ivan Armand Tandsether and drummer Hannah Veslemøy Narvesen play a complex math-rock riff for a few seconds. In this case, though, the song builds to it and lets it fall away quickly. When the track hits the bridge, Mall Girl go all out on the mathiness. Myrvoll keeps it grounded with a simple, melodic bassline, making it easy to return to the chorus to finish out the song.
At other times, Mall Girl chill out. “For Hannah” develops gradually, with cascades of vocals as an introduction. When the beat does kick in, it’s slow and measured. Tandsether and Myrvoll play a lot of arpeggios but keep it all deliberate. “Feel Like Crying” is a little funky and bouncy, with a sprightly high register guitar riff. They do go a bit crazy in the bridge, but it’s a song that’s mostly under control. The gentle closer “You and I” is a full dream-pop song. Male and female harmonies accompany Forseth-Reichberg, chimes twinkle in the background, and the guitars are restrained throughout. Narvesen’s drums just pop up here and there for accents, never playing a steady beat.
“Dance Alone” is also restrained, drifting along like a 2022 remake of Frou Frou’s early 2000s indie hit “Let Go”. Narvesen is more active than you’d expect in a song like this, throwing in constant fills and skittering around despite the drifting tone. “Machine Gun Mystery” has a bit of a bounce to it, with a bassline that bops from high to low and back, and it never feels any urgency to go any faster.
“Bachtap” embraces the “math-pop” label, with a complicated guitar riff and two levels of vocals that slide back and forth between stereo speakers. “See My Soul” begins in a very catchy vein but features noise-rock breaks where a chorus would usually sit. It also increases the noise level as the song continues, getting very loud indeed right before it wraps up. “Poolside Person” retains Forseth-Reichberg’s poppy vocals, but musically it’s all driving math-rock, sort of like a more technical Sleigh Bells.
Superstar establishes Mall Girl’s basic sound with “Pink NASA” and “Lilies Dew”. The rest of the album finds them trying out various iterations of that sound with quite a bit of success. Forseth-Reichberg has a pop singer’s voice but a belter’s sensibility, and she keeps up with the rest of the band no matter the song’s tone. Tandsether has a bevy of high-pitched clean guitar riffs and a good sense of when to take the lead and when to accompany. The rhythm section is intriguing because Narvesen’s drums often function as a second lead instrument to Tandsether’s guitar, but she also knows when to lay back and keep the rhythm. Meanwhile, Myrvoll may be slightly in love with putting a layer of fuzz on his bass, but he’s also the one bringing the power when Tandsether is playing arpeggios and Narvesen skittering along. It makes for a group with a unique sound, and Superstar is a rewarding listen.