The back catalogue of this Norwegian band, released in the U.S. for the first time, is hugely rewarding.
Were you impressed by Serena-Maneesh in 2006? Do you remember their veiled and thrilling sound? They were serious and intellectual about their music in a way that wasn't ideally suited to the quick-scavenging blog culture, so it's no surprise that the group had been making powerful music for a number of years before Serena Maneesh broke them into America's listening consciousness.
It's a pleasure, now, to have the back catalogue officially available through Smalltown Supersound, a little label quickly building a reputation for solid, consistently interesting output. S-M Backwards contains remastered and remixed material from the group's first two EPs, Zuruch and Fixxations, released originally between 1999 and 2003. There are sixteen tracks, but a number of tracks are remixed or re-worked, so listening to the material straight through reinforces the material in unexpected ways. S-M Backwards is roughly chronologically arranged, with the newer EP first and, within each EP, the re-worked material front-loaded. This is refreshing for long-time fans who are already familiar with the material. For new listeners, it's rewarding to compare the ways in which the band has chosen to re-work its originals.
In writing about this collection, Emil Nikolaisen describes it as "pieces, fragments, failure and treasure hand in hand". Which is actually a nice way to think not only about the band's success/failure, but about their approach to revelation-through-suddenly-revealed-beauty. There's plenty of that -- and plenty of the fragmentary detritus that throws is necessary for it to seem so high yield -- throughout S-M Backwards. The atonal wail of strings/organ half-way through "Sehnsucht/Drag Me Upstairs", the exploration of the edges of twang-guitar on the original "Drive Me Home the Lonely Nights", the far-off skeleton rattle of "Degenerate". Listen, and you'll easily find your own moments like these.
Though it's not perhaps overly productive to draw stark distinctions, the earlier Zuruck is a lot sludgier, more primitive, and sparser than Fixxations. The EP takes its time investigating the wide expanses of slow-turning bass/guitar drones (most notably on the drawn out instrumentals of "Leipziger Love Life"), then suddenly shifting gears. The group's not-often-remarked-on jazz influences are on show on the previously unreleased "Death Parade, Slow"; the groove here, neatly matched to the otherworldly vocals, loses its way after a while, as if the band somehow lost interest. On the other hand, "Leipziger Love", in its original mix, is a wounded, aching wonder. The spiky, krautrock drums may be the most important thing on the track; when they fade out, the song gradually grinds to a defeated halt.
Fixxations, on the other hand, presents a more nuanced picture of the band. The lovely "Drive Me Home the Lonely Nights", in its new mix especially, is an absolute highlight, parlaying its wonky riff into a gentle, almost radio-ready ballad. In contrast, some of the re-worked material reveals a more traditional rock structure than we're used to hearing from Serena-Maneesh. Both "Hear Bleed Phil Harmonic" and "Blues Like Beehive II" lose something of their mystery in the scrubbing-clean.
It's to be expected that a collection of disparate EPs, with material re-visited at different times in different continents, will sound less like a complete vision, so it's no great criticism to point out that holds true here. But despite the lack of coherence, what's clear is that from the start Nikolaisen and his band have been interested in the dynamic interplay between noise and melody, charting the ties binding the two with the familiar language of distorted guitars and wispyocal harmonies. Yes, their shoegaze and noise influences are as easily heard here as on Serena-Maneesh, but their unique sonic identity's just as strongly portrayed.
When S-M Backwards is released, it'll be simultaneous with a new 12-inch, and the promise of a new album's approaching as well. In the meantime, for fans of the thorny Norwegians, this release provides a welcome reminder of the group's presence, and a valuable insight into their fragmentary beginnings.