Album review: Liima – ii

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It seems like a long three-and-a-bit years since Efterklang left the excellent parting shot of Piramida and went on hiatus. Emerging from its shadow in 2016 is Liima, a project made up of three Efterklang members – lead vocalist Casper Clausen, Mads Brauer and Rasmus Stolberg, plus Finnish percussionist Tatu Rönkkö. The Danes tellingly and affectionately describe Liima as the band Efterklang ‘share’ with him.

The temptation, of course, is to directly compare the two. And, though I am going to do that right now, it’s not completely fair to look at Liima as a continuation or progression. ii is a fresh page. There are naturally similarities, yes, and they extend beyond Clausen’s voice. Although the differences are not massive, they are noticeable.

Certainly, Liima’s sound is more intense. And a tad more unpredictable. Although both tend towards experimentalism, Efterklang’s seemed very ordered; big and small pieces were perfectly in place. Liima’s appears more chaotic and unpredictable.ii is more intense and far less calming than anything Efterklang did. If you want a reference point, it’s somewhere between the glitchy, dreamlike Tripper (‘Woods’ sounds almost like a remix of something from the early days) and the bombastic and spacious pop of Magic Chairs. There are many of the hallmarks here that made them so appealing; Casper Clausen’s soaring and soothing vocals, for one. And a fundamental tendency towards experimentation. The complexity and prominence of the percussion has been taken to a higher level with the introduction of Rönkkö, though.

Experimentation is at the heart of this project. The album itself was created on the back of four week-long residencies in Finland, Istanbul, Berlin and the island of Madeira. Sketches were formed into songs which worked their way onto the album. The problem is that it often sounds this way. The intensity and thick yet changing textures combined with frantic electronics and complex percussion can wear a little thin the deeper you go. The process seems to have left an overly refined experimentalism with too much happening too quickly. Most tracks last between four and four-and-a-half minutes but leave you yearning for an extension, for more stages and movements.

For all the frustrating occasions, there are some magnificent and satisfying pay-offs. ‘Roger Waters’ opens with relentless, repetitive synths and a myriad of vocal tracks overpowering them before exploding into a maelstrom of synths, bass and a space-rock solo. ‘Trains in the Dark’ sounds like a logical conclusion to what had come before it, a dirty disco beat galloping alongside some cosmic sound-effects around the edges.

ii is an album that certainly sounds good, and you would expect that from this quartet. There are a handful of big moments which work—many involving the introduction of an ominous and powerful-sounding bass guitar and others with Clausen’s vocals. Although Liima’s first offering is somewhat of a mixed affair, it is worth sticking with, for both them and us.

Originally published on Drowned in Sound. 

Exploring Susanna’s bold and brilliant Triangle for Norwegian Arts

I spoke to Susanna about her excellent forthcoming album Triangle for Norwegian Arts.

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Photo by Anne Valeur

“Susanna does not do things by half on her eleventh studio album, Triangle. “I knew quite early on that I want to make a long album and I was thinking about making a double. I had this vague idea for it to be kind of massive,” she says speaking from Oslo. On 19 April Londoners can see her on stage at Cafe OTO.

Triangle is the boldest of all her work, whether in collaboration with others, under her own name or the banner of The Magical Orchestra. Bold in both approach and execution, it highlights one of Norway’s most interesting voices. Religious, spiritual and occult themes are explored throughout the album’s 22 tracks and seventy-something minutes. Songs like ‘Born Again’, ‘Holy Sacred’, ‘Before the Altar’ and ‘For My Sins’ give more than a hint of the direction she takes. In the layers of sound are great moments of darkness and light, as well as passages which imbue feelings of being lost, found, scared and comforted. If you want a label, then Triangle has arguably ended up as a concept album.”

Read the full feature on Norwegian Arts.

by:Larm feature on Norwegian Arts

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I recently spoke with by:Larm festival head and general festival pioneer Erlend Mogård-Larsen about the upcoming edition of by:Larm and how the festival has evolved over its near two decades.

“The heart of by:Larm is the cobbled square of Youngstorget. With high-rise buildings flanking each side, a huge tent is erected in the centre to host the biggest bands. The other venues are within a short stroll of Youngstorget, making it easier to see more than just two or three bands in a night. Many of the city’s most renowned venues are involved, from the imposing sloping floor of 1750-capacity Sentrum Scene to the sweaty basement bar of Revolver.”

Read the full feature on Norwegian Arts.

http://bylarm.no

Photo by Kim Erlandsen for NRK P3.

 

Straw Bear Saturday on Caught by the River

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Photo: Sarah Campbell

I went to the Cambridgeshire Fenland market town of Whittlesey to witness the annual Straw Bear Festival and was rather taken in by its charms.

“Though the Straw Bear was present in 1909, the tradition faded away shortly after. In 1980 it was reintroduced by The Whittlesea Society, free of Bumbledom. 37 years on, it is now an extraordinary occasion where people of all ages line the streets in their hundreds, if not thousands. I heard someone accurately describe the day as like Christmas for Whittlesey. Shop windows are adorned with replica Bears and lampposts and bins are permanently decorated with straw motifs. The alcohol ban is lifted and plenty use personalised tankards to sip – or gulp – their ales. As well as the great crowds, there is a convivial atmosphere from early on. It is not a stretch to say that Whittlesey is rather proud of this rekindled custom.”

Read the full post on Caught by the River. 

 

Digital Natives: Phonofile feature on Norwegian Arts

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Photo: Zoe Cormier

At the end of 2015 I spoke to Norwegian digital music distributor Phonofile on their expanding operations, opening an office in London and the future of streaming.

“Phonofile is one of just a number of companies that are examples of what has been called Norway’s “digital consumer culture”.  Norway is renowned as one of the world’s leading consumers of digital media, as the results of the 2014 POLARIS Digital Music Survey show.  Even among their high-consuming Nordic neighbours, the Norwegians are ahead. The survey found that 36% of Norwegian music customers say they are willing to pay for music, compared to just 13% of Finns. Norwegians also spend more on digital music (£16.65 per month) than their Scandinavian neighbours.

The reasons for the spread of legal digital music in Norway are down to a combination of factors. There has also been a significant reduction in piracy in this time, with just 4% of Norwegians under 30 still using file-sharing websites for pirated music.”

Read the full feature on Norwegian Arts. 

Portsoy, Sandend and Fordyce on Caught by the River

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Photo: Sarah Campbell

During August 2015 I visited the Banffshire coastline and did some digging into my ancestry and combined this with a walk around former familial villages and towns. A little ancestral psychogeography if you will. It was published on Caught by the River the same November.

“Portsoy has a picture postcard quality without being truly beautiful. Side streets wind steeply downhill towards two harbours. The first of these was built in the 17th century, the latter in the 18th, as a result of the boom in herring fishing. In this mizzling weather there is a sense of melancholy about the place, as a solitary man tends stoically to his wooden boat. Later on the wind, rain and late-evening gloom combines with the exposed, rocky coastland to create a sense of something greater and more powerful than beauty.”

The full post is available on Caught by the River. 

Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Pond Scum

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John Peel has been dead over ten years now but part of his legacy survives in the multitude of Peel Sessions, for one. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s umpteenth album is a compilation of a dozen of these tracks, recorded under various names – his own, Will Oldham, BPB and Palace – over a decade or so. It’s a collection of some of his best tracks recorded in a fundamental manner, with fewer of the instrumental textures of some of more recent releases.

First and foremost, it is a pleasure to hear Will Oldham play in this more stripped-back manner. Among other things he is a storyteller and removing some of the instrumental density allows you to hear his tales with a greater intensity and clarity.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think Will Oldham is best when he is at his most morose and laden with doom. Sometimes the figure that he cuts is so mournful it’s harrowing to listen to. The power of his lonesome balladry is often overwhelming. Other times it is as though he is singing his laments to himself; looking deep into his soul. The finger-picked acoustic arrangement of ‘Stable Will’ embodies all of these things perfectly. But there are other, jollier tunes; ‘Jolly One (2-15)’ and ‘Jolly Five, nominally at least. And ‘Arise Therefore’ sounds more hopeful, buoyant and polished than its original Palace incarnation.

Oldham’s poetic power is also clear. Take the opening lines of ‘Trudy Dies’: “I haven’t known sorrow for so many years / With no foe to fight / Death is all I fear / ‘Cos death could take you / Death could take you / And that’s just what it’d do”. I often thought Scout Niblett’s cover as almost as good as the original, though this version probably falls a bit below those two. His unusual version of Prince’s ‘The Cross’ sits quite well thematically within Oldham’s world, if perhaps not musically – though he does a typical deconstruction into something much more of a very raw racket than anything else.

Sure, there are other songs from the Peel Sessions that would have been nice to have featured – the fragile ‘I am a Cinematographer’, heavy ‘Another Day Full of Dread’ or the pulsating ‘O Let It Be’ – but that is probably just the Oldham devotee inside me speaking. The main problem is picking through to create a compilation of acts of Oldham’s longevity, quality and variety. It’s a tough task but there aren’t hundreds of Peel Sessions tracks and this is a more than reasonable outcome.

It is difficult to really know what to feel about Pond Scum as an album. It could serve as a decent introduction to newcomers, but it is not a massively wide-ranging or varied collection and the arrangements are too similarly basic to really give a fair and rounded impression. There are a few better starting places – I See a Darkness, The Letting Go, or anything under the Palace moniker if you’re feeling curious. Though it has merit in the strength of its content, Pond Scum may be only one for the collectors.

Review originally published on Drowned in Sound, January 2016.

Album review: Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs for the Quietus

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With the release of The Brothel in 2010, Susanne Sundfør enacted a revolution on herself. She started working with Jaga Jazzist’s Lars Horntveth and shifted from an existence as a quaint and largely inoffensive singer with an impressive voice, to an artist whose every word and note has gravitas. The foundations changed from basic to expansive and dense. Her melodies became more elaborate and the way she approached them more varied. She did this without compromise. Every album since has been an evolution. The steps have been small but significant. There is much of that feeling on Ten Love Songs, too, though the step this time is perhaps the one that elevates her to another world.

It is more suitable to call many of these tracks movements – as was the case with A Night At Salle Pleyel – rather than songs; and their parts passages rather than “verse” or “chorus”. Ten Love Songs is a whole and one which continues the gradual and wonderful journey of Susanne Sundfør. The darker, slower-moving and theatrically voiced aspects that made The Brothel and The Silicone Veil astounding listens are amplified, lengthened and more fleshed out. Now they are different beasts, with greater dynamic variation. Vocally, there is little restraint, but musically Ten Love Songs is littered with orchestral movements which act as a foil for the grandness. These bookend the numerous intense moments, allowing the listener a pause to take in and assess what they’ve just heard, whilst seguing onto the next track. This might be the only way to temper the album’s constant audacity, but it works.

There is a cinematic quality throughout. It is no coincidence that Sundfør leant her voice to the lead track for the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi flick Oblivion. It might be a slight jump – but no insult – to say that Sundfør has written a few tracks which could easily be James Bond themes, too. ‘Delirious’ is a great example of this, complete with gun-style percussion which pierces the foreground constantly and dramatically. Once more, her voice is the focus. It is a bona-fide pop song, yes, but it sways and morphs shape during the way to another orchestral conclusion.

‘Memorial’ is another; a ten-minute long journey through vocal and compositional talents. First the melody draws you in, before differing orchestral movements and moods take over, as pianos and strings take prominence in a lull. The return of Sundfør’s now-languorous voice is a surprise which brings the epic to a sullen conclusion. Other tracks like ‘Fade Away’ and ‘Kamikaze’ are probably two of the biggest and best pop songs she has written.

With each new album, Sundfør upgrades her sound and slightly modifies her modus operandi. And each time it becomes bigger, the moves braver and the end product more wonderful. Yet, it is still pop music. The centre of her musical universe is her voice. It is powerful enough on its own without any multi-tracking, but there is an awful lot of that, too. Around it are formed items of increasing and varying complexity, ebbing and flowing. But the core remains. It is a worthless task to try and work out exactly what Sundfør practices, beyond an extreme form of uncompromising pop. But, for now, we can be grateful for the fact that she simply exists.

Originally published on the Quietus, February 2015.

Album review: Nils Bech – One Year

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If Norwegian singer Nils Bech is not exactly famous for his honest and open lyrics, then he is at the very least quite well-known for them. It doesn’t take long to work out his appeal, though getting deeper into the emotional and varied world he creates is a rewarding experience.

It is said that the best art leaves an impression, whether positive or negative. It is difficult to deny that Bech’s unusual synth-based pop has the potential to be divisive but that is perhaps part of his aim. Like fellow Norwegian Jenny Hval, he makes music that creates a reaction. That he sings in heavily-accented English could grate but it is not a gimmick. It feels anything but forced; almost strangely natural. Bech’s atypical and elongated vowels are refreshing, and go some way to revealing the character of the performer, if not the man himself.

On stage, Bech is utterly captivating; his shows are pure theatre and it’s where he is at his brilliant best. Calling him a ‘singer’ or even ‘musician’ ignores the manifold aspects of his art. He is purely a performer and uses a combination of his talents to incredible effect. This simply cannot be recreated on record; but with ears only at your disposal, the focus moves. Instead of his facial expressions and expansive dance moves being the centre of attention, your attention shifts towards the lyrical content; the muscle around the skeleton of offbeat electro-pop.

This is utterly transfixing, too. Although the opening half of One Year has many moments of note – ‘After: Shame’ is a buoyant romp through the notion of fame and, aptly, on-stage persona – where it blossoms is in the 13-minute triumvirate of ‘That Girl’, ‘That Girl/Jealousy’ and ‘Jealousy’. A slow and sparse almost-spoken passage begins before giving way to a pulsating synth and peripheral, incidental adornments. “Tonight we’ll meet at last this girl you had a thing with / I’ll keep an open mind / A girl you had a thing with / A thing with”, he opens with. The words in ‘That Girl’ are deliberately delivered and carefully considered. It is as though Bech is projecting his deepest thoughts aloud, or even preparing an intimate letter. The prolonged silences are equally powerful in one of the album’s most emotionally raw sections.

The densely-textured and bass-heavy ‘Jealousy’ showcases vocal versatility as it freely soars and swoops wonderfully for nearly six minutes. Much of One Yearhas this air about it and it is difficult not to feel touched – at least a little – by this lack of restraint. Whether based on real-life, fiction or a combination of both, through his music you become intimate with the artist, if not the man himself.

There had been more than a few hints at what Bech is capable of before, but One Year is where he pulls it all together – consistently and over the course of an entire record. Yes, it can feel slightly affected but once you jump this small barrier it becomes almost impossible not to revel in the honesty, fun and brilliance that One Year has in abundance.

Review originally published on Drowned in Sound, December 2014.