I am in a park in Oslo.
It’s about minus 25 and it’s so cold I can’t talk anymore. My mouth is frozen and my skin has turned into icicle-strewn leather and my eyes have that sort of icy glint in them that only Captain Scott could recognise. The park itself is full of sculptures of bizarre looking babies and weird death scenes made out of concrete.
It’s like Geigerworld.
At its centre is a giant penis looking pillar made up of concrete corpses. It looks like a horror film set but its not- it’s a public park. This gives you an idea of what we are dealing with here in this city.
Oslo is an interesting place. Its oil rich and squeaky clean, modern. Cold and dark in the winter combined with all that time and money means there is plenty for idle hands to be getting on with. Just below the surface there is something mighty strange going on.
Later that evening there is a band called Wardruna on stage playing ancient Nordic folk music bringing back the spirit of the Norseman with mainly old and historical instruments such as deer-hide frame drums and ceremonial drums, mouth harp, clove / hoof rattles from deer and goat, bone flute, goat and cow horns, Hardanger fiddle and bowed lyres. Their debut album concerns the ancient Nordic script of Runes and when they record they use more unconventional inputs like trees, stones, water, fire which are also employed to enhance the nature of the rune being ‘portrayed’.
This is clearly not boy/girl indie music and it does lead to some dark areas with certain members of the band having made some uncomfortable opinions known to the press in the past- perhaps in an attempt to shock and awe or perhaps in a moment of youthful stupidity- views that they may have now grown out of. Meanwhile the music is powerful, affecting and strange- a very dark folk music.
One of them used to be in Gorgoroth– the most punk hardcore of the Norwegain black metal bands but the music he makes now is ostensibly at the opposite end of this spectrum but its intensity and melancholy is as powerful and affecting. Wardruna are one of the most fascinating bands that I have heard for along time. They are like a Scandinavian version of Laibach- they have the same dark smarts and originality, the same sort of interest in European folk musics and a pre Christian heritage lost in the mists of time and create the same sort of intense internet debate about their politics.
They also like to record their albums in the outdoors and sound like no other band on the planet.
The gig is one of an endless glut of live music action over the weekend. I’m here for By:Larm music conference and it’s the best music conferences I’ve ever been to. Like every music conference in the world nowadays it has the wristband that gets you into endless gigs but unlike all other music conferences these gigs are actually worth going to- stuffed full of original bands with hardly any plodding indie adherence to the ’classics’.
Where else can you listen to the free jazz black metal skronk of the Shining or the charmed avante electronics of Kira Kira within ten minutes of eachother?
Instead of the tedious indie nightshift we get a band like the Shining who are just another in a long list of cutting edge Scandinavian music that all of a sudden make the current UK crop look, well, a bit traditional.
The Shining fuse the fury of the darkest thrash metal with a dirty honking sax like Coltrane gone hardcore. The room is packed stupidly full and unlike in the UK when the A and R brigade are looking for some cutesy indie ‘crossover’ here every one is in a lather over the most extreme band to appear at the whole festival.
And this is genius. The Shining sound filthy and furious. They have a raging noise hard-on. A life affirming brutal brawl of sound that makes you want to explode. They cover King Crimsons ‘20th century Schizoid Man’ and make it sound like the darkest, thrashiest anthem of all time and with that sax honking like the primetime Stooges when they toyed with free jazz then they sound genius. Their mainman came from a jazz background and the next night he is cranking away with his jazz crew, Chrome Hill, with a brilliant free jazz set that is mind-blowing- creating smoking atmospherics and proving that jazz is not a dead form.
Just how much talent can this freezing cold corner of Europe have!
Everywhere you look there is the dark art of metal underpinning everything. And not the old school gonzoid metal that makes a mockery of the term.
Altaar crush the black metal with thrash and ambient, Phillip Glass and John Cage and even have bits of classical in their sound and somehow sound both brutal and beautiful. It’s the light and shade in their music that is crucial and it’s the stripped down sections that actually hook you in the most- although when they get brutal they really do rock with a concrete intensity that is addictive.
Manhattan Skyline are fast and furious prog hardcore with a thrilling focus. They are almost in the tradition of the amazing local crew- the late and influential Refused- they take the stage in a blur of high-octane energy and demolish it.
There is also the straight edge thunder of Anchor, the polished fifties swing of Katzenjammer, the fantastically named Children and Corpse Playing In The Streets, the skuzzy punk rock n roll of the Cumshots who are huge here because of their frontman’s antics on national TV, the Crampsy shockabilly of Death By Unga Bunga, the marvelous merging of fantastic dubstep beats with Turkish and Egyptian street music of Easy & Toshybot and the post My Bloody valentine noise trip of Sereena Madeesh?
Icelandic duo, Kira Kira, are just a laptop and a trumpet and create soundscapes that are like lo fi collaged fragments of their bohemian world as the fragments coalesce and the booming rhythms kick in it sounds oddly hypnotic. Again deeply original, they are the kind of band you could never see at a UK music convention and this has got to change.
And these are just the bands I saw, I know I missed loads of good stuff. Do yourself a favour go to the By:Larm website and catch up! Also check all these bands myspaces out- go to google and have a good old dredge- there is some genius stuff there to be found!
I was at By:Larm to do some live onstage interviews with Geoff Travis- head of Rough Trade records who speaks an eloquent sense and proves that instinct is the pre requisite to running a record label and the garrulous ‘fearless’ Feargal Sharkey who is running so many initiatives at the moment that he could be saving the musicians in the UK from a lot of grief. As well as that I chaired a panel on bloggers v music journalists that was made all the better by having a really well thought out balance of panellists from Hype Machine, the best music website in the UK- the Quietus, Stereogum and freelancers Olaf Furniss and Tim Barr on it representing all shades of opinion on the matter.
And to cap it all I meet one of four Norwegian crazies that I hung out with in Manchester 23 years ago. I met them after a Big Black gig at Manchester Boardwalk when they had nowhere to stay so we gave them floor space at Membrane mansions.
On the way home we passed the Conservative club and I carved a swastika into the sign on the club’s door with a knife. Unfortunately we got caught by the cops who for some reason thought that we were felt tipping the symbol so went back to police station and got soap and water and made us clean it off- it didn’t clean off of course and the cops lost interest and the swastika was there for years- the club probably liked it!
I hadn’t sent the Norwegian dude for years. It turns out he formed Turbo Negro a few months after our meeting- small world!