After three years of experiencing non-Nordic winters, Stereogum made a triumphant return to the land of Olso cold and classic, icy, YouTube-able slip-and-falls last week as I made the transatlantic trek from Brooklyn to Norway for by:Larm 2013. Actually, in 2010, Scott and Brandon’s trip was marked by debilitating weather; last week, Oslo’s snow was scant and scenic in comparison, practically NYC-winter-style, which did nothing to stop a slab of sidewalk ice from putting me on my ass near the central square on my last night. (Indian shit.) In addition to the beauty of its people and attitudes towards art and culture, Oslo is, perhaps unexpectedly, central to Stereogum’s genetic evolution — it was on a trip here to cover Øyafestivalen in 2006 that I met and eventually wooed the great ’Gum contributor Mr. Stosuy and our great Progress Reporter T. Cole Rachel — so in a way, this was a pilgrimage to a spiritual home, a continental mirror rife with ascendant bands, marinated herring, and $20 beers. That Brother Cole was also on this trip was icing on the sidewalk of my ’Gummy heart. With a deep crew of American and Scandinavian friends new and old, I roamed the city by day, the music scene by night, and humbly offer these notes on my time with Nordic newcomers, black metal gods, and American lifechampions alike.
Like the American festivals SXSW and CMJ, by:Larm is essentially an industry showcase: local venues big and small aggregate in concert to present a slate of shows organized, promoted, and accredited by the central by:Larm governing body. Unlike its American counterparts, though, by:Larm is not a heavily branded experience; this festival is far more elegant than the extended combination-Doritos/energy drink commercial you’re accosted by in Austin. And in contrast to, say, Øya, by:Larm is completely Scandinavian in its purview, with a strong emphasis on emerging acts. Of course, commerce dictates there be some headline-worthy legacy artists — this year those came via sets from Neneh Cherry and Taken By Trees, and Q&As with lifechampions like Kim Gordon and Van Dyke Parks — but the clear intent of by:Larm’s forward-thinking booking is to launch newer bands into the festival’s strongly regional and increasingly global spotlight, such that these acts can wade into international waters and be emissaries for Scandinavian soft power. This also is the impetus for the Nordic Music Prize, a by:Larm instituted, pan-Scandinavian award in its third year, offering a mark of designation to the year’s best Nordic album as determined by an international jury and committee. (This year the prize went to First Aid Kit’s The Lion’s Roar, from a nominated field including Neneh Cherry, Lindström, Choir Of Young Believers, and Anna Von Hausswolf. More on Anna below.)
Over my week at by:Larm, two musically oriented things reoriented the very fabric of my being. From a performative standpoint, the undisputed champions were the black metal band God Seed, featuring iconic Gorgoroth vocalist Gaahl. Comparing anything to the awesome, ominous power of this band, whose swagger and theatricality floors neophytes and lifers alike, is a nonsensical pursuit; God Seed’s performance was masterful, the sort of stuff that transcends genre. For those interested, I Begin is their record from last year, and “ALT LIV” is a proper entry point. Its video is below:
Also worthwhile: Vice’s True Norwegian Black Metal documentary, prominently featuring Gaahl.
The other truly great musical experience of by:Larm 2013 was Van Dyke Parks’s Q&A with author/journalist Barney Hoskyns. A god seed sans corpse paint, Van Dyke is a heroic aesthete whose staggering contribution to the American musical landscape was, in this particular context, merely a prism via which he could shine an absolutely unparalleled charm, thoughtfulness, locution, and humor. Quite probably the most quotable man in music, Parks held court for an hour expounding, in aphorisms and poetic soliloquies, on everything from the nature of the music business to his work (and anecdotes) from time with everyone from Brian Wilson to Skrillex, Zappa to Nilsson. Throughout by:Larm there are industry panels, like any industry showcase worth its salt, and this year many dealt with streaming services — not whether they were desirable or the future, for that appears to be a largely forgone conclusion here, but rather which iteration or model to adopt. Given that prevailing thesis, this quote from Van Dyke’s by:Larm Q&A is particularly articulate and rousing:
When I started in the music business, it was second only to the drug trade in rapidity of renumeration; it was bigger than munitions, bigger than bombs. But the music business has become something entirely different, and something strange to me. It’s alarming to see how Spotify and other organisms of legal chicanery, and piracy itself, turns out that artists get paid fractional cents. Wherein 1910 we had an author named Mark Twain who saw to it that the composers would receive 5 cents of a 10-cent piece of music. The other half went to the publisher. So something happened to the creators that is life-threatening to the creative force. Somehow or another creators mange to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves in spite of these diminishing returns. Fortunately I’m no stranger to low returns, econimically. To me, the joy of music is just in doing it. So, my sympathy and heart goes out to the new generation, where I would like to migrate, and I have as an arranger. And my heart goes out to these young artists in this time of diminished returns in what is a vital creative effort, and that is: the political potency of the songform. And that’s what I’ve spent my life serving.
The only words to do justice to Van Dyke speaking is a transcript. So I’ll drop just two more quote here, the first one inspirational:
You’re never going to get anywhere if you commit yoursself out of fear or cowardice to the average, and to try to replicate someone else’s victory. The idea is to dare to fail, and learn from your failures, and by doing so, you reach great heights.
And the last, about Nilsson:
The smartest person I’ve ever met in the music racket is Harry Nilsson. He’s an enduring companion. When you want music to feel good and still have some depth, turn on Nilsson. He could tell you what day you were born if you gave him the date, like this. That took seven computations mathematically. He was a genius, the only genius I’ve met in the music business.
Van Dyke is everything. Consume all he’s done.
All of that said, here’s a drilldown in bits of consumable media of some newer acts that I thought you guys might like to check:
Swedish 23-year-old Anna Von Hausswolff was most promising, a less gothic Zola Jesus making wistful pop music from behind a big church organ through a voice triangulating Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks. “Mountains Crave” is an outright jam, which comes from the 2012 record Ceremony. Pay attention to this one. (Don’t worry, moving forward we’ll help you out.) Start here:
Also from Sweden, there was Elliphant, riding heaps of advance buzz on the back of the earworming, Furtado-reminiscent pop of “Down The Line” (and its sexy/fjord video). She still needs a little time to incubate, or at least to get up to speed with “Down The Line”’s superiority — the rest of the set was Spice Girls-rapping over Fat Boy Slim styled production, which didn’t hold much appeal — but there is something there, and it will be here in the States soon enough. “Down The Line” is definitely worth a few minutes of your eyes/ears:
Both MØ and Phantom continued the clear trend of women with pop-roots playing with electronic production — the former we’ve covered via her “Glass” video and the latter came with a Jamie XX co-sign — with both striking primarily as works in progress that were long in potential. They both have standout singles, Phantom via the sensual massive attack of “Scars” and MØ via the aforementioned “Glass,” which are here for you:
Copenhagen’s CTM played a dingy basement, which was an interesting venue for the ’80s studio-R&B-intoned music of Cæcilie Trier. Cæcilie was once a cellist for Choir Of Young Believers; now she’s referencing Sade’s world. “Jewel” is the single, and the video is here:
A real highlight came via Norwegian space-disco flexer Todd Terje, who turned out the classic Oslo club Blå with a set of expert knob-tweaking and cosmic hi-hat mastery. You should know Todd from his collaborations with Smalltown Supersound labelmate Lindstöm, or his big remixes for kings like Bryan Ferry, or his own EPs, like last year’s It’s The Arps. And if not, here’s a start:
Modular Records’ Young Dreams were very strong, with a core lineup of six that sometimes gets bigger, trading in Afro-beat and American indie rock with a psychedelic and occasionally orchestral edge; with the full band in place, their ebullience would become downright anthemic. It’s the sort of stuff States side inde audiences eat up, so there won’t be much lost in translation when it comes over (which it will, for SXSW). We’ve written about Young Dreams a good bit, we’ll write about them a good bit more. Here’s “Fog Of War,” for starters:
Finally, and awesomely: On my first night I caught Nils Bech in a small corner bar, standing under a scrim with a plant sticking out of it and a small string section with a laptop DJ at his back, gesticulating to his lyrics and singing operatically, making the sort of intimate, classically-intoned wine-bottle avant pop that you’d hear from the likes of Owen Pallett/Antony/Doveman/Nico Muhly set. Yes, that makes it immensely, self-consciously arty stuff, and if you ever enjoy anything in that vein, then you will thoroughly enjoy this. I do, and I did! Particularly with the song “A Sudden Sickness,” from the Look Inside EP, a tight collection of orchestral/electronic mood odes. The “Sickness” video’s below (Nils pops up around 2:55), and you can stream the EP on Spotify.
Shoutout writer/poet Sondre Sommerfelt for the tip on Nils, and most everything else good about Oslo, and heartfelt thanks to the festival and the city for an unforgettable trip. I learned a lot about the city, where best to “death sledge” and find statues of naked men stacked high into a meta-phallic spire, so if you need that info, shoutout in the comments. In the meantime, below, for those not yet exhausted on Nordic newcomers, here’s a catchall of some other acts I caught, or had recommended to me:
* The Prince-era pop of bassist/singer Maya Vik:
* Thea and The Wild, which has some Feist in its blood and features a keyboardist from 120 Days, who were the big thing in Norway my last time time through:
* Mariam The Believer, whom I heard had a great set: