When I reviewed (very favourably) Aurora’s debut album ‘All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend’ in March 2016 I made the observation “Judging from the reaction to Aurora Aksnes’ earlier EP, ‘Running with the Wolves’…, we’ve got a new Judy Garland on our hands.”
30 months later I have no reason to change my mind about her collective talents. But therein lies also a problem and I really should get it out in the open straight away.
Always regarded as first and foremost a child actress, singer and dancer, Garland profited from her youthful stature and looks, but she knew when to draw the line. I’m not convinced Aurora yet does. Now aged 22, she has an unnervingly persevering habit of addressing her (“Warriors”) audience condescendingly like a 13-year old Girl Guide leader might talk to new seven-year old Brownie recruits and in a voice not dissimilar to the one in which she sang ‘Half the World Away’, during the John Lewis Christmas advert three years ago. Or, like the BBC slowly – but – surely lectures its viewers in its documentaries.
Every one of her many fans worldwide knows that fundamentally she is a good egg, almost obsessed with ecology and the preservation of flora and fauna, and who literally would not hurt a fly. “I/We Love You” is never far from the audience’s lips and it is reciprocated. But just what her extended soliloquy on banana flies and whether or not she had harmed any that she found in a Chinese meal she had eaten was about, was beyond me.
Then there was the completely unexpected two-second excursion into politics; I won’t name the subject, I’m sure you’ll guess whom she spoke of. Even allowing for the fact that political considerations have entered her repertoire in her more recent writing (along with a more overtly pronounced view on same-sex love) you couldn’t help but feel that she did it because she felt she was somehow expected to, but it failed to raise more than a muted cheer and it was as incongruous to her act as if she’d suddenly stripped down to her bra and pants.
Courteously, I’d suggest that the time has come to put away such childish things and to treat her audience (many of whom were children but equally there were many mothers and fathers) with a little more adult respect. We don’t need Lady Gaga Mark 2.
And so, to the music, and a different story altogether. Aurora lines up with what is fast becoming the standard Norwegian team formation, of two synth players, one of whom is female and provides backing vocals (here, Celia), a guitarist (this one borrowed from what she charmingly referred to as “the warm-up act” Askjell, who also part-produced her second album), and a booming percussionist who hammers the kit all night like his life depends on it. Apart from her occasional ballads there is little subtlety. They make a hell of a racket at times, considerably more so than in previous shows, but they are very tight and her songs can reach EDM–level intensity when performed live, aided by appropriate lighting effects, something else the Norwegians excel at.
Aurora has been working on a new album for some time and its sudden release took many off their guard at the end of September. It includes two singles released earlier, ‘Queendom’ and ‘Forgotten Love’. Many of the 17 songs in the set were from the eight-track Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1) (‘Step 2’ will follow later) and this may have been the first time they were performed live.
Technically, many of the songs on the album are quite the equal of the first one and some of them, notably ‘All Is Soft Inside’ and ‘Soft Universe’ verge, live, on the anthemic, with powerful synth arrangements and Aurora’s crazed dancing turning her into a blur. When stationary, which isn’t often, she cuts a strange figure, her long slender arms twisting and writhing in the spots and strobes suggesting she could audition successfully for the role of one of the senior aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But for all the quality of the new songs – and they were well-received, especially ‘Queendom’ – Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1) is still a very new piece of work; so new in fact that many may not yet have heard it. Accordingly, a more detailed introduction to the songs might have been useful.
No introduction was needed though to the first album favourites the crowd expected and which were served up gratefully, notably ‘Runaway’ and ‘Running With The Wolves’.
If there was a highlight for me personally it was ‘Murder Song’ with its devastating whispered final lines (“The gun is gone/ And so am I/And here I go”), although in this version, with Askjell’s guitarist and Celia on backing vocals, it did not quite match the a cappella versions she has previously delivered in the city, at the Deaf Institute and The Ritz. The latter was one of the finest live performances I’ve ever witnessed.
Surprisingly some older favourites did not make the cut however, including, astonishingly, ‘Conqueror’. Perhaps, had her voice held out it might have closed the set, as it used to do.
She actually did close with the title track from the new album, a piano ballad which she has described as “the most important song I’ve ever written”. Unfortunately, by now her voice had gone and by the time she tried to reach the latter high notes with “this is the breath…,” she simply couldn’t and literally croaked the words out.
There must have been many who, seeing her sit at a piano, thought we might be about to hear her astounding version of ‘Life On Mars’ but this was a fair exchange. ‘Infections of a Different Kind’ is quite beautiful and a distinct step up in quality even from her work on ‘All My Demons…’ It is perhaps the best example of her new material that suggests Aurora’s massive potential has moved much closer to realisation.
While there are many accomplished female artists there, Aurora and Sigrid have been warriors of their own of late, battling for the crown of the Queen of Norwegian alt-pop. It is perhaps unfair to compare them. They are after all different artists completely. But having seen both of them on stage within the last month I will make just one observation; that while Sigrid might find it difficult to perform some of Aurora’s songs, Aurora would not struggle to stage hers. Make of that what you will.
(Aurora’s UK tour comprised only two dates – Manchester and London – and she has now moved into mainland Europe.)