Tipped in GIITTV as a band to watch out for in 2019, Pom Poko’s debut album ‘Birthday’ was released on 22nd February. While a number of singles have been released previously, some of them finding their way onto the album, the Norwegian quartet has been making a name for itself as a dynamically live band, which creates a conundrum – can such an animated outfit hold your attention with that visual prop removed?
All four of them – and with names like Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit, Ola Djupvik, Jonas Krøvel and Martin Miguel Tonne they are clearly multinational – were trained at the Trondheim Conservatory, which has a notable jazz tradition and which is actually a branch of the Science and Technology University, so a novel and challenging approach to making music is only to be expected. As has been the case with other bands to have emerged from that exalted institution, such as Highasakite.
To top it all their influences range over indie-pop, hard rock, punk, West African music and the convoluted lyrics of the likes of compatriot Jenny Hval, not to mention the jazz obsession the entire nation seems to have, while visual stimulators include Japanese animation visionaries Studio Ghibli, creators of the Pom Poko film. There are many ingredients in the pot but the dish served up has a unique flavour. There is absolutely nothing derivative about Pom Poko.
But again, I make that statement having been one of few Briton’s fortunate enough to have seen them play live so far and my concern has always been whether their effervescence could transfer to disc or indeed if it would boil over.
Their angular sound is evident from the opening bars of ‘Theme 1’ in which Ola’s drums count in a Laurie Anderson-like voiceover from Ragnhild. It takes them all of 45 seconds to mention their favourite animal, the raccoon, for the first time (the ‘badass’ creatures from the Pom Poko film) and then at 50 seconds Tonne’s math-rock guitar takes centre stage and we’re away (think Robert Fripp, tripping) before the same guitar plays out the track like a set of bagpipes. Without doubt a show-opener, I can see the audience pogo-ing along with Ragnhild already.
You might have heard ‘My Blood’ already; it’s had extensive 6Music airplay from Steve Lamacq and Marc Riley. It demonstrates immediately that amongst the mayhem they are quite capable of summoning up a tasty tune, there are a couple of delightful key changes; and two vocal bridges where Ragnhild shows off her delicate side. The track also proves what an important contribution Jonas Krøvel’s subtle but driving bass makes.
Fuzzed guitar and cowbell underscoring an odd time signature welcome you to ‘Follow the Lights’. It is heavier and slower but raucous, complex and unpredictable, and perfectly cast for the live improvisation they are more than capable of applying. It changes direction unexpectedly mid-way through into a lighter, thrusting and sweetly melodic pop tune before transiting into another party trick, a guitar effect that sounds like one of the organs that plays in a fairground Merry-Go-Round. Remarkable.
‘My Work Is Full of Art’ starts off like a rock opera before it settles into what is for Pom Poko a fairly predictable and repetitive piece in which Ragnhild stresses her freaky credentials. Its hidden complexities require a few hearings to wash over you.
‘Blue’ demonstrates Pom Poko can write and play soft pop, it’s almost shoegaze by their standards but again the arrangements are beyond the call of duty and with a distinct African influence, especially in the intro, and a St Vincent-style fuzzy guitar break.
‘Honey’ slows down the tempo even more, almost to the status of a lament and Ragnhild’s voice moves up an octave or two as she bemoans her loveless life. My first thought was that Pom Poko had written it to show definitively that they are not one-dimensional but listening to it several times it does have a standalone quality, irrespective of their traditional style. Similarly, I couldn’t imagine them performing it live but on reflection it would be a perfect rest and recuperation break before a final onslaught at a gig.
That shock and awe onslaught might well kick off with ‘Crazy Energy Night’, the last single to be released prior to the album. It’s another aptly named song and another manic, wacky, furious, angular effort with Martin Miguel Tonne’s guitar driving both the main tune and (especially) the bridge well in excess of the speed limit. And that cowbell is back though I don’t believe it was designed to be relentlessly thrashed the way Ola Djupvik does it.
‘Birthday’ unfortunately suffers from title track syndrome. You expect so much from them but sometimes they don’t quite deliver. While it has its saving graces, such as a gentle, tuneful guitar break which turns into a contrasting verse and the dramatic change of tone when Ragnhild declares “I’m not your bitch” it suffers from anthemic repetition and the final section just seems to be unstructured guitar filler.
The rhythmically complex ‘Milk Trust’, which opens with a guitar passage that could be straight out of Bert Weedon’s ‘Play Guitar in a Day’ is an excursion through several musical styles, and which brought to mind, of all things, a modern prog band, Arc Iris. In fact Ragnhild’s vocals sit very closely with those of Jocie Adams here. A complete and entirely unexpected surprise and a personal highlight of the whole album.
Mention ‘Daytripper’ and you immediately think of The Beatles and indeed the Fab Four’s main riff is referenced throughout. That’s the only similarity as this pop-punk rollercoaster rattles through its two and a half minutes in the style of compatriots Sløtface before Martin Tonne manages to drag up yet another weird guitar effect, this one of a vibraphone by the sound of it, then he closes out with a heavy rock solo flourish. Breathtaking.
‘If U want me 2 stay’ is easily the most experimental track on the album, right from the off. It tries hard to redefine both ‘industrial’ and ‘wall of sound’ to very simple lyrics. Just about every pedal and reverb device known to man must be in use at one time or another. While it starts up like a jam it does pick up some structure in the final two minutes. It isn’t an easy listen but I imagine it will be spectacular live and I’m confident it will end their set.
Final track ‘Peachy’ starts off ominously, like it might signal a follow up to ‘Chucky’, then strangely morphs into the closest to a mainstream pop song on the album, with a central guitar riff pretty similar to Brooke Bentham’s ‘Heavy and Ephemeral.’ Accordingly, it has the catchiest hook of the album and might as well come from a different galaxy to ‘If U want me 2 stay’.
And that sums up the album nicely. It is agreeably balanced and there’s more variety on here than I could have hoped for, and little sign that they are earmarked to be regarded only as a live band. You can sit and listen to his album, on repeat, though you might want to take a break once in a while because some of the tracks can become overwhelming.
Because Pom Poko is so distinctive it isn’t easy to bring any comparisons, which is why I purposefully mentioned Sløtface earlier, the previous uncontained full-on indie wonders from Norway. Their debut album was nigh on perfect and in contrast Pom Poko’s falls marginally short. Perhaps one or two of the earlier singles might have been included in lieu of the (for me) weaker tracks that I highlighted but that’s the sum of the negativity I can bring to bear.
I find it strange they have only 3000 likes on Facebook. With this album and a tour starting shortly there will surely be at least one extra 0 added to that before too long.
Birthday is out now on Bella Union.
Sat 6 Apr – Whelan’s (Upstairs), Dublin IE
Mon 8 Apr – Hug & Pint, Glasgow UK
Tue 9 Apr – Castle Hotel, Manchester UK **SOLD OUT**
Wed 10 Apr – Lexington, London UK
Mon 14 Oct – Phase One, Liverpool UK
Tue 15 Oct – Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds UK
Thu 17 Oct – The Deaf Institute, Manchester UK
Tue 22 Oct – The Joiners, Southampton UK
Thu 24 Oct – The Hope & Ruin, Brighton UK
Fri 25 Oct – Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff UK