Welcome to Nordic Music Scene, which is dedicated to reviews and news of artists from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and their associated territories, focusing on indie artists and labels.
This month, when all five Nordic countries are represented, a rare new album from Iceland’s synth-popmasters, some ‘belting’ symphonic metal, a shy Swedish artist who’s conjured up a 30-minute concept piece on her debut album, a body-image lament from a brave young campaigner, and a fabulous vocal performance and video from Finland. There are links to several live reviews of shows and a festival, and a ‘Top 20 albums since 2010’ feature with 11 Nordic artists/bands in it.
We had 70 submissions for inclusion this month, the most ever, so apologies to those artists we couldn’t find space for.
In this edition: The Dark Element, Resmiranda, SoLBLoMMa, Sykur, Of Monsters and Men, Pablo Matisse, Aurora, Sløtface, Tuvaband, Selkama, Iceland Airwaves, Sofia Härdig, Subshine, GLOWIE, Detalji, I SEE RIVERS, Jaguar Moon, STINAKO, Nύmer Nύll, When ‘Airy met Fairy, Fay Wildhagen, Ellen Krauss, The Beautiful Swedes.
Sections: New Singles/Singles from previously featured artists/EPs/Albums/Live/Festivals/News
Singles, EPs and albums are rated out of 10.
No sound-bites, no airy-fairy language, no English Literature dissertations, No B-S. Just honest opinion.
(Sweden) Pablo Matisse – I will follow you into the dark (Death Cab for Cutie cover)
I’ll be honest, I was dreading reviewing a ‘hardcore/punk’ version of Death Cab for Cutie’s seminal “we’re all going to die” track. Death Cab’s version has brought comfort to countless people facing up to losing a lover, relative or friend but what could a punk version add and what was it likely to take away?
The answer is nothing in both cases. While it isn’t an improvement it doesn’t do the original any disservice either. In fact it might be argued that it removes an ever-so-slight cloying aspect to the original and I imagine some might choose what is more of a tub-thumping statement of life, which comes in with both barrels blazing and ends up much the same, over Death Cab’s for their funeral song.
This is the first single from Pablo Matisse’s EP ‘Human Warmth’ which was released on 15th November via the Swedish indie label Startracks.
(Sweden) Selkama – All my friends are growing up
Nicolas & Kim Flemström took the name Selkama, to honour their Finnish mother, for whom it is her maiden name. After writing songs for a year in their hometown of Stockholm they traded city life for countryside, as they went to a studio on a farm close to Trollhättan during winter 2018.
After two weeks of intense recording, an album was made, Nicolas doing the song writing with Kim’s harmonies and sense of melody. The songs are about loneliness, selfishness, friendship and love.
The title track and first single ‘All My Friends Are Growing Up’ was released on November 6th 2019. The album will be out in early 2020.
This is an interesting one, a dark track about loneliness and the longing for love and about daring to feel hopeful. The schmaltzy opening in which the singer can’t sleep is rudely ended by “some shrink suggested pills but that simply scares the shit out of me” and he decides to hotfoot it out of town on the first available flight. As the tempo increases it becomes what could be the soundtrack to Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and the band becomes a cross between country and western and Peter Bjorn and John. The lyrics are smart and the melody powerful. If this is representative of the album it’s going to make mum very happy.
(Norway) Subshine (Ole Gunnar Gundersen) – Easy
Not a new song but as there‘s no more room for an album review, which is what is being promoted, here is Subshine with his first single from that album, ‘Easy Window’ and it’s called simply ‘Easy’.
With a name like Ole Gunnar he’ll surely be popular in half of Manchester at least. He was previously front man of Lorraine, (now known as Blackroom), initially a band of Bergen school dropouts who developed quite a following in the noughties, gaining several European top ten singles, and touring internationally with artists such as Mew and the Pet Shop Boys. His debut album as Subshine is out now.
I don’t suppose peppering your lyrics with ‘a ha’ will do you much harm if you’re Norwegian but more to the point and although the album is being billed as 1980s-era synth I hear as much of those flowing guitar anthems of the 1960s out of the U.S. courtesy of the likes of Jefferson Airplane, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead at their most melodic. He’s certainly found a choon.
And for that I’m happy to give this an eight.
(Iceland) GLOWIE – Unlovable
I don’t think Linda Perry and Christina Aguilera really knew what they’d started when they respectively penned and performed ‘Beautiful’. There have been many songs since that have taken on the idea that everyone has to look like Tom Cruise (am I dating myself there?) or Bella Hadid and which have tackled the subject of childhood bullying, especially that part of it which is driven by body image.
The latest in a long line is GLOWIE (Sara Pétursdóttir), who was raised in Reykjavik, embracing the solitude of her homeland but growing up with uncertainty about herself and how she looked. Taking a musical education from her siblings she recorded her debut single ‘Body’ in October 2018, followed by ‘Cruel’. No prizes for guessing what they are about.
‘Unlovable’ takes over where the previous ones, and especially ‘Body’, left off and you have to wonder how long an artist can keep writing about the same subjects. Both the song and video are pleasant enough though, without ever challenging ‘Beautiful’, but then, what could?
For the video GLOWIE employed numerous dancers handpicked for their “inspiring body confidence and captivating moves.” To be honest, if I hadn’t read that before watching it I wouldn’t have noticed that they were ‘out of the ordinary’ in any way so the proof of GLOWIE’s philosophy is in the pudding as they say. The imagery of swimming pools and deep ends has perhaps been a little overused in the last few years but it doesn’t unduly detract from the song.
According to Vogue, she is “poised to be Scandinavia’s next big music export”. Apart from the fact that Iceland isn’t in Scandinavia I think we need to hear more material from her first (she does have an eight track EP out, ‘Where I belong’). But what she’s released so far is a good solid start.
Having supported the likes of Ed Sheeran and Marina (Diamandis) she is currently touring with Banks.
(Finland) Detalji – Forever
It’s an odd state of affairs when you write a song because you’re paranoid that your partner, who is on a business trip, is going to leave you for someone else. But that’s the background to ‘Forever’ in which Finnish artist Detalji (Krista Myllyviita – Detalji describes her electronic project) “steps out of her comfort zone of party anthems”. She says, “It’s about how loving someone is cruel and wonderful at the same time.”
Typically, Myllyviita, who lives in a studio apartment in a “gloomy” suburb of Helsinki called Itä-Pasila does everything herself, using her computer, a few synthesisers, the production suite Ableton Live and a microphone.
Detalji has her sights set on an international audience and has played a short run of European shows in support of the release including Iceland Airwaves and her debut UK date at London’s Bloc on 21st November.
Rather than step away from them, ‘Forever’ really is a party anthem, with a non-stop synth/drum riff and in the construction of the song and in her vocal tendency to change her pitch midway through a line she reminds me of the UK’s Rookes.
It isn’t really a song that conveys excessive concerns about losing a partner though.
(Denmark) Jaguar Moon – Bird Song
Jaguar Moon are a new project from Denmark’s Bjarke Bendtsen and this latest single ‘Bird Song’ is taken from the alternative pop group’s debut EP, which was released on 29th November.
The new track is about “setting free the ones you love.” I’m not quite sure what that means but I doubt it refers to holding them prisoner. He says, “It might be the hardest thing in this world to do. When you take a step back from the relationship and view it subjectively (objectively?), you’re amazed what a hideous creature you’ve created – warping your perception of reality.”
Again, does that ‘hideous creature’ mean the ‘loved one’, or you?
These mysteries attracted me to the song, and with its languid acoustic guitar and whistled sections it does generate an aura of the lingering sadness that usually accompanies such partings.
(Iceland) Nύmer Nύll – Saejónara
A little bit of experimental Icelandic music here from Nύmer Nύll (Numbers Zero), which featured on the fringe of Iceland Airwaves this year.
The album is called ‘Skítugur Sjór´(Dirty Sea), and the track Sæjónara, which has no direct translation into English. It’s typical of the big underground scene in Iceland right now with many artists touring Europe courtesy of crowdfunding, and other album tracks are more industrial and experimental than this. I doubt you will read about this anywhere else outside of Iceland, so enjoy.
Gestur Gudnarson is a guitar and yoga teacher living in Reykjavík with a BA in composition. He is also the manager, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist of Númer Núll, also Atónal Blús and Fatherz ‘n’ Sonz. Gestur’s guitar skills are more than evident on this track and the vocals even had me thinking of a male Björk.
(Norway) Fay Wildhagen – Different
I caught Fay Wildhagen at the Øya Festival earlier this year. She first emerged in 2015 with her debut album ‘Snow’, which earned her a nomination for the ‘Newcomer of the Year’ Spellmannprisen, (Norwegian Grammy Awards). Last year she released her second album ‘Borders’, which references her struggle with arthritis, and which also was nominated for two Norwegian Grammys, as ‘Best Indie Artist’ and ‘Best Producer.’ She is currently working on a third album.
I thought I recalled her being more of a hard rocker than she is here; perhaps it was just a full band making a lot of noise that misled me though she can shred her battered Telecaster. In this song she celebrates ‘difference’ and I suppose in its way it has similarities to GLOWIE’s song, above. She has a way with words with this sort of material, warm and fuzzy and released just at the right time for maximum impact.
I’m not sure about the vocal effects which crop up during the song, from a vocoder perhaps, I don’t think it’s needed but fortunately it doesn’t detract greatly from the song.
Singles from previously featured artists
(Sweden) SoLBLoMMa – Magic Rocket Man
Quirky Swedish songwriter SoLBLoMMa’s last two efforts have been in her native language but she returns now with ‘Magic Rocket Man’ in which she pays no homage whatsoever to Sir Elton John. In her previous English language single she told of her endless wait for someone to rescue her from a terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport (she’s still waiting as far as I know). Prior to that, in ‘She said nothing’’, she was struck dumb by the sudden ending of a relationship.
This time, the tempo moves upbeat and, if I can say so, it’s a little more mainstream and with far greater electronic embellishment and production than previously.
The constant in the equation is her unique voice (although I did once discover a Robyn track which sounds like her, believe or not). You either love it or hate it, there’s no middle ground. It’s an acquired taste but I’m in the former category. And this time she’s found a killer hook.
For the first time since I first wrote about SoLBLoMMa three years ago I can say with hand on heart that the quirkiness, while I miss it, has been subjugated sufficiently for this song to chart seriously, and not only in Sweden.
She continues to move in another direction from most of her peers and that originality is deserving of success.
(Norway) Tuvaband – Ambiguous Flies
A quick return for the Norwegian-born, Berlin-based artist, Tuva Hellum Marschhäuser, aka Tuvaband, who was in NMS #18 with the title track from her new album. ‘Ambiguous Flies’ is the third and final track to be taken from ‘I Entered the Void’ which was released on 27th November (Brilliance Records).
‘Ambiguous Flies’ explores what Tuva describes as “the line between passion and insanity”, and is the album track most indicative of her plan to capture the heavier live sound of Tuvaband on the new record and which is mirrored in the intensity of the track.
She says, “I wanted a more distorted sound…(and)…to sound like a punk/rock band”. I thought that ‘I Entered the Void’ was distorted enough in the vocal and this one carries on in the same vein, aided by guitars which sound like buzzing flies in the opening sections. There’s a grungy 1990s feel to it courtesy of those guitars, rather than anything I would class as punk.
And there’s a weird Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti Western feel to it too, early doors, just as there was with the previous song and it’s even more evident here, when the guitars are more to the fore than synths. Some instrumental parts of it could be out-takes from ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’.
There’s something about that distorted vocal that keeps nagging at me though. It gets your attention for sure but could become distracting if she uses it on every song. It will be interesting to see how she does it in concert.
Tuvaband is in the UK in February but so far at least only in London (The Lexington, 5th February).
(Sweden) Sofia Härdig – Radiant Star
Sofia Härdig has become a regular feature in NMS lately and this is the second single from her recently released album, THE BIG HUSH, one that was recorded in just three days in her home city of Malmö, having been “made during many endless nights, on my own and in my studio, and also with the band on some more hectic days.”
The ‘rocktronica queen of experimental music’ as she is known in Sweden generates power effortlessly, both instrumentally and vocally, and in a manner few of her peers are capable of. To compare her to anyone you have to be looking back decades to the likes of Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Patti Smith in their heyday. But then she has quite a history of her own, having been playing in bands since the age of nine and giving a solo performance in New York’s iconic CBGB’s club.
Her own star is radiant right now and she doesn’t disappoint here. Roll on some live shows in the UK.
(Norway) I SEE RIVERS – We don’t get more time
‘We Don’t Get More Time’ is the third single from I SEE RIVERS’ debut album which is due for an independent release in 2020 with support from Performing Rights Society funds, media, and the membership platform Kickstarter.
I was wary about reviewing this track after reading that it is a comment on “the global warming crisis”. I anticipate a growing bandwagon on this subject just as there was with #MeToo a couple of years ago and especially so since Coldplay announced they wouldn’t tour their new album for “fear of its effect on the environment”. Take the ‘Live’ out of Live Music and the body corporate is dead. Where are the songs that put forward an alternative thesis, I thought that was contemporary music was about? For example that many people are getting very rich out of ‘environmentalism.’ Aren’t they, Al?
But setting all that aside, with both the previous single and this one these three Norwegian ladies seem to be drifting away from their original concept of highly harmonic ‘float pop’ towards more serious social observation with music to match. This one features ominous drumming and synths, alarm bells, and a ticking clock and as if to emphasise that “We don’t get more time” it is just two minutes 36 seconds long. Had I not known it was I SEE RIVERS I would not have suspected it.
A well put together song as usual though I think I still prefer the float pop.
Eurosonic – 15th January
Blest, Førde – 17th – 18th January
Independent Venue Week: The Half Moon, Putney, London – 28th January
SALT, Oslo – 29th January
Trondheim Calling, 30th January – 1st February
(Finland) STINAKO – Kuu nousee tänäkin yönä (The Moon is rising tonight)
‘Kuu nousee tänäkin yönä’ is taken from STINAKO (Stina Koistinen’s) just released ‘Ikuisuus’ album and she says, “The video is a magical moment, a live painting and a coven.”
She adds, “This song was born under a state of exaltation, and I can’t get enough of it. I’m a preacher just for this tiny moment, and this is my favourite song. ‘Kuu nousee tänäkin yönä’ is a sermon on universal confusion. The moon rises tonight – the wonders that are here despite what we do”
Well, I can’t get enough of Stina Koistinen’s voice but this is a strange one to take on board at first hearing.
The video was directed by Anna Brotkin who says. “We had an intimate day shooting the video with a small crew. We wanted to create a moving portrait of Stina and capture the mood of this haunting, beautiful song. The sticks and flowers slowly floating around Stina was a magical sight on set, and I hope we captured it on camera as well.”
It reminded me of some of the effects in the film ‘Melancholia’.
The vocal highlights come between 3:00 and 4:45 when she reaches a level that few of her peers can match.
(Iceland/Luxembourg) When ‘Airy met Fairy – Blanket of Sorrow
You have to go back to NMS#5 for the last appearance of When ‘Airy met Fairy (Luxembourger Mike Koster and Iceland’s Thorunn Egilsdottir) and that was a pretty positive album review.
They’ve been absent ever since but return with a new album due next spring but before that, a Christmas song – ‘Blanket of Sorrow’.
When I reviewed the album I mentioned that Thorunn has said that she finds the music business to be “lavish and over-produced.” Accordingly, she tries to “take a step back and reduce it to nothing” – minimalist but subtle, with layers as if they’re baking a cake.
In the video which goes with this song she’s cooking Christmas Dinner rather than a cake and in a decidedly 1970’s-style apartment. The theme of the song is that Christmas is about spending time with family and loved ones. But, it can make someone’s absence only more apparent. Presumably the people who appear in the video aren’t actually there except in her imagination, prompting Thorunn to rummage about in presents, seeking solace in materialism.
She says, “I felt like this last Christmas when I was celebrating with my family in Reykjavik. I sat down at the piano. It was in a dark room, illuminated by the glowing snow outside. There was no sound in my brother’s house as everybody had gone outside for a walk. And there it was; Blanket of Sorrow. The melody, the lyrics, as if they had always existed.”
A nice, simple song. Glad they’re back.
(Sweden) The Beautiful Swedes – Dark Materia
The retro-pop duo returns with another catchy number. With a title like ‘Dark Materia’ I thought they’d gone all metal as it is also the title of a song from a band of that genre and it starts off with a symphonic metal orchestral feel to it. It’s also a Star Trek appreciation band name.
But soon the acoustic guitars strum in and we’re back on familiar territory. I’m not quite sure what the song is all about but it revolves around the earth, its place in the universe, and macro/micro physics, positing that in fact we are our own universe though we fail to appreciate it:
“What about the mysteries on earth/Have you seen the creatures in the sea/When everything you are is in a cloud?”
The ‘cloud’ here I assume to have a double meaning – the ‘Cloud Gate’ (aka the Chicago Bean, Anish Kapoor’s famous sculpture which is featured in the lyrics), and also the I.T. ‘cloud.’
Whether I’ve got that right or wrong it demonstrates that they can write songs that demand you think about them while ensuring they are chock full of melody.
It’s every bit as retro as their previous single, ‘Leave on a Sunday’ but with more gravitas. Last time I said they reminded me of The Monkees and Herman’s Hermits. This time it’s Zager & Evans. In fact I reckon they should cover ‘In the Year 2525’.
(Sweden) Ellen Krauss – First Take (sample track – The Wedding)
Ellen Krauss released her debut EP First Take on 22nd November, a five-tracker which includes the songs ‘On the Bus’ and ‘Criminal to Love’ which have previously appeared in NMS.
I decided to feature ‘The Wedding’ as it has an interesting story behind it. It seems that she was asked to perform at a friends’ mother’s wedding and wrote a song for it. The bride and groom sat in her living room as she played it. They held hands and both burst into tears as they told her that they were going to postpone the wedding. Later she discovered the man had cheated on the bride… however, they did get married a year later.
I wasn’t enamoured with the strange ‘On the Bus’ while ‘Criminal to Love’ was excellent. This one falls somewhere between the two. Written as it was for a specific purpose it’s a little schmaltzy but her voice again is terrific.
I’ll bet I know at which point the lovers dissolved into tears. It’s the first two lines of the chorus:
“With this ring on my finger I’ll show the world you’re mine/ Cards on the table, we’ve got nothing to hide”.
7/10 (for track and EP)
(Sweden) Resmiranda – For the trees
Well, you can’t be more overt than that. This album is technically an EP with only five tracks, but one of them, ‘The Calling’, is a concept piece over 33 minutes long. It is the one-woman environmental movement Åsa Larsson/Resmiranda’s second recording, and the first in English, and is literally for the trees, which is, I assume, why it is only available electronically. No plastic or cardboard, thank you. (Resmiranda, by the way, is a character from Swedish folklore).
Åsa Larsson, who puts Greta Thunberg firmly in the shade as a do-er rather than a talker, has gained quite a reputation over the last few years for her environmental concern and efforts, becoming a leading light in the Tree Sisters movement and the Women’s Virtual Choir which she founded, and teaming up with British environmentalist and poet Claire Dubois to pen some of her songs.
This EP shouldn’t really exist. It seems she lost all the recordings to a technical glitch a few months ago but the day was fortunately saved by a tech expert, Tony Senghore, who was able to retrieve most of the material.
Åsa has become quite famous this year, partly for a video of her engaging in the ancient Swedish singing art of ‘kulning’ on a lake to a group of swans, which has over one million hits on YouTube and even more bizarrely out of a TV talent show appearance in which she did the same kulning along with a singing dog.
Which makes her sound like a novelty act but she assuredly isn’t; she’s a skilful musician and writer. She also has a genuinely nice personality, as these extracts from her Facebook page demonstrate:
“For more than two years now, I have been working on my album. I can’t count all the times I have given up on this project. The biggest challenge has been to make peace with my inner critic. But during this long period of time, after every setback, I have heard a whispering voice from inside, saying what has become my mantra: Do it anyway. When my mind has told me it’s an impossible mission, my heart has answered: Do it anyway. When I have felt overwhelmed by negative thoughts, convinced I’m not good enough, my voice doesn’t sound good enough, I don’t have enough knowledge, the answer has been: Do it anyway. When my mind has said, I have three children, a job and no time or energy. My heart has whispered: Do it anyway. And I did. And when I have cried: I really need to rest but if I don’t do this now, it will never be done. My heart has whispered: Rest anyway. And I did”.
There is a great deal of variety in the album. ’Reach for me’ is a light, tuneful piano pop song but bridged by an intriguing flute piece that could be Ian Anderson, or Peter Gabriel on ‘Foxtrot’ or ‘Nursery Cryme’.
‘The Universe’ is a vehicle for an accordion, one of her favoured instruments, to dominate, in fact it almost goes off into a solo at one stage.
Then in ‘Lilith’s Roar’, a song I saw her perform three years ago though it’s had a makeover since then, she shifts away from environmental matters for a moment to social commentary, with a tongue-in-cheek track about Lilith, the wife that Adam took before Eve and who was dismissed from the Garden of Eden because Adam refused to consider her his equal and had a quick word with God about it. Lilith is a euphemism for the banished woman – and indeed for all those – of both sexes – who remain silent in order to avoid opprobrium.
The makeover comes courtesy of a jazzy middle eight that could be performed by Keith Emerson.
‘No more hiding’ is a melodic folk song, again with some interesting instrumental enhancements. It finishes with a similar electronic effect to a song called ‘Sisterhood’ which she wrote a couple of years ago, the best short one she’s laid down in my opinion, and which unfortunately didn’t make the cut here.
And so to ‘The Calling’ which I assume is a reference to her own calling to the business of saving the trees. It’s a collaborative effort with two friends from the house/techno genre, Pelle Grosso and Joachim Sundgren; though my experience of seeing her perform live told me she has the skills of her own to tackle something like this.
I’m not quite sure what to say about it. It’s extraordinary. At 33 minutes it’s more than twice as long as the other tracks put together. It’s as incongruous as a Nightwish opus at the end of a Lewis Capaldi album.
The opening section appears to be a walk through the Amazonian rain forest, to heavy, almost prog-like synths. Then the kulning starts and against this background it is truly ethereal. After that, cue ambient electronica, always with those lurking forest sounds, which later, and pertinently, include the sound of flames. Then the flute returns, hauntingly, followed by a short solo on a xylophone before a synth section that could be out of a sci-fi film.
The second half is dominated by the flute, mixed with animal noises and ominous thunder of the sort that introduces the original ‘Set you free’ by N-Trance but this is no dance track. The music ends completely for the last three minutes, which plays out as the animal noises fight for pre-eminence over the thunder that is closing in.
Åsa Larsson says, “We wanted to create something to rest in, but not to fall asleep to. A piece of music through which you could hear your own inner calling.”
The best way I can summarise this track is to say that if someone invited me to listen to it and told me it was a collaborative piece between say Philip Glass and Anthony Gonzalez (M83) rather than a complete unknown from a small town in Sweden who lacks confidence in her own ability I would happily have believed them.
I really hope this track at least gets the airing on British radio that it deserves. Something like ‘Late Junction’ if that is still going on Radio 3, or ‘Unclassified’ on the same channel would be perfect.
The only reservation I’ve got about Åsa is that on the high notes of the shorter songs her voice sometimes isn’t strong enough to make the lyrics heard. For example she can’t roar the word roar on the Lilith song. But curing that is really all she has to do.
It seems this was an album of eight songs but when ‘The Calling’ intervened it became four plus that, so another EP will be released later.
‘For the trees’ is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and Google Play.
(Iceland) Sykur – JÁTAKK
I gladly put this under ‘albums’ as Sykur have previously released just two EPs in a 10-year existence although the nine-tracker here, ‘JÁTAKK’ (YES PLEASE) does contain some songs, such as ‘Loving None’, the Icelandic language ‘Sefur svo fast’ and especially ‘Strange Loop’ that have been around for a while now.
Moreover, five of the nine tracks are in Icelandic. I often wonder what would happen if they put out a full length album of entirely new material in English with proper international PR support because six years after I first discovered them I still consider them to be one of the most dynamic bands you’ll find anywhere and they continue to evolve with perhaps a greater guitar contribution now and an increasingly percussive role being undertaken by Halldór Eldjárn. Yet there’s a battalion of teenagers and young adults in the UK who have never heard of them.
Considering Sykur’s slogan is “‘we dance, you dance” not all the tracks are appropriate to the dance floor. ‘Sefur svo fast’ for example is a slow burning ‘synth ballad’, showcasing the softer side to vocalist Agnes Björt Andradóttir and with some subtle voice overdubs.
‘Lost Song’, a new one to me, starts off in a similar fashion but this time the familiar dance pattern synth beat comes in well before the end.
‘Fokk opp’ sounds like it could be an insult but simply means ‘grow up’. It’s quite a complex piece with what sounds like a jazz-influenced opening and there’s a wonderful motor mouth section from Agnes together with associated screams (no-one does it better) before it concludes with highly melodic synth-guitar interplay that I wish they’d do more of.
‘Strange Loop’ is definitely not ‘new’, they were performing it live six years ago and it comes from a previous era of Sykur, one of big booming choruses and an equally booming vocal from Agnes.
‘Svefneyjar’ (Sleep islands) is a case of “we dance, you dance” with a memorable hook which is complemented conversely by almost Jean Michel Jarre-style synths in some sections. Translate this into English and I’m confident they’d have a hit on their hands.
Kókídós (no translation available), takes the band off in a direction I haven’t heard before, with an acoustic guitar the main instrument for most of what is a delicate ballad.
‘Motherlode’ is a song I’d watched, live on YouTube, and heard them play at Iceland Airwaves without knowing its title so it’s good to make its acquaintance at last. As close to alt-rock as they get, and with a significant guitar contribution from Kristján Eldjárn it is a popular live show song.
‘Loving None’ is another song that has been around for a year or so at least and is old school, quite similar to ‘Strange Loop’ with a big vocal chorus, a strong melody line and overlapping synths.
The final track is ‘Dansa miklu meir’ (Dance much more) and after listening to it, you will.
Sykur is a part-time band as are many in Iceland where you have to have two or more jobs to stay afloat; two members are students while one seems to be foreign-domiciled. After I watched them perform this new material at Iceland Airwaves I wrote that it isn’t “as strong” as their previous anthems such as ‘Curling’, ‘Battlestar’ and ‘Reykjavik’, less ‘immediate’ perhaps, and I am sticking with that observation. On the other hand, Sykur are becoming more pop- than EDM-oriented and as a result less manic, which may be a good thing, while they are developing fresh approaches to song writing. It is an album that will have more impact the more I listen to it I’m sure, even the Icelandic songs.
(Sykur were also reviewed in the Iceland Airwaves report which is linked from here, see ‘Festivals’ below).
(Finland/Sweden) The Dark Element – Songs the night sings
There’s been quite a lot of news concerning symphonic metal band Nightwish in NMS recently, and more to come with, hopefully, a forthcoming interview with Tarja Turunen.
If one person connected to that band is quite habitually and unreasonably overlooked it is vocalist Anette Olzon, who suffered a similar fate to Turunen, being summarily dismissed from the band after falling ill during a tour in 2012.
Anette possibly polarised Nightwish fans even more than Turunen’s departure did. In some quarters she is disliked quite intensely simply because her vocal style was neither the operatic one of her predecessor nor the ‘belting’ one of successor Floor Jansen, being more pop-influenced.
Discerning music fans know however that Nightwish’s songwriter-in-chief Tuomas Holopainen has always written specifically for the style of his vocalists and he did so for Olzon, conjuring up some of their most striking songs which she delivered, including ‘Storytime’, the epic ‘Poet and the Pendulum’ and my favourite Nightwish song of all, the almost forgotten ‘Eva’.
Since her departure from that band she has embarked on a solo career before joining up with former Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen for the project known as The Dark Element. Their debut self-titled album was released on 10th November 2017 and this second album on 8th November 2019.
A broad brush observation. When I heard the title track a few weeks ago, unaware of who it was, I genuinely believed it to be Nightwish with perhaps an early release from their own new album. In the music business there is ‘derivative’ and there is the commonality of symphonic metal, which is on a different level. In fact this track is even more Nightwish than Nightwish in all of its own elements – the simple but memorable melody, the gentle opening fractured by a sudden explosion, the driving unison of guitar and bass in common time with hi-hat, snare drum and occasional double kick-bass drum, the short complex guitar bridge and the underlying taped orchestration.
But don’t read any of that as negative. It’s a great song and showcases Olzon’s vocal ability, proving to me why she was perfect for the period she occupied with Nightwish and why she can deliver songs such as ‘Storytime’ (which is quite similar to this track) more proficiently than her two peers might have or can. And with that I promise not to mention her former band again in this review!
Opener ‘Not your monster’ is a full-on power metal monster of its own with huge orchestration as Anette acknowledges the mistakes she and her partner both made. It’s so Goth in the lyrics the piano break should really be played on a harpsichord and there are some neat little lyrical tricks.
“We were/Searching for sweet perfection/Turning it to affliction while/Not knowing fact from fiction.”
‘When it all comes down’ is essentially a funeral oration, delivered in a style reminiscent of Evanescence, and perhaps a little too bombastic for its own good. It might have been better perhaps to scale it down a little as the oration gets lost in the musical cacophony.
‘Silence between the words’ is a fairly humdrum track with, for this genre, a mundane melody and break-up lyrics that could have been penned by Lewis Capaldi, with the exception of a little gem, “there is nothing left to burn/And I’m out of cheeks to turn” which might have been contributed by Fiona Apple.
Symphonic majesty returns with ‘Pills on my pillow’, a much stronger melody, convincing hook and a bit of Greek myth thrown in for good measure, and with a twist: “I’m the modern day Cassandra/Always heard but not believed/Not even by me”.
‘To Whatever End’, a slow burning ballad-cum-anthem of self deprecation with a battery of hooks perhaps goes on a little longer than it might have done. In a shorter form it would even be pop chart material.
There had to be an overt funeral reference somewhere, it wouldn’t be a metal album without one and in this case it is ‘The Pallbearer Walks Alone’. Its themes are an amalgam of three songs by that band which shall now be nameless; ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, ‘10th Man Down’ and ‘End of all hope’. I can’t express it more concisely than that.
Apart from the alt-Kylie lines “Get out of my head/Get out of my bed/Don’t want you/I’d rather be lonely” the main point of interest in ‘Get out of my head’ is a bridge towards the end that is EDM meets ELP, quite unusual for a metal band.
‘If I had a heart’ is one of those “I’m not worthy of you” songs that frequently crops up in the metal community and a reprise of the earlier ‘To whatever end’ while the boot is on the other foot in ‘You will learn’, as its title suggests a lecture to a child about life’s pitfalls which should be included on the school curriculum. Again a song that perhaps drags on a little longer than it should have; the point is made forcefully within three minutes or so.
The album is rounded off with ‘I have to go’, a gentle, melancholic ballad with, believe it or not, drum brushes (on a metal album?!) and an ode to someone – an ex-partner, perhaps a music manager – which owes more to Abba than to the metal genre.
It makes for an interesting diversion and leads me to the first observation on the album as a whole, that The Dark Element don’t really use Anette Olzon’s vocals as broadly as they might. Overall, there’s a lack of variety in the music between the tracks, but not in the lyrics, which are inventive and quite clever at times.
That said; if this was my introduction to symphonic metal there’s more than enough here to make me hungry for more. I hope they open for (oops) Nightwish on their forthcoming world tour. Now that would be something and I’d lay odds that those that have chosen to take a negative attitude to Anette, for whatever reason, would find it in their hearts quickly to move on, and to appreciate her talents.
(Iceland) Of Monsters and Men – Academy 1, Manchester, 01/11/2019
OMAM continued their UK tour promoting their third album ‘Fever Dream’ with a gig at what is their habitual Manchester venue, the Academy. It was representative of the differences between the three albums.
Short review extract:
“Contrast that with the frantic crowd reaction to the opening notes of ‘King and Lionheart’, ‘Mountain Sound’ and ‘Dirty Paws’ and even more so to the traditional closing trilogy of ‘Lakehouse’, ‘Little Talks’ and ‘Six Weeks’. Nanna and Raggi didn’t need to sing a word from start to finish; the crowd did it for them.”
But there was something missing on the night. Follow the link to find out what. Or more correctly, who:
(Norway) Aurora – Albert Hall, Manchester 05/11/2019
Aurora’s northern lights passed through Manchester on Bonfire Night with an explosive performance that every Guy in the house must have loved to see.
Short review extracts:
“The imagery was terrific… and together with sophisticated lighting…and which included very subtle use of strobes, the staging was collectively one of the most impressive examples I’ve seen in a while.”
“AURORA has been able to sustain onstage drama through the three album releases and while she writes about difficult subjects. ‘The Seed’ which is about ecological disaster, with its catchy repeated line from an Indian proverb “You cannot eat money” is actually quite danceable, as is even ‘The River’ one of the most enjoyable performances of the evening despite its gloomy subject of male suicide, and of course the gay anthem ‘Queendom’.”
Follow this link for the full story.
(Norway) Sløtface – Manchester Academy 2, 29/11/2019
Following the singles ‘Telepathetic’, ‘Sink or Swim’ and ‘S.U.C.C.E.S.S.’ Sløtface recently announced news of their forthcoming second album, ‘Sorry for the Late Reply’, to be released on 31st January 2020 on Propeller Recordings. They co-produced it with Odd Martin Skålnes, who also produces Aurora and Sigrid who, ironically, was just 100 yards up the road at Academy 1 starting the first of her two nights there. What a small Norwegian world we live in.
They’ve been touring with Toronto’s Pup for the last three weeks and turned up at a sold-out Academy 2 mainly to promote that album, sandwiched between Pup and the opener, Fresh.
“Why be good enough when you could be a success?” screams vocalist Haley Shea as the band opens the set with ‘S.U.C.C.E.S.S.’ from the new album. And that’s a good question which could apply equally to Sløtface. Their debut album, ‘Try not to freak out’ was so good, with its heavily pop-oriented punk and meaningful lyrics that I really thought they’d fly.
But it’s been over two years between albums while they were touring the world, and lots of other Norwegian bands have made a breakthrough in the meantime. A late reply, indeed. While they haven’t exactly been forgotten here they should be headlining shows like this now, not supporting although I’m sure the experience has done them no harm.
Apart from the melody, the defining factor for Sløtface is that they care for what they write and sing about, be it the environment (e.g. ‘Sink or Swim’ from the new album), gender equality, feminism, or just mundane matters such as relationship breakdowns. But I wonder if their messages get lost amidst all the jumping around and crowd surfing into a well organised mosh pit, the sheer volume and, on the night, a distracting over-amplified bass guitar and snare drum. It’s something of a dichotomy that they are a spectacular live act trying to get across some serious ideas. Sometimes the two don’t quite gel.
Part of the set, which was slightly extended over what they had been playing elsewhere, was devoted to the new album, with some older songs such as ‘Sponge State’ thrown in, while finishing on a trio of highly tuneful songs – ‘Galaxies’ from the first album, then ‘Telepathetic’ from the new one, before reverting to ‘Try not to freak out’’s ‘Nancy Drew’ and its big finish for the final one.
It was during those final three songs that it became most apparent to me that the punk side had taken over from the pop side, the reverse of the album. I last saw them two years ago in Germany, playing what was almost an acoustic set in which you could hear every note and word. While this show went down very well with the 100 or so moshers (and probably with the Norwegian prisoners the new album was tested on) it occurred to me that there might well be a considerably bigger audience for Sløtface if they’d just let those pop melodies win the day on stage as well, even if that means toning down the act a notch or two.
Iceland Airwaves, 06-09 November 2019
The 20th Iceland Airwaves festival took place in Reykjavik, showcasing mainly new artists from Iceland and the Nordic countries generally together with a smattering of big names from across the world.
Short review extracts:
“The well-known local guitarist and experimental musician Pétur Ben played two shows that I saw, a raunchy set at Dillons, a whisky bar; and a slightly more sedate one at a Lutheran church, Frikirkjan, although there was still plenty of strong language there. (And John Grant followed the previous night; I don’t know what the parishioners thought about it).”
“For my money she’s the most ground-breaking, inventive artist in Europe right now, possibly in the world. If you get a chance to see her, you must take it. I hope she finds the success in the UK that she deserves”.
Follow this link to find out who I’m talking about.
Top 20 albums of the decade
Recently published in God is in the TV, this is my personal selection of 20 of the albums that made the biggest impact on me since 2010.
Nordic artists/albums featured in it are:
Of Monsters and Men (My Head is an Animal)
Highasakite (Silent Treatment)
Lydmor (I told you I’d tell them our story)
Pom Poko (Birthday)
Sol Heilo (Skinhorse Playground)
AURORA (Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1) )
Susanne Sundfør (Ten Love Songs)
Anna von Hausswolff (The Miraculous)
Baron Bane (LPTO)
Read the review here: