When it comes to Nordic music, American audiences typically look to a few shining stars of the Scandinavian scene. Sweden provides Robyn, the Knife, and Lykke Li for the dancer set, while the Peter, Bjorn & John, the (international) Noise Conspiracy, and the Sounds get rowdy for the rockers. Denmark has the Raveonettes' smoky soundtracks for get-away-cars and sunny pop of Junior Senior. But what about Norway?
For some reason, the northerly country of about 4.5 million people largely stays off the radar of many music aficionados attuned to the rhythms of the museo mags and blogosphere. Of course, Norway's death-obsessed phylum of heavy music, black metal, has turned–and banged–heads for nearly 30 years, but there's so much more to Norway than devil horns and face paint.
In August, Norway presented the 12th annual Øya Festival, Oslo's contender in the cavalcade of music fests that stampede across Europe every summer. This year, I had the chance to check out Oslo's long summer days, the festival's environmental consciousness, and the eclectic sounds of the Øya Festival. Øya's line up brought internationally recognized acts including M.I.A, Flaming Lips, Sleigh Bells, and the XX to Oslo for a fjord-side festival saluting sounds from across the globe. But for all the noise brought by international acts, the Norway's own stars shone brighter than a Scandinavian summer night.
Here are a couple of Norway's acts that stood out at the Øya Festival.
Like portable rave, the Casiokids' up-tempo electro-pop spawns some serious movement on the dancefloor. The Bergen-based quintet packs the stage with vintage synths, which buzz and bleep beside the irresistibly poppy beats. Lead vocalist Ketil Kinden Endresen delivers playful vocals that waft over Casiokids' tightly wound rhythms, propelled by a steady kick drum and a high-hat on the upstoke that keeps the disco flow going. Their recent album, Topp Stemning På Lokal Bar, was the first Norwegian-language pop record to be released in the U.S., proving that there is no language barrier for booty shaking.
With a name like Motorpsycho, you can pretty much guess what the band will sound like. But most likely you'd be wrong. The band named after the Russ Meyer film isn't exactly the metal explosion or punk freak-out that you would expect. Instead, Motorpsycho explores the psychedelic side of rock, earning them Norwegian Grammy in the nineties and cult following that flocked the stage at Øya. The guitar work of Hans Magnus “Snah” Ryan vacillates between gristly, soaring solos, and jazzy arpeggios. His guitar often lays down the main melody and hook, often taking the role of vocals, creating catchy, yet edgy riffs easy to sing along with. But like great rock songs, everything is in its right place, as the guitar fades back to highlight Bent Sæther growling bass, and his powerful vocals. Clearly an influence on Scandinavia's resurgent psych rock scene, including Sweden's phenomenal rock outfit Dungen, Motorpsycho is heady rock for psychedelia aficionados.
Much like the city of Olso, the duo of Lindstrøm & Christabelle is cool, modern and really, really good looking. The collaboration between acclaimed producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and cool-voiced diva, Christabelle Solale is a hermetically sealed package of groovy synth-funk. If Giorgio Moroder produced Michael Jackson's “Off the Wall,” topped with Ladytron's vocal detachment, you'd have something close to the chilled groove poured out by Lindstrøm & Christabelle. Coming to a catwalk near you.
At some point, most global pop and rock music touches on the song structure set up by of American and U.K. bands. Wardruna, however, is Norse to the core. It's hard to even call them a band, they're more like a congregation or a choir assembled to evoke the lore of Norse culture. Onstage they are dressed in black, back lit by red lights. One man strikes sticks on a log and shakes goat hoof rattles, while another plays two bassy drums, probably not unlike the pair that provided the rhythms for Viking rowers powering a warship to shore. Founder Einar Selvik belts out low guttural notes that reverberate with the tones of the bowed lyre and the goat horn. But Wardruna isn't just for Renaissance Fair patrons or twelve-sided die owners, the dark, unspeakably moving compositions connect with something visceral, something ancient in all of us.
Unlike most of the Norwegian acts at Øya, Susanne Sundfør does not rock. Instead the 24-year-old singer and pianist seeks to move the heart not the feet, with her emotionally stirring lyrics and soulful voice. Sundfør's strong voice can dance and climb with the miasmic vocal tricks of a trained jazz singer. Yet, she embraces on to her vulnerablility, holding a wavering note as it fades away like a flame burning out at night's end.