By:Larm, for those who don’t know, is the only Norwegian music festival/industry expo worth writing home about; a kind of Winter Olympic SXSW. There are three days of bands scattered around dive bars and concert halls, Q&A’s with folk like Geoff Travis and Peter Hook, and weird ‘Speed Meet’ sessions (like speed dating but with business cards), all set against a backdrop of constant snow. Every band is Scandinavian and so after seeing a few, you feel sucked in to a different musical world, with heavy metal machismo at one end and a more metropolitan femininity at the other. and while most bands fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, experiencing either extreme is pretty odd.
Solvor Vermeer epitomises the cutesier side, playing coffee shop baroque pop in a candle-lit home studio with a bowl of waffle mix and a waffle iron in the corner. The second minor freak-out is brought on by barn dance metal act Dunderbeist, all eight members decked-out in matching plaid and bleeding black eye paint, slapping their knees, grinning, licking their lips and shouting “Hej!” like they’ve got your mum tied-up in the tour bus.
A million miles away from that immensely popular, God-awful show, but still tapping into Norway’s strong metal tradition are Altaar, the first band we properly see. Comprised of experienced musicians from other outfits, they trade in Black Metal and Stoner Rock that’s run-through with the lounge psychedelia of David Lynch soundtracks and moments of contact-mic noise. They’re assisted for the last song by wild improvisations from a legendary local saxophonist and they’ve 50-plus candles on stage that they blow out at the end of the show. It’s in an eerie, almost empty town hall; religious mosaics on the walls and busts of dead Norwegian politicians suiting them perfectly.
The good-times continue with Fontän, whose album ‘Winterhwila’ reminds us of Riton’s excellent ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik’ record and, using a drum machine, synths and a double guitar that’s been modified to be half guitar/half bass, the trio play tracks like the excellent ‘Early Morning’, re-clothed with earth-shaking breakdowns and additional solos.
After that, we stumble and slide to Oh No Ono, a journey made particularly embarrassing by the passing Oslo Fashion Week models, carving through the ice in high heels. Having teetered on the edge of a breakthrough for a while, the band seem like they don’t know whether to be profoundly depressed by the existence of MGMT or whether to milk the likeness for all its worth. Teetering in a similar fashion, but playing a more assured set to a rammed venue, are Norwegians Casiokids. Hyped in London thanks to some passable singles, they spin out a mumble-y highlighter indie sung in their own language, as the first night then draw’s to a close with instrumental hip-hoppers Jagga Jazzist who sound dated (you assume they’ve been roped in as a sop to nostalgia fans) but are otherwise great and helped no end by a fuck-off lightshow.
The standouts from the second night are Afterklang and Diskjokke. The first take the electronica-tweaked twee-pop of Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Electronic Renaissance’ and drag it into the dimensions of Radiohead and Sigur Ros to pretty stunning effect. Diskjokke, awfully dressed but playing an amazing 11th floor bar, pump a moustachioed ‘Frisco Disco’, touched up with electro/afro influences into great instrumental, un-computerised dance music. A guy from Manchester goes ape at the front throughout, a sign that they’ve totally nailed it. While these bands are gaining a rep in the UK, it’s worth mentioning unheard of electro-poppists Leif and the Future and raucous Christian post-hardcore kids Social Suicide. They’re both on precocious 7” club Brilliance Records who operate with enviable enthusiasm, packing out every show and are soon to arrive in London having won the hearts of the Fierce Panda lot.
Luckily for us, the last night is arguably the best; our socks, shoes and thermals being blown off by Chimes and Bells. A darkly sexy five piece that sound like Low played at 3rpm, they are the kind of discovery we’d been hoping to make; superior downbeat indie rock with Geoff Barrow-like attention to guitar/drum sounds and a beautiful singer. Also ticking all our favourite boxes were The Megaphonic Thrift who we catch in an atmospheric complex of venues linked by outdoor staircases and lit by outdoor chandeliers. An art-school by day, you can poke about the kitchen, sit in armchairs and read books about Gerhard Richter after the gig. They play with Sten from Altaar, channelling the avant-punk of ‘Goo’ and ‘Dirty’-era Sonic Youth, with the jams clipped into brisk rotations of spectral harmonics and brutal wig-outs. It’s partly so impressive because it creates its own ambience, shunning the painfully frigid industry vibe that infects some of By:Larm’s shows.
Part of the strangeness of being in Oslo and hearing its music is the subtlety with which it differs from London. It’s so similar in a lot of ways that it feels extra strange when it verges out of comprehension. At gigs like these, however, when the country’s taste barometer seems to be on a parallel setting to the UK’s, there are moments of dizzying clarity.
By Edgar Smith
Originally published in issue 15 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2010