A return to the streets of Oslo is always welcome, for it is a beautiful city with some (read: an awful lot of) beautiful people and, at this time of year, a large proportion of the music industry from Norway and the other Nordic countries, too. They gather for seminars, shows, booze and occasional broken bones under the banner of by:Larm, where the ice is almost always underfoot – dangerous at first, it's no problem at all once you've decided whether to a) drag your feet along it, using your boots as skis or b) take hobbit sized steps at a horrendously slow pace. Regardless, there's barely a queue, the music is plentiful and wonderful and er, hardly anybody talks when bands are playing. Is this a frozen musical paradise?
With Svarte Greiner being very near the top of "things I really fucking want to see", it makes sense to get there early, which happens. Not necessary, in the end as things begin to barely a handful, but as Erik Skodvin's layered, ultra-dark and profoundly nocturnal compositions build greater and greater, so does the population of Blå. It's easy to find yourself drifting off to somewhere else to let the music become your heartbeat, but Skodvin also does some interesting things both with and to his guitar and, naturally, an impressive array of pedals. His performing name translates as “black branches” which seems apt given the tendency for the music to build from a firm base before shooting off elsewhere. It was in my mind that perhaps the concept of a live Svarte Greiner show might border on boring, but a slow start was inevitable and, although it's never enjoyment of a fist-pumping kind, it is more the type that paralyses conscious thought. If you find that sort of thing fun, which you should.
The spiky-haired Stian Westerhus exhibits a style similar to Svarte Greiner not an hour after Skodvin begins. The two might be soulmates if not stable mates. Once again, it's a slow build from simple beginnings as more and more intricate acts are undertaken on the guitar with a bow, creating soundscapes several shades darker than black, through various loops and pedals, winding on and on and on. There are several moments when something is rattling around the periphery. Impossible to work out if it's intentional or not, it still fits well in around everything else. The flashing lights are a distraction with eyes open, but another extreme enhancement when closed, as brilliant bolts jolt against closed eyelids, unable to penetrate where the music finds a way.
Over at Ingensteds, Torgny do (or rather does, as the band take their name from the lead singer) some very strange things. There is lots of overdramatic lunging and fist clenching from the main man, which inevitably becomes more interesting than anything the rest of the band are doing. All of this is entertaining, if distracting, especially if you wear sunglasses in a dimly lit and sparsely filled room. The genres almost change from song to song, but there is an underlying thread (somewhere around 1983...) and that's outside of the excessive lunging and crotch-grabbing. Also lining up in the dark, open and cold mini-warehouse are Phaedra, who are described in the festival program as "timeless", which usually means "sounds like something from another era, possibly the mid-70s." This turns out manifestly not to be the case, fortunately, but timeless somehow doesn't fit all that perfectly. "Folkish", "serene", "solemnly conducted" and "a little bit '60s" do, though.
There are few bands in existence who can make a righteous racket but still have an overpowering sense of purpose throughout their performances. Some of them happen to be brilliant and are also Norwegian, but Golden Dawn aren't in that category. There isn't a real tangible "hook" to pick out, or any real unity and, although they may well have conceived something approaching a theme in their compositions, it isn't at all obvious, just disconcerting. There are far easier things to sit through this display of cable-waving, in spite of any individual musical prowess. A barely registrable round of applause, presumably out of politeness, means at least I am not the only one supremely confounded by this showing. There may be something there for Golden Dawn in the future, but not quite just yet.
Tonight at Blå is not a time for melody and Telephones and Prins Thomas Orkester both much conform. Mind you, the Telephones guys (well, it's mainly Henning Severud) wear Haiwaiian-style neck adornments, which seems rather at odds with the temperature outside, but credit to them for trying to bring a flavour of summer. Their electronic grooves last almost forever, winding their way through and onwards without any respite, which works out pretty perfectly for anyone in need of an uplift following SW and SG. Music of this ilk is still thriving in Norway with Diskjokke, Todd Terje and, of course Prins Thomas and his Orkester, too. Each of them manage to do something fundamentally simple, yet ear-grabbingly catchy and, above all, majorly gratifying. Not so much genre-hopping as influence-melding.
The first thing – other than fish and brunost-loaded breakfast and a morning constitutional – is the Nordic Music Prize, happening here for the first time ever in the wonderful Kulturkirke Jakob. Once the majestic Ólöf Arnalds lets her gentle, acoustically accompanied tracks ring out across the hall we get to the main ceremony and it's her countryman Jónsi who takes the prize for his album Go. He gives Crown Prince Haakon of Norway a quick peck on the cheek, conducts an even quicker speech (the extent of it was "Thanks to all the musicians. I'm not a good speaker, I'd rather play music. Thanks.") and then is on his way. As much as the temptation is great to see the always-captivating Susanne Sundfør in the airy surroundings of this church, shuffling out the front door – to see hundreds bundled and queued outside, hoping to get in – a return to my second home for the weekend, Blå, is made, this time to check out the varied and vast rhythms of Danish NMP nominee Frisk Frugt, who are/is engaged in an explosion of intensity as we enter. Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor, suite. is one hell of an album title, and one hell of a literal one, too. But it is fitting in the construction and conception of the music. Observing from the side of the stage, all component parts of the kit appear to be struck at once, but we aren't here for the visuality of a performance, more the mind-melting dance-inducing movements, which occasionally confuse but at all times please, things drop off a little while later, moving to mellow. If I wasn't wearing so may layers and clodhopping boots, I'd have almost certainly danced.
Meanwhile, back at Ingensteds once more are Overthrow, who appear to be no taller than 5ft5 maximum and no older than 18 at the very most. They do their trashy, thrashy and occasionally doom-laden metal thing quite well. They don't push any envelopes or break down cross-genre barriers but they know what they want to do and they are largely doing it with aplomb, crashing cymbals and battered guitars.
Deathcrush are fresh, and much the idea of music I wanted to play when I was 16, as I attempted and failed to be in a band, spending a lot of time listening to people who actually knew how to write a riff. And play it. This is 100% No Bad Thing. Nor is the fact that I was certain I'd heard 'You, Now' before, as it blasted through my eardrums with an overwhelming sense of both urgency and familiarity, all resonant bass and stabbily struck guitar chords. On display is a heart-stopping organised chaos (though it teeters on the edge...) of wails, hits of both guitars, hypnotic drums, vocals flitting between an Ari Up-like consistency and throat-ripping screams, instrument swaps and intimidating crowd walks. Did I miss anything out? That I saw them twice in two days (and then a third time a few days later, back in the UK) says more than enough, and naming a song after fallen Metallica bassist Cliff Burton wins them top marks, too. Their set-ending rendition of 'Eternal Flame' is a Frankenstein's monster of a cover, bits bolted on from all angles and threatening at all times to fall apart. Yet, Deathcrush are more than just violent flicks of head and hair, rumbling basslines, gravelly guitar and warring vocals. They are very close to the embodiment of all that's good with dirty and intoxicating noise-rock. And are really fucking exciting.
Stepping aside from the beginning of a pulsating 120 Days set inside the main tent, a walk anywhere is treacherous, but often worth it this weekend. At times the projections Ulver used crossed the border from reinforcing the musical landscape they created to something altogether more unsettling. Films of foxhunting and naked people having a good time are on the wrong side of decency but the right side of questionable, but piles of corpses are more than a little diverting. The introduction of Stian Westerhus went down well as his bow-guitar playing rang out across the hall adding an even more overbearing sense of doom. One thing that can be said is that the sound in the Sentrum Scene is incredible, if in the right place at least and as overpowering and bone-grinding as Ulver's music is, it's also aesthetically pleasing.
The morning's activities saw a Black Metal tour, given by Anders Odden, who knew the scene (which was mainly an assortment of six people...) pretty well until one of them decided it'd be in his best interests to kill another of them. He now runs a metal festival in Oslo and took us on a tour around the infamous black metal spots of the early 1990s, conducted with a surprising level of humour. I guess some things you do just have to laugh at...
As another pre-final night afternoon expedition, Spoon Train Audio are kind enough to open up their offices and studio, supplying Cava, pølser and fine, fine music, all of which are duly taken advantage of. Having seen The Megaphonic Thrift twice before and never felt they've fully lived up to their live capabilities, watching them in a recording studio which accommodates at most 10 people outside of the band was a plus point. You realise that, despite all the negative (and largely incorrect) comments about them being derivative of other, more well-known bands, they can a) write a tune and b) pack a punch in playing those tunes, which you can also sing along to.
Now well into the final day's proceedings, the picture is very much seen early on with Årabrot – you know all you need to know. Their directness and tightness is their strength. This is just as well as I can only just about fit in 10-15 minutes of their set, this time with a full-ish band rather than just the two of them, as is sometimes the case. They don't quite slay tonight but promise bigger and better things at every moment, which eventually get fulfilled. Kjetil Nernes is not a terrifying man in the flesh but manages it in the voice. What's beefed up behind him helps, but he moves from occasionally sounding like there's a wasp stuck in his throat and then, like that scene in Green Mile, spewing hundreds of the stripy bastards out at one-hundred miles-per-hour.
Tôg are all dressed up in black attire, turtle necks and the lot. There may even be some sunglasses. It's not that bright in here. There's also a crucifix dangling from the lead singer's neck. Apparently inspired by horror film soundtracks, but that doesn't exactly burst through. Samfunnsalen is a strange but visually interesting place for music, with some gigantic stately busts adorning the wood-panelled walls. A sticking point occurs when you try and work out who the portraits are of (answer: no idea) rather than listening to what's right in front of you.
Now, Sweden may be the most famous exporter of indie-pop in recent times, but Norway's Cold Mailman are a band who you'd certainly choose to fly the flag. 'Pull Yourself Together And Fall In Love With Me' is a fine, fine calling card of a song. They may not have one that's better, but that obviously hasn't stopped them from trying and coming very close. It may be the final night of by:Larm and the backstage area probably busier than directly in front of the stage, but these guys deserve something a little bit more. What follows them however is nothing of the sort. Without writing too much, Friska Viljor leave me with my mouth agape as to their horridness. Even now words fail me, but thirty-minutes of mega vocal harmony chorus after mega vocal harmony chorus with the odd ukulele thrown in would normally leave me heading for the door if I wasn't so paralysed by their musical "atrocities". This is where the music ends.
It seems unfathomably wrong to end on that negative note, so I won't. In addition to the legions of most excellent and varied music that I managed to see, there was even more that I didn't, and it's always disappointing when there are unchecked boxes on your list. The good thing is that a lot of these bands will be around for a while. Perhaps even at next year's by:Larm, or festivals in the UK. A few days after you leave, you even start to miss the ice.
Keep your eyes out for the second part of DiS's by:Larm review by Wendy Roby, appearing soon!
Main photo by Erik Sæter Jørgensen