This column has been an awful long time coming. It should have perhaps been written for the 10 Years of Nordic fortnight that we ran around this time last year. But it wasn't. Still, now that it has started there is potentially no end and, so long as our friends in the north continue to make enough good music to warrant writing about, it shall continue.
The fact that we are now over three-quarters of the way through the year (and nearly into the year-end editorial) means that it is a suitable time to take stock of what has been happening during the course of 2011. Thus, edition number one of Nordic Sounds will be focused on a handful of the very best releases of the year. Beyond that, there is a brief collection of things that have happened quite recently, as well as things that are going to happen in the near future, and an additional section on some stuff from Iceland Airwaves.
To start, here's a list of some of the standout Nordic records of 2011. Difficult as this has been to narrow it down to just a handful - and there are many more worthy of investigation and time - yet narrow it down we have. Just about.
Backwards - A selection of the best Nordic releases in 2011.
Årabrot - Solar Anus - Fysisk Format:
This monster of a record has already been reviewed, scoring 9/10. You could reasonably make the case that this Albini-"produced" philosophical-noise record could even be one higher in the marks department. For years, and often quite frequently the Norwegian necromancers have been heavily hinting at achieving greatness on a single full-length. Here they do it, and do it so comprehensively that it's hard to return to anything else afterwards. Even, like, I dunno Big Black, Scratch Acid or the Melvins. It's some serious Year Zero shit. Kjetil Nernes' voice creeps and is utterly creepy. Then at times he roars. If his voice was personified, you'd not know whether to fuck it or fight it.
When Saints Go Machine - Konkylie - !K7:
Is this the record that all of Denmark has been waiting for? Or even all of Europe? Are this band the most exciting thing to come from that peninsula since the Jutes? Some might argue that would be Iceage. Still, I'm sure nobody in Denmark or anywhere else in the world really cares about the answers to these questions, but the combination of an ethereal electronic backbone and some seriously weird-warbly Arthur Russell-esque vocals give When Saints Go Machine a sound that very few others have. At times the music is so close it feels humid, even tropical - although this may be due to the cricket noises early on - but it's a melancholic tone, too. And this really near never ends, either, with the intensity slowly becoming a combination of overbearing and a warm, welcoming dampness which engulfs all.
Jenny Hval - Viscera - Rune Grammofon:
Norway's Jenny Hval has previously released records under her Rockettothesky pseudonym, but none of her produce so far can be as wondrous and lyrically uncomfortable as this. Or, simply, as great. The subject matter here is not light, but as noticeable and spiky as it is, her carefully selected words can also be obtuse, as the album's hushed and sinisterly whispered opening lines "I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris" take you aback. The music? Well, it is frequently sprawling, thickly packed and almost consistently intense. Sometimes a wispy, fragile voice creates an unsettling feeling placed directly between foreboding and serenity. Other times it's an acoustic guitar accompanied by swirling sounds in the periphery. Hval is not a lone star among those signed to Rune Grammofon, but she may be shining the brightest right now.
Eleanoora Rosenholm - Hyväile Minua Pimeä Tähti - Fonal:
It's often said that music performed in a language you do not understand has an added layer of mystery and, yes, whilst this is true, Eleanoora Rosenholm do not need a great deal more mystery, though it does appear in large quantities. "Mystical" sums up this record in one word. 'Kolo', for example, portrays those qualities perfectly - starting off at a whisper before jumping into an eight-minute jaunty, part-electronic, part-orchestral journey which changes pace at regular intervals; and that's just the album opener. Without wanting to sound like a Fonal fanboy, it is one of those labels you can generally trust, and this album is just one of a number released this year which are in keeping with Fonal's ethos and general output.
I Break Horses - Hearts - Bella Union:
Naming your band after a Bill Callahan song is a good start, but that is where similarities end. Mostly. Consisting of deep, electronic instrumentation Hearts feels like it could be comforting experience from start to finish, like a really good, worn and beloved jumper. But, deep down, it isn't. This is largely because its voice is not a joyous one, more forlorn. There's also a coldness which lives just beneath the album's surface and the juxtaposition of these two emotions are what makes its appeal. The vocals melt gently into the mix, breaking through at certain, rare, peaks. Hearts might be one-paced, but it's a pace I'd happily travel at for the rest of my life.
Björk - Biophilia - One Little Indian:
It may seem like a slight cop-out having Biophilia as the only Icelandic record on this list, but this list is by no means definitive. It might seem like one, but it is not in any way. Mainly because if you are granted any kind of power and influence, then you should use it for good, to put things plainly. That's pretty much what Björk has done here with another ambitious project. The music stands for itself, too being characteristically...well, Björk - plenty of tingling, and textures used like textures should be used: occasionally stripped away, then built up again to great effect. Plus, putting it here also gives us another chance to link you to Kevin Perry's superb interview with the lady herself.
Severely honourable mentions go to Deaf Center for Owl Splinters, Loney, Dear for Hall Music, Jens Lekman for An Argument With Myself, Siinai for Olympic Games, Ane Brun for It All Starts With One and plenty of others, like The Field for Looping State Of Mind. Do let us know and add your own. I do pity the Nordic Music Prize panel having to pick even a longlist from this year's releases, never mind a shortlist.
In other news, Icelandic neo-classic composer Ólafur Arnalds recently undertook another song-a-day project, following on from 2009's Found Songs. This time it was under the title of Living Room Songs, all written and recorded in his very own front room. The tracks are still available to download from the Living Room Songs website but there will also be a physical release through Erased Tapes later in the year.
Swedish-duo Niki & The Dove released an EP a couple of weeks ago, called The Drummer. They've been getting an awful lot of love in various parts of the world, and you can stream the entire EP and decide if you think it's any good for yourself.
Staying in Sweden, and keeping with electro-pop making duos, and holding with EPs streaming on YouTube, below you can indulge in Icona Pop's Nights Like This. Does it make you want to dance? Or not?
Although it began screening earlier in the year, the wonderful Efterklang and Vincent Moon collaborative film/documentary, An Island, was physically released earlier last week. We've held the product in our own hands and it is much more like a book than a DVD. It's black, sleek and beautiful and contains a myriad of wonders. The film itself lasts about as long as the album Magic Chairs and captures the essence of the band and maybe even a bit of the island of Als. You can order it only from here.
With the look backwards bit done, we now look forwards, mostly. As in to upcoming releases and a few shows of note.
Firstly, intense purveyors of Norwegian noise Shining last year released Blackjazz, which included, amongst other wonderfully thumping and brutal things, a cover of King Crimson's '21st Century Schizoid Man'. The entire album was one of the highlights of 2010. Their live Blackjazz DVD has been brewing for some months now, but it will get a release in Europe on November 11 or 11.11.11 if you want to do it like that. Jørgen Munkeby said that it's like the Greatest Hits album they always dreamed of. Watch the trailer below and find out more here.
Another record on the way and thoroughly deserving of your attention is Window's A Fall by Sacred Harp, which will come out in the UK in December, having been released in Norway earlier this year. It has many, many off-kilter and unnerving moments from the very start. Look no further than opening track 'Found In The Open Country (The Underlying Deep Structure)' for proof of this. It's only a glimpse, though, but stream it below:
Torgny was an act we saw at this year's by:Larm. We were slightly confused by him. Having listened again, though, his "sound" now makes more sense. He used to be in Amulet, a hardcore band and now he's making records of a more electronic bent. Torgny will release a three-track EP, Oslo 31. August, which is also the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Give a listen to opening track 'Dying Hipster' below.
Seeing as we've furnished you with two Swedish electro-pop duos so far, here's another. If you're into that sort of thing, which often borders on the greatly garish, then Korallreven could be for you. Their debut full-length is out November 14 and you can hear the album's opening track below.
Norwegian fun-synth-based-poppers Casiokids are also returning with a new record in 2012, Aabenbaringen Over Aaskammen, which is released in January through Moshi Moshi. So far we've had a free download, a remix by of Montreal and, most recently, a video for 'Det Haster'. There will be more. And this includes tour dates, in November.
As ever, the best in Nordic sounds are being presented at London's Ja Ja Ja, which has returned after a summer break. The next show takes place, as ever, at The Lexington on Thursday November 24 with performances from Icelandic Sóley, Norway's Marit Larsen and Finland's French Films. More information on jajajamusic.com. It's also a happy second birthday to the, too. Gratulerer.
The Barbican have just announced their Spring contemporary music programme and part of this is a special Nordic focus. It will feature Norwegians Trio Mediaeval collaborating with Arve Henriksen, Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen's Accordion Wrestling and Jaga Jazzist performing with the Britten Sinfonia.
For even further listening, Norway's Music Information Centre release a regular podcast, entitled 99 Minutes and it features plenty of music which is both noteworthy and of a high quality. Obviously, it's worth checking out and you can do so below:
Iceland Airwaves, the leftovers.
I recently returned from Reykjavik, for Iceland Airwaves. It was a blast, and you can read more about my "adventures" here, if you so wish. At these things you get lets of CDs handed to you. Especially if you go to an event, as I did, where the sole purpose is people giving you CDs. Some I listened to, some were good, some were inbetween and some I didn't listen to. Anyway, here's a Top 3 of the CDs I was given, in no order.
Útidúr - This Mess We've Made
Aside from the impeccably designed cover - which really is lovely, I can't say enough about it - the music contained within shakes the bones a bit. Certainly not even close to the most polished sound out there, their roughness is part of what makes you carry on listening to their varied sounds. Really, it is a journey. There's a lot going on, which can be a difficult thing to unify when you have a dozen members. I do also have to say it is vaguely redolent of a less-weird Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in parts, with a Euros Childs-esque lilt in place on the lead vocalist. Sweetly-switched male/female vocals work a treat, too.
Muted - Muted World
Muted presents a mixture of dark and upbeat electronica, but once you make your way through the twelve tracks, the darkness is only really surface level, a mere frost. Muted World may lack a coherent theme, something which drives great albums in this genre, but it is, of course, only a demo and one which has more than a couple of "moments". Easily the standout track is 'Special Place', with Samaris's Jófridur adding some dreamy, softly-sung vocals.
Just Another Snake Cult - The Dionysian Season
If a record makes you smile, then that's a very good start. If it makes you beam from start to finish, it's maybe more than a good sign. With a collection of sunbursting, '60s-tinged indie-pop this numerous it's a surprise that they've only been around since last year. Again, another band which could be considered a troupe, there's little point in having ten members if you aren't going to make them do something interesting, and it's hard to argue against that here. The short interlude tracks are even perfectly positioned.
In December's iteration we'll have more of "this sort of thing".
Main photo by Arild Nybø