Thing one about Oslo in the winter: It’s cold. But really, that should sorta be thing two, because thing one in Oslo in the winter is the city’s By:larm Festival, which took place last weekend. (Actually, Oslo residents would tell you that the world skiing championship is thing one, but whatever…) Each year at By:larm, Scandinavia showcases its finest musicians across roughly 20 venues and four nights. Besides sampling artists from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland, the festival also gathers more established music-industry legends for on-stage interviews, panels, and presentations.
Over the course of those four nights (from February 16-19), we saw everything from icy jazz abstractions to Balearic-inspired disco to sprightly indie rock to full-on Norwegian black metal. Below, we share with you some of our favorites.
Supersilent @ Blå
It’s awesome that in a place like Oslo, a trio of abstract jazz-noise fusionists can be superstars—at least if you're to go by their last two By:larm performances. Last year’s gig won us over, and this year’s, at Sunkissed Live at club Blå, was no exception. It’s near impossible to accurately describe Supersilent’s vibe: They seemingly assemble blocks of sound like Legos, arranging scrapes, hits, and (occasionally colorful) synth tones in a jazz-informed way, but make it sound as intense as it is free of recognizable structure. It came out beautifully, and was no doubt a head-scratching surprise for many who gathered at this dance-friendly club, likely looking for a booming four-to-the-floor.
Vaughan Oliver Presentation
We’ve always been huge fans of 4AD—especially the classics like Cocteau Twins, Pixies, The The, etc.—so it was pretty awesome to get a look into the creative side of lead designer Vaughan Oliver, who is as responsible for the label’s brand as its founders. His 45-minute presentation on the last 30 years of his career was equally as enjoyable as any of By:larm’s musical showcases, and offered more than just an abstract inspirational chat about cover design, as he went into riveting detail about his own inspirations and his creative and collaborative processes.
Niki & The Dove @ Stratos
High above Oslo, Stratos offers nearly 360 degree views of the city, but during most By:larm nights, the place is packed so densely that you can really only look forward. That was fine for everyone on the night that Niki & The Dove performed, as the duo delivered melodic indie-flavored dance pop. Singer Malin Dahlström and keyboardist Gustaf Karlöf maybe take the dove thing a little too far, festooning themselves with bits of feathery flair and face-makeup flourishes, but, musically, there’s more to it, combining bits of modern pop (ie. MGMT and Chairlift) with ’80s acts like Cyndi Lauper and The Motels.
Black Metal Tour
As the story goes, the black metal scene in Norway was, in the early ’90s, centered around all of about six people, who were anti- just about everything—capitalism and religion, of course, but even… fans? Anyhow, when one of its central figures, Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, accused Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Burzum; a.k.a. Count Grishnákh) of beginning to popularize the scene, he plotted to take him out to the woods and kill him—and videotape it. The Count quickly turned the tables on Euronymous, showing up at his Oslo apartment in the middle of the night and stabbing him to death, leaving his pocketknife in Euronymous’ forehead. A mythology ripe for a bus tour, right? Well, that’s just what Satyricon and Celtic Frost member Anders Odden has organized, and it’s pretty amazing. See the rebuilt church that Vikernes and friends burned to the ground (next to the world skiing championships’ ski jump)! See the basement of Euronymous’ former record shop, Helvete, ground zero for Norwegian black metal! See the apartment complex where he got done-in! And then take a trip to Neseblod Records (the new ground-zero shop) and buy the t-shirt! Does it milk the legacy of this bunch of D&D nerds gone wild? Entirely. But it was also one of the best things to see in Oslo, hands down.
Svarte Greiner @ John Dee
Erik K. Skodvin’s Svarte Greiner project is a quiet listen, if you’re on headphones checking out his gorgeous records for the Type label. If you were at John Dee on this night, it’s a different affair—all noisy guitar run through a battery of loopers and effects, with the guitar more or less tossed off to the side and acting as a simple tone generator. By:larm is nothing if not a varied festival of Scandinavian delights, and this show, at the abstract end of the spectrum, was one of its most pleasing.
Telephones @ Blå
As Telephones, Henning Severud’s latest incarnation as a three-piece group takes Norway’s well-worn approximation of Balearic-inspired disco to its logical end, filling in the sparseness with all sorts of gorgeous, maximal color. It’s no wonder that Prins Thomas signed the project to his Full Pupp label. Definitely worth keeping an eye out for in the future.
1349 @ John Dee
After the black metal bus tour, it would seem a disservice to ourselves to not check out at least one “real” black metal band. And damn, are we glad we did. To the relatively uninitiated (uh, that’s us), 1349 sort of appears like a parody of black metal, and actually, that’s totally okay by us tonight—the circumstances of a bunch of white indie-rock hipsters watching this kind of performance in a certified club atmosphere (and not a dank basement out in the sticks) lends itself to a bit of over-the-top extravagance. And 1349 is nothing if not over the top, with all the hallmarks of what you probably think black metal’s all about: hulking band members, long head-banging hair, guitars that look like medieval battle weapons, and a shitload of “scary” facepaint. Real black metal? Hardly for us to say (apparently, they started around 1997, long after the Euronymous murder). Entertaining and well worth our time? Fuck, yes.
Shine 2009 @ Internasjonalen
The recipe for Finland’s Shine 2009 includes equal parts early ’90s piano house, Pet Shop Boys pop, and laid-back breakbeat hardcore. When the duo brought all those touchstones together at By:larm, it was hard to not at least nod your head a bit, if not outright get down. “New Rules” is a gorgeous slice of summery electro-pop, and if the audience members mouthing the words to the song was any indication, this group is destined to build exponential hype over the next year.
Frisk Frugt @ Jakob Kulturkirke
We really just caught the last couple minutes of this intensely minimal performance by Denmark’s Frisk Frugt (translation: Fresh Fruit)—a calming, simple, single tone squeezed from an organ, twisting its way through a series of sonic manipulation. But the real star of this show was maybe the venue, Jakob Kulturkirke, a converted church that’s now a performance space. The lighting and acoustics are intense and beautiful, and we can only imagine what Dungen would’ve sounded like the next night, had the line to get in not been wrapped around the block.