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  • David Bentley

by:Larm Oslo Norway - Festival Review 2020

by:Larm is one of several ‘showcase’ festivals held each year along with, for example Eurosonic (Groningen/Netherlands), The Great Escape (Brighton/UK) and (up to a point) Reeperbahn (Hamburg/Germany). Their primary job is to offer the opportunity for rising stars to have their moment (they are limited to 30-minute sets at by:Larm) before their peers, managers, promoters, PR folk, journalists and, most importantly, the general public.

Most are from Norway but all the Nordic countries are usually at least represented along with a smattering of artists from the UK, the U.S., and other nations. This year’s by:Larm was held between 27th and 29th February and, as usual, mainly in smaller club or industrial venues either in or close to the trendy, hipster inner city suburb of Grünerløkka although there were a couple of mainstream venues and a church or two. It’s easier to imagine this area if you think in terms of the physically rougher parts of Camden Town in London or the Northern Quarter in Manchester; places that have been gentrified but still have that down-at-heel image. The only problem I had is that when the weather turned on the final day, with a blizzard arriving by mid-afternoon, the steep hill down to the main venue area became a replica of the Holmenkollen ski-jump out on the fringes of the city, and I felt like Eddie the Eagle.

by:Larm is also the vehicle for the final of the Nordic Music Prize, which is awarded on the first night and which this year was won by Iceland’s Hildur Guðnadóttir for her score for the HBO series Chernobyl. As with the Øya Festival which also takes place in Oslo, over four days in August, the organisers set themselves out to be a little different and this year committed to 50:50 gender diversity in the festival line-up within a couple of years though I have to say that it seemed to me they hit that target already this year. It is no coincidence that most of the artists referred to here are female.

While it is a concise event compared to some of the others there are still far too many artists (well over 100) to review so I’ve stuck to a handful here that readers may know of already and if they don’t they should be made aware of, in my view. First up were Turquoise Sun (Sweden), playing at a largish venue, Ingensteds.

Turquoise Sun are a guitar-based psych – soft rock band to which a sax player adds interest. They have something of Pink Floyd about them but lack that knack of finding a strong melody in each song and harmonies could be improved. I also thought a little diversity of their own might help, for example a female vocalist for what is an all-male band. A work in progress, but its good just to see people working in this area.

Hollow Hearts (Norway)

From way up north in Tromsø, Hollow Hearts were a revelation. They are two girls, both called Ida and who could be sisters (but aren’t), a drummer and a lead guitarist. Billed as ‘Roots/Americana’ I was sure I was listening to something the Dixie Chicks had written, early in the set. But they can rock too, and the guitarist knows a lick or two. He amused me by writing in an Arcade Fire guitar line in one song, apparently unaware he had, but mentioning Hollow Hearts in the same breath as the Montreal indie superstars is quite justifiable.

Das Body (Norway)

They didn’t have to travel far. Das Body are from Oslo’s grey, apartment block dominated and not so wealthy East Side, and proud of it. The male musicians are supplemented on vocals (and occasional guitar) by the extraordinary Ellie Linden, who may still be just 19. With no disrespect afforded to any of the band, whose members are much more than competent musicians, the spotlight is very much on Linden but she handles it well.

Some people simply have star quality. They can’t help it. Linden is one of them. In one of their songs, she sings that she’s “taller than the average man”. And she is, about 6’ 2” I’d guess in her stocking feet, most of it legs, and with shoulders like a coat hanger, topped with a blonde mop.

But it isn’t simply her appearance. She’s bursting with attitude, but it’s controlled, not random. Introducing herself and her band she describes herself as ‘tonight’s main bitch’ and no-one seems inclined to argue. On the night (actually nights, I saw then twice, at Pokalen and Revolver), Das Body employed four young ladies as a choir in two of the songs, but they were also there to be tormented by the character of ‘Miss Ellie’ that she is developing rapidly along with a tendency to jump on and off chairs and to go down into the audience and square up to men. If Norwegian feminism needs a taliswoman it doesn’t have to look far.

But ultimately it’s about the music, which is uniformly melodic and powerful. They opened with what I thought was their best song, Graceland, partly for its stirring synth outro but actually the gig got better with every successive song thereafter and played out to a maelstrom of intertwining instrumentation, and Linden apparently possessed. Their debut album is due out soon and is certainly worth checking out.

Augustine (Sweden)

The problem with Augustine is his voice. By which I mean that the recorded version is fine, his dreamy, delicate, tuneful songs easily getting under your skin. But something went wrong at his first show, at Revolver. It was as if he’d inhaled helium. His voice was too high and even squeaky. Possibly it was something to do with the venue itself, or the audio equipment. I didn’t see his second show, at the Vulkan Arena, but I hear it was much better. Don’t let this put you off him. He’s an introverted deep thinker and many of his songs concern the way love can overcome weaknesses such as anxiety, inadequacy and social phobia, often to a Caribbean rhythm and he even dresses accordingly onstage, in ‘Death in Paradise’ style shirts.

Stella Explorer (Sweden)

Another artist who suffered from sound problems was Stella Explorer from Sweden. Stella told me her correct surname but it has so many syllables in it I’ll stick with Explorer. I suspect she may be American; she has a convincing accent. I came across her a couple of months ago supporting the Swedish artist Boerd in a tasteful fashion on a song she co-wrote with him, while progressing her solo career (although she has a big band behind her, including two drummers, one of them wholly on electronic pads). She’s also a member of the band Brödet.

I almost gave up on her when her first show (Pokalen) started late after what seemed like a 30-minute sound check but it was the memory of her contribution to Boerd’s song that convinced me to go back to see her a second time at Revolver. This time I was late, having been mesmerised by young Ellie (above) but quickly chilled out to Stella’s groove. It’s quite hard to describe, she brings in R&B, a little Americana, a little pop, into a sultry, chilled melting pot of her own, to which he she adds the visual ingredient of a much prettier Jay Kay from Jamiroquai by way of a rather fetching hat.

These are very early days for her as a solo artist; in fact I can’t even find a video of her performing so here is the song with Boerd. Early days or not I predict a big future for her once she finds her audience.

Löv (Norway)

For those unfamiliar with Löv, they are a fairly new band but with a hugely impressive pedigree. Two of the members, Marte Eberson and Øystein Skar, were an integral part of the massively successful Highasakite at their most creative period, especially the albums Silent Treatment and Camp Echo, while Martin Halla was the first winner of the Norwegian version of The Voice.

Coming together almost by chance as old school chums, Eberson and Halla got the group under way and were fortunate in the availability of Skar, a master of the keyboards. Having toured around Norwegian festivals last summer their show at the Vulkan Arena for By: Larm was the acid test of whether they could create the atmosphere that Highasakite was able to conjure up, in an indoor venue, irrespective of the difference in the music. They did.

Löv’s music tends to be more up-tempo than Highasakite’s. There’s more ‘joie-de-vivre’ about it and it is even danceable at times. It’s rich, high quality stuff; I’ve referred to it previously as ‘Yacht Pop.’ All three artists and their supporting guitarist and drummer were really up for it, Halla’s voice never once flagged and the extended version of the song ‘Superhuman’ which closed the set showcased the tremendous power that Skar and Eberson can generate through their battery of synthesisers to support that voice.

Löv is at the beginning of a journey, they are where Highasakite were in 2012/13. Chatting to Marte Eberson (a full interview will be published shortly) we discussed how Highasakite played to just three people in Manchester the first time they ever performed there. And one of those was their local PR agent.

Now they play to tens of thousands. So will Löv.

Lydmor (Denmark)

I left Lydmor until last as I habitually do. This lady is a bit special and I rate her as quite possibly the most innovative artist in Europe right now and her live performances are not to be missed.

Essentially she is two artists. One is a writer of gentle piano ballads such as 7 and 4 and Lamppost Light. The other is a full-on, in your face, high energy electro-pop composer of songs which she performs live wearing elaborately prepared body paint which only becomes visible under the fluorescent lamps which adorn the stage. It is quite spectacular to watch.

I saw her at Iceland Airwaves last November with a show in which she almost exploded with pent-up energy. This one was much more sedate, allowing her to introduce a couple of (excellent) new songs from her forthcoming album; one of them a highly feminist sign off of the #MeToo movement if I understood the lyrics, together with the powerful Nostalgia from her second album and two well-known tracks from her third (2017) album, Money Towers and the seminal Claudia, which concerns a mysterious woman of that name whom she knew during a long stay in Shanghai.

15 months on from first encountering Jenny Rossander I’m still baffled as to why she isn’t a much bigger name than she is. Having said that her fan club (of which I am unashamedly a fully paid up member) is growing quickly throughout Europe and Asia and perhaps the new album will do the trick. I’ve included two videos here, for Lamppost Light and Claudia, to emphasise the huge variety in what she does.

With the spread of the coronavirus this festival might turn out to be the last for a while as countries close down mass gatherings of people, especially inside. That would be a shame because they present few opportunities for music fans to participate also in conference presentations and panel discussions. I attended some fascinating ones including:

An interview with Puja Patel, Editor-in-Chief of the renowned Pitchfork online music magazine, now owned by Conde Nast, and residing in the new World Trade Centre building in New York. Amongst other things she was wary of the rise of the ‘amateur blog’ and of the need for Pitchfork to stay ahead of the game by involving itself in new ventures of its own such as show promotion.

An interview with Scumeck Sabottka, the immensely successful agent, manager and promoter of bands such as REM, Kraftwerk and Rammstein. Sabottka revealed how his secret of success was never to get close to any of the members of bands he has been involved with and in some cases he does not even know where they live.

A fascinating Q&A involving Northern Soul DJ and promoter Kev Roberts on ‘Keeping the Faith – 50 years of Northern Soul’. The rise of the sub-Motown brand, the shipping in of thousands of records on Laker Airways (some of which are now worth thousands of pounds owing to their rarity), the Wigan Casino all-nighters, the demise of Northern Soul and its resurrection in recent years.

My favourite was an interview with Norwegian alternative musician Jenny Hval centred on her EP The Long Sleep, which was played in full. During the event, she revealed that one of the songs on it was closely influenced by a Tears for Fears song (which was also played), which she’d channelled as much as she could without plagiarising it because she loved it so much. In a private chat, she also told me of how when she played at the Soup Kitchen in Manchester a few years ago (a show I attended) she couldn’t get up off the stage that she’d laid down on at one point because her clothing stuck to the beer already on it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was that in order for voices and music to be heard the fan heating in the erected temporary venue at by:Larm was turned off. As Hval told the audience stories of some of her songs which are largely concerned with death, that audience began collectively to expire from hypothermia, the temperature outside being zero degrees. Performance art at its surrealist best.

More details on all the artists and bands that appeared at by:Larm can be found here:

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