x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Shiver me timbres: Norway's By:Larm music festival

In late-February every year, an impressive array of music industry personnel, media professionals and actual music fans gather in Oslo for By:Larm, a weekend long music festival.

Megaphonic Thrift make an enjoyably angular guitar racket.
Megaphonic Thrift make an enjoyably angular guitar racket.

Huddled over hot coffee at a cafe in Norway's capital city, certain members of the band Forza are finding the climate outside a bit more challenging than others. "I remember when I was small," recalls the drummer, Jaser Sayun, who was born in Baghdad. "I was six maybe, and the first time I saw snow, because we don't have it in Iraq, I thought it was soap or something, so I jumped on it. Five seconds later I start to cry, 'it's burning! I'm burning!' I hate snow."

It does seem an odd time to be in Oslo, given the icy pavements and sub-zero temperatures. And yet in late-February every year, an impressive array of music industry personnel, media professionals and actual music fans gather here for By:Larm, a long weekend of seminars, networking and, most importantly, gig-going, as the next generation of Norwegian musical talent reveals itself. Norwegian musical talent? Well, yes, and a diverse mix it is too. There may be fewer than five million people scattered between the northern tundra and the southern fjords, but support for the arts is such in this prosperous nation that all forms of musical life are encouraged.

Forza have a more interesting history than most. The roots of the eclectic seven-piece lie in a refugee reception centre in the city of Bergen, where disparate young musicians collaborated on a drumming project, run by Rudi Bakken. His group has evolved somewhat in the decade since: only a couple of the original members remain but they've maintained the cosmopolitan spirit, incorporating several native Norwegians, an Iraqi/Serbian drummer and an Iranian rapper.

"Somebody told me that we are the most politically correct band on stage," laughs Bakken. "But really we want to be heard for our music. We know who we are and we know where we come from, but we need to get recognition for our work." This is their best opportunity yet, and Forza throw everything into their performance, mixing Balkan and salsa rhythms, Persian strings, a few rock licks and a hip-hop vibe.

The event proper begins on the Thursday night and Easy and Toshybot are a little static in comparison with Forza, but the DJ duo introduce many listeners to a new genre. Skweee is a Scandinavian invention named after the method of production: squeezing odd sounds out of old synthesizers. It keeps a packed crowd entertained. The music and media delegates at By:Larm are all based at the same hotel, so take a Friday morning stroll and you'll see New Order's Peter Hook being interviewed, various musicians milling about and label representatives offering flyers so hastily printed that vital information will often be missing: the name of the band, for instance.

Musically, Friday seems to be Sonic Youth tribute day. Bergen's Megaphonic Thrift kick things off at an early showcase and make an enjoyably angular guitar racket despite losing the services of their regular drummer, who has upped sticks to tour with Casiokids. Not be outdone, the Thrift's frontman, Richard Myklebust, then runs across town to drum with another Bergen outfit, Kathinka, who are even more in thrall to that influential New York combo. "Bergen is a very Sonic Youthy kind of city," suggests one Oslo-based onlooker.

Of the many promotional CDs handed out on Saturday morning, the most coveted is an EP by Solvor Vermeer, chiefly because each individual sleeve has been hand-drawn. Vermeer, from the far-northern city of Finnsnes, is very much a DIY kind of artist: she also helped paint a local recording studio in order to hold a secret off-programme session there. A mixed crowd of media people, fans, and - curiously - the Scottish songwriter King Creosote have trekked to an unremarkable-looking house in central Oslo, placed blue plastic bags over their shoes to contain any melting snow, then sprawled across the studio floor to watch the scarf-clad Vermeer and her small ensemble glide through a likeable set of string-laden lullabies. Lyrical references to coldness abound.

"This is not even snowy for me," smiles the singer, curled up on a sofa after the set. "Where I grew up we had four metres of snow on our lawn; it was dark all winter, so you get kind of obsessed by it. It's really inspiring, being in a dark place." Vermeer might have enjoyed a trip to Villa later on Saturday evening, a different sort of dark place, with a warm vibe. Somewhere near the middle of this compact venue, the band Masselys appear to have just cleared a space and launched into their energetic set: wilfully non-commercial Krautrock with a hint of dub.

Saturday's main event, at the large, seated Folketeateret features one of Norway's brightest prospects. The electro-pop duo Susanna and the Magical Orchestra have enjoyed some success abroad, notably when the American television drama Grey's Anatomy used their version of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. Reactions are mixed here though: a rapturous reception from most of the audience, yes, but much grumbling from the delegates about more unoriginal covers. The heart did sink when Susanna embarked on Leonard Cohen's already overdone Hallelujah.

The weekend ends in calamitous fashion as a couple of those delegates finally succumb to the conditions and break limbs while rushing between gigs. Meanwhile there are occasional blood-curdling screams from the locals, too, but thankfully these turn out merely to correspond with dramatic events at the Winter Olympics. Their music scene may be wide and fertile but, for thrills, nothing beats cross-country skiing.