I step off the plane and am pleasantly surprised. For the past week anyone who has ever looked at a map of Norway shivers at the thought of our February visit to the city's annual new music fest By:Larm. "Wear long johns!" they advise "take plenty of thick socks, hats, woollen knickers!". Such is their icy tone that I consider stapling a hot water bottle to my stomach. Luckily Oslo is having a mild couple of days, far different from the -25s of 2011, and I don't feel bad about losing that bit of warmth from having shaved my legs.
Photo: Dan Dennison
There's never far to go anyway. Central Oslo is compact, a network of only slightly icy streets packed with bars, cafes and (I try to stay away, I do!) shops selling those fit Scandinavian jeans. Bands start properly the next day but after a pizza at 'Oslo's dubstep bar' Hells Kitchen we dip in and out of the By:Larm central square where bands who want to be Blink 182 and U2 are opening the festival to a large crowd, dizzy on popcorn (how exotic!) and the prospect of three days of new music.
Later we're tipped off that down the road in Mono there's some Norwegian hip hop, one of my must sees of the weekend. "You won't find any of that around here" laughs the doorman. He ID's me (as if 17 year olds can afford £7 pints?!) and finally lets us in to hear the dying moments of what will probably be the first of many heavy rock bands. Mono then plays an entire Danzig record.
Photo: Dan Dennison
Call it Eau d'Friday night in L'Glasgow or The Barfly Effect but it seems like no matter what the country, music venues have that hot lager smell. The next day the low ceiling of Revolver rumbles and the air wobbles with armpit whiff as Norway's Maribel start up. East German born front woman Rebekka Marstein looks pretty sly, shaking a tambourine and gently clinking small bells but the next minute she's going for it with a deep drone, a passionate contrast to the brute force of her bands' guitars. Thanks to Serena Maneesh, My Bloody Valentine style music is apparently massive over here ("there are too many copies” one local informs me, rather wearily) but sounding a bit like Warpaint gone Nordic, Maribel must be one of the best if that's your thing.
Now, it's been quite a long time since I squashed front row for some metal (my home region loved the stuff) but I was still disappointed that local group Overthrow didn't “bring the mosh” as promised. With a great guttural orhhhhhhhhrrrrrrhhhhhhhhhhhhhh AND a Flying V, I was expecting to see at least one pair of legs in the air. Despite having existed since 2007 and having toured with bands like Cancer Bats and Norwegian metal gods Immortal, maybe they’re still only earning their metal horns?
The subtler Dark Times follow. Part of the city's underground scene The Black Hole crew, they play vicious punk songs with sharp yelling vocals. Like the Danish Iceage (who are around the corner at the Nordic Music Prize) they whack together US punk and post punk, and in their case riot grrl, but it doesn't feel like a straight copy. Whatever they're angry about is new, even if the way they're expressing it isn't.
Dark Times. Photo: Dan Dennison
After all that angst it's time for something lighter. I'm promised Gerilja are a laugh if nothing else (they apparently sound like Megadeth meets T Rex and their hair makes me think ’Nordic Chromeo’) but somehow I get sidetracked on the street, attempting to recreate UK dubstep hits for a small baffled audience. Never mind, there's always tomorrow and I hear that a few bars away By:Larm lecturer Four Tet is 'smashing it'.
We didn't see all of Dark Times last night, so decide to catch them again at one of Oslo's underage venues, Sub Scene. By now I love their singer, who is nervous (she looks terrified when I smile at her later) until she starts to play. So new they don't have a full set - mainly picking from Sheep Chase Records 7" Shallow Breather - and cover a Wipers song. What's not to love?
Kulturkirken Jakob is the city's church venue; a candle lit bar in the crypt with a stage where the pulpit should be. Many of the festival's big names get to play here, so long as they make music to sit down to (there's definitely no Mayhem...) and Kompakt's Axel Willner - aka The Field - fits perfectly given that it's a pretty solo performance, and not a hard, bassy take on recent LP 'Looping State of Mind'. I'm not going to lie, when a venue AND sound are this ambient, man, it's hard not to have a tiny disco nap. So I do. And with The Field still looping away, it feels brilliant.
Sweden's Korallreven have been praised for their knack of bringing together sunny balearic genres, indie pop and cosmic disco, but something just doesn't work on a cold night in a dark 1930s theatre. Their singer wears shorts and moves seductively to tracks from 'An Album by Korallreven' but the crowd just stares, unmoved and wrapped in their Canada Goose parkas. Maybe they wish they were watching Daniel Tjäder's other band, The Radio Dept?
Moving on to a problem that's probably confronted many punk rock bands before Iceage (but that doesn't make it any less difficult): what exactly do you do when gigs stop being just your friends and their friends pummelling the shit out of one another? Although there are rustles of excitement before the teenage Danes start at midnight in moped-obsessed venue Mono, a man in a trilby tries to put a stop to any of their fans pushing their way to the front. It's a shame, because they sound better tonight than their recent London gigs; muscular, frustrated but confident. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt stares down the audience screaming "You are nothing. Nothing" and an eerily polite applause follows. It's sad, but will surely spur them to keep making that angry sound.
Photo: Dan Dennison
If you've ever wondered what dance music made in Finland sounds like, then definitely check out a techy bass loving duo Renaissance Man. Having released on labels including Sound Pellegrino (based in Paris, releasing all over) they represent one of the things I love most about dance music, that is, wherever you are in the world, there's probably a group of people swapping tips about records and flying in DJs to hold one hell of a party. It might be a bit early for some to dance but in the basement of Jaeger the shuffle begins under the mesmerising moving ceiling lights.
In keeping with the weekend's varied things don't stay dancey for long. The necromantic Årabrot (named after a garbage dump in Haugesund, Norway) play a Dagbladet sponsored show at Sentrum Scene. I ask someone what 'Dagbladet' means and they inform me it's a national tabloid a "bit like the Daily Mail". Seems that in Norway, yes, even the Daily Mail knows how to throw a claw or two…
Photo: Dan Dennison
Slide bass and floor toms make Solar Anus cuts 'The Wheel Is Turning Full Circle' and 'And The Ass Had Spoken' sounds fantastic so I ask fellow NME writer (and the man who is making the most of it at the front) John Doran what I should listen to next. "I Rove" he says, adding that the stories behind the songs are some of the best."
For me, a noise rock novice, I just like the fact they're shirtless and "the band's regular female roadie once won a pissing contest with David Yow of The Jesus Lizard".
Ears still ringing, it's warehouse venue Bla (projections on the walls, lots of concrete, you know the deal) next and one of the busiest rooms of By:Larm so far. But on first look, I decide I'm going to hate Norwegian band 120 Days. One of their members looks like a 118 118 man in vintage shell jacket AND tie, another is wearing yet another trilby. Thankfully, they're good, although perhaps cribbing a bit too much from Primal Scream. When the big DFA-style instrumentals kick in, they're afforded the biggest compliment that anyone making this kind of live dance can get; the crowd turns away from the stage and starts to dance with each other, forgetting that there's even a band there.
Photo: Dan Dennison
As Metal legends Mayhem close the festival in one way at Sentrum Scene, something completely different is happening at the main tent. Rebecca & Fiona are huge in their native Sweden, a confusing-but-somehow brilliant mix of DJ and pop, and they've made everyone lose it. Like Mary Kate and Ashley meeting Tiesto with a side of Skrillex (in huge platform trainers), they throw their arms in the air, do the lasso, perform synchronised routines, and all while (pretending?) to pitchshift, mix and listen through their headphones. Maybe it's the Ratzeputz, but I think I want to be Rebecca and Fiona. Norway, what have you done to me?