CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Basements, tower blocks, and True Norwegian Black Metal

By | Published on Friday 17 February 2012

Andy Malt

Hello, people. I am in Oslo. So far I have not been killed by any trams or frozen to death (rumours of temperatures dropping to minus 28 degrees have proven unfounded). I have spent an alarming amount of money on not a lot of beer though. So, you know, swings and that. But why am I in Oslo? I am here for the by:Larm festival, which for the last fifteen years has been showcasing the best in Nordic music to an international audience.

Last night I attended the Nordic Music Prize (the Nordic version of the Mercury Prize), which was a crash course in music from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland, with acts we’re all familiar with back in England, like Björk and Lykke Li, up against acts we are less aware of, such as Anna Jarvinen, Siinai and the CMU approved Rubik.

The prize, as it happened, went to one of those lesser known artists, Swedish jazz musician Goran Kajfes for his album ‘XY’. The jury, apparently in unison, said this about the record: “A very distinctive voice unexpectedly united the jury, everybody instantly recognised the love that has gone into the playing and, also, the packaging. It’s an ambitious and warm fusion of sonic elements, from jazz with both African and eastern influences to electronica. This double album really does something that is quite rare: it communicates the pure joy of music”.

After that, I headed out to watch a few bands. Highlights of the evening included the aforementioned Siinai, who put on an impressive show with synth-heavy krautrock-influenced music, and shoegaze outfit Maribel, who rightly packed out the small sweaty basement in which they were playing. From that basement, we then shot up to the eleventh floor of a tower block to catch Gus Gus, but the real high point of the night was catching Iceace playing their loud, angry punk in a church.

This morning I went out on the True Norwegian Black Metal Tour, which was excellent. I’ve read much about the early 90s black metal scene in Norway in numerous articles and the book ‘Lords Of Chaos’, but, having never been to Oslo before, it was often hard to really get a grip on it, or the murders and church burnings it unfortunately became synonymous with.

Piling onto a bus at 9am, we were led by Anders Odden, founder of the band Cadaver and now a member of Satyricon. As someone who was part of that scene, and who counted its leader Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth as a friend and personal mentor, the tour was filled with first hand accounts and personal insights.

First stop on the tour was Holmenkollen Chapel, the last church to be destroyed in a spate of arson attacks in 1992, this one carried out by Euronymous, his Mayhem bandmate Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes (who would later kill him) and Emperor drummer Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun. Since rebuilt, the church is right up in the hills overlooking Oslo, next to the Holmenkollbakken ski jump – a major landmark in the city.

The views down over Oslo from that high up are stunning, but it’s also clear that once that church, a wooden structure, went up in flames, it must have been clearly viewable from across the whole city; a beacon for the subsequent largely unwanted (by both the musicians and Norwegian officials) media attention brought upon Norwegian black metal.

The second stop of the morning was the site of the Helvete (Hell, in English) record shop, which was owned and run by Euronymous from 1991 to 1993. Back then a hub of the black metal scene, it’s now a very nice coffee shop. However the basement, where many bands met, rehearsed and recorded, still remains intact, much as it was back when Euronymous held court. Led down a narrow staircase and series of corridors we squashed ourselves into a tiny room where the words “BLACK METAL”, painted there by Euronymous himself (and pictured above), are still clearly visible.

Odden gave great accounts of what it was like to be part of that scene, and how it eventually fell apart with the murder of Euronymous by Vikernes in 1993. His personal conclusion of what went wrong (if I can completely simplify it) seemed to be that many of its protagonists had lost their sense of humour. Black metal was no longer about uniting a group of people who considered themselves outsiders, and instead became something more serious and sinister.

That Norway seems to now embrace this period in its musical history, where once it would perhaps rather not have, is a positive thing, I think. For all its darkness, it isn’t something that can be made to go away. And throughout the tour, Odden continually stressed how much great and influential music came out of that scene, something often overshadowed by the actions of a small number of its members.

These days, Norwegian diplomats all receive training in the history of black metal due to the number of requests for information they receive internationally. Odden also noted the irony that his tour (launched in 2008 at Oslo’s Inferno metal festival) is an official part of by:Larm and the current incarnation of Mayhem are due to perform at the festival on Saturday night. Another Oslo festival was once threatened with being shut down if it did not pull Mayhem from its line-up, and in the early 90s black metal bands rarely played shows because few promoters were willing to book them – if you wanted to see such bands play live back then, says Odden, you generally had to go to their rehearsal room.

It did, at times, feel slightly odd to be travelling around these sites as a tourist, particularly as, for all Odden’s stories of the fun he’d had back then, there were plenty of macabre tales of criminal activity, violence and death – the only time he seemed to hold back was when pushed by one of the group to answer questions about the injuries sustained by Euronymous when Vikernes stabbed him to death, claiming not to know anything about it (perhaps understandably, given that he was close to the former). That said, plenty of people go out on Jack The Ripper themed tours near our office in London, and I guess it’s important to explore the negative as well as the positive parts of history.

It made me wonder, also, if in the internet age it would even be possible for such an insular music scene to develop. As has often been said, in the age of mass communication via the internet, it’s near impossible to maintain a local scene that’s cut off from the rest of the world (until, that is, something major happens that’s impossible to ignore – whether it be a surprise hit single or a series of burnt down churches). Even if a group of musicians completely shunned the internet, would they be able to hide themselves away from bloggers, tweeters, and those weird people who upload grainy videos of gigs to YouTube? Maybe some already do – I guess I wouldn’t know, and even if I did, I presumably wouldn’t be able to tell you about it. Not until someone burned a church down in its honour.

Anyway, back to bands I can tell you about, and I still have one more evening of live music to look forward to before I head back to London. Tonight I’m hoping to catch Team Me, The Field, Thom Hell, Husky Rescue, Loney Dear, Icona Pop and I Break Horses, amongst others. Though I would equally settle for seeing a load of brilliant bands I’ve never heard of before – it’s the nature of these events that you never quite know where you’ll end up, basements, tower blocks or churches, which is, of course, why they are so much fun.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

There is no podcast this week, due to Chris and I being in different countries, but you can still check out last week’s right here. Excitingly, the podcast is currently featured on iTunes, so I presume we’re doing something right. Check out the full back catalogue, and subscribe via iTunes or RSS here. We’ll be back with another edition next week, rounding up major events in music and making bad jokes as normal.

So, the big shock of the week came, of course, with the death of Whitney Houston, who was found dead in the bath of a Beverley Hills hotel room on Saturday night. Unsurprisingly, tributes poured in for the 48 year old singer, including later in the week one from her godmother Aretha Franklin. Her funeral will take place at the Newark Baptist church where she first sang in public as a child on Saturday. While not open to the public, the ceremony will be streamed online.

There was controversy, too, when Sony Music increased the wholesale price of Houston’s greatest hits compilations, only around twelve hours after her death, leading to an automatic price jump on iTunes. Apple later dropped the price again, while Sony issued a statement blaming an employee for the error.

The Grammy Awards was covered heavily in the press this week, following the ceremony on Sunday. Though perhaps not entirely as its organisers would have wished. Nicki Minaj’s performance was much talked about for being very, very odd, but there was much more criticism of Chris Brown’s two performances, which, coming just three years after he beat Rihanna unconscious in the street after a pre-Grammys party, many felt was tasteless and sent out a bad message. This wasn’t helped by a quote from the Grammys beforehand claiming that the ceremony was the real victim of that particular incident of domestic abuse, and afterwards expletive filled, all caps (and later deleted) tweets from Brown himself, claiming his critics were just jealous of him. His mum apparently isn’t too happy about the outburst – I’m not sure if that makes her a jealous hater too.

The latest takedown of a file-sharing website was an interesting one. The UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency shut down, replacing it with a message informing users that they could face unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to ten years if they were found to have downloaded files from the site. As well as that, the user’s IP address was displayed with an extra message amounting to “we know where you live”.

There was much criticism of SOCA’s holding page online, not least because the claims about fines and jail time weren’t true – they only apply to people running copyright infringing services on a commercial scale and for profit. The message was duly removed, though SOCA claimed it was only ever intended to be temporary anyway.

As well as all that excitement, there was a lot of action and discussion around copyright legislation too. The Spanish Supreme Court last week agreed to hear an appeal by the Association Of Web Users which claims that the country’s anti-piracy Sinde Law is unconstitutional. Then another Spanish court ruled that a website called Cinetube, which provides links to illegal content from other sources and is likely to be a hot target if and when the Sinde Law goes live, was not, under existing Spanish laws, infringing copyright itself.

Meanwhile, in the States there’s been talk that the IFPI might be considering litigation to force Google to up anti-piracy measures on its search engine, a date was set for EMI’s civil case against ReDigi, and the US content industries updated their copyright watch lists, naming the countries they are most unhappy with in regard to protecting copyright.

Across Europe last weekend various protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement took place, which were followed by the president of the European Parliament expressing concerns about the global intellectual property treaty.

Also in the copyright domain, not specifically a music issue, but one that potentially has implications for all music PR and clippings agencies, the UK Copyright Tribunal this week reaffirmed that a licence is required by any company that emails to paying clients curated lists of links to newspaper or magazine articles – the Newspaper Licensing Agency having previously won a ruling in court that a copyright exists in the headlines of those articles (and any URL made up of the headline). Some worry the principle behind this licence could be extended so that anyone sharing links or accessing newspaper or magazine articles as part of their job would need a licence, though the NLA denies this is so.

So, lots of copyright stuff this week. And then there were some stats. The BPI released its annual review of digital music sales, revealing that digital revenues are up, but, as usual, still aren’t compensating for the fall in physical sales. And if you’re hoping for some more positive news form the music press, you’re going to be disappointed. The latest ABC magazine circulation figures make for pretty gloomy reading.

And finally, Guns N Roses keyboard player Dizzy Reed said that all five original members of the band are now signed up to appear at their Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame induction (though whether they’ll be willing to stand together is another matter), Adele denied that she was planning to take five years off from music, despite saying she would, and Shakira was attacked by a sea lion.

We had a fine array of features this week. There was an interview with drum n bass star High Contrast, a playlist from the fantastic Team Me, and in his column Eddy Temple-Morris wrote about an amazing sounding live collaboration between Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, Jehst, and Engine Earz Experiment.

In the Approved column we had 80s influenced cinematic synth-pop trio Selebrities, mysterious LA-based electronic duo Rhye, London-based lo-fi singer-songwriter Keel Her, and producer Magical Mistakes, who comes to us from California via a small Japanese island.

Elsewhere, we had a free EP from Ed Sheeran and Yelawolf, defunct hardcore quintet Throats‘ entire discography for free, an a capella track from The Futureheads, a selection of remixes from We Have Band, plus new videos from Dillinger Escape Plan and iamamiwhoami.