Norwegian Gothic may well be the album where some of Årabrot’s fans feel the band has “jumped the shark”. After two decades of making some stonkingly great and abrasive noise, Norwegian Gothic is melodic and catchy. It’s full of hooks and harmonies. Kjetil Nernes is singing rather than emitting torturous squeals. Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly, as anyone who has followed Årabrot will have heard the way the music of the husband and wife duo (with assorted collaborators) has been moving in this direction – but I’m still not sure that many people will have expected Norwegian Gothic. It’s still nothing that will trouble the charts, being more conventional but hardly mainstream, but it is next level brilliant, chock full of bangers that will go off, played live. Heck, they go off on the album. It might put off some of their fans – a hypnotising compost heap of ear worms that are easy to listen to – but I love it! A sure contender for my favourite album of the year!
For those who don’t know, Årabrot are Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park, and they have been creating Gothic and occult music concerning sex and death and all those good things since 2001, ever broadening their sonic tapestry, exploring new territories and sounds as they’ve progressed. What was once an impenetrable wall of noise, abrasive, extreme, dissonant and discordant, is now so catchy it’s almost radio-friendly (well, relatively speaking, anyway). But even if they’ve left a lot of the sludgy waves of noise and drone behind them, there is plenty of vim and vigour, power and purpose. And the guest musicians on this album are fantastic: Lars Horntveth (Jaga Jazzist), Jo Quail, Tomas Järmyr (Motorpsycho), Anders Møller (Turbonegro, Ulver) and Massimo Pupillo (Zu)! I became acquainted with the band only last year, but after being impressed with what I heard, I was soon making my way through their back-catalogue, and discovering some amazing music and noise.
Yet while Årabrot may once have been making music that sounded like a wickedly loud, heavy and abrasive amalgam of Killing Joke, Swans and Sunn O))), Norwegian Gothic opens with Carnival of Love, which for me (a child of the ’80s) evokes the sounds of early, post-punk U2 (with even Kjetil’s singing at times reminding me of Bono during that era) and The Cure. Similar, I guess, to Ulver’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Flowers of Evil – though obviously not sounding like either of those. The following song, Rule of Silence, only amplifies the Ulver comparison with its melange of post punk, electronica, goth and metal – and yet, still sounds nothing like Ulver. This is metal to be played on the dancefloor. It’s ridiculously catchy and heavy. It’s Gary Numan playing with Mastodon.
And still the opening salvo continues to beat and batter, not letting up with Feel It On. It’s frantic and frenetic, with some of the sweetest harmonies yet, but full of snarling violence – Sex Pistols meets Queens of the Stone Age. After being pummelled by Feel It On, The Lie slows things down to give a little respite – an almost grunge/pop ballad. Ballad is over-stating it, of course, as the rhythm section is absolutely crushing. The bass and drums are thunderous and oppressive, as they play another ridiculously catchy beat. Have I mentioned yet how much I love this album?
The Crows is freaking phenomenal, which Kjetil’s vocals almost schizophrenic in the way they jump from sweet to sinister and back, as if he can’t decide whether to be disarming, or dismembering. Listen to this song, and understand why a group of crows is called a murder. The only problem for me with The Crows is it is so affective that I almost find the following Kinks of the Heart disappointing, when it is anything but. In fact, Kinks is a strong enough song that it has been deservedly released as a single. I can’t lie, it is a really neat song, but it does unfortunately (for me) feel a little out of place after The Crows. And if that’s as negative as I can be about the album, it say a lot for just how good it is. At worst it’s a slightly jarring cut in an overwhelmingly cinematic journey.
That journey continues with an almost Morricone feel of Hailstones for Rain, crossed with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, because weirdness is never far away with Årabrot. Hailstones segues perfectly into spoken word piece The Voice, which along with Hallucinational actually creates a strong suite, with the last being a quite beautiful surprise, definitely keeping with the David Lynch vibes. These three tracks together provide a great sequence, for sure. The following (This Is) The Night shakes the cobwebs off, but it’s a song that doesn’t really grab me. It’s punk without the prog or post, but I like it enough that I’d never consider skipping it. Hard Love, on the other hand, brings back another slice of catchy weirdness, with great vocals from both Kjetil and Karin. After another brief spoken word track comes Hounds of Heaven, which is the one of the closest moments that Årabrot come to looking back to the sounds they came from on Norwegian Gothic, which surprisingly doesn’t sound as out of place as you might expect.
Deadlock is all Peaky Blinders and Nick Cave, and the sparseness of the arrangement in comparison to the dense Hounds of Heaven really augments the overall effect. The Moon is Dead is almost as minimalist, with effects sounding as if they’ve come from a horror film, and full of edgy tension and malice. It’s a sprawling, crawling dirge that, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. The hints of brass give it a real noir feeling that I love. Again, this is another song that harks back to some of the sounds of Årabrot of old, but (like Hounds) fits the aesthetic of Norwegian Gothic perfectly. It’s hauntingly and horrifically beautiful, and easily one of my favourite pieces on the album.
The album ends with You’re Not Special, which really isn’t that special (and is the only track I would drop from the album) – but special is exactly what this album is. It’s a staggering, astounding, brilliant evolution of Årabrot’s sound. They’ve never been a band to sit still and stagnate, and I for one love this brave new world they’re exploring. The duo will probably leave some fans behind, but they’ll surely gain some new ones. I can’t wait to hear where they take me next! And if they can bring along some of the guest musicians from this album, I won’t complain. The additional textures and sounds they add to the mix on Norwegian Gothic are amazing, and integrated perfectly in a subtle rather than imposing manner. The Tall Man and Dark Diva have absolutely excelled themselves with Norwegian Gothic, and I will be very surprised if this album doesn’t bring new converts to their church.
01. Carnival of Love (4:50)
02. The Rule of Silence (4:48)
03. Feel It On (3:20)
04. The Lie (4:03)
05. The Crows (2:24)
06. Kinks of the Heart (3:44)
07. Hailstones For Rain (4:56)
08. The Voice (0:50)
09. Hallucinational (5:00)
10. (This Is) The Night (2:49)
11. Hard Love (3:20)
12. Impact Heavily onto the Concrete (1:14)
13. Hounds of Heaven (3:31)
14. Deadlock (3:35)
15. The Moon is Dead (7:12)
16. You’re Not That Special (1:15)
Total Time – 57:04
Kjetil Nernes – Vocals, Guitars
Karin Park – Synthesisers, Mellotron, Hammond Organ, Vocals
Joakim Johansen – Drums
A.P Macarte – Bass
Lars Horntveth – Lap Steel Guitar, Synthesisers, Saxophones
Jo Quail – Cello (tracks 2,9 & 15)
Anders Møller – Percussion (track 7)
Massimo Pupillo – Bass (track 15)
Tomas Järmyr – Drums (track 15)
Record Label: Pelagic
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 9th April 2021