An unexpected side effect of the worldwide pandemic on music has been the mushrooming culture of ‘stripped back’ albums or straight performance recordings by bands bereft of opportunities to perform live in a significant manner, for obvious reasons. Similarly, gathering together in enclosed studios has been far from easy for musicians wanting to create new music. Therefore, re-presenting older material in different ways has been a handy substitute for keeping creative and financial juices flowing. Airbag are the latest act to throw their acoustic hat in the ring with A Day in the Studio / Unplugged in Oslo. This new release features three songs from their excellent 2020 album A Day at the Beach, which saw them return with one of the best albums of their career so far, reinvigorated after their previous album, 2016’s Disconnected. A Day in the Studio also includes two songs adapted from their 2009 debut album Identity, and one previously unreleased song.
What do we get in this release of largely previously available songs, albeit in a different format?
‘Acoustic’ or ‘Unplugged’ albums have a chequered history – some are inspired new insights with performances brimming with passion and class, such as Neil Young’s Unplugged. Some re-create the songs with imaginative changes in instrumentation, twisting the songs into different shapes, such as Marillion’s 2009 Less is More. Others are less radical or imaginative in presentation. At the end of the day the artists are presenting material that has often been heard before so the pressure is on to do it in a manner which will shed new light on the songs and engage the listeners in different ways. However, in all honesty with this album it is doubtful that Airbag will really succeed in capturing the imagination of new listeners with these seemingly rather perfunctory performances.
Let’s get one thing straight – I absolutely loved A Day at the Beach, and reviewed it enthusiastically for TPA. Similarly, I was also very keen on Bjorn Riis’s recent solo releases, which preceded that last Airbag album… and maybe that’s part of my problem with A Day in the Studio. Having loved the power and electricity of songs like Machines and Men and especially the stratospheric Sunsets (one of my favourite songs of 2020) it was difficult to really enjoy these rather less imperious versions played largely on acoustic guitars. It could be argued that the new setting of Machines and Men allows Asle Tostrup’s stark (and high quality) vocals to much more clearly carry the lyrics. However, for me the piece sounded neutered, overly long, repetitious and lacked… well, Balls, to be quite frank. Similarly, Sunsets feels like a monochrome snapshot of the spectacular technicolour original. The almost bluegrass guitar and lacklustre vocal is a pale imitation, and whilst the original Sunsets arose majestically into the skies on soaring guitars, this unplugged version never really gets off the runway. Maybe this new setting was intended to encourage me to focus on the piece in a different way, but all I could think was ‘Why?’’
Into the Unknown is much more successfully re-interpreted from A Day at the Beach, with the lilting pulsing synths transposed into gentle acoustic guitars. However, as the original is already rather contemplative and introspective it is ideal for an unplugged rendition, and Tostrup’s plaintive voice and the melancholic guitars are perfectly suited to this treatment of the song… but at the end of the day it is hardly a radical re-imagining or mesmerising in its performance. Come On In is altogether more interesting, partly because it is an unreleased song and therefore stands on its own merits without fear of comparison. The stark beauty and melancholy of the vocals and acoustic guitars draw you into this heartfelt song, and it sounds like it could easily have been included on Bjorn Riis’s recent intensely personal solo albums.
Airbag hark back to their 2009 debut with the final two pieces. I am less familiar with that album so the comparisons are less of an issue. Colours seemingly carries on the vein of heartbreak with some emotional vocals. Nevertheless, as good as the vocals are they seem doomed within a tepid, grey setting – ironically, the listener probably craves ‘the Colours in my head’ which the singer intones repeatedly in this rather lengthy piece. There simply are not enough musical textures or variety to engage the imagination, such is the limited sonic palette. As for the final Identity piece, Sounds that I Hear, I could not help thinking ‘I’ve definitely heard these sounds before… all through this album!’
Whilst it is understandable why many artists have resorted to these sorts of releases during Covid, it is advisable that they do not allow such diversions to sound sonically limited or, frankly, dull. I expect watching this performance in the studio, possibly online like so many ‘Lockdown’ performances, was enjoyable and diverting for fans stuck at home, deprived of new and live music… but the question I ask myself is ‘would I ever want to listen to this whole album again?’ Aside from the previously unreleased song (and highlight of the album) I find it very unlikely indeed that I would reach for this album again in all honesty.
A Day in the Studio is undoubtedly well sung and played, but overall it feels like a flat ‘strum-a-thon’, lacking vital energy and power. Sorry Airbag, this time the proverbial Airbag really did need deploying for this crash of an acoustic album… I’m plugging right back in and strapping into the cockpit of the original albums to go stratospheric again – see you next time hopefully?
01. Machines and Men (7:07)
02. Into the Unknown (6:32)
03. Sunsets (5:36)
04. Come On In (4:01)
05. Colours (7:52)
06. Sounds That I Hear (6:22)
Total Time – 37:30
Asle Tostrup – Lead Vocals
Bjørn Riis – Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
Kristian Karl Hultgren – Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Karisma Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 3rd December 2021 (CD/DVD) | 28th January 2022 (Vinyl)
• Identity (2009)
• All Rights Removed (2011)
• The Greatest Show on Earth (2013)
• Disconnected (2016)
• A Day at the Beach (2020)
• A Day in the Studio (2021)