Nordic Giants

Nordic Giants / Årabrot

Arts Centre, Colchester
Tuesday, 22nd February 2022

I had been looking forward to this gig for quite some time, yet my excitement was tempered slightly by waking up on the day to first read that Russian “peacekeepers” had finally made the anticipated incursion into Ukrainian territory, and then the announcement that Gary Brooker had died a couple of days earlier. Add that to the fact that the 22nd of February is indelibly associated in my mind (as it is for many Kiwis) with the devastation and death caused by the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. I have to admit that part of me didn’t feel much up to going out that night. And, perhaps if this hadn’t become such a novelty, maybe I might have passed. But since covid came and changed our world, I had been to only one gig. This would be the first I attended since the UK government decided that the pandemic was over, and that the novel coronavirus and its variants were now endemic. There was a certain symmetry that appealed to me, as the last gig I attended before covid was Chaos Theory’s celebration of Ten Years of Chaos, of which Årabrot was one of the many amazing acts performing.

The venue couldn’t be more perfect for an Årabrot performance, the Colchester Arts Centre being a converted church (St. Mary at the Walls). While Kjetil Nernes may not have had a particularly religious upbringing or outlook (he’s compared reading the Bible to reading Dante – as a literary interest), Karin Parks was brought up in a Christian family and community. When the local church came up for sale, moving in was almost more an exercise in pragmatism and expediency than anything else, offering a space large enough for a studio, rehearsal space and for living, that was considerably cheaper than elsewhere in the country. Kjetil and Karin were married in their living room, in their church. So I made a comment before the gig began, to my friend who had accompanied me and agreed to take the photos that accompany this review, that this setting must feel like home to the band. It was nice to hear Karin echo this exact sentiment not too far into their set.

Årabrot - photo by Steve MacLachlan

When the band took to the stage, the audience were clearly not close enough for Karin’s liking, and she encouraged us all to come forward. And then forward again. And again. By the time she was happy with how far forward we had shuffled, I suspect there may have been less than a metre between where she was standing, and where I ended up. It made for a very intimate concert experience, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so close to a band before. I still wasn’t sure what to expect. On paper, the combination of Årabrot and Nordic Giants seemed an odd one. Raw, aggressive and extreme odes to sex and death from the former, and contemplative and cinematic soundscapes from the latter. Not that Årabrot doesn’t have calmer and more ambient moments, nor that Nordic Giants can’t be energetic and heavy, but they do seem quite disparate beasts, rather than kindred spirits.

I wondered if maybe Årabrot might go for a sound closer to 2019’s Die Nibelungen than last year’s Norwegian Gothic – or maybe something like Faustus, one of my favourite songs from 2016’s The Gospel – but the opening notes of the first song were a statement of intent. This was Årabrot in all their full and noisy glory, heavy and hard hitting. Actually, that first song was from The Gospel – the opening song and title track, in fact. An entirely appropriate choice to open proceedings in a church. A tall, white stranger, in his hand a silver guitar, and boy, can Kjetil make that guitar howl. It screams and it squeals – a veritable maelstrom of pent up energy and sound. Between that and the absolute pounding Tomas Järmyr (possibly better known for playing with Motorpsycho) gave his bass drum, it’s amazing Karin was able to make herself heard, either on synths or when she added vocals. But kudos to whomever sorted out the mix as everything was clear and audible. Oh, and Tomas did play more than the bass drum, but trust me, that particular piece of his kit received far more punishment than the rest. And it was glorious!

Årabrot - photo by Steve MacLachlanÅrabrot - photo by Steve MacLachlan

Quite possibly my favourite song from Norwegian Gothic followed – and its chorus has been an inescapable and insistent earworm since. This was one of a couple of occasions during Årabrot’s performance when I turned around to see if anyone else, like me, was singing along. Now I would never have expected to see everyone singing along, because some people had likely come for Nordic Giants and may have been unfamiliar with Årabrot – but it was awesome to see any time that I looked behind me, many in the audience were indeed singing along. I said in my review for Norwegian Gothic that the album was “chock full of bangers that will go off, played live”, and here I was being proved correct. By the fifth song, Årabrot had performed the opening tracks from their last three albums, but Maldoror’s Love from Who Do You Love was easily the most impressive of these. In fact, two of the highlights of the show were the two tracks pulled from this album. The other, Sinnerman, was simply awe-inspiring. Awesome in its quiet (relatively speaking) beginning, and its explosive climax.

Calling a three-piece a power trio is almost cliché, but I can think of no better description for the Årabrot’s line-up for this tour. I’ve only ever seen and heard one trio play so powerfully and put so much into their performance (High Dependency Unit). Songs like the aforementioned Sinnerman prove that the stage is the band’s natural habitat. I like the studio version of that song, but it’s far from my favourite song on Who Do You Love. However, live, the song is taken to a whole new level. It was breathtaking in its intensity. And then almost suddenly, Årabrot’s set ended as strongly as it began. Rule of Silence provided a crowd-friendly chorus to sing along to, as The Lie had earlier, and Hail-stones For Rain was as much of a statement of intent as The Gospel, culminating in a wall of sound so great it could be felt as much as heard. And left only one question – how the hell were Nordic Giants meant to follow that?

The Gospel
The Lie
Carnival of Love
Feel It On
Maldoror’s Love
Kinks of the Heart
Tall Man
Rule of Silence
Hailstones For Rain
Kjetil Nernes – Guitar, Vocals
Karin Parks – Keyboards, Vocals
Tomas Järmyr – Drums

Årabrot – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter

[Photos by Steve MacLachlan]

After a brief intermission, that question was answered. Unfortunately, in that time I found out about the death of Mark Lanegan, and I have a feeling that did alter my perception and appreciation of the Nordic Giants’ set. Yet there is no doubt that they opened powerfully, banishing any worries that they might be somewhat underwhelming after Årabrot. The stage was dominated by two screens, and the duo of Loki (keys, synth, trumpet and loops) and Roka (drums, bowed guitar and samples) were as far back from the audience as Årabrot were close. Given how deep the stage was, this was quite some distance, and thanks to the lighting, and the dominance of the screens, they often became almost invisible. In fact, there were many times I realised I was paying so much attention to the screens (despite my best intentions not to) I hadn’t noticed that Roka had left the drum kit, to come forward on the stage (relatively speaking, as it was still the back half) to play bowed guitar.

Nordic Giants began with the opening number of their latest album, Symbiosis, and proceeded to work their way through the album more or less in sequence. That is to say, the tracks from Symbiosis came in the same order as they did on the album, interspersed with tracks from previous releases. Great care had clearly been taken to ensure that the sequencing flowed perfectly, not only from track to track, but to match the stunning visuals. Each track was performed to an accompanying short film, and the way that the audio often reflected the action on the screen was quite amazing. Marching beats and galloping keyboard runs perfectly matched the visuals. As the tension mounted on screen, so the instrumentation reached a crescendo. And as amazing as it was to see the visuals perfectly matching the music, it was just as amazing – if not more so – how the duo managed to be so perfectly in synch with themselves, given that much of the time they were playing live against pre-recordings.

But Lanegan kept coming to mind. As the title of the film accompanying Through a Lens Darkly (from 2013’s A Tree as Old as Me) was displayed, even though it had no relevance to Lanegan’s death, my mind was on him as much as the performance. Likewise, as the imagery of This Way Up played while Nordic Giants performed Illuminate (from 2015’s A Seance of Dark Delusions), Lanegan’s death played on my mind. The combination of my mind not being completely on the performance, and the fact that Nordic Giants kept themselves distant and hidden from the audience, made me feel almost alienated. But lest it sound as if I didn’t enjoy the performance, let me assure you this is far from the case. I was distracted at times, to the detriment of my enjoyment, but I was never not enthralled by what was going on. Nordic Giants live shows have a legendary quality ascribed to them, and I am happy to say that I can now understand exactly why. If you ever have the chance to see Nordic Giants live, do not miss it.

Nordic Giants - photo by Nick Hudson

While Loki and Roka kept to the shadows, thanks to their costumes they remained somewhat larger than life. And when Loki swapped the keys for the trumpet, or Roka swapped the drums for the bowed guitar, we often caught a greater glimpse. They remained a mystery, but one that briefly offered a slight moment of illumination. While I would have appreciated the duo playing closer to the audience, rather than as far away as they could, I can appreciate how well that worked in combination with the two screens (the larger behind Loki and Roka, and the smaller front and centre of the stage). There was no one focal point, and it was almost overwhelming at times to work out where to look. This was no doubt the point, but once I became used to the almost disorienting effect, I was able to appreciate all that was occurring on stage.

I mentioned the film accompanying Through A Lens Darkly, which was The Last Breath, by David Jackson. As this ended, the screens proclaimed “to be continued”. It never occurred to me that this meant within the performance so (spoiler alert), it was absolutely incredible when Nordic Giants left the stage after Infinity – which to all intents and purposes seemed to be the final number, and an absolutely incredible climax to a mind-blowing audio and visual experience – and rather than the lights coming up, the screens returned to the action of The Last Breath. An intermission where requests for an encore might have occurred was perfectly executed, as the audience were spellbound and glued to the action on the screens. Nordic Giants returned to the stage for one last hurrah, and Dark Clouds Mean War (from 2013’s Dismantle Suns) was unintentionally appropriate, given that Russia had taken the Donbas. Again, this is a personal thing, but for me, this made what was a bloody impressive finale somewhat sombre for me. I felt this performance in the pit of my stomach, both because of the tremendous sound of Nordic Giants, and because of my fear and worry for friends in Ukraine.

It would probably not be something I would mention in a review otherwise, but because I was feeling as low as I was high after the final number from Nordic Giants, I feel like I have to mention my experience at Årabrot’s merch table after the gig. I was feeling somewhat numb, and for the first time in my life I think I could appreciate how awful and awesome once meant the same thing. I was in ambivalent awe, with incredibly strong feelings of joy and sadness competing with each other. The usual post-gig glow was tempered by too many negative thoughts. But one thing, or rather, one person, made everything ok. Behind the merch table was Lydia, who had accompanied Kjetil and Karin on tour. I don’t know her age, but she looked to be about the same age as my youngest daughter, Libby (who is five, turning six this year), and we had the briefest conversation. Lydia was so animated and proud of her Mummy and Daddy, pointing them out to me on the cover of Norwegian Gothic. Her innocent and unburdened joy was infectious, and when her Daddy appeared, she ran and leapt into his arms. It was the sweetest thing I have ever seen at any concert. And there it was: the post-gig glow. Thank you, Lydia. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

NORDIC GIANTS SETLIST (with film credits)
Philosophy of Mind (In Shadow by Lubomir Arsov)
Through a Lens Darkly (The Last Breath by David Jackson)
Anamorphia (Overrun by Pierre Ropars)
Illuminate (This Way Up by Smith & Foulkes)
Faceless (Faceless by Nordic Giants)
Evolve or Perish (Lunar by Tyson Wade Johnstone)
Convergence (Happiness by Steve Cutts)
The Seed (Death of an Insect by Hannes Vartiainen & Pekka Veikkolainen)
Spheres (Solipsist by Andrew Thomas Huang)
Together (Pencilhead by Pencilhead . me)
Infinity (Divisor by Nick Luchkiv)
(Intermission) (The Last Breath by David Jackson)
Dark Clouds Mean War (Sundays by Mischa Rozema)

Loki – Keyboards, Synth, Trumpet, Loops
Roka – Drums, Bowed Guitar, Samples

Nordic Giants – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp