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From the Archives: Festival review – Øya Festival, 2019

From the Archives is a collection of articles previously written by David Bentley and published elsewhere.

This one is a review of the 2019 Øya Festivalin Oslo, Norway, the most recent one to be held as both the 2020 and 2021 festivals were cancelled on account of the pandemic.

Most, though not all, of the performers I watched were from the Nordic countries.

The review was first published in God is in the TV in my section Nordic Music Scene.

Warning! Strong language.       

Where: Oslo, Norway

When: August 6-10, 2019

Oslo’s Øya Festival turned 20 this year. It’s had a chequered history, twice moving location, once teetering on the edge of insolvency, but now on firmer financial ground. To my eye it looked to be in fine shape, especially as the sun shone brightly during the first three of the four days, the fourth disappearing under a deluge as if to warn us of how unpredictable both the weather and the music business can be.

The fourth Øya at Tøyen Park, a 20-minute stroll out of the city centre, could be one of the last as it seems another move may be on the cards. I hope not. All of the six stages bar one are on an incline and the main one, Amfiet, is a natural amphitheatre, the hillside even tiered like a football terrace. Think ‘Henman Hill’ at Wimbledon on a much bigger scale. There can’t be a better view anywhere in festival land and you can walk between the stages in minutes, even seconds, which makes for clockwork timing of finishing and starting acts. Food and drink options are a minor deviation away.

Add to that the strange amalgam that is Oslo, a city of no upper class to speak of despite it being the capital of one of the richest countries in the world, and only a small working class (though it has its fair share of drop-outs, alkies, dope heads and beggars) but of a huge middle class which promenades and bavardages its way along the swanky main street, Karl Johans Gate during the day; one which then unaccountably turns into a red light district once dusk falls (which is at about 11pm just now). It’s an amazingly green, eco-friendly place, and with every digital convenience, but you can’t get anything to eat after 10pm and some of the trams look they’ve been loaned by the city of Gdansk rather than sending them to tram heaven. It’s a place of contradictions I simply can’t pigeon-hole and that just adds to its allure.

The event featured four of the 12 bands on the Mercury Prize shortlist (of which three were seen and heard), a testament to the adroitness of Claes Olsen, who books them as long as a year in advance. It kicked off with a pre-festival club night (repeated on every succeeding evening), with over 80 artists and bands represented in total during that period. I took the opportunity to check out two bands I’ve recently reviewed in Nordic Music Scene to see how they fared on a live stage (at Sentralen, a tastefully converted bank building). Both The Switch and Insomniac Bears were excellent, and much more so than I’d given them credit for previously.

The former is a guitar psych band that can really rock even if the Peter Gabriel – like singer could be on helium at times while the latter is somewhat dominated by a splendid drummer, against whom the vocalist is forced to compensate with an over-agitated performance. They have the hallmarks of modern prog, complemented by a sweet violin contribution on some songs.

Both are well worth going out of your way to see if they come this way but I’m going to be saying that about a lot of Norwegian bands as this review progresses. Starting with the incomparable Thea Hjelmeland. She followed Silvana Imam, an openly gay Lithuanian-Swedish rapper with a predilection for political songs, who opened the outdoor event, on the Vindfruen stage.

I don’t think Silvana, who modestly describes herself as the van Gogh, Liberace and Tarantino of rap music, is actually an Imam, and they wouldn’t let her into a mosque anyway when many of her lyrics are “fuck” and “motherfucker” and when her masked accomplice looked like Jihadi John. Which was both a turn-off and a shame. She’s a sort of rapping Sigrid and is otherwise quite entertaining.

But back to Thea Hjelmeland, the first performer on the huge Amfiet stage. She was a revelation. An indie-folk-psych artist with a distinct hippy bent, she’s still feeling her way into the business. Her first song saw her tapping out the melody on a mandolin with a wooden spoon, and later she plucked away at an autoharp, but in between she circled a table at distance part-way up the hill, on which was stood the object of her affections (a band member) if I understood the song correctly. Then the table was occupied by five young people with carrots for fingers as she joined them for another song (Lord knows what that was about) and before long she was leading a conga around the hill. She also muttered on about “psychosis leads you to masturbate in public”. But all the time the music was powerful, appealing and melodic and delivered vocally by someone who takes her work seriously. Worth watching out for again, once she nails her direction.

Another Norwegian artist, Fay Wildhagen, swiftly followed on the Sirkus stage, which is like an aircraft hangar for the benefit of those artists wanting profound lighting effects during the day. She recently released a new album, ‘Borders’. Described as ‘folk-pop’ I detected a heavier rock influence. Unfortunately her songs didn’t quite live up to their promise and too many of them were sidetracked by aimless guitar solos which went nowhere.

The first big international name was James Blake, who just isn’t right for festivals. Two songs were all I could take. As we headed back in the direction of Amfiet 20 minutes later the simple piano riff he was playing could have belonged to a funeral and hordes of people were heading towards nearby Vindfruen and IDLES.

Now I’ve said previously that IDLES aren’t to my taste. They insist they aren’t punk, post-punk, hardcore or post-hardcore without specifying what they are. Well, to me, they’re plastic punk. I don’t buy it. It seems manufactured. But they can turn in a dramatic, highly watchable set, I’ll give them that, and the drummer is their star man. Then singer/growler Joe Talbot spoils it all with “Are you alright? Are you ‘appy? Yeah, that’s because you don’t live in the facking United Kingdom”. Oh, come on, Joe. It isn’t Xanadu but it ain’t that bad, either. And what he failed to get was that well-heeled but equally socially-protected Norwegians don’t give a fack about the socio-economic situation in the UK, and foreigners generally have more pride in their country than we do. This was evidenced by the huge gaps that began to emerge in the crowd.

The Cure rounded the night off with their extended Glastonbury set (one which I learn was also played at subsequent festivals). I’m not exactly qualified to comment on it as I was waylaid at the top of Amfiet Hill by a pleasant Norwegian guy who plied me with beer as a quid-pro-quo for talking football. I was vaguely aware that many of the opening songs were from ‘Disintegration’, the depressing goth-rock album Robert Smith lapsed back into in the late 1980’s although it is still their biggest selling album to date. The crowd sensed it, too.

Indeed, when the familiar strains of ‘Friday, I’m in Love’  and ‘Boys don’t cry’ finally rang out well into the extended encore to the extended set it was almost as if a cure had been found for The Cure.

A quick trip to ‘John Dee’, Oslo’s oldest club, which I guess is named after the weird English astronomer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth 1st, for a session with Australia’s Psychedelic Porn Crumpets and their choreographed head-banging fansbrought the day to a close. Somewhat earlier than I had anticipated.

Day 2, Thursday was launched by Kommode, a seven-piece Norwegian dance band which lies somewhere between The Osmonds and Captain and Tennille and which played laid back 1970s party music with good rhythm but an out-of-tune guitar. A pleasant way to while away a few minutes but brushed aside by the power of I was a King, one of Anne Lise Frøkedal’s bands. It’s a traditional rock band with plenty of flair, ALF’s gold Telecaster and a healthy dose of reverb.

Incidentally, Ms Frøkedal also turned up the following afternoon (Friday) on the smaller Fortum stage, part way through the set from Bergen band Misty Coast, in which her sister Linn is bassist/vocalist. Once the trio became a quartet it was as if they’d been plugged into the National Grid as the power and volume was ramped up. Misty Coast is regarded as being ‘dream pop/shoe gaze’ but live they are one hell of a rock band and another revelation at this festival. Take it from me that ‘Galaxy’ did not sound remotely like this but rather as if The Ramones had gotten hold of it.

Why the two Frøkedals aren’t in the same band baffles me. They’d be world beaters.

That was it for Thursday as I took the late afternoon off to interview ex-Katzenjammer star Marianne Sveen, followed by a 30-mile trip north to the small town of Jessheim, where an old favourite of mine, Sol Heilo – also from Katzenjammer – was playing a set with her band as part of a small festival there.

All this meant missing both the home-spun princess Sigrid and Tame Impala but a man’s gotta do…especially when he rates artists like Heilo so highly. I’ve previously used the term ‘all-round entertainer’ when describing her, even comparing her once to Ken Dodd. While that may seem bizarre, she can sing, act, tell long funny stories, – everything that the last of Britain’s great entertainers could do – as well as play a multitude of instruments. And she’s a whole lot prettier than Ken. On top of that she’s a one-man band with a cord-operated bass drum and plastic illuminated hi-hat on her back and a tom-tom around her waist (“to cut down on the costs of a drummer” she says jokingly). It sounds like she’s a novelty act but believe me she isn’t and she performs everything from heartbreaking ballads to heavy rock with great skill and evident passion, backed by a highly skilled keyboardist (Hanne Mari Karlsen), guitarist (Ronny Yttrehus) and bassist (Olav Senstad).

Back at Tøyen for Day 3 and first up was Misty Coast (above) followed by Big Thief at Vindfruen, which mildly disappointed. Again, like James Blake, not a band really suited to festivals despite their rapid rise to popularity. Perhaps it was the low volume that did it – there were some complaints about sound quality on this stage – but much of the crowd was soon heading in the direction of Fortum to prepare for another U.S. band, Soccer Mommy. Suddenly Big Thief’s volume increased dramatically but it was too late.

Sophie Allison’s set was more melodic than I remember from when she visited Manchester last year and her comment that she likes to include “catchy elements” in her songs was vindicated. It was the final gig of her European tour and there was a party atmosphere. There was a new song, ‘Lucy’, wedged between old favourites like ‘Try’ and ‘Dog’, hinting perhaps that another album is on the way.

What I didn’t understand about Sophie was her pre- and –post stage demeanour. During the sound check she looked like she’d prefer to be anywhere else and walking back to the artists’ area later she looked completely out of it. I learned later that she does suffer from depression and I wish I’d known that beforehand.  The contrast with her easy-going stage persona was staggering.

I don’t really get Héloïse Letissier (Christine and the Queens) either. Only in this sense. She is tremendously talented, as a songwriter, singer and dancer, demonstrating the determination and commitment of an Eric Cantona. Just one glance at her face on one of the big screens at any time will tell you that. And she believes implicitly in what she represents, namely that we are all ‘Tilted’ and that it should be the norm. (She wears two tiny tattoos on her wrist, which she makes sure you can see on the screens. The right one says “We accept you” and the left “One of us”.) (Actually, come to think of it, it’s a line increasingly taken by Norway’s very own Aurora).

My point is does she really need those dancers? For me personally they added little, except on ‘5 Dollars’ where their interpretation was very tasteful. For the rest of the show they just got in her way, tumbling around in a not particularly choreographed fashion. On one song, one of the dancers performed what I mistook for a violent epileptic fit.

Her best song was, as ever, ‘Saint Claude’, a lovely synth-pop ballad about her failure to intervene in a case of bullying and harassment of a young male ‘misfit’ on the streets of Paris and her subsequent shame. And she did no dancing to it whatsoever. She just stood there and sang it, perfectly.

We could have done without the clouds of noxious, foul-tasting and probably carcinogenic blue smoke which erupted during ‘Tilted’ and behind which everyone on the stage disappeared.

When I last saw Héloïse three years ago there was every chance she was going to be the new Michael Jackson or Sammy Davies Junior. But her dancing hasn’t really progressed since then and this performance convinced me her future lies in writing and singing rather than gymnastics.

Swedish pop diva Robyn, who packed out Amfiet, couldn’t be more different. She doesn’t move about very much at all, relying on a large shimmering curtain behind which her head kept disappearing and a huge image of herself projected behind her, as stage props. Oh, and style in spades. A total professional.

And so to the final day and the same sort of weather that was bothering the UK. It started with Lil Halima. I’ve reviewed her in a supporting role to Elias Boussnina, and on her own and on this live performance I’d definitely mark her out as a future star.Silky, soulful and sexy in her own way, she purrs through her set of electronic R&B songs with ease, the only distraction being what she is wearing. It looks like one of those plastic rain ponchos they’re hiring out for a couple of quid.

Over at Amfiet a Korean outfit, Hyukoh, strikes up, evidently surprised at the size of the crowd, which seems to include most of the Koreans living in Norway. This is no K-Pop, but it’s hard to say what they are. Wearing what could be regulation prison pyjamas they might have escaped from a cult. They play pretty regular heavy rock in a play-by-numbers manner. They seem committed to what they do but lack the variety to attract a European audience.

I left their set early to get ready for slowthai, who told his audience he’d “come for a fucking party”. All well and good, but while I was expecting and was prepared for a socio-political rant, after being told violently for the nth time to “get out of my fucking face” in the second of what pass for his songs,I opted to do just that. As I made my way off Vindfruen hill along with a lot of other people the rant intensified to a crescendo. Your loss mate, not mine.

30 minutes later I could still hear him fucking himself stupid from the delegates’ area half a mile away.

I’m pretty open-minded but I’ll tell you this, Tyron. If you win the fucking Mercury Prize it will be the last fucking nail in the fucking coffin of the British fucking music industry.

I was hoping that black midi, another Mercury short-listed band, might be an antidote. At least these London, Brit School educated, experimentalist boyscan play their instruments; indeed they are highly proficient at it. But actually that’s the problem. They know they can and there’s too much showboating by far.  There’s the sort of smugness that was associated with early Mumford and Sons.

They haven’t yet learned how to translate their skills into the sort of work that Joe Public wants to hear rather than just a few sad blokes down at Ronnie Scott’s. Or perhaps they prefer it that way? I doubt it.

If they need any lessons in how to do that, they ought to look no further than Pom Poko, who collectively know exactly how to go about it. The Norwegians are every bit as skilled technically, and probably, as graduates of one of Europe’s leading musical conservatoires, even more so. Crucially, they know how to write a tune. Their set was an absolute delight and the most entertaining of the entire festival by a distance. Next time they are here they will headline Amfiet, guaranteed.

From Ragnhild Fangel Jamtveit’s po-going, crowd surfing and wonderful facial expressions (there’s barely a moment when there isn’t a smile on her face as if she’s the alter ego of Sophie Allison) to Martin Guerre’s Fripp-like math-rock guitar to Jonas Krøvel’s thumping rapid-fire bass to Ola Djupvik’s explosive percussion (partly on a shredded cymbal) to the debut stage appearance of the strange creatures from their song ‘Crazy Energy Night’ it was a spectacular performance from start to finish.

I often rate a band by the way in which they can raise expectations musically, then back off, then unexpectedly deliver a manic climax. Pom Poko wrote the manual on it.

The final artists should have been Karpe (short for ‘Karpe Diem’), the Norwegian rap duo which is massively well-known there but not so much abroad. With a monsoon evident (it arrived about 20 minutes later) we could only take in a couple of their songs before running for cover but did note a carefully managed professional stage show and an extravagant set which featured a giant SAS aircraft’s airport steps. Product placement at its best – or worst – depending on your outlook. And an unwelcome reminder that you’ll soon be on your way home.

So that was it for another year. Regrettably, and as is always the case at festivals, some tops artists were missed, including the likes of Girl in Red, ELIZAH, Fontaines DC, Stereolab (which critically conflicted with Pom Poko) and the emotional last-ever concert of Bergen-based indie-pop band Razika.

With so many festivals in the UK there seems to be little point in going to foreign ones but I have to say, hand on heart, that this was one of the best, possibly the best, organised one I have ever attended. More important though are the people you meet and take my word for it, Norway has the nicest, friendliest bunch of folk you could hope to come across, anywhere.

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