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Live! – Pom Poko (Norway) at Manchester Academy 3, 20th April

Towards the end of Pom Poko’s almost sold out gig at Academy 3 on Saturday I overheard a brief conversation between an aficionado of the band and someone who was there as a first timer, possibly a follower of one of the other two bands on the bill.

The former described Pom Poko as being ‘mechanical’ or words to that effect, which did little to enthuse the latter.

And that sums up Pom Poko for me. If you like form and structure you’ve found your personal nirvana; if you don’t, well you won’t find yourself in purgatory but they won’t be your cup of tea.

They are like a well-oiled machine powering the national grid; and the musical equivalent of Stephen Hawking in that many of their songs could be described in a series of complex mathematical equations on a whiteboard at the CERN laboratory.

Their musicianship is unquestionable; each of them trained to the highest level at one of Norway’s top schools. But boy, do they rock.

Taking the form and structure thing a stage further I noticed that the audience contained more older people than I’d been expecting (it is almost five years since I last saw them live, at the Øya Festival in Oslo, where some of their weird creature characters danced manically around the stage in what was for me the highlight of the entire festival).

And that prompted the realisation that their two biggest supporters on the national radio here, Mark Riley and Gideon Coe, are both beyond the first flush of youth, too.

My interpretation is that these older fans yearn for the days when heavily structured, fast-playing progressive rock bands like ELP and Focus ruled the alternative airwaves and Pom Poko are as close to that as you are likely to find today.

That is not to label them as ‘prog’ per se. There is as much jazz in there (they were essentially jazz students after all), which is particularly noticeable in the odd time signatures. Noise rock doesn’t fit the bill either. In fact, finding a label for them is hard.

The beauty of Pom Poko live is that no-one takes centre stage as such. They are a team just like the Japanese raccoon cartoon characters in the film from which they get their name, even if ‘front person’ duties mainly fall to Ragnhild (Fangel Jamtveit), who has one of the most delightful names in rock music.

Ragnhild has developed her stage persona well since I last encountered them, with a sexy little shoulder shaking dance routine to go with her red dress added to her repertoire, and a more relaxed delivery of her little stories and comments. Along with Das Body’s Ellie Linden she is the leader in the field in Norway as I see it, and a Scandi version of The Last Dinner Party’s Abigail Morris.

Oh, and her cowbell playing could bring the cows home.

Lead guitarist Martin Tonne, who looks more like Zinedine Zidane than ever, also gets to speak a little now but his forte is that guitar, out of which he coaxes sounds that might have come from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the original Doctor Who era. And when he shreds, in his own unique way, there is no-one I can think of even to compare him to.

A little about the rhythm section, which is sometimes overlooked. Considering there are only three instruments in play – guitar, bass and drums; no keys, strings, woodwind or brass – Pom Poko make a hell of noise. I don’t mean they’re loud (they can’t play deafeningly or the intricacies of their music would be lost) they just fill the auditorium with what can sound like an orchestra.

Much of that is down to bassist Jonas Krøvel, who seems to have two left hands on his fret board for most of the time, while the other unsung hero, Ola Djupvik,sweats away at the back, probably losing a kilo or two at each gig, with dynamic, complex drum patterns which wouldn’t be out of place at Ronnie Scott’s, or Matt & Phred’s, if we’re staying local.

The set featured songs from their two albums and EP to date and a taste of the future in the recent single ‘Champion’, which we had a listen to a few days ago. I think it’s fair to say that the optimum audience reaction (and bearing in mind there were fans of two other bands in it) was for the likes of ‘Crazy Energy Night’ and ‘Follow the Lights’ from the debut album ‘Birthday’ which they play note perfectly and which could launch a rocket to the moon with the latent energy they create.

That’s only to be expected and Pom Poko know which side their bread is buttered. And I guess that’s also the reason they have retained their dramatic show ending which involves a fabulous unscripted transition, although they have scaled it down a little.

But there are changes in the air. I was interested to see the crowd’s reaction to ‘Champion’, which was positive. I spoke briefly with Ola after the event and he said that while it isn’t typical of the songs on their forthcoming third album it is representative of a desire for a cleaner, simpler sound to complement the one for which they are known now.

Could that mean gentle ballads in the mix in the future? Who knows? What I know for sure is that whatever direction they choose to take they will write and perform it excellently.

The tour continues as follows:

21 April – The Caves, Edinburgh

23 April – The Wardrobe, Leeds

April 24 – The Beacon, Bristol

April 25 – Electric Ballroom (2P), London

April 26 – Concorde 2, Brighton

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