The most interesting thing about By:Larm is that, like American multi-day festivals, there is always one band that sticks out as the most talked about. This happens without fail. I remember one year at CMJ people talked about The Knife more in four days than their entire career since then, combined. By far the name I heard the most was The Megaphonic Thrift, probably because it seemed like they were playing upwards of five times a day, every day.
Okay that is kind of an exaggeration. But they were playing a lot. Based on band name alone, it’s pretty much an automatic skip. It’s rare that I’ve heard such an uninteresting band name applied to a band I actually enjoyed watching. To get it out of the way: Yes, they sound like Sonic Youth—a lot like Sonic Youth. Everyone knows it—the band probably knows it too—but there’s something in that acceptance that makes it great. An unabashed pairing of monotone boy-girl vocals and the kind of driving guitar feedback that made everyone love Sonic Youth in the first place. Basically the band got on stage, didn’t say much, played their set and then got off just in time for the club to shepherd anyone over 18 (everyone was over 18) out of the room so their youth rock night could begin.
Here’s where it gets a little weird. The festival is laid out in a way complimentary to the already somewhat confusing downtown Oslo. Most venues are within a five minute walking distance of each other, so once you actually get your bearings it’s pretty easy to club hop. The Rockefeller was a cavernous concert hall with multiple stages designed for everyone from the smaller bands to the kind of band that can fill out a multi-tiered setup without even trying. Manna is a Finnish artist who takes a few cues from PJ Harvey and Karen O in a way that makes me mostly ambivalent about the music itself. She can certainly sing. Her songs are solid if unremarkable. But her stage presence makes her shine. Not shines in a way that makes me think, Oh boy the press she gets from this blog post is really going to get her going, but more shines in the way that two years from now when she’s headlining a show at a stadium the size of a small city, I’ll be like…well at least I called the stage presence thing. In summary: the music wasn’t my deal, but she’s got the kind of star power that makes me feel like a sleazy record executive that actually says things like "star power."
Before I flew to Oslo, the first question I would get asked was if I was going to see a lot of Black Metal. The answer was always No, probably not. This is more of a pop-based festival, but there’s still room for baby steps into the scene. Altaar played at the Stereogum party, which was on the roof of the same building I caught Fontan the night before. There was an awesome patio I totally would have hung out on if it wasn't covered in snow and if the chairs didn't look like they were made out of cold steel.
Here was another band that could have benefited from a longer set, as their songs often consisted of endless circular riffs beaten into guitars. I’d be surprised if any of them even worked by the end of the show. Mainly though, I’ve been shocked by the acceptance of black metal in the US. It’s a pretty impenetrable genre, yet those first, cautious moves have been made to bring bands like Altaar into the more mainstream, safe rock world. The following morning I was informed that there will soon be a night (day?) in Oslo designed to introduce six and seven year olds to the genre. More on that hopefully soon.
Finally it was back to Sentrum Scene—where I previously zoned out to Supersilent on a vaguely uncomfortable step—to catch Serena Maneesh, who, of all the bands playing the festival, have a pretty decent US following as well. By the time I got inside, the place was wall to wall packed and I was forced to head to the second tier of the venue—where the band all looked like tiny bugs, except spindly bassist Hilma Nikolaisen, who looked like a praying mantis stalking around the stage. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they owe a pretty huge debt to My Bloody Valentine, piling layers of reverb on top of each other until the experience—a whopping 45 minutes compared to most bands’ normal 30—feels exhausting. Never has being repeatedly punched in the face with noise felt so appealing.