Husband-and-wife noise rock duo Årabrot have gone through many different iterations since forming in Haugesund, Norway in 2001. They originated as a quartet, becoming a trio two years before releasing their debut full-length album, ‘Proposing a Pact With Jesus’, in 2005. ‘Proposing…’ bore many of the hallmarks of classic 90s Amphetamine Reptile artists like Cows and Unsane. Over the next six years, they recorded four more albums under this line-up, collaborating infrequently with electronic noise musician Stian Skagen. By 2013, everyone had left the band except lead vocalist and guitarist Kjetil Nernes, leaving him no choice but to record and release that year’s sixth album, ‘Årabrot’, as a solo effort. For the following two albums, ‘The Gospel’ (2016) and ‘Who Do You Love’ (2018), Nernes was joined by his wife, the successful Swedish-Norwegian synth-pop artist Karin Park, as the band’s keyboardist and co-vocalist and only other full-time member. It is this line-up that has recorded their ninth album, ‘Norwegian Gothic’.
From the get-go, it should be said that fans expecting the sort of heavy, abrasive noise rock that characterised Årabrot’s early output will be disappointed by ‘Norwegian Gothic’. This is an album informed as much by the epic, grandiose production values of Park’s chart-topping solo career as it is by the band’s generic underpinnings. Park assists Nernes with the vocals in quite a few places, and both of their voices have a very camp, proggy, almost stadium rock-like quality to them. The influence of Park’s synth-pop day job is obvious from opening track ‘Carnival of Love’ onward, and Nernes sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins in lockdown if the delivery of his vocals on songs like ‘Feel It On’ is anything to go by.
Indeed, the keyboards on ‘Kinks of the Heart’ come close to recalling ‘Physical Graffiti’-era Led Zeppelin and the theatrical, melodramatic sound to both Nernes’ and Park’s vocals borders on Fat White Family-style levels of hamminess on ‘Hailstones for Rain’, both of which aspects could prove problematic to admirers of the band’s early work. It should be said, though, that the heaviness of Nernes’ guitars keeps the album’s sound anchored in the grit of the band’s noise rock origins throughout. And it’s possibly this element that keeps the album from degenerating into a bombastic mess, as it could so easily have done in the hands of lesser artists.
For example, ‘This is the Night’ is chock full of the prog/rock opera stylings that dominate ‘Norwegian Gothic’, but Nernes’ nagging, insistent guitar lines imbue it with an undeniable head-nodding quality. And the theatricality of Park’s vocals on ‘Hallucinational’ is utilised well in combination with the song’s keyboards and steel guitars to craft a sound that is genuinely uplifting. After all the showiness that’s gone before, you might think Årabrot would choose to conclude ‘Norwegian Gothic’ with some sort of grand, histrionic finale. Not so. Closing track ‘The Moon Is Dead’ is moodily understated and has this very dark, trip-hoppy, Portishead-esque, torch song vibe to it. It makes for a quietly powerful ending to an album that frequently almost (but not quite) gets a little over the top.
Whilst there are certainly elements of ‘Norwegian Gothic’ that will prove challenging for devotees of Årabrot’s early material, there is still just about enough tightness to Nernes’ guitar-playing to prevent the baroque vocals from becoming overwhelming. Whilst I personally would have preferred more of this tightness and less of the melodrama, it’s always refreshing to see artists incorporating new and unexpected influences into their work (as elements of Park’s pop career are here). And there are moments like ‘Hallucinational’ where the album’s rock operatic aspects are deployed effectively. ‘Norwegian Gothic’ is unlikely to stand up as one of 2021’s best noise rock albums, but it is definitely one of the most innovative released so far this year. It is available now via Pelagic Records. Order it here.