On Årabrot‘s ninth studio album, Norwegian Gothic, the duo of Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park clearly feel they have reached the zenith of their career to date. There is a certain pomp and cerebral aspect to their artrock which is all over the album, often to excellent effect – but it’s also the record’s downfall in some respects. Where some of the album’s tracks are the best from Årabrot to date, the pacing of the album means that it wanes towards the end. At 16 tracks, it feels a little bloated.
The opening salvo of “Carnival of Love” and “The Rule of Silence” are wonderful, however, and feel like the work that the band have been building up to over their last few records. Both are drawn from a sonic palette that sounds like Swans trying to write a Bauhaus record, with contorting basslines that sound like peak-80s Sisters of Mercy. When Nernes snarls “This is the end / You can stop laughing” you get a sense of an artistic statement being made about their career in general, and they conjure up aural textures that hark backwards. A lot of their earlier output had a feral element to it, and the songs here are still seething and gnarly, yet they’re also a little more reserved and less emotive. Age, and the subsequent perspective that comes with it, has eased some of the more visceral elements of their frenzied noise.
“The Lie” has a thumping bassline that’s reminiscent of Jesus Lizard or Big Black, as the band continue to wear their influences on their sleeves. If 2021 is the year of the resurgence of post-punk with young upstarts like Shame and Dry Cleaning borrowing from the past then Årabrot are taking this idea and running with it in a way which has not been so evident in their work until now. Nernes’ vocals are wonderfully strained over the jagged guitars and rolling bass, but there is a sense of wanting the band to be let off the leash a little – it feels edgy but too safe.
“Hallucinational” is an exquisite track, a respite from the guitars as Karin Park’s vocals take centre stage, while an orchestral backing gives the track a dreamlike feel. The first minute or so is taken up with ambient noises which envelope and unsettle. A wheezing mechanism, like decaying but submissive last breaths, offers a dystopian feel to the track’s quieter moments, with the band never letting the listener settle into a comfortable place. And then Park’s voice comes in. Tremulous and hesitant to begin with, she then launches into an elongated vibrato that lifts the track (and the album as a whole) to an unexpected level of beauty. This is the highlight of Norwegian Gothic, and possibly of their career to date. It sounds natural and entirely uncontrived, and here is a genuine sense of warmth in this track that stands it apart from the calculated sounds elsewhere.
Årabrot have always leaned on the art-cool aesthetic maybe a little too heavily, which continues here, but that’s not to say that there isn’t any fun to be had on Norwegian Gothic. “(This is) The Night” and “Hailstones for Rain” both have a certain sense of cathartic and propulsive abandonment to them, while “Hounds of Heaven” is like a suicide note from a glam-rock band – all tattered and distraught, but resplendent nonetheless.
“The Moon is Dead” is the longest track on the album, and unfortunately the worst. It shuffles along quite menacingly, before a squalling saxophone comes to the fore and knocks things sideways with its jazz-inflected tones. It’s a huge misstep and feels overly smug and just plain awful. No doubt people with more ‘sophisticated’ music tastes than this poor reviewer will revel in it. As the last real song on the album (“You’re Not That Special” closes things here but is one of a trio of annoying and needless spoken word detours), it feels like a real anti-climax, particularly with the thudding and funereal pace of the song which is aching for something more worthwhile to bring it to its denouement.
Norwegian Gothic is Årabrot’s most accessible album to date and will rightfully reward them with a larger fanbase. Live, no doubt these songs will find a life of their own – Årabrot are a juggernaut of a live act – and the brooding intensity that feels a little tempered here will more no doubt be to the fore.