What do you think of, Northern Europe pop music? Do you think of it at all? Although I know that, like everywhere else, the Scandinavian countries have diverse musical tastes and bands that run the gamut from death metal to electrobeat/house music with stops in the middle for frothy pop music, I can't rid myself of the image of rather severe looking individuals standing at keyboards playing very grim, but intellectual, atmospheric electronic compositions. Part of the problem is that we know so little about the popular music scene in countries like Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. I mean aside from Abba and Bjork can you name off the top of your head any pop music groups from that part of the world?
As an example it has only been in the last year or so that I've learned anything of the music scene in Norway. Did you know that in 1967 one of the stops on the Stax Records' tour of Europe was in Oslo, the capital city of Norway? Or that this year's Notodden Blues Festival in Norway featured acts like Buddy Guy and the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, and it is one of the biggest blues festivals in the world? However it wasn't until I reviewed Money Will Ruin Everything: The Second Edition, a two disc compilation release from the Norwegian label Rune Grammofon that I began to get some idea of just how much music was being generated by home grown musicians. As in any compilation release there was some music that I couldn't tolerate, some that was interesting enough, and some that was sufficiently intriguing to merit further investigation.
One of those bands was Susanna And The Magical Orchestra, (SATMO) whose newest release 3 will be released on August 24th and distributed in North America by the good folk at Forced Exposure. Susanna And The Magical Orchestra are in actual fact only two people; Susanna Karolina Wallumrod, vocals and Morten Qvenild on keyboards. While they are joined by friends for a couple of songs to help pad out the sound with additional vocals, guitar, or drums, for the majority of the tracks on this release it's just the two of them. Of the ten songs on 3 each of them have written four tracks with the other two being covers of Roy Harper's "Another Day" and Canadian power trio Rush's "Subdivisions".
If that seems like a strange mix of genres and styles – 1970s British folk rock (Harper) and overblown pretentious hard rock (Rush) – well, apparently SATMO seem to be one of the few groups out there who can genuinely say they're musically colour blind. If they like a song and can find something in it that appeals to them, than why shouldn't the play it? Considering that previous releases have included covers of Dolly Parton ("Jolene"), Leonard Bernstein ("Who Am I"), and Joy Division ("Love Will Tear Us Apart"), this will come as no surprise to those familiar with the band. However the rest of us are just going to have to get used to a band who has the capacity to appreciate a piece of music for what it says, not how it was performed originally.
The most surprising thing about SATMO is their sound. I don't know about anybody else but my preconceived notions of a band consisting of primarily a keyboardist and a vocalist led me to expect something far different to what I heard on this album. Instead of the swirling electronics and layer upon layer of sound that I had anticipated, it's Wallumrod's voice that's front and centre throughout with Qvenild, and any others who join them, providing a bare bones structure in support. On the songs where it is just the two of them there are times when Qvenild plays the bare minimum required to sketch out the framework of a tune to serve as a backdrop for Wallumrod's voice. He's like those great guitar players who feel a song so well they say as much with one perfectly selected note as others do playing a hundred.
Of course when you have a vocalist the calibre of Susanna Wallumrod you want to keep the focus on her as much as possible. As you listen to the first song on the disc, "Recall", at first you can't help but think of Joni Mitchell, as her voice is so high and clear. However, you have the sense that there is more to her than just this, as she doesn't have that breathless quality that marks thin voiced singers who only sing in the higher registers. And, before "Recall" is even over, Wallumrod has shifted gears, dropped into a middle register and added an edge of power to her voice the likes you'd never hear in most female folk singers.
Being from Canada, and having been forced to listen to Rush whether I've wanted to or not since the early 1970s, I was anticipating/dreading SATMO's version of "Subdivisions". I've been told by Rush apologists for years the band's lyrics were intelligent, but as I always thought that was just a pathetic attempt on their part to justify bad taste I'd ignored them. So it was disconcerting to hear the song and find that it did have something interesting to say. However, even that wasn't what was most unsettling about this version. You see Wallumrod and Qvenild make sure that if you're at all familiar with Rush, you'll recognize this as being one of their songs. It's almost like they're sticking their tongues out at people like me who want to damn Rush while praising this version. For all they've done is pare down the original's music to a minimum, while keeping the tune and the song otherwise intact, so you can't avoid praising the writers whether you want to or not. It's as brilliant a cover as I've ever heard.
Normally when you think of a duo made up of keyboards and vocals you can't help but think of atmospheric music replete with thick layers of electronics and treated vocals, which instead of being complimentary almost compete one against the other. However that's not the case with Susanna And The Magical Orchestra's forthcoming release 3 as the two principals, Susanna Wallumrod and Morten Qvenild have created music designed around making certain her voice is the foundation around which each song is built. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of atmosphere, but its created through the power of the songs themselves not through electronic effects or processors. At times ethereal, at times earthy, this is an intelligent and beautiful recording that never lets technology supplant the human element that gives music its real power.