Årabrot seem to be touting Norwegian Gothic as their masterpiece. Band leader Kjetil Neres describes the album, the group's ninth studio effort, as “the culmination of everything Årabrot has done musically the past 10 years” and “our special brand of rock'n'roll music mixed with fin-de-siecle decadence, surrealism and even a pinch of old German philosophy to boot.” As this last quote makes clear, Årabrot are artists with a capital ‘A’. The core of the band is comprised of Neres and vocalist/keyboardist Karin Park, a husband and wife duo who write and record their music in an abandoned church in Park’s remote hometown. The mythology writes itself, and it is hard not to be drawn into Årabrot’s esoteric mystique.
So does Norwegian Gothic’s content live up to the duo’s intriguing lore and high falutin ambitions? First, it’s best to clarify Årabrot’s sonic palette. The band started off as noise rock-worshipping iconoclasts, indebted to the ugly crunch of The Jesus Lizard and Unsane and the arty, ambitious, perverse spirituality of Swans and Oxbow. Their career has been defined by the push and pull between these two ends of the noise rock spectrum, as well as their attempts to carve out their own unique sound within this especially singular subgenre of music. Norwegian Gothic sees them come up with their most polished interpretation of these heavier influences thus far, while also throwing in some atmospheric layers of darkwave and synthpop.
This is easily the most laid-back Årabrot album. Their early work was defined by a confrontational intensity, possessing a pressure-cooked physicality that meant there was little breathing room beyond the lacerating guitars and pained vocals. But as their career has progressed, they’ve done the Swans trick of moving their sonic focus from the corporeal to the cerebral, crafting music for the heart and soul instead of the blood and guts. Tracks on Nowegian Gothic like ‘Hallucinational’, a Dead Can Dance-esque ethereal wonder that gives Park a chance to show off her quite incredible vocal range, are examples of this change of pace, as is ‘The Rule Of Silence’, a heavier track but one still full of atmospheric choral vocals and a lazy, leisurely tempo.
Most of the tracks on Norwegian Gothic can still be generically defined as ‘rock’, they just move at a calmer, more deliberate pace where they once would have howled and bludgeoned. This tonal shift really separates this album from previous full-length Who Do You Love. The ugliness of their music that was present on that last album just three years ago is almost completely absent from Norwegian Gothic. Even heavier highlights ‘Feel It On’ and ‘The Lie’ are notable for their catchiness, strong choruses and layered instrumentation. There’s a palatability here that, as Neres points out, Årabrot have been gradually moving towards for some time, that makes Norwegian Gothic a the band’s largest jump forward in their career thus far.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of stylistic shift. Fans don’t exist to be served by artists, it’s their job to simply keep up or jump ship. Norwegian Gothic doesn’t massively suffer for this, although there is a touch of venom missing from tracks like ‘The Crows’ that leaves a couple of moments across the album’s lengthy fifty-seven minute run time feeling a little cold. The incorporation of the synth influences is also not especially compelling, bar the majestic ‘Hallucinational’. Årabrot have long faced a battle to make their own voice heard above their myriad, distinctive influences, so bringing in some 80’s-style keys isn’t perhaps the strongest move they could have made. Still, Norwegian Gothic is a cooly enjoyable slice of nordic rock, one that isn’t the masterpiece its creators perhaps believe it to be, but one that’s a strong and engrossing enough artistic statement nonetheless.