Oslo's Øya festival is one of the finest in the world, in terms of line-up, location, crowd and plenty of other things you can think of. Its compactness, supremely central location to the capital's centre, cleanliness and atmosphere make things almost entirely hassle free. You can comfortably walk from one side of the festival site to the other in under ten-minutes, providing you don't get distracted by the food on offer. Oh, and there's all the eco-friendly nature to the festival, if you're a fan of that kind of thing.
Visiting Norway for a music festival – and a time of outward celebration – a few weeks after the biggest tragedy in the country's recent history I thought, and it was asked, if the feeling would be different this year to last. If things have changed, and they undeniably have, it is not noticeable in the capital's population, nor the attendees at Øya. It is not really my place to put this in any great context and, though it was pleasing, it wasn't surprising.
Instead, people were keen to talk about the violence that happened in London a couple of days previously – even if the front pages of the newspapers tell a different story. Yet, just as there is more than one side to a story, there is more than one story.
After being simultaneously confused and partially interested by Eye Emma Jedi who were a bit "haircut", the first real highlight doesn't take long to emerge, and it appears in the form of Matthew Dear, clad in white suit and formidable quiff. His wiry frame sneaks around the stage to a selection of songs suitably long and winding, and fitting for this the Klubben tent's atmosphere. You can't help but snarl and dance, even on this coarse flooring of concrete and stones. 'You Put A Smell On Me' is probably Black City's high point, and likewise here, finishing off 45 minutes in a demonstration of near-greatness.
From the sublimely enjoyable to the strangely enjoyable, Mungolian Jetset are as visually interesting as sonically. It may not be the exact type of music that is going to win awards or large critical acclaim but here, at a festival, with people trying to have a great time, a blast of funk, jazz and electronic stylings with a multi-faceted live band is a remedy to the persistent drizzle. In fact, it is their appearance which is distracting and it may even detract from noticing the actual music which, contrary to what I wrote a couple of sentences ago, works very well as it blooms into occasionally wonky goodness in front of our own eyes and ears.
The rain is something Deathcrush manage to blow away, too. Their essential overbearing scuzzy noise could have been a contributing factor to its disappearance, in any case, as the loudness and intensity of the Norwegian trio is as huge as it has ever been. It is simple enough to pull this off in a club basement, but in a festival tent it is more impressive, not that there was any great plan. At one point I removed my earplugs and a feeling of dread and bewildered excitement crept through me, akin to the one you get upon doing something "naughty" (or illegal...) and getting away with it, but still knowing that whatever it was you were "doing" was bad. Like the first juvenile puff of a cigarette, or nicking a packet of Jolly Ranchers from the cornershop. The roaming set-ending cover of The Bangles' 'Eternal Flame' is also more terrifying than anything any Norwegian black metal band has ever produced.
The question that is perpetually asked, at any festival ever, since the beginning of time is "Who are you most looking forward to?!". Despite the vastness of the bill, there was only one man on my mind – Dan Bejar, alias Destroyer. This year's Kaputt has burned itself firmly into my lobes, effeminately sang lyric by effeminately sang lyric. It might not be a spectacular performance today, but it is a fine, fine collection of songs in which we are able to revel, gleefully. Bejar, in fitting with his vocal stylings, cuts a very laid-back and lethargic figure, regularly crouching down, nearly out of sight, to sip from a beer can. This, I believe, is called "style". Yet from here he looks like Julian Barratt. Naturally, the fact that 'Savage Night At The Opera' plays out looking towards the sloping white Oslo Opera House was a moment of beautiful congruity.
This year, one of the main features of Sjøsiden (seaside/waterfront/second) is the sound - specifically its volume. At the rear the resonance remains huge and naturally this increases massively at the front. The stand at the back is perhaps the best place to contemplate James Blake's live show, being able to see all in full view and to then try and get your head around why it is so baffling. Many of the component parts are impressive and well-constructed but here and now everything is nonplussing. It's obtuse. Of course, 'Limit To Your Love' is the one everyone waited for, but the remainder is largely forgettable. I admit, not having made any notes at the time, this is what happened. Sorry. It was loud, though, of that I am certain.
Naturally, everything today was building up to the arrival of a certain Kanye West. Some people were peddling whispers of an extra special guest, but that didn't happen. What did happen, however, was everything else. An set of three acts with varying props and accompanying dancers, the final of which saw a sea of white and a Michael Jackson Thriller Style costume adorning the shoulders and hips of Mr West. He took a fair while to say anything at all, but he did manage to mouth off about the press taking his words out of context, before delivering a ton of hits. Hits are what he reminds us strongly of, too, with the proclamation that his new record with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne, is number 1 in 23 countries. Well done, sure, but you do not need a pat on the back from us.
That all said, although the duration is LONG, it is a show. And it's a show worthy of closing a day like today. This stuff is mesmerising even with your ears closed. Probably more mesmerising, actually, given that you wouldn't have to listen to the bullshit stupidity of some his lyrics. The one referencing Sleepy Hollow and oral sex is a particular nadir but, hey, "fuck the press" are his words. Still, he does manage to concisely sum up the essence and importance of this year's festival and music in general, when he says "With so many bad things that happened, we have to make sure we have a good time tonight". Both sides definitely tried their best.
As with every Øya in my memory (which, granted, is two) the after-festival festivities are often as enticing as what happens on-site. See: tonight, where Josh T. Pearson and Low play the dark but cosy Parkteatre. That is too far on foot for this soldier, and the chances are that, if you're in Oslo and you want something good to go to, head to Blå. It may become a default option, but it is that for a reason. Norwegian duo Tomorrow We Move To Hawaii push the venue's PA to full, playing beefed-up electropop with ribcage-moving bass and a bopping and inspiringly energetic lead singer who must've had an afternoon nap. She must have. But with what they offer, she is not the only one dancing.
Thursday presents a day of glorious sunshine, and with it the discarding of raincoats and necessity of sunglasses. Everybody seems to wear Ray Bans, which is a shame because it masks their beautiful eyes.
There can be few artists who have taken so long to appear on stage as Wiz Khalifa. We were asked by DJ Bonics, at least fourteen times, whether we were ready. Of course I was, but Wiz wasn't, was he? Regardless, he eventually makes it out and entertains with songs about weed and plenty of talk of Rolling Papers, natch. As it goes on, it's kind of neat. And nice to ingest in this slightly distant manner without worrying about much else. However, he also creates what must have been the most awkward moment of the four days by choosing to play 'Taylor Gang', a track which contains 10 seconds of gunfire at its climax, with the protagonists on stage shouting "BANG" and pointing gun-shaped hands into the crowd. I don't think many would claim poor intentions here, it's part of the track after all, but stupidity, or whatever you want to call it, is no excuse for such insensitivity. Perhaps someone should have had a word.
On a more positive note, each year Øya commissions a project to be performed at the festival, with the aim of creating something unique and out-of-the-ordinary. Last year it was Diskjokke's Gamelan exploration, and in 2011 it's Pantha Du Prince and The Bell Laboratory, to be a first-hearing of the material, and a highly anticipated one. The bells are physically impressive, played by hooded and caped persons, possibly both male and female. A steady start captures the imagination early on, with proceedings ebbing and flowing as more bells come and go, ring and fall silent among the central areas of each composition. The feeling of intense concentration is rarely induced, instead what happens is more atmospheric and ambient – no surprise – than intense.
The essential dadness of Robert Pollard is to be admired. It's his dance moves, it really is. Obviously the grey hair, too. But when was the last time your father sipped frequently from a bottle of tequila in public, in one of the most alcholically regulated countries in Europe? Guided By Voices could have played anything this afternoon, this being their only European show, and people would probably have been pretty happy. With so many songs, and so much to choose from, there can be no single highlight. It was as much a blur to us as it was to them but as they get sweatier, the crowd gets it more. 'Game Of Pricks' was the rockingest and 'Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory' probably the least, but everything else in between was nothing but a blast, if at times ropey.
For the second year in a row, Q-Tip cancelled on the festival. In fact he cancelled his whole European tour this time, too, just for good measure. Nobody is quite sure why, but it doesn't really matter. Q-Tip didn't play and I'll be flogged if anyone bought a ticket on the basis of him alone and, if you did, re-evaluate your priorities. Shabazz Palaces were due to take his slot but, with a travel cock-up somewhere, they have to move to a later slot on the smaller Vika stage. This causes a problem not for their performance, presumably, but for the amount of people who actually know its happening. Which is few. For everything that is intelligently done by Shabazz Palaces, live drums and all, and all that cranks up the excitement and apprehension and then reconfigures it so expertly on Black Up, and here, they struggle to change pace, using a more locked-in repetition. Smoothly done, it is.
To fully understand the nuances of an Explosions In The Sky show, it's probably best to experience the whole thing, if not actually most of it. Unfortunately this did not happen and just as I started to nod my head fervently and almost break out a beard scratch, it finished. I'm sure the previous 40-odd minutes contained a couple of crescendos, though. Discard the disappointment because Richard D. James is heading on stage in a blue Adidas tracksuit, hood-up!
Aphex Twin shows go one of two ways, it is often said. Either they are the most kicking-and-screamingly intense things in the short history of electronic music, or they are close to that but in combination with mind-blowingly rubbish. Contrary to this common assertion, tonight is neither. At times it has peaks, where you feel as if something has clicked, but at others it is easy to drift off if you aren't super close-in. I'm not sure anyone, no matter how close, could see Richard D. James, though. I mean, was it even him? The visuals are mightily impressive and are more than just an accompaniment to the music. They make it. Because, let us be truthful, watching a man in the dark is not engaging. Tonight there are dancing, robotic neon bears and all manner of other things. James himself may have been going through the motions, and although we'll never know, it doesn't matter.
Main photo by Kim Erlandsen for NRK P3