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coverpic flag Norway - Full Moon 154 - 04/09/09

Various Artists
Maskindans - Norsk Synth 1980-1988
Hommage Records

Wow! Here's a very important part of my musical life of the mid 1980s. Straight between the eyes!

A compilation of Norwegian synthesizer music from that era, 41 tracks on two CDs, almost 160 minutes. What we simply used to call synth. Electronica was an unknown term back then. I wasn't particularly interested in electronic music at the time, still ain't. But about half of the 41 tracks presented here can't be characterised as electronic music. Instead I'd suggest Maskindans as a successful attempt to collect mainly underground recordings, far from the pastel coloured hit material of that dreaded decade, with the synth as the common denominator. For instance Ym:stammen was a major band in the independent cassette movement, a sort of ancient/folk solo/duo/trio/etc. project with punk attitude mainly based on voice and analogue rhythms in the beginning. They/he is represented with the early song "Menneskene På Broene" (The People On The Bridges), one of the very few by the band with a synthesizer. (The somewhat oriental sounding Casio synth sounds great and the vocal performance less so towards the end, but that's another story...) A lot of the artists involved originated from the punk movement but grew tired of three chord wonders and went on to explore new expressions and sounds. And by the 1980s the synthesizers finally was an affordable means to do so, even for young musicians without means. Most tracks are based on pop and rock. Almost half of them include conventional rock instruments like guitar or bass. Some has leanings towards British synth and experimental bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, maybe even Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or Depeche Mode. But quite a few of the bands and artists strive towards something unique, that probably/hopefully represents themselves. This is what makes Maskindans so interesting.

A few songs and synth sounds seem a bit outdated, though as a rule much less so than the aforementioned 1980s hit material. Some of the stuff sounds old-fashioned in a charming and - to some extent, for me at least - nostalgic way. My only real objection is the 80s rhythm and drum machines that often sound quite anachronistic by now. The songs without them or where they are discreetly mixed or used in an innovative way have generally matured with more dignity, so to speak.

A lot of tracks originate from obscure vinyl singles, EPs or cassette albums that were recorded in a simple way. The sound quality on some of these tracks is far better than I feared before hearing the album, with a couple of exceptions. A few of the real established artists' contributions were originally released on the most unattainable format of them all, the LP, whereas other recordings went straight into the drawer and are presented here for the very first time. To my reckoning three of the bands and artists made it internationally: Fra Lippo Lippi (eventually got a contract with Virgin Records and were big in the Far East by the late 1980s; here represented with something very different, an instrumental track from their debut EP in 1981); Bel Canto (secured a contract with Belgian Crammed Discs; have donated the previously unreleased "Flowerbeds" from 1988) and Geir Jenssen aka E-man here (with "Jeg Er Moderne" (I'm Modern) recorded in 1983 and released on cassette the following year before he joined Bel Canto and later found even bigger success as Biosphere, and still is). Two of the artists, Beranek and Ole I'Dole, made it to the national headlines and hit lists, whereas bands like Circus Modern, Holy Toy, The Cut and Ym-stammen were quite acknowledged. The remaining 32 or so belonged to underground. Some of them gained attention for a short time and quickly faded, some achieved more recognition later, in other constellations or other disciplines (such as literature and humour), whereas some never even released any recordings until now.

It's hard to pick favourites among 41 tracks; at least half of them I remember well from back then. Ulf Knudsen's "Høstland"(Autumn Country, well, I think it was called "Barndommens Høstland" (Autumn Country Of Childhood) originally) from the (relatively) high profiled 1982 cassette compilation Zink Zamler (that sort of started the golden age of independent cassette releases in Norway) still sounds repressed and haunting despite those dreaded hermetic rhythms. A couple of merry instrumentals by PLX 15 (including two synths and a cello) and Adrian Cox sounds great and stand out. Kito with the funny "Dildo Drumbop" demonstrates that there in fact existed real drummers at the time. What a relief! The reencounter of Famlende Forsøk's "Tror Nok Jeg Levde En Gang" (Think I Lived Once) released 25 years ago last moonth was a revelation. Depressing lyrics and playful synths, quite different from their latest offering One Night I Had A Frightful Dream. Holy Toy's "Down In Japan" is always a treat. Here in a remix of the song from the band's debut album Warszawa, the greatest album released in Norway ever, if you ask me. I've always had a weakness for Ex Lex's melancholic "Kast, Lek, Eventyr" (Throw, Play, Adventure). "Sensation Boys" by Clockwork Orange was a minor synth-pop summer hit in 1985 and still sounds fresh. Then there are the more experimental offerings from Jørgen Knudsen, Beranek, Bern Balders and Bearburger. Etc. etc. Pick your own choice! The only missing electronic artist I can think of is Lister, though he is involved in the production of some of the tracks here.

If you want to find out about musical movements in Norway a little bit beneath the surface in the 1980s, Maskindans is where to start. Learn more about the album and artists at Hommage Records.

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