A little ambition never hurt anybody. Too much ambition, however, can spell trouble – particularly for those weary souls whose initial credibility declined inexorably into half-baked gimmickry (we’re looking at you, Muse). Yet there are exceptions. With regards to Norway’s Sandra Kolstad, one suspects that a breakthrough (which appears to be imminent) would be the result not of a self-serving dilution of the formula, but of the very opposite – sheer single-mindedness – combined with a several years of graft in the form of a tireless touring schedule.
Indeed, Sandra has pushed on since 2009 debut EP All That We Are and last year’s full-length follow-up CRUX – both of which garnered praise and commercial success in her home country – and her particular brand of smart electro-pop is now staring widespread recognition square in the face. Which will blink first?
Like Austra‘s Katie Stelmanis, Kolstad is a classically trained pianist; like Stelmanis, hers is a high-brow background that seeps into her chosen genre like a premium vodka poured into warm Panda Cola: the measured, intoxicating liquor of pure musicianship offset by the syrupy sweetness of a proud and pronounced pop sensibility. The result is a sophomore LP drawn from the same draft that produced the likes of Robyn, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Annie (like Kolstad, a Norwegian in Berlin).
All stops are pulled out for opening track The First Deception (The First Guarantee), an uncompromisingly sinister track in which less is more and a touch of discord pricks the ear. Kolstad clearly knows that she has to start as she means to go on: “The first perception is the unchangeable, the only unchangeable,” she delivers as the soundscape broods between sparse thuds.
Business quickly picks up with Kyrie (Elysion), a enjoyably gritty The Knife-alike, before early highlight The Young (Evil) Woman And The Ocean encapsulates the album’s raison d’etre: to juxtapose a theme of disturbing-yet-beautiful change against beats that beckon the blood as well as the brain. Discovery (Every Part A Part Of The Picture), similarly, sets lyrical insights to a track worthy of any dancefloor – and a chorus catchy enough to court any listener’s attention.
Then there’s The Well (We Will Change It All), a pulsating effort that has fast become one of Kolstad’s calling cards outside of Norway, which is itself smartly paired with other recent release (Don’t Ask) Right Now, perhaps the album’s most unequivocally radio-friendly number. If it’s a guilty pleasure, it has been well earned.
And just as one expects the sails to sag, Do The Dive (Gravity Animals) skitters into earshot. Featuring rapper Son Of Light, it’s a glitch-heavy dose of Nordic electro magnificence that wouldn’t sound out of place on Little Dragon‘s outstanding Ritual Unions; one of two LPs Kolstad listened to while composing (Nothing Lasts) Forever in solitude (the other being PJ Harvey‘s Let England Shake). Pure (And Punished), too, puts its foot to the floor like Royksopp bereft of their lightheartedness, and sets the album careering towards its coda with almost tangible momentum.
On the evidence she presents here, it is little wonder that Sandra Kolstad’s star is in the ascendance: each track feels that it has been carefully measured and thoughtfully delivered, but without compromising the ulterior motive – to make you move. Without doubt, a fine addition to the Scando-pop canon.