It all starts so innocently. Drain Cosmetics, the opener to the self-titled debut from Norway’s Serena-Maneesh, introduces us to a noisy ethereal guitar sound influenced heavily by Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground. Until the vocals arrive it could almost be Waiting For My Man all over again, but band leader Emil Nikolaisen (the one with the Chick Corea moustache) and Lina Holstr�m make a more ethereal vocal combination – Nikolaisen recalling Ian Brown whilst Holstr�m floats somewhere between Nico and Saint Etienne‘s Sarah Cracknell. If that sounds good, it is.
On to Selina’s Melodie Fountain, and, so far, there’s a strong pop sensibility protecting us from the inevitable fear of something dangerous lurking underneath. The song drifts away with the sound of a distant, sad guitar that recalls a funereal bagpipe and indicates a little of what is yet to come. Then follows the St. Etienne flavoured Un-Deux and you could almost be forgiven for thinking that Serena-Maneesh were going to skirt past the dark sonic nightmares that they kept threatening to travel to.
This, however is the point where the real sound of Serena-Maneesh takes control. Candlelighted launches with a groove reminiscent of Gong in their Angel’s Egg days, but with none of the psychedelic silliness and all of the menace. Like Pink Floyd‘s classic Careful With That Axe Eugene it threatens to build to a terrifying scream, only to slip into more spacey harmony singing and seventies rock chops that do nothing to put the listener at ease and everything to leave them truly freaked out.
There are screaming guitars everywhere, and not just screaming in triumphant joy or murderous fury but in confusion and terror too. As much as they clearly owe to Sonic Youth, the guitars spend much of the album in the full-on splattercore territory that the Butthole Surfers made their home in the mid-to-late 80s. Nikolaisen’s atypical Iggy-when-angry growl on Beehiver II is the closest he ever gets to Gibby Haynes’ vocal acrobatics, but Butthole’s guitarist Paul Leary would be right at home in this strange, strange world.
The music just gets creepier and creepier as you dig deeper into this dark, dangerous and utterly fantastic album. There, I said it – this is definitely not the most accessible album you’ll hear this year, but it rewards every subsequent listening – albeit with nightmares and a sense of doubt as to the solidity of your surroundings.
It’s an album that defies a reviewer to leave a single song unmentioned, so I’ll continue. Her Name is Suicide opens as a piece of quiet terror recalling some of the Aphex Twin‘s more uncomfortable Ambient Works, before Holstr�m picks it up and weaves a ghostly dream out of its branches.
Sapphire Eyes High seems to go everywhere, like a summation of what has been so far. A joyful rock guitar solo disappears into a chasm of static where a monster seems to lurk with dangerous intent. Don’t Come Down Here begins like Bill Is Dead by The Fall, or a Tindersticks song delivered by goblins or other nightmare creatures – at least until the sludge kicks in and the screaming starts. Chorale Lick is the other way around again, with the dreamlike elements hiding within walls of splattercore insanity.
There’s a definite arc present in all the songs, and the album as a whole that lifts the music above the waves, then back into the terrors of the deep, then back again till the end. It simply never lets go.
There’s a splash of minimalist techno a la Dave Clarke infecting Simplicity’s brief overture to the twelve minute epic Your Blood In Mine. This song takes everything that makes the rest of the album so good and squeezes it into one track that is best described as the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary 12 minute condensed version of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. After having your brain pulled in every direction by the furious free-jazz-splatter sax solo that dominates the song before it throws you out onto a distant turnpike with just a lonely piano for company and you start to re-evaluate just how many different emotions rock music can take you through in just under an hour.
So I hope that I’ve made this clear already – Serena-Maneesh certainly isn’t for everyone, but for the bravehearted it may just be the most rewarding thing you’ve heard in a long, long while. Just don’t listen to it in the dark.