Did you know that Sweden is the world’s third biggest exporter of music, after the USA and the UK? That’s with a population of just nine million a fraction of its musical competitors. Scando neighbours Norway, Denmark and even Finland have contributed much to the world’s sonic wealth too think the Lionheart Brothers, Alphabeat and tonight’s headliners Ungdomskulen.
Not surprisingly, all this output is as diverse as anything the UK’s talents can muster. One strand of Scandinavian music tends towards electro-pop girl geniuses, from Robyn representing for the mainstream to Fever Ray out in ever-so-slightly murkier waters. Another ribbon in the plait of Nordic musicality is the death-metal heritage from the Norwegian wilderness, where some would have you believe you’ve no sooner stumbled across an isolated village by an icy fjord than someone’s whipped out a goat and sacrificed it by moonlight on a virgin’s grave.
A third skein is made up of whimsical indie-pop like Loney, Dear and I’m From Barcelona. The monthly live night Ja Ja Ja has been funnelling Scandinavian music into the UK through venues around London since late 2009. Officially organised by “music exporters, it sets about showcasing the best of Nordic indie.
The organisers regrouped this time for a sensory assault featuring hard-rockin’ acts The Good The Bad and Ungdomskulen, both from Norway, plus quirky-folksy Finnish trio Vuk, who we stupidly missed but who an expert friend pronounced “brilliant. The Good The Bad go in for hard-edged surf pop, building to an increasingly excitable crescendo as vigorous chords spiralled up to the low ceiling and dripped back down in drops of sweat. Their set, though enjoyable, was hardly groundbreaking, but they threw themselves into it with an appealingly carefree enthusiasm, and the crowd received it in much the same way.
They disappeared in a squall of feedback, and it was time for Ungdomskulen to swagger on in a glow of glam geekdom. Singer Kristian Stockhaus’s enormous ginger sideburns shone redly under the lights as they launched into a hazy rendition of Sleep Over Beethoven. They go in for a kind of artfully approachable, even danceable prog rock, and the between-songs chat was disarmingly inane. “Tonight, London reminds us of Bergen, Kristian observed, “because we have snow in London, and rain in Bergen. At the time this seemed meteorologically inaccurate, but on a closer reading it makes perfect albeit boring sense.
Things warmed up as the set went on – they work their songs pretty hard onstage, constructing spiky cathedrals of sound. Idunno, the closest thing to a straight-up pop song they’ve ever released, inspired a half-dancing, half-moshing love-in. At times the intensity of the set flagged but as they built to a defiantly epic, Norway’s-got-its-groove-on Ordinary Son, you could feel everyone saying secretly in their hearts, “Honey, you may have the biggest sideburns this side of the 19th century, but you can tell me what the weather’s like in Bergen any time.