Islington Assembly Hall, London
28 October 2019
Back together after 10 years and the death of a key member, Norway’s finest band make a triumphant return to the London stage. Tim Cooper finds Madrugada sounding better than ever.
A huge roar rises from the crowd as four figures clad in black and white stalk silently onstage. A few seconds later the roar reaches a crescendo as a fifth figure – tall, thin, bearded and bald, in black skinny jeans and black suit jacket over a crisp white shirt – steps towards the centre. It takes me back instantly to the night 15 years ago when I first saw Madrugada in a snowbound bar in Oslo and became a firm fan overnight.
Sivert Høyem offers a shy salute, places a slender hand on the microphone stand and, with a beat of the drums and a cascade of electric guitar, Madrugada strike up the opening chords of Vocal, the opening track from their 1999 debut album Industrial Silence.“You better run, you better run. You better not wait too long,” he sings. “You better run for you to have a heart. So let’s start, tear it all apart.”
Fans of the Norwegian band have been waiting far too long to see them again: it’s been 14 years since they were last in the UK, 12 since the tragically premature death of guitarist Robert Burås at the age of only 31, and 10 since they broke up.
A decade on, grief has turned to acceptance and last summer Madrugada announced a reunion, returning to the road to mark their debut album’s 20th anniversary. Following a marathon 60-date trek around their native Scandinavia and Europe, beginning with a pair of dates in Oslo in front of 35,000 fans over two nights, they arrived in London to a hero’s welcome – and another sold-out venue.
The three original members – Høyem, bassist Frode Jacobsen, and drummer Jon Lauvland Pettersen – are now supplemented by Cato Thomassen on lead guitar and Christer Knutsen on rhythm guitar and keyboards. It would be tempting to suggest that both are needed because it would take two to replace the extraordinary Burås, but that would be unfair on Thomassen who proves equally adept at the shimmering arpeggios and melodic riffing that were his predecessor’s trademark.
Surprisingly for a band so esoteric and eclectic in its influences – a melancholic mèlange of the Velvets and Doors, Stooges and Suicide, Cohen and Cave, Mazzy Star and the Mary Chain – Madrugada are one of Norway’s most successful ever artists. All their albums topped the domestic charts and they have five trophies at the Alarm Awards (Norway’s equivalent of the Grammys or Brits) and the Song of the Decade trophy for Lift Me, a duet with Ane Brun.
Onstage chat is kept to a minimum, and delayed until well into the set. “This song is about an old house,” announces Høyem when he finally speaks, introducing a song called This Old House. His brevity cannot be put down to the language difference because he speaks, sings and writes lyrics in perfect English. You half expect him to introduce the brooding Strange Colour Blue with the words: “This song is about a strange colour.”
Sirens finds Høyem, a man who in his youth bore a striking resemblance to Howard Devoto and seems to have added charisma in his forties, channelling his inner Lizard King.
His warm baritone explores depths Morrison might have found had he too grown up on a remote island off Norway’s northern archipelago, reading about bygone bands in the NME and waiting weeks for records to arrive at the post office on a neighbouring island.
The gentle ballad Shine finds the singer demonstrating his range with a falsetto and shards of filigree guitar on a song that could have come from Suede’s masterpiece Dog Man Star. Meanwhile, the big blues ballad Quite Emotional’s soulful Hammond organ brings a touch of Otis Redding to proceedings.
Madrugada wear their influences on their sleeves, something that becomes increasingly clear as they conclude their debut album and delve into their back catalogue. Black Mambo suggests they’ve been listening to the Mark Lanegan back catalogue, both in its slow-burning blues intensity and its dark lyric (“Don’t let the children catch you, Gonna knock you down with liquor and love”), while the descending guitar melody of Hands Up I Love You, also from second album The Nightly Disease, brings a similarly sinister undertone to proceedings.
What’s On Your Mind, perhaps the most uplifting song from that final self-titled album from 2008 – a collection whose positive mood is at odds with its tragic genesis – is followed by the band’s pièce de resistance, Høyem strapping on an acoustic guitar to strum the opening chords of Majesty, strangely the only song from their third and (to my mind) best album, Grit, prompting a mass singalong to what remains one of the great break-up songs.
As the two-hour mark approaches, there’s just time for two of the band’s biggest tunes, The Kids Are On High Street, with its chiming guitars and big chorus, and a valedictory Valley Of Deception, with its delicate guitar figures and gently throbbing organ accentuating the elegiac mood, leaving an audience hoping fervently that they won’t have to wait so long for a return visit.