Vodka Lullabies and the Last Russian Dance: The Final Curtain for Kaizers Orchestra
Kaizers Orchestra photo © Paal Audestad
Norway’s finest, Kaizers Orchestra, are taking a hiatus after more than 12 years of ascension to the top of the indie heap. Elisabeth Robson documents the epic rise of this little known Norse phenomenon, and eulogises their legacy and immense body of work which culminated in the awe inspiring ‘Violeta Violeta’ Trilogy. What is the future of the staged Rock Opera? ‘Violeta Violeta’, of course. Not to mention a little gig in old Blighty.
How often does a new musical genre evolve? How often does a band actually change your life? How often, if you are really honest, do you fall in love with a band? And how often can you truly attest, with your hand on your heart, that all of a band’s work has produced music worthy of total prostration? Norway, most famously known musically for death metal and plucky acoustic folk, has seemingly produced magic; True genius in the form of the totally un-categorisable.
Amidst the blandness that is modern manufactured indie, rarely does a group come along that you can say I haven’t loved a band so much sinceâ¦ fillintheblankâ. In a world of the yawningly mundane that is force-fed to the masses, we are hypnotised into believing that this band or that band is amazeballs. Scuse me while I spit and yawn. But I’m afraid this circus has rolled on and most of you have missed it, for it is soon to be no more. Not entirely deceased but put into an induced coma for an undetermined time. After 15 years of the recording / touring / recording / touring grind, the boys have grown into men, and these men are in need of a holiday.
Images of the Iron Curtain and vodka induced polka are elegantly depicted in the smashing of the crowbar to an oil drum, constructing a beauty in chaos. Amidst the textural splendour of accordion, strings, driving guitar and occasional Balkan/Mariachi brass, lies a calm, structured, perfectly imperfect melody. This is Kaizers Orchestra. This is Kaizer Rock. The six piece band that since 2000 have risen to mega stardom in their native Norway and Scandinavia, remain virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. They have achieved the kind of success and adoration most well-respected and established indie bands can only dream to achieve in Scandinavia. They are regulars in the mainstream Norwegian press, appear on breakfast telly, recurrently sell out arena tours and have their own brand of vodka. Kaizers Orchestra are by far the most talented, enigmatic and unique rock band around, so why don’t we, a nation that champions world music, know about them, especially now that the show is over?
They sing exclusively in Norwegian with a smattering of English when only absolutely necessary and make no apology for it. The vocals and presence of front man Janove Ottesen are mesmerising despite the language barrier. It is widely documented that fans of many and varied national origins have learned Norwegian specifically to better understand the meaning of Kaizers Orchestras multi-layered fantasyland. The band have staunchly rebuked the lure of the US and UK music scenes because they neither wanted nor needed us. Says Ottesen: We turned down Glastonbury a couple of years ago. They offered us £500 to do it. It would have cost us £3000 to do our show so we told them to f**k off – in a nice way of course. We just decided that we don’t need to pay to play anymore. We don’t have to. We haven’t heard from England since. Kaizers Orchestra really do want us, but on their terms. They don’t want to compromise.
Ottesen, as well as guitarist Geir Zahl, have both tried to crack the US and UK markets with their individual solo work, both singing in English – Ottesen with the album ‘Francis’ Lonely Nights’ (2004) a well-produced work of light pop/rock and acoustic melodies, Zahls ‘Nice for a Change’ (2007) and his alter ego Uncle Deadly with the album ‘Monkey Do’ (2010). Although the solo efforts were well made and exceedingly proficient, both lacked the individuality that the pair produced together. Like all worthy song writing partnerships (Ottesen and Zahl are childhood friends), together they shine. Their collaboration and vision is essentially the furnace that drives the Kaizers machine.
Kaizers Orchestra are eight studio albums as well as a multitude of live recordings, EPs and DVD live performance issues – into their astonishing career. Their 2001 debut LP ‘Ompa til du dÃ¸r’ (Ompa till you die) earned them the prestigious Spellemannprisen award (Norwegian Grammy), and went on to be the highest selling debut album sung in the Norwegian language. ‘Ompa’, heavily influenced by eastern European/Nordic folk, still exhibits a unique and powerful indie-guitar core. ‘Kontroll pÃ¥ kontinentet’ (Control over the Continent), a single that any brit-pop band would have happily sold their grannies to produce, is still very modern and listenable more than a decade later. This was followed in 2003 by the acclaimed ‘Evig Pint’ (Eternal Torment) thoroughly delicious mind-food of banquet sized proportions of which the self-titled single ‘Evig Pint’ is dark Norse poetry flavoured with sumptuously bewitching dirges. ‘Maestro’ (2005), a palpably controlled and more produced (one could argue pop) sound, has gifted the listener with the epic Dieter Meyerâs ‘Insitusjon’ – the screaming testimony of a man pleading to be admitted to the asylum – transcends the language barrier and more than adequately explains itself through uncompromising, angst-ridden rage. ‘Knekker deg til Sist’ (Break up the Last), a very punchy and uncharacteristically danceable track, displays Kaizers Orchestraâs strong song writing abilities with a sense of creative balance and energy.
Kaizers Orchestra were simply not content with making incredible melodic noise. Their first three albums (Ompa, Evig Pint and Maestro) are all part of a continuing theme that encompass a fantasy gangster-ridden storyline where the main characters and musical score intertwine frenetically with one another. This theme was interpreted into a new piece of musical theatre, ‘Sonny’, which premiered in Stavanger, Norway in November 2011. Collaborating with eminent Norwegian author Tore Renberg (‘The Man Who Loved Yngve’) for the written score, ‘Sonny’ is based on these characters, and the songs in the show taken directly from the albums. ‘Sonny’ was performed to great acclaim in Norway, and was even successfully staged in Denmark under the abridged title ‘Maestro’.
The Kaizersâ fourth studio album ‘Maskineri’ (Machinery – 2008) was seen to be part of the bandâs deliberate attempt to go in a new musical direction, inasmuch as past charactersâ and storylines were abandoned for a completely new and stand-alone project. Although ‘Maskineri’ contained some new sounds not characteristic of the bands previous work, it took them to a completely different level musically. Incorporating beautifully melodic ballads (‘Den andre er meg’ The Other is Meâ and ‘Med en gang eg nÃ¥r bÃ¥nn’ roughly translated as When I Reach Rock Bottomâ), and the heavy reggae/rock of the lead single Maskineriâ, it was clear that Kaizers had got a lot out of their system from going in a new direction. The stand out track of ‘Maskineri’ is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Enden av November’, for which the video is as visually appealing as it is multi-layered.
Beautiful Norwegian Noiseâ: The descriptive one can most closely pin to them. The aesthetic is industrial, elegant and fragrant. Masculine, yet tender and melodic. Dark in many places, but lightly teasing and playful in others. They sing of love, loss and Mafiosi. War, peace, possession and obsession. ‘Die Polizei’ (from the 2009 album of b-sides, ‘VÃ¥re Demoner’) is an amusing and soulful account of dealings with life on the road and the German police. It is played as the encore of virtually every Kaizers Orchestra show, and usually runs for 10 minutes afterwards with the crowd chanting the chorus knowing that the inevitable depression of the end of the show is imminent.
As fantasy runs strongly through the Kaizersâ ethos, so did the need to create an even bigger and bolder statement piece. In January 2011 they released what was the first of three albums collectively entitled ‘The Violeta Violeta Trilogy’. In ‘Violeta Violeta I’, a new dramatic storyline and cast of characters were introduced: Estranged partners Kenneth and Beatrice and their daughter Violeta. Family dysfunction is lampooned to immense proportions as Kenneth kidnaps Violeta, Beatrice loses her mind and Violeta is torn between the two. Violeta and her mother Beatrice talk telepathically, and the pair arranges to meet on top of the tallest skyscraper in Tokyo to jump from the 1000th floor. Obviously the Devil plays a part in the story (he would), as does Kennethâs brother and sister-in-law all characters meld into the storyline to depict a fantasy account of love, hate, greed and torment.
To drum up the European fans furore for new material, the band made the second, unreleased single of Violeta I, ‘Hjerteknuser’ (Heartbreaker) available to download – only the lyrics and sheet music were provided, and people were encouraged to record it their way – without having heard the original. The competition winners were then able to release their own version and given an opportunity to tour with the band.
‘Violeta’ II and III were released in the end of 2011 and 2012 respectively, continuing the Phantasmagorical saga. Both volumes, while continuing on the same storyline and cast of characters, are both so musically different you feel as if you are consuming both chalk and cheese in the same meal with a pudding of satisfied confusion. Both volumes are beautiful, intense and beguiling, but very, very different. ‘Violeta I’ is a playful score, with a hint of a circus vibe, ‘Violeta II’ is moreover a tribute to the guitar hero. ‘Violeta III’ is, to my ear, an uncompromising homage to 70s glam touches of Bowie and Sparks abound, and even, though perhaps unintentional, glimpses of Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg this album manages to rip musical seams apart. Nothing is quite what it appears in the world of Violeta. While Janove Ottesen raps (yes, raps) quite a bit in Volumes I and II (without sounding the least bit naff by the way), as a whole, the ‘Violeta’ trilogy can only be described as an immense body of work that, like a benevolent virus, needs to be spread wholly for the advantage of world peace. Please someone give them a Nobel Prize.
As a live band they are among the top with the greatest all-time rock bands in history. Kaizers smash, conquer and stamp on the language divide. There is no divide there’s only conquer. Their live energy is stylish and current, while they make the totally unfamiliar appear totally familiar. They can win over a jaded musical heart in a single 45 minute set – leaving you thinking So, THIS is what music should make me feel.
I have been accused, by several strains of London hipster, of musical elitism. Yeah, well I know a bit about this shit. I have been involved in, immersed in, adored and obsessed about music before most of you kids were sucking air (crabbily wags finger!). So, in the interest of pedigree, and knowing exactly what Iâm going on about, sit with motherâ¦ and learn. Kaizers Orchestra, as a touring entity, may be no more, but the music still lives to be played, pondered and loved. Sit, listen, feel and ingest. Then jump around and collapse in a wrinkled heap on the floor, for perhaps it is an ironic inside joke that they have chosen to play their final club concert in London but they have. And even if itâs a poke in the ribs at the UK indie establishment, I donât care a jot. Bring it on, gimme the t-shirt and thank you very much this is historic stuff.
What does the future hold for the work of Janove Ottesen and Geir Zhal? A musical, dahling! Firstly, the staging of ‘Violeta III’ at the Oslo Opera House with the Norwegian Symphony Orchestra, and on the back of the critical acclaim of ‘Sonny’, ‘Violeta’ is intended to be staged as global musical in the near future. This makes total sense, as a fully staged production may incorporate certain elements that the listener may find confusing – to be gelled together as a complete entity. The music of Kaizers Orchestra may be easily digested, but unless one is a native or reasonably skilled at Norsk, the true meaning, and the complexity of the narrative can leave many questions unanswered. Move over Lloyd-Weber, thereâs someone infinitely more talented and visionary biting at your heels and the future of the musical looks decidedly Nordic.
Kaizers Orchestra are playing their last club gig (ever) in London at Koko on 25 April 2013. You can purchase tickets here. A full list of tour dates and information about Kaizers Orchestra can be found on their official website.
Kaizers Orchestra’s music is available for download from iTunes and Amazon. Those wishing to purchase CD or vinyl can do so within the EU from CDON.
Photo by Paal Audestad. Words by Elisabeth Robson. More writing by Elisabeth on Louder Than War can be found here.