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Varg
Ursviken Albert Freeman , May 7th, 2015 09:42

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In the last year or so it has been thrilling to watch the growth of Stockholm's underground experimental electronics, which arrived fairly out of nowhere with the appearance of Northern Electronics in 2013. There had been faint rumblings prior in the form of Abdulla Rashim's eponymous techno label, but for years before, Sweden had been primarily famous for a very different kind of dance music which had never resonated in the same circles.

While Rashim has been the breakout name thus far, by far the most productive artist of this emergent group is Jonas Rönnberg, best known as Varg. Rönnberg's music stretches across genre boundaries, between noise, drone and techno. Recording solo under a list of aliases or as a member of several duos - D.Å.R.F.D.H.S., Ulwhednar, etc. – he's either solely or in part responsible for nearly half the releases on Northern Electronics, and tracing the tendrils of his work across the many hidden paths reveals an intimidating amount of music released only since 2013, a pace much more akin to noise artists than to the techno and abstract electronic scene his music falls more naturally into. The sheer number of labels and releases alone says something about both the artist and his background, and while most have emerged on cassette in small runs, he also managed to catch the attention of Semantica, Opal Tapes, and Field Records, as well as a list of smaller labels more rooted in dark ambient and industrial.

Rönnberg's third album Ursviken is a distinctly personal album, a lament to the isolated town of only 4000 inhabitants in northern Sweden where he grew up. It focuses on all of its very contemporary problems, of boredom, drugs, suicide, and intolerance, set against a backdrop of Nordic beauty on the coast a few kilometres below the Arctic Circle. Shot through with an overriding melodic sadness, the intense, introspective darkness and moments of shoegazing bleakness vividly convey the mixed feelings of the artist for this gone-but-not-forgotten past.   

The nearly 10-minute title track of the album sets the mood. An incessant wind-like hiss and the sound of lapping water hovers in the background while deep wells of delay consume the gently melodic keyboards and single percussion hits indefinitely in echo traps, fading slowly sometimes or rising occasionally into squalls of feedback. The rhythms are skeletal and abstract but grind away inexorably, coming out more presently in 'Skaeliptom', with its Tin Man-esque slow acid line and subtly broken, minimalist percussion, an idea that informs the more rhythmic portions throughout the running time. While undeniably informed by Donato Dozzy and the textural techno that has arisen in his wake, Varg trades both the psychedelic moments of beauty and the more heads-down techno for a windswept stare into the distance, returning to ambient tracks purposefully over the two records and keeping the subtext of the music keenly in focus.

As the album enters its third quarter, the dense beds of reverb and delay effects sometimes threaten to consume the rhythm entirely, rising in carpets of noise and leaving only cavitating kick drum thrums with unrecognisable, short fragments of tones and hums rising from the morass to prevent things from sliding into total abstraction. He pulls things back to the concrete each time with more openly emotional pieces, most compellingly on 'Guldstaden' and 'Öhn', but Varg's combination between melodic melancholia and horizon-searching heads-down techno is a rare one, at times channeling Wolfgang Voigt's Gas project in with its church-organ like ambience filtered through dense webs of effects and lost in distant shadows.

Taking into account the sheer volume of drone-oriented abstract electronic music that has been released just in the last few years, the distinctive sound of Northern Electronics when it arrived came as a pleasant surprise in an area already approaching oversaturation. In the case of Varg, that this kind of evocative music comes from a producer with only a couple years of releases under his belt is surprising, but based on the length of his discography to-date he has had plenty of practise time in getting things right. Like his label and production partner Abdulla Rashim, both are able to find a distinctive voice via an unusual ear for atmosphere and their willingness to embrace nerve-shredding intensity in places where many others would shy away. With single-take, hardware driven improvisation and roots in noise, or in his case, black metal, an increasingly common denominator in techno, it is rare to hear such work approach compositional clarity and maintain a programmatic idea quite so convincingly as Varg does here.

Under whatever name he chooses, Rönnberg is clearly a producer with a promising future, and even after releasing another double LP in March in his D.Å.R.F.D.H.S duo, his staggering productivity has yielded another major work in the form of Ursviken. The road for Varg undoubtably leads up from here, and this most recent effort lands in a timely manner as his highest profile and most personal work, and also one of his most effective.