Nordic Flora Pt. 3: Gore-Tex City
, April 18th, 2017 02:04
When the press release accompanying Nordic Flora Series Pt.3: Gore-Tex City, from Swedish electronic music overlord Varg aka Jonas Rönnberg, describes the album as “a bit of a fuck off, but it’s a smirking fuck off,” the immediate reaction is something like – “oh that’s Varg to a T.” His online persona is one that is very much in line with much of Scandinavian pop culture attitudes – all tattoos, ironic trash aesthetics, synthetic hashtags, black metal typography, and trolling stances as his social media posts show him resplendent in designer gear, rolls of banknotes and chugging from bottles of Möet.
When he recently took over Resident Advisor’s Instagram, he effortlessly wound up their tr00 cvlt electronic underground readership by foregoing the usual snaps of high-end studio set ups, DJ Booths, and swanky vegan sushi restaurants, instead showing himself hanging out with Yung Lean, getting wrecked in Copenhagen with DJ Hvad and the Posh Isolation crew, and buying Gucci from the airport duty free. But at the end of the week, Varg had some choice words for RA’s followers, noting that while he may been seen by some as a troll clown it was in fact the “underground” credentials of the dance industry that were a joke: an industry that’s pretty sexist, elitist, and “excluding to everybody that's not really fitting the regular made up image created by the fuckboy masses,” where analogue fetishists can scorn him spending money on designer wear, while at the same time spunking 000’s of Euros on various filters and modular euroracks only to spend their time “resetting their studio” or making substandard modular techno tracks.
That’s the thing to understand about Varg; while he may look like he’s taking the piss, when it comes to his work and his music it’s rarely a joke. Since he came onto the scene in 2013, Rönnberg has adopted a Walpurgisnachtian approach to releasing music that would make Legowelt nod his head in admiration, churning out dozens of releases across an array of aliases and side projects, that highlight an ever dizzying take on power electronics, freeform techno, and dark ambient. He is a musician that always seems to be on the move, stretching his influence and scope across the Scandinavian electronic music scene like a virulent meme.
In that time his music has evolved into a style all his own, a canvas of shifting diffused textures accompanied with skeletal beats, pulsing tones, and melancholy drones. The social topography of Varg’s music is one of a foggy low-level malaise that reflects the bleak underside that clings to the official image of Sweden’s Nordic beauty and its social democratic positivity, a society of well-ordered cities and small, remote towns riven with overstimulation and existential boredom, social inequality and intolerance, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and the resulting various mental health fallout.
It’s this mindset that braces you for Gore-Tex City, the third instalment in his recent Nordic Flora series. The first instalment, Heroine, was a compact EP of pounding Autobahn monochrome techno, while part 2, En ros röd som blod, was more experimental, as implacable sheets of amniotic ambient synths coated various remnants of digital noise. With Gore-Tex City, Varg takes elements from both albums as to provide a modern soundtrack of suicidal online avatars and humanity guided by 9th-dimensional algorithmic psy-ops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this makes Gore-Tex City a sprawling and slightly impenetrable listen first time round.
But perseverance pays off as several tracks on the album share common aspects of Varg’s sound. The opening track ‘Champagne Ceremonies’, with its ghostly rhythms and gloomy synth lines, has a bleak pallor that would be more at be home on Rönnberg’s darkwave side project Född Dödd. ‘Platforms Surrounded by Fences (EU)’ and 'Snake City / Maserati music' meanwhile display his trademark minimal techno sound, as pinging beats and vaporous drones that slowly unfold into a delicate crystalline structure. ‘I hope You Are Still There’, grafts these two aspects of his sound together to create forlorn and disconsolate techno, all heaving bass and glassy chimes set to a pulsating beat.
What does mark out Gore-Tex City from the first two editions, though, is the fact that this is Varg’s twisted version of the “collaboration” album, with a list of artists that showcase the breadth and reach of Rönnberg’s musical interests and explorations, a list that that includes Drew McDowall, Alessandro Cortini, and Swedish pop artist Anna Melina. Some of the tracks contain a level of subtlety and personality that belies Varg’s online persona: On ‘Red Line (114 Östermalmstorg - 127 Vårberg)’, a neo classical meander with composer Matti Bye, hardcore punk turned jazz drummer Christian Augustin, and experimental noise musician Henrik Söderström, Varg’s alien modular gurgles overlay crepuscular piano lines, reverb laden bell chimes and metallic clangs and screeches.
Elsewhere there are the tracks made in collaboration with US Artist Chloe Wise, as ‘Forever 21 / Valium’ pairs gossamer ambient hums against Wise’s delivery of a poem from her exhibition Cats Not Fighting is a Horrible Sound as Well. Her Siri-like voice, devoid of affect and laden with ennui, delivers lines of empty eroticism that could have come from a vaguely sinister exchange on Tinder. ‘Euros & Euros & Euros (EBG)’ composed with Wise and musician F. Valentin, has a delicate iridescent-yet-corroded quality to noise composition that has a close affinity to the bubblegum industrial music of Posh Isolation’s Croatian Amor.
But by far the weirdest, and most intriguing, collaboration is with Swedish rapper Yung Lean on ‘Red Line II (127 Sätra C)’. On one level, it shouldn’t work; Lean’s heavily auto-tuned monotone sad rap is all cartoon nihilism, with tales of Adderall, throwing himself off a cliff, and killing his landlord that have a codeine coated gloom at odds with techno’s hard, brutalist machinations. But Varg not only makes the song work, he raises it to an emotional level that you weren’t expecting as haunted synth blasts and oscillating dancefloor rhythms turn Lean’s lines into an immense solemn requiem that opens up its wrists and bleeds despondency all over the floor.
Gore-Tex City shows just how far Rönnberg has come as a musician since the doomy acid techno of his debut album Misanthopen back in 2013. He has always had ability to capture intense level of ambient atmosphere and a knack for abstract grooves but he is now working on much higher level of composition and experimentalism that belies his self-professed dilettantism. The album shows him just at home in the world of contemporary music and art as he is on the dancefloor or the street corners of estates in Stockholm, as his ear for what makes electronic music tick become ever more refined. The Varg juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down for a good while yet.