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Harald Austbø
Ontwaak Richard Foster , December 4th, 2019 10:04

A wild stab of pop eccentricity, Harald Austbø's Ontwaak fizzes with energy, finds Richard Foster

I may be making this up but I suspect cellist and human beatbox Harald Austbø enjoys living the life of a crazy artist: a modern day Provo; a man in love with life, rock n’ roll, beat poetry and the cello; sometimes all at once. And his new record, brought out on the small Dutch label Blowpipe, is a gloriously colourful record that sweeps up the listener and transports them to places they weren’t expecting to end up at. Sometimes whilst listening to Ontwaak (trans: Awake!) it feels like you’re stuck on Ken Kesey’s bus, wondering when you can jump off.

Blowpipe are an interesting label with a catholic release policy; boasting a catalogue of classic Dutch Ultra bands and slightly unhinged poets and glossy, giddy electronic pop acts. Like his Blowpipe label mate, the legendary chanteur Harry Merry, Austbø is part entertainer, part polymath, part Wildeman. Those who have the odd Witthüsser and Westrupp record lying about their pads will certainly warm to this manic folk-poet. The lyrics are often a Nordic porridge of what I take to be cod-Danish, Dutch and English, and delivered courtesy of a Tom Waits-style growl, a carefree cod-Franco patois scat in the style of Didier Malherbe and the odd shriek and groan. Austbø does a lot of beatboxing too. One bit, I swear, is an attempt to make fish noises. It’s firmly ensconced in the tradition of European musical eccentricity.

The title track and its follower ‘Wak’ are two glorious examples of wild chamber pop, hitched to an itchy groove and never scared of stopping and restarting, or trying out some new sonic mood for kicks. The bit where we are briefly threatened with an operatic interlude is glorious.

This boyish trait is one of the records’s chief charms. Whilst it’s reminiscent of the work of Jacques Berrocal (or slabs of the recent Finders Keepers Nurse with Wound French prog compilation), there is a very Dutch sense of keeping order on anything that gets too silly. Certainly any silliness that would affect, or diffuse the music’s core message is kept deftly in check. Ontwaak is not a sloppy release for the sake of it. The many changes of tempo and tone are expertly handled: the opener ‘Viking Kong’ is a mini psychodrama that seems to be happy chasing clouds during its short life. The sensuous curves traced out by the cello on ‘100% Arabica’ are a delight and a useful contrast with some unhinged vocals. Then there is the brilliantly constructed mood piece, ‘ABC’, a sprightly poem about (among other things) trees and the ministrations of the income tax office, which is delivered in deadpan Dutch.

Currently there is a trend (and incredibly wide-ranging pool) of contemporary Dutch artists making quietly brilliant pop records that mix poetry, spoken word, rap and soundscapes. From the late great Rooie Waas, Electropoëzie, the aforementioned Harry Merry to a bubbling Rotterdam rap and hip hop scene, it seems that spelling things out is the way to go in the Netherlands. And this effervescent, clever and sometimes beautiful record can act as a gateway to further enlightenment.