Who Do You Love

When Årabrot released The Gospel in 2016, it felt like a defining document. After their first truly brilliant album Solar Anus (2011), followed by Kjetil Nernes’ first record as the sole band member at the centre of an astounding cast of collaborators, Årabrot (2013), The Gospel was a masterpiece of towering excellence. It was shaped, of course, by Nernes’ diagnosis of aggressive cancer and subsequent recovery; the album is a thrilling, terrifying expression of what he called “the war against oneself.”

Årabrot’s new record Who Do You Love must make sense of the aftermath, what Nernes has referred to as the "silence" after The Gospel’s "explosion". Shortly after The Gospel’s release he undertook a 31-date tour of England, buoyed by a newfound sense of optimism in the wake of his recovery, but one that would eventually give way to fatigue and neurosis. Most crucially, along the way it gave the musician a chance to once again absorb influences at his familiar, frenzied rate. Whether it be absorbing new music and literature or hearing tales told by New Weird Britain’s network of musicians and artists he encountered along the way, like all of Årabrot’s best releases Who Do You Love is bolstered by a colossal bibliography of religion, the avant-garde, existential philosophy, eroticism, the mystics and the romantics.

There are two figures who loom largest over Who Do You Love, Bo Diddley, whose 1956 track the LP is named after, and Maldoror, the central figure of Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, one of the most purely evil characters in literary history. In the album’s opener ‘Maldoror’s Love’ these two men are combined into one, the obnoxious braggadocio of Diddley’s woman-hunting narrator in ‘Who Do You Love’, filtered through Maldoror’s lavish and pompous villainy and corrupted along the way. A single riff pummels and churns, carried by rich and flowing strings as Nernes recites his acts of devotion with the same devilish glint as Nick Cave’s ‘Loverman’. “For your love I’ll wear flower petals and wither in the burning sun,” he snarls. “For your love I’ll stand by your window and lick your tears ‘til dawn.”

‘The Dome’ follows, a thudding and looming march that continues this theme of twisted desire. Inspired by a half-remembered conversation with the artist Sarah Angliss who he met while on tour, it is the tale of a man who hears the echo of an imaginary lover, and constructs a resonant dome to recreate it. Unable to find the right sound, he fires a pistol at it, which ricochets and kills him. ‘Warning’ flows perfectly with a searing kick of noise rock that recalls GNOD at their most relentless. It is another exploration of resonance, this time concerning a narrator fishing bones from a river to create instruments that will be heard all the way in hell.

Both these tracks see Nernes’ songwriting at its most richly imaginative, and his delivery at its most theatrical and bombastic. If they’re not mixing high and low culture with quite the same dramatic contrast as they have done in the past – “The Bible and porn, God and animal” as he once put it – there is still a lightness of touch to Who Do You Love; however dense the writing gets, no matter how ludicrous and far-reaching in scope, it has enough of a knowing sense of its own bombast to prevent it from becoming po-faced.

Årabrot’s line-up on this record is as strong as this now-rotating cast has ever been. Among others it features Andrew Liles of Nurse With Wound and Current 93, experimental brass master Kristoffer Lo, avant percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen, and a messianic rhythm section in the form of Joakim Johansen on drums and GNOD’s Alex Macarte on bass. Their influence is felt not only in the album’s rushes of power – the petrifying plunges of noise that litter ‘Look Daggers’ for example – but also in its deftness. They lend the flicks of metallophone that weave ethereally around ‘The Dome’, the sweet sweep of strings that gives ‘Maldoror’s Love’ such opulence, and the stark but effective flourish of piano on ‘A Sacrifice’. When allowed freedom to expand they have the power to dovetail into something quite remarkable. Årabrot’s rendition of ‘Sinnerman’ for example, the record’s centrepiece, is terrifying. It might be sacrilege to find fault in the Nina Simone version that first drew the old spiritual song to mainstream attention, but no rendition before Årabrot’s has conveyed the protagonist’s overwhelming dread as he desperately attempts to flee Armageddon with quite this much emotional punch.

On ‘Uniform Of A Killer’ Maldoror returns to end the album just as he started. It teems with texture, rolling timpani settling a foreboding beat, brass droning with warlike menace, slide guitar swooping with unsettling elegance and sci-fi synths floating eerily atop it all. It is a death march that is held in perfect order, pausing halfway to regroup before ebbing into a repeated crescendo, bells ringing as a deathly choir heaves a final, mighty sigh. “Maldoror you wear your heart painted on your chest / under your furry feet lies a dead man in his grave,” Nernes’ whines as this astounding dirge fades to its close, his voice cracked but still sinister.

Yet it is not this final track that sees Who Do You Love land its most lasting impact. It is two songs, ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Sons And Daughters’, that hold this honour. The former is towards the record’s front, the latter towards its back, and both bear the exact same melody and lyrics. Karin Park, a musician, the co-producer of the record, Nernes’ wife and the mother of their young daughter, takes lead vocals on both; of all the brilliant musicians whose influence is felt on this album, hers is the most important.

These two songs are unlike anything Årabrot has previously produced. They are unfathomably gorgeous, and moving in the absolute extreme. “The faint whispers beyond the trees / are they of horror or of joy? / Are they the voices in your head?” Park sings with open arms, conjuring beautiful surrealist images that fade in and out of view, one after the other: “Love is like an X-ray of a black hole,” she describes. “I see babies in gigantic coats / they are moving like pawns / are they the shadows in your head?” The first track, ‘Pygmalion’, its music swimming in sublime, aching melancholy, feels like comfort in a time of all-consuming vulnerability, a moment of transcendent kindness and an arm extended to raise one from the floor. On the second, ‘Sons And Daughters’, it’s as if it was Nernes himself who grasped that arm, his voice now backing his wife’s. The instrumentation is flooded with gentle rolls and crashes of percussion and is sadder still yet somehow more epic, a defiant moment of resistance, consolidation and preparation for whatever may come.

Nernes has spoken about how it can take months or years for him to ascertain what his own songs are ‘about’, but he says that many of his creative allies have pointed out the inescapable influence of his newfound fatherhood on these tracks. They were mixed while he and Park were expecting their child. On The Gospel Årabrot drew on the personal more deeply than ever before to express the turmoil of a war against one’s own body. On ‘Sons And Daughters’ and ‘Pygmalion’ they have done so again, but this time in the aftermath of that explosion, finding a deep well of vulnerability at the outset of something new entirely. If the album’s title asks Who Do You Love, perhaps in these two songs we find its answer.

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