Of Darkness And Light

Årabrot’s tenth LP is the aural equivalent of biting into a big chocolate skull full of strawberry goo, says Bernie Brooks

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this gig.

Upfront, I’m not a die-hard follower of Årabrot. I’m more of a dabbler, to be honest. Like most fans of ridiculous, heavy noise rock, I hold at least a couple of their albums in high esteem. Specifically, their 2013 self-titled LP and – emphatically – their 2016 landmark The Gospel. These albums are heavy, loaded with gross slabs of gnarled riffage. For real, they are monsters. They have gravity.

Speaking of, on the Norwegian island of Moster, there’s a church in the village of Mosterhamn. The Old Moster Church, as it stands now, dates back to maybe 1150 or so, but there was a church on the site as early as the 10th century. It’s hugely important to the history of Norway, but that’s not what we’re concerned about here. The church is stout and white and boxy, immovable – a permanent thing. A simple, weighty structure, it’s shaped like a child’s drawing of a house, with minimal windows. It, too, has gravity. The interior of warped wood and stone is the stuff of folk horror. It looks cold, gloomy and haunted by the passage of time, illuminated theatrically with great blooms of light from inelegant, rectangular windows.

In my head, that’s what those Årabrot records are like. That’s what I thought I was signing up for. Needless to say, that’s not what I got. That their tenth LP, Of Darkness And Light, is something else, something different, is immediately apparent. The first thing opener ‘Hangman’s House’ calls to mind is a slightly heavy Bon Jovi, which is… something. But I suppose it’s good of Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park, the core duo behind Årabrot’s current incarnation, to lay their cards on the table from the get-go. Preconceptions dashed, I’m in for a pop record. And maybe that’s OK?

Straightaway, it’s clear that Of Darkness And Light’s production, courtesy of Alain Johannes, is a departure from that of the band’s previous work. It’s “heavy” in an LA, KROQ, post-Queens Of The Stone Age kind of way, which is to say, not really that heavy at all. There are elements that signify heaviness – you know, crunchy guitars, big riffs, big drums – but overall, there’s too much polish for anything to have that much heft. That said, I’m not sure that’s what Årabrot were going for here, and this album is at its best when it’s not trying to be particularly heavy at all.

‘You Cast Long Shadows’ rides a jaunty riff and ghoulie synth straight to a handclap-heavy bit of pop catharsis. ‘Horrors Of The Past’ is another synth-forward confection, powered by acoustic jangle, synthetic strings, and more handclaps. It’s not too unlike ‘Baba O’Riley’ gone horror punk. As usual, Nernes’s songwriting is bloody good. He’s crammed his Hammer tales of the macabre with so many hooks they could be in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a vocalist, he’s perfectly suited to this sort of lovable, frightful schlock, alternating between a cracked, nasal, B-52’s yelp and a guttural bellow.

The album closes with the one-two of ‘Swan Killer’ and ‘Love Under Will’. The former is a slinky, swampy, organ-led number complete with fried, reverb-soaked guitar. Of all the songs on the album, it most successfully merges the band’s grotty past with its present. The latter also leans heavily on electronic organ, but to more romantic ends. Were Of Darkness And Light a Rocky Horror-style musical, ‘Love Under Will’ would be the show-stopper. Similarly, one gets the impression that the driving, symphonic, pop-industrial chug of ‘Madness’ might stand an outside chance at Eurovision. It feels almost perverse to write, but when this album is firing on all cylinders, it might be Årabrot at peak performance – the aural equivalent of biting into a chocolate skull full of strawberry goo. Whether you’ll like it or not? Well, that’s a completely different story, and entirely a matter of personal taste.

Down the street from my house, there’s an abandoned grocery store. In a strip mall that looks like every other strip mall in Dearborn, MI, it’s functionally impossible to date by sight, except to say that it was built somewhere between thirty and fifty years ago. Like every other abandoned grocery store in America, it’s now a Spirit Halloween, a spooky and ubiquitous, fluorescent-lit, seasonal superstore full of fake spiderwebs and giant skeletons and pop-culture references – and future revelers looking to maximise their upcoming revelry. In my head, that’s what this new Årabrot record is like. Which is totally fine. Tons of people like Spirit Halloween. I kinda like Spirit Halloween.

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