Now Vs Now, Elephant9 and Geir Sundstøl shine at Punkt

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As our world edges further into turmoil, the remote idyll of Kristiansand in southern Norway, seems increasingly like some special sonic paradise away from the maelstrom of daily life. The uncharacteristically heavy security at Oslo airport is a sign of the outside world encroaching on this usually most Zen-like country. Inside the Punkt bubble things remain beatifically balanced between full-blooded live performances and the most artful of remixes, spontaneously created with breath-taking skill. Yet, while last year's slight misfire of artist-in-residence Daniel Lanois' clumsy remix and slightly better live show, this year's focus was firmly back on song with two contrasting power trios, Now Vs Now (above) and Elephant9, topping the Friday and Saturday nights, and the presence of several visionary drummers, with, if anything, the remixes taking a backseat to some inspired performances. Among the star percussionists it was a little disconcerting to hear Paal Nilssen-Love eschewing his more brutal instincts for painterly layers of scraped drum skins, watery cymbal washes and volcanic tom rolls across his low-key but intense opening set. One of the joys of Punkt's stage design is observing the remixers, waiting eagerly on their own raised platform, discussing conspiratorially or brooding over a laptop, in preparation for their impending reinterpretation of the music. Such was the case for tuba-toting Heida Mobeck and Anja Lauvdal who made mischief with Nilssen-Love's beats. Rhythm became frequency in their hands, as they anarchically added an avalanche of samples mashed with mutant tuba dive bombs that rudely punctured some of Love's serious posturing.

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Rhythm revolutionary Thomas Strønen has always been a very melodic drummer – be it with his use of tuned percussion with Food or here with the surging sonorities of his fast rising quintet, Time is a Blind Guide (above). Fuelled by the thrum, hum and twang of a string trio augmented by piano and Strønen's urgent rumblings this is a chamber ensemble with a bittersweet bite. While Strønen's writing for strings may be the central motivation for TIABG, it was the fluidity of improvising that violinist Håkon Aase, cellist Leo Svensson Sander and bassist Ole Morten Vågan achieved that impressed most, as their billowing harmonic gales swept over the yawing oceanic swells of Strønen's kit and Ayumi Tanaka's piano.

It was probably a slight programming oversight to feature another string-led group immediately after, with Trio iXi augmented but not particularly enhanced by arch-Punktsters Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang plus Italian drummer Michele Rabbia, none of whom could gain significant purchase on the strings' continual bowings. It took the astonishing flute playing of Clive Bell on remix duties, with Punkt founder Erik Honoré, to elevate the previous set to the next level, with acres of space and the flautist's tremulous flutters usurping the density of the sampled material with chill-inducing results.

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If Jason Lindner's Now Vs Now came over as a little more scripted, then it was the keyboardist's sonic architecture that was the compelling focal point, as they gave songs from their latest album, The Buffering Cocoon, a live pummelling. Thick wodges of Moog and industrialised Fender Rhodes were hitched to Lindner's potent distillation of the sound of multicultural New York, as this mesmerising trio ditched their chops in favour of heavy beat hypnosis. Sonically awesome as this was, one wonders if the next logical step would be to make an audience want to dance, and let the hips lead instead of the head? The following night's skull crushing onslaught from Elephant9 (above) proved that this is possible in emphatically retro fashion. There's no question E9's rhythm section are the culprits for the band's titanic sound, whipping up an instant wall of funky Motorhead-ish bass lines and head-smacking beats, Nordic keys legend Ståle Størløkken riding this rhythm beast by making his Hammond scream like a banshee slammed through a distortion pedal. They made head-bangers of young and old, male and female alike.

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Yet, for me, the festival highlight was the breath-taking brilliance of pedal-steel guitar guru Geir Sundstøl (above), who showed that stealthily deployed effects can create a one-man sound-system of fjord-like depths. With notes sustained to infinity, Bowie's 'Warszawa' arose from the strings of his horizontal guitar, giving a taste of his latest indispensable Hubro long-player, Brødløs, in what's becoming the most seamless of personal soundtracks. This concert was in fact a duo with labelmate Erland Dahlen, the bell-banging drummer equally capable of whipping up his own timpani-typhoon from within his bell-festooned percussion cage. The drummer's latest album Clocks made for cinematic listening but live is more akin to a drum orchestra, as he triggered chugging synths while hitting out chiming melodies and whumping tom-tom patterns with adrenalin-soaked energy. With Sundstøl grabbing a National Steel guitar to throw shapes in the dramatic lighting, a sly grin accompanying his bottle-neck slide strafes, it all coalesced into another Punkt epiphany that could only happen in this rarefied setting.

– Mike Flynn

– Photos by Petter Sandell