My Spotify has been playing silly buggers recently. Error 4; it mocks me in my dreams. A fault that prevents Spotify from detecting the internet even though my computer quite happily accepts chain viewing of Parks and Recreation via Netflix. Not that I rely on Spotify, I just always feel a little dirty listening to iTunes. It somehow feels like the artists get a poorer deal from it, yet listen to it I had to so I could satisfy my musical needs. It’s always an adventure listening to my iTunes, over the years I’ve filled it with some pretty random stuff and most of it was forgotten as I spread my listening wings about 5 years ago. Still, hitting shuffle always brings up gems that deserve more love than previously afforded. Enter Kaizers Orchestra, the phenomenal Norwegian band who (in what is fast becoming a pattern for the bands I like the most) broke up a year after I invested in them in earnest. Why must the good ones always break up? Especially when they have such an exciting and euphoric live show.
Of the many albums to dwell on (and there are many), Maestro is the closest to perfection in a canon that skirts it constantly. A huge hunk of caberet-polka-alt-rock’n’roll that is always one step away from maliciously cutting you whilst holding you like a close friend. There’s such a glorious sense of unease and disquiet running through the album which, admittedly, fits with the concept of Dieter Meyer’s post-war mental hospital. Yup, Kaizers Orchestra deal in concept albums; concept albums that leave behind the musically thematic complexity of prog for drunken rhythms and sleazy arrangements. Concepts to dance to and the like. Maestro in particular has more danceable tunes than you can shake a stick at. ‘Blitzregn Baby‘, ‘Delikatessen‘ and the title track all provide solid driving downbeats that have more in common with pop than concept rock. I suppose this is entirely the charm and skill of the band, they’re not aiming so much for a specific genre with their music, more an encompassing feeling using what instruments they have available to them.
Our brains are wired to notice the inconsistencies in expected outcomes, it’s what keeps us sharp and safe from danger. The flip side is that when you come across a group that plays with our expectation in the way Kaizers Orchestra do, our brain is kept engaged as we relentlessly hunt for familiar patterns amongst the waves. The typical music listener will search for verses and choruses and melodies that always return to a root, patterns ingrained in our subconscious and often dictate our likes. These forms are all present in Maestro, but they are heavily obscured and toyed with. We can hear them there but can’t quite make them out, causing us to listen closer and focus on precisely what is happening. I don’t know about you but that just makes hearing them all the more satisfying. Even a song that wears it’s structure on it’s sleeve, like Christiania (coincidentally one of the most accessible and beautiful on the album) adds unexpected (and utterly joyous) guitar crunches between the chorus and verse. It’s not what we expect so we can’t look away.
The greatest strength of Kaizers Orchestra, beyond their exceptional musical skill, is the lack of electronics in their sound. Actually, that’s the second greatest. The real strength is the sheer variety of texture and timbre they eke out of natural instruments despite this; because there are some seriously weird sounds going on which add to the whole theory of the unexpected. Sounds which they construct from sound, as opposed to synthesising them in a studio. As a studio based musician, I can only look on in awe as I try my best to blend a mandolin with an English concertina. Too many musicians wear electronics like a crutch, thinking that it gives their music that unexpected sound that will make us actually listen to it. Hoping a few 80s horns will distract from the bad songwriting. I certainly know I’m guilty.
Kaizers Orchestra were that rare thing, an organic band. Fully in touch with their sound world. Fully aware of what they were doing, musically. Fully in command of their instruments. A reminder that we should challenge the norm and challenge what is expected of us. All together now: ‘Sving din hammer!’
Oh yeah, I have a new EP out. It has many a moment of subverting expectations and even a starring role for my mandolin so click here and give it a listen. If you enjoyed this please like my Facebook page and stay tuned for next week. Hoorah!