A strange internet trend from Norway which caught my attention: national broadcaster NRK’s showing, uncut, of the seven-hour Oslo to Bergen train journey. Slow television, it’s called. The viewer is supposed to marvel and luxuriate in the passing of nothing much at all. This new album from Norwegian quartet Pixel, by contrast, is action packed and has plenty to grab the attention. No falling asleep here!
Pixel has been making waves in the Nordic region and other parts of Europe for the past few years with tracks from its two previous albums, We Are All Small Pixels and Reminder. The band is signed to the hip US Cuneiform label, which caters to the progressive rock and avant grade scene - very much trend setters. This might well be Pixel's global break-out album. The band is singer and bassist Ellen Andrea Wang, drummer Jon Audun Baar, trumpeter Jonas Kilmork Vermøy and sax player Harald Lassen. All four are consummate performers for musicians still relatively young, but it is their group ethos and concept which marks them out from being just another interesting nordic group.
Pixel eschews the piano, relying Gerry Mulligan-style on the power and pump of brass to jump-start their sound over Wang’s mellifluous bass and ice-cool voice. It’s jazz, undoubtedly, but jazz for the iTunes generation - challenging and idiosyncratic, but not to the point of aversion or boredom. Pixel’s groove just makes you want to smile and press repeat, so memorable and hummable are their compositions.
There is very little filler across eleven tracks of Golden Years and it fairly jumps out of the speakers after slow opener Rainforest offers up a simple soundscape, Wang’s bass providing a rain-tinged drip-drip-drip over which Lassen’s mournful sax and Vermøy’s trumpet play in unison over a charming melody which opens out into something of hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck beauty.
Second track People Pleaser with a hypnotic beep-beep brass motif over which a gorgeously simple bass rhythm and shuffling drums allows Wang to explain why - with atmospheric over-dubbed vocals and in her idiosyncratic lyrical style - she puts others’ needs above her own. Just over two-minutes of simple sonic pleasure.
Nothing Beats Reality is very much Nordic soundscape over jazz grooves. Powering out of the blocks like a greyhound after a rabbit, Vermøy and Lassen’s unison playing showcases Pixel’s emblematic sound signature, after which each kicks away the supports and entertains with brass acrobatics punctuated by Baar’s crash cymbal and hollers from Wang. Both chaotic and ordered in equal measure.
The brakes are applied for Our Beauty, with a languid bass pulse and foot-dragging drums over which Wang and Lassen harmonise with a Carpenters-like sound and Lassen’s sax reverberates as if recorded in one of the cavernous Norwegian fjörds. Epic is the only appropriate adjective. Move On is jaunty and outdoor, with talk of summer breeze and gardens and songs for lovers and provides a perfect backdrop for Wang’s singing which follows the melody beautifully. There are insufficient superlatives for the beauty of her voice with its evident, but unobtrusive Nordic lilt.
Track eight I Have The Right To Go To Syden is likely to be the only song ever to contain the lyrics ‘cultural bulimia’ but don’t let that detract from another up-tempo ‘bam, bam' of pop/rock jazz fun. Slinky is sparse to the max, all single-tone notes over which Wang and co join forces on the simplest of melodies to put across some charming lyrics about a joyful relationship, over which Vermøy’s crystal-clear trumpet extemporising provides a more fluid contrast.
All four of Pixel’s band members are ubiquitous on the Norwegian jazz scene but, together as a unit, they’ve hit upon the motherlode of jazz creativity. In their haunting sung style, right-angle lyrics and creative band sound, they exemplify why the Nordic region is at the cutting edge of much in jazz at the moment. Their simple group sound bereft of pyrotechnics and consummate playing belies the complexity of what they’re coming up with. It all works very, very well. Full marks to the producer for getting a sound as clear as one imagines an arctic sunrise over Tromso to be.
So achingly cool in sound, look and style are Pixel, in fact, that my only worry is that they’ll become the Hipster’s latest trend, a fate I hope they avoid in favour of longevity and wider success.
A great record by a fantastic young band.