Their rise was swift and surprising. Back in 2005 Norway’s Serena Maneesh found themselves championed by Pitchfork on one side of the Atlantic and Drowned In Sound on the other, and suddenly the band’s self-titled debut (initially released on Norwegian indie HoneyMilk, later reissued on Playlouder) became one of those rare things: a genuine word of mouth success. In a year that yielded such uncomplicated music delights as Hard-Fi and Kaiser Chiefs, here was an album that you could lose yourself in and a band you could believe in. Carefully constructed from the familiar (My Bloody Valentine, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Neu!) and the not so familiar (black metal, Norwegian composers such as Grieg and Fartein Valen), their wall of sound was unlike anything you’d ever heard before.
Today, the band plays live as a five-piece and on record there are too many contributors to list here, but Serena Maneesh is essentially Emil Nikolaisen. Born in the remote village of Moi into a musical family (one sister Hilma plays bass with the band, while another, Elvira, sings on Serena Maneesh’s records and is a pop star in her own right), Emil is Norwegian rock royalty; it’s hard to find a band there that he hasn’t either played with or produced (I Was A King are the latest to make an impact in the UK) and he’s even been nominated for a Spellemannsprisen, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy. He’s not just influential in Norway either: Sufjan Stevens plays vibraphone, flute and piano on the new album, The Dandy Warhols, Nine Inch Nails and Oasis have all invited Serena Maneesh to tour with them and they are set to release a split single with Fucked Up.
But what exactly has this seemingly prolific perfectionist been doing for the last four years? When he says he “went back underground” he means it quite literally – he spent the time recording the new Serena Maneesh album, ‘S-M#2’, in a cave on the outskirts of Oslo.
“Studio environments often get on my nerves,” he explains, “and I love the underworld, you can silently head down there and do as you please, leave the world behind. So we found this huge cave with stone walls, it looked like a refugee hideout from World War 2, with a huge, undiscovered treasure of sound.”
After spending three days installing microphones and a 24-track, two-inch recorder, Emil hit the button marked ‘record’ and work began work on the album in this “rock’n’roll chamber of magic”. He then spent a further year “in different locations with different people, capturing and gathering moments, failures, sounds”. Then, with the assistance of the likes of Nick Terry, who has worked with Klaxons and Primal Scream, and Can associate René Tinner, he set about mixing the results – spending an incredible eight days on each song.
In 2010, with the music industry in its death throes and bands easily able to record albums in their bedrooms on free software, records like ‘S-M#2’ quite simply shouldn’t be made any more. Just to drive the point home, it was even mastered at Air Studios by Ray Staff, who did the same for, among many others, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. But this is no distended double-album; it may open with the eight-minute groove of ‘Ayisha Abyss’ which sounds like a caffeinated Can or something from Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’, but the whole thing is so concise, so perfectly realised that it’s all over in 38 minutes and 45 seconds. Self-indulgent? No. Self-important? Yes, and rightly so. This is an album that goes against everything that music is supposed to be in 2010 and, as a result, it demands to be listened to, to be loved.
The opening track barely prepares you for what follows: ‘I Just Want To See Your Face’ has a terrifying opening section reminiscent of ‘XTRMNTR’-era Primal Scream, before turning into an insanely twisted pop song. “It is somehow very pop, isn’t it,” agrees Emil. Well, yes, there are some incredible, memorable melodies such as ‘D.I.W.S.W.T.T.D’, but the squalling menace of ‘Reprobate!’ and ‘Blow Yr Brains In The Morning Rain’, the ethereal majesty of ‘Melody For Jaana’ and the slow-motion nightmare of ‘Honeyjinx’ are something else entirely.
Emil is reluctant to talk about his current musical influences, other than to say that they are “quite schizo and all over the place”, but he does admit to one contemporary inspiration – Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux (“I love how he took Ornette Coleman, VU, German ’70s prog and crazy junky white trash nonsense blues and turned them into modern classics in rock’n’roll”) – and another more surprising one: the bossa nova of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, which certainly explains the giddy rhythms and exotic beauty to be found on ‘S-M#2’. “I played quite a few of their standards as a kid and it never left my fingers or my heart,” he explains. “There is something about the mystery of gloom and flamboyance… somehow ambient bossa was the most beautifully haunting sound I had ever heard in my life.” Conveniently this is also the perfect description for the album’s closing track, the magical, mystical ‘Magdalena (Symphony #8)’.
“These are all ingredients for a rather personal and hopefully enchanting brew,” concludes Emil. “I can’t really say how things came out, but Lina Wallinder, who sings a lot on the record, said it sounds like ‘perfumes from vanished times’ and another friend said ‘heavy silk’. I guess that explains…”
Well, sort of. In truth this is a record that can’t be explained, it just needs to be experienced. Clearly something magical happened down there in that cave, and now Serena Maneesh are ready to cast their spell over the world.
Nathaniel Cramp, December 2009
Past shows:Dec. 2nd, 2009 00:00: @ Garage Oslo
Jan. 16th, 2010 00:00: @ Eurosonic Festival, Netherlands
Jan. 23rd, 2010 00:00: @ Mercury Lounge, New York
Jan. 24th, 2010 00:00: @ Littlefield, New York
Feb. 20th, 2010 00:00: @ by:Larm, Oslo
Aug. 10th, 2010 00:00: @ Øyafestivalen, Oslo
Sep. 24th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Bluebird Theater, Denver, Colorado, USA
Sep. 25th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Jackpot Saloon, Lawrence, Kansas, USA
Sep. 26th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Waiting Room, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Sep. 28th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL, USA
Sep. 29th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, The Spot@ Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Sep. 30th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Oct. 1st, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, The Garrison, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Oct. 2nd, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Il Motore/Pop Montreal, Montrèal, Québec, Canada
Oct. 3rd, 2010 00:00: @ Middle East Upstairs, Cambridge,Massachusets, USA
Oct. 4th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Oct. 6th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia,Pennsylvania, USA
Oct. 7th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, DC9 W, Washinton DC, USA
Oct. 8th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, Duke Coffee House, Durham NC, USA
Oct. 9th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, The Earl, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Oct. 10th, 2010 00:00: @ W/Wovenhand, The Grey Eagle Asheville, NC, USA
Oct. 12th, 2010 00:00: @ Hi Tone Cafe, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Oct. 13th, 2010 00:00: @ The Loft, Dallas, Texas, USA
Oct. 14th, 2010 00:00: @ Mohawk, Austin, Texas, USA
Oct. 15th, 2010 00:00: @ Bash’s In The Depot Lubbock, Texas, USA
Oct. 16th, 2010 00:00: @ Corazon, Santa Fe, NM, USA