If you like your music weird and unusual, your lyrics heavy with meaning and full of all sorts of connotations and connections, if you are fascinated by all things strange and bored by everything conventional, then Arabrot’s new album Who Do You Love will be a gold mine for you.
Arabrot, in case you haven’t heard of them, are originally from Haugesund, Norway, and named after the city’s garbage dump. Pretty unassuming, don’t you think? But they do have an interest in all things considered filthy, so the name makes sense. The band was established in 2001. Its mastermind is Kjetil Nernes (guitar/vocals) who basically writes all lyrics and composes all songs. So far, the band has released eight full-length albums which were mostly classified as noise rock. Their lyrics deal with sex, death, the devil and all other things biblical. At the moment, Kjetil and his wife Karin Park, a singer and pianist and also part of the band, live in rural Sweden, where they have turned an abandoned church into the band’s headquarters. Who Do You Love was recorded and produced at the “Church of Arabrot”, amidst stacks of old bibles. Only the drums where recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago.
Now, while “weird” is a fitting description for the band’s music, I know that it isn’t very specific. So, here is my attempt at giving you the whole picture:
About 20 years ago I went to see the Jim Rose Circus at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Young and unsuspecting, boy, was I in for a surprise. I certainly wasn’t prepared to see weights dangling from genitalia. I don’t remember if there was any music accompanying the acts (there must have been), but I can tell you that Arabrot would have been an excellent fit. Because that’s exactly what the band’s new album sounds like: like music from a really strange circus or cabaret show. It is heavy, noisy, industrial, but with a trashy tinge, and eccentric, off-key, sometimes shrieky, other times growly vocals. Some tracks feature a piano, others an organ, and some have Dana Schechter (of Insect Arc) playing slide guitar. The only comparison I can think of regarding the overall sound is Tod A.’s Firewater, specifically their second album The Ponzi Scheme (1998) and the song Knock ‘Em Down. It has a similar carnival/cabaret character.
20 years ago, I had no words apart from “strange” to pinpoint and classify what I had seen in that circus show. Today, I know that the pictures that stuck in my mind are part of what is called the grotesque in art and literature. The grotesque is a mixture of the ridiculous and the terrifying.
I think that’s a pretty good way to describe what Arabrot does. Things that are simultaneously creepy and ludicrous touch a certain nerve nothing else does and leave you undecided as to what to think. A bit like a laugh that got stuck in your throat. The album cover, featuring a sexualized image of a creature part man, part fox, placed beside a fairy-tale-style drawing of a girl, also fits into that concept, as does the band’s choice of dress. Kjetil and the other band members dress for their shows in clothes that look like they stole them from some Amish sect. On some photos Kjetil and Karin are dressed all in white, the colour of innocence, creating a contrast to Arabrot’s lyrics and themes which are anything but innocent.
My two favourite tracks are the pre-released ones, Maldoror’s Love and Sinnerman. Maldoror’s Love bears a direct reference to a book Kjetil Narnes claims has been very influential on him. Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) is a French poetic novel by the Comte de Lautreamont, a pseudonym of Isidore Lucien Ducasse, written around 1869. Maldoror, the main character, is misanthropic and misotheistic. He has renounced conventional morality and rejoices in the natural and untainted instincts of animals. The song Maldoror’s Love has as a subject the insane things people are willing to do to gain another person’s love. The album title also points in that direction, being named after the Bo Diddley song Who Do You Love.
Sinnerman is a cover of a traditional African-American spiritual song, famously performed by Nina Simone, about a man who tries to run from the terror of his past sins and form God. In vain of course, because you can’t run from yourself or, more precisely, from your own mind. Arabrot’s version is trashy and noisy, ludicrous and creepy. And terrific.
Who Do You Love is insane in its attempt to find the holy in the filthy and vice versa, but that’s why it’s fantastic. Arabrot has put the grotesque to music. That’s quite something.