The Empire Line – The Oslo report
Reportage from The Empire Line, Varg, Croatian Amor, Vanity Productions at Blå, Oslo, 22.03.2018. Text and images by Cameron Pagett.
There is a river which runs through the heart of Oslo. Beginning in the mountains and trickling its way down from the Artic sea on the northern tip of our continent, past fjords and craggy peaks which carve the stocking shaped country’s landscape into an epic, serene and quiet place. The sun is out and snow covers most of the hilly and forested terrain as we begin our final approach into Oslo. The closer we get to land the more visible the open spaces cutting through the trees reveal themselves as ski slopes and the entire country begin’s to resemble one giant ski resort. It’s early afternoon when we land, and I am seated some way behind Posh Isolation founders Christian Stadsgaard and Loke Rahbek, who after a decade of releasing music out of a DIY-ethic in Copenhagen are now traveling with international acclaim. It’s my own first time in the country and for Stadsgaard his first in 11 years, and a first ever showcase here for Posh Isolation. After a brief rendezvous at a convenience market in the airport we separate without words to our lodging places beginning what would be an interesting evening in the last major city of the North. The sun is shining, the snow is melting and the river runs with momentum along the clean and well manicured banks before meeting the inner fjord on which the city stands. Somewhere near the end of the river is a brick building covered in graffiti named Blå. Now an establishment, and opened since 1998 this river-side, somewhat historic and unassuming space would be the host for our evening.
Children step into the train with ski’s and snow-suits (quite regular I hear) as I exit into the city centrum and head to my Airbnb. There are a few hours to spare before the show, and walking around feels like visiting an old friend in a new place. Passing the Nobel Prize house and the Museum for Surrealist Painter Edvard Munch, I get the idea that this place holds everything I have heard about but couldn’t locate from first-hand memory. Slinking atop a small table in the dark my Airbnb host who closely resembles an opiated railway worker from the 1800’s crossed with mid-life Gollum looks at me suspiciously when I arrive. After some convincing that it was me he was hosting, he asks me if I can just come back later because he is not ready. I am not too fond of the idea, and I am put in a made-over closet for the night. Luckily the bed isn’t half bad, and even though he won’t stop staring at me from his table-top perch by the corner near the door I feel happy that the night will soon begin. Oslo is a small city, smaller then Copenhagen, I am staying on the opposite end of the city from Blå and its only a 20 minute walk. Camera is in my backpack, time to move, it will be a tale of two or possibly an endless night.
I feel like you can always tell which part of town the creatives gather. After 20 minutes in the night air I run into (probably) the only unkempt and graffiti laden buildings in the country. I reach a crosswalk next to a building with a lone shattered window and a mess of new and old show posters. The girl at the crosswalk next to me is wearing Doc Martens, has bangs, and the streetlights seem dimmer then five minutes before. I look down at my phone and my observations are spot on, take a right, your there. I am greeted warmly by the staff after they confirm my name and in a few minutes am led to a loft-like back stage area complete with a view of the venue beneath and seemingly well-stocked with food and refreshments. “Hey! I thought you lived in Copenhagen.” a surprised Isak Hansen (vocalist in Empire Line) asks, “I do, I thought you lived in Berlin.” I retort. “Yeah, but you know I gotta play!” I explain I am here to do a reportage. Varg asks the venue host for more champagne with two already empty bottles on the counter next to a party consisting of Hansen, Stadsgaard, Rahbek and Varg himself. A new bottle arrives, everyone is happy, and from our perch we can see the venue fill in. Vanity Productions is up first I’ll be heading down.
I am an ardent admirer of Vanity Productions (Christian Stadsgaards solo project) seminal album “Only the Grains of Love Remain.” A most special piece, Stadsgaard was able to create something so surgical, involving and ethereal. One of my favorite releases of 2017, I regard it as a select piece of electronic music I have reverence for. A work composed on the frontiers of life experience, it created for me a vacuum of feelings where the existential can be quietly and solemnly enjoyed. A web of mystery, echoes and shadow, in the track “The silk of life” it break’s into an unfettered and time-suspending segment where the silence and space between the dimensions of love and loss can be visited and appreciated. In the process of working on a new album, Stadsgaard gave what I can describe as a set rising from the glimmering ashes of previous work and throwing you forward into the night-mare of reality after the sublime. It was intense, at times harsh and rested on a haunting ambiance of high tones with underlying bombardment reminiscent of a B-52 dropping a payload. Sensing a connection in tone from the first work it felt like the surrender, or a reticence to the grains of loss in experience and the tumult of further transition bordering on all-out turmoil. Like a surgeon by-passing your heart with sounds, Stadsgaard through Vanity Productions creates spatial planes where wonder and reflective amazement are possible. Consuming, but not quite epic, Body splitting, yet internal. As he makes his way towards a new work, it’s nice to appreciate any moment you get to spend with him behind the controls.
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“Blå is an establishment” A local tells me,”we come here sometimes and many of our other shows pop up in different parts of the city. It’s a nice place (Blå) and basically everyone in the scene (noise/rave) is here right now.” The patio outside the doors is small and cozy with a small lounge lining the riverbank. It is experiencing a warm buzz and I begin to mingle with many of the locals. Everyone is quite friendly and hospitable, and I get the feeling that having Posh Isolation showcase in their city is a fairly special thing. The community is small and close knit, and I am told that it can be quite hard to organize DIY performances on any scale because of poor funding and difficult drinking laws. “We live in a place where this sort of culture is uncommon,” I am told, “It’s nice, but our government has a favorite activity in tearing down old buildings. What’s the point in a creative space when you can have fancy new apartments.” Show starved or not, tonight was a perfect occasion to welcome some of Europes Titans of DIY, so we decided to head back in from the patio for the next act.
It hasn’t been so long since I covered Croatian Amor. Back in early march in Copenhagen with the Proton people Rahbek gave a very early look into the new material that will fill his upcoming album. My mind immediately goes back to that night, and we are greeted with some of the more soulful material from the end of the set in Alice at the beginning of the set in Blå. The set Croatian Amor decided to go with from behind the fog felt like being in the second book of a trilogy. So much new material presented, new musical currents introduced and the feeling of expectation in looking forward to where it all leads. “With any new piece of work you hope to get a little closer to a conclusion,” Rahbek remarks,”What I find is that most often I come up with new questions or better ways to ask old ones.”
The set had so much depth, and covered so much ground. For most of it I found myself sitting against the wall in a corner by the stage with my camera down and my eyes closed. Intimate and at times romantic to a fault (I don’t mind), It’s a good feeling spending time with Croatian Amor at the moment. With some large changes in tone from section to section as Rahbek finds new ways to add to the story, things still feel natural, oddly fluid and unforced. We are moving into unknown territory and every sound is like discovering a new feature on a lost continent. Like a phantom whispering above a rolling river, or as Loke describes it,”A program singing back at it’s creator” the set produced a real feeling of relaxation, and very much as was the case in Alice, much of the audience (myself included) took the time to huddle and ponder.“I feel more comfortable around the tools now, allowing the work to move around less restrained, it allows me to go deeper and maybe more important it allows me to focus more energy on the plotline rather than at the clipboard.” Its an easier feeling then the last time I saw him, more assured and borderline languid behind the controls. Will be looking forward to seeing this batch of work develop into the final vision.
One thing I learned pretty quickly during the night was that in Oslo, Varg is God. Everyone I spoke with was there with the thought of seeing him first on their minds. People were looking forward to it, and they weren’t going to be disappointed as a Varg live set followed by high octane Empire Line was about to be a reality. Before that I went for a short walk with a friend down the banks of what I learned was the Akerselva river, originating 120 kilometers north in the Maridalsvannet. The town is quit now, the air still and clean and not only 100 meters away from the venue is complete silence apart from our sparse dialogue between paces. I was told before arrival not too expect night life akin to Copenhagen, and wouldn’t say I was looking for that. I always viewed Norway as a jewel of natural environment, and now I found myself there for something closer to my regular night-life routine. Out by the water peering down the narrow streets bordering Oslo’s old town with much of the locale at home in quiet hours there is a clear feeling in the crisp night air. On the way back to the venue to see Varg my friend asks,”Do you know anything about what Varg is about to play?” “No,” I reply “But whatever it is he will probably have champagne with him.”
You can never know what to expect musically when Varg gives a live set. With such a range and nearly brash aplomb in his selection you can always know that regardless of what he decides it will certainly and also mildly humorously be on his terms. Heading back to the backstage loft to charge my camera I am able to view much of the performance from a large window overlooking the entire space. Ranging from romantic ambiance to nearly hip-hop inspired harsh noise, the set felt like a goodie bag, or a massive show and tell of the large variety of things Rönnberg is working on. Gracious and considerate in the evening, it made me happy to see someone who at this point is certainly not a small name in the electronic scene playing in such an intimate setting. From my perch I could see the whole crowded room with a small but devoted scene. They were there to see Varg and he was giving them a wonderful evening.
“You really fucked me up over there” a girl backstage says to Rahbek. “Yeah, what was that? What is your concept?” Interrupted (we were in the middle of a conversation) but not visibly slighted Loke answers, “I am not sure I have a concept” Hansen had just left the room during an nice conversation about music and feelings which Rahbek and I continued. We discuss many things, current projects, current thoughts and musings on if some noise music can be viewed as audible paintings. People are swarming as Varg’s set comes to a close, and each member of the experimental techno band is getting ready for the finale. Varg coming up the steps with a large grin remarks “It felt good! Yeah, went well! Up for another round” I pick up my half charged camera battery and hope it lasts me the night, it’s time for some real fun and for Varg and Stadsgaard to give a second performance.
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In my view The Empire Line has to be one of the most interesting, entertaining and all-out pure dope groups to ever exist in Europe. Headed equally by noise and techno stalwarts Christian Stadsgaard, Varg and Berlin-based (formerly Copenhagen) Isak Hansen the music is an eclectic blend of the three’s styles employing gritty techno and a generous amount of blazing lyrics from an intense and direct Hansen. Its the type of sound that not only engages on an expansive, nerve stimulating sensual level, but is also highly danceable and completely un- ignorable if you are in the same room. Heading down the steps as the first glimpses of noise begin to engulf the room I remember a snippet from my conversation earlier with another attendee as the subject shifted to Empire Line. “I like them” he said, “ I feel like they are all my guilty pleasures.” I am not in the mood to for guilt, I think it’s time for pure pleasure. I rush down the steps past Rahbek in the doorway, he smiles and I grab his arm “No-one else is doing this!” he laughs and nods in agreement. The lights start blinking and the first thing you hear is a recording proclaiming,” You are now listenting too the world famous Empire Line.”
There are a few acts that make me forget myself or any worries of looking cool in the slightest. After overdosing on their latest album “Rave” and feeling bad for the last two months for missing them live at Berghain I am ready to go ham. Working pre-dominantly with new material and performing together seamlessly I find myself impressed that these three individuals with related, yet different sound preferences and constantly fluctuating geographic circumstances can come together so quickly. The music is intense and Hansen in particular with his characteristic prominent tattoo’s can make the band feel foreboding to newcomer’s on first glance, but if you look closer at the way they move and work together you discover something more chummy. They are enjoying themselves, and carving a new genre from the tired ashes of traditional hard-core music. This is sounds with a techno base surrounded by harsh ambient noise and the screams of a thousand ravers channeled through Hansen. It’s bombastic, entertaining, perhaps over the top (in the best way) and oddly introspective at certain junctures.
Normally at the start of an Empire Line performance people are slightly shocked and not quite sure what to do. The amount of talent behind the controls, the visceral and electrifying sound coupled with Hansen’s committed screaming barrage can be daunting at first. As the set wore on and people started to get used to it a polarizing energy became apparent. If you weren’t in the mood for dancing you hugged the walls and banged your head and if all you could think about was moving the middle of the floor was your new home. I took my jacket off, set my Camera on my most trusted setting and went into full dance mode. Maybe the room was rocking, maybe it was more conservative with a largely first time Empire Line audience but it didn’t matter I didn’t want any of it to pass me by. The new Material thrills and will be fun to grow accustomed to in the near future. The songs change and the interludes between Hansen’s vocals are more pronounced, but the intensity, fun and commitment remain unspoiled. Recently @Daddydubrovnik was opened as a fan account on Instagram for the legendary duo of Rahbek and Stadsgaard in “Damien Dubrovnik” proclaiming themselves to be “Denmarks most underrated boy band.” If that is indeed true, then The Empire Line is Europe’s most underrated. Not sure how much longer that will last, with recent outings in Berghain, Tresor and a new album posted on infamous Youtube techno-channel “HATE” the cat is either out or close to leaving the bag. In a night of transitionary material this was the perfect ending.
After gathering my things, I make my way to the patio on the water and there is a small crowd surrounding Varg. By now I seem to have made a small group of local buddies and we leave the venue in a small crowd and head to a local bar further down river. Its a buzzing, intimate and jovial little place. Most of the drinks are (as with typical Norwegian standards) on the very pricey side, and I’ve already filled up on Varg’s extra Champagne and my Blå drinking allowance so I stick with a small beer. “This is maybe the only proper bar in Oslo” one of my new friends admits, “The drinking laws are much stricter here.” I hear it’s illegal for a Norwegian to serve a visibly drunk person alcohol in a bar, but I don’t get the impression that this rule is being followed very closely in this setting. Out front huddled in a group the discussion turns to music and the thirst for it in this region. Thoroughly hospitable and friendly we exchange contacts and make deals to travel to eachother’s cities for the “big events.” It’s a bit past 3 and I have a bus at 9 and another full night ahead of me with Knife and Lowlife Scum back in CPH … It’s time to go sleep.
Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, I had the Airbnb host from hell. Slinking in the same corner on a small table wide awake in his underpants the Gollum look-alike wasn’t asleep and proceeded to stare in my bedrooms direction with patterns of intermittent heavy breathing. Freaked out and without a lock on my door to feel any marginal security I lay awake all night waiting for daylight. Around 6 when I figured I most likely wasn’t headed for a mysterious disappearance in my sleep that would end up in daytime television re-run stories for years, I got one hour of fitful rest before bailing out the door to an early departure. Once clear of the wretched apartment close to the Royal Oslo Theater I find myself crossing over the river once more. Calm, constant and momentous I enjoy an apple and watch it flow. The energy from the night before reaching out from Blå upstream trickles back into my veins and enlivens my exhausted, temporarily traumatized mind. It was a tale of two nights for me, one super nice, the other totally wack. For the Posh people a trip to Holland imminently awaits. I’m not sure how much my need for rest will interrupt my hopes of viewing a large portion of the Swedish countryside on the bus trip home, but for now I can look ahead to Mayhem later and the feeling of constancy the river brings. There is a river that flows through the heart of Oslo, and at this juncture I stand on the cusp of it’s outlet to the sea as the last of the leftover vapors from the night before whips past me as new memories. Time to depart. It will be 8 hours before we reach home. Vi ses Oslo, good luck Posh, tak Blå.