Oslo outfit The White Birch have come a long way since the band’s early 90s formation to the title of Codeine’s strong album. Since the 1996 debut with the now classic ‘Self-portrayal’, The White Birch has proved to be an ensemble that’s been in a constant state of development towards music that’s more and more reflected and thorough and with fewer redundant elements. The White Birch’s latest outing, ‘Come Up For Air’ is the result of a three year long process that saw the band and producer Helge Sten (of Supersilent fame) delving deeper into the recording process than ever before.
Come up for air
The White Birch’s previous album, ‘Star Is Just A Sun’, firmly established the outfit on the European map via its release through Germany’s Glitterhouse Records four years ago. The album’s use of wide panoramic sonic fields, deep-frozen but lyric passages and fragile and highly emotional vocal lines captured reviewers and audiences alike. Both late Talk Talk (‘Laughingstock’-era) and Sigur Ros have been frequently used as tags to describe The White Birch’s sonorous explorations.
Where the predecessor displayed a band at its most vulnerable, ‘Come up for air’ shows a tendency towards more melodic and open tunes as well as more clearly defined arrangements. Together with producer Helge Sten, The White Birch have managed to come up with an album that’s rich in contrast while at the same time it is delicately balancing the tension between evident and airy elements and more hidden, deep and darker passages. Says vocalist Ola Fløttum: ‘We have tried to make an album that had songs that were more airier than those on ‘Star Is Just A Sun’ – we wanted to introduce a brighter mood at the same time as keeping the depth of the compositional structures. We wanted to bring across a form of optimistic melancholy with scaled-down arrangements and a continuous flow.’
That ‘Nordic’ sound
In international media, The White Birch are often described as being typical ‘Nordic’ in their sound and phrases such as ‘Polar night’ or ‘wind-swept tundra’ are frequently used by writers. Writes SoundsLike: ‘Wide, sweeping tundras, Majestic Fjords, Long cold winter nights that never end and endless summer days…’ while Americana UK states that ‘…The White Birch manages to somehow evoke the long cold winter nights and bleak tundra of their native land.’ Even if bassist Ulf Rogde smiles at such stereotypic phrases, he admits that he has discovered some of those so-called ‘Nordic’ qualities in his own music: ‘Perhaps we’re being slightly influenced by the reviews and articles written on us. Even if never deliberately sought out to sound ‘Nordic’ when we composed the songs, I have later, for example during hikes in the mountains, discovered some of those qualities that foreign media refer to.’
Still, the trio is focused on keeping all references and comparisons at an arm’s length distance. A certain distance to the rest of the world is important when you set out to create something that is to stand for its own. ‘We’re a bit like (legendary explorer/historian) Thor Heyerdahl when it comes to composing music’ laughs Rogde. ‘We’re searching for places where we’ve never been before. Our primary ambition is to create a strong musical experience, we have a desire to create something genuine and fundamentally different. We’re very focused on not sounding too similar to other bands – it was probably easier to spot inspiration from other artists on our first albums.’
Creating a coherent album, not just a collection of single tracks put together has been another priority for the Birches. ‘The album format is the most important outing for us’ says Fløttum. ‘Hit songs tend to ‘zero out’ the other tracks on an album and some single tracks might not fit in with each other, simply cancelling each other out. We’re striving to create something that’s lasting and coherent, music that can grow as you listen to it.’
Strong guest contributions
A cast of strong and diverse contributors add important elements to ‘Come Up For Air’: Susanna Wallumrød (from Susanna & The Magical Orchestra) provides stunning vocal work, Ivar Chr. Johansen (also known as hugely successful domestic hip-hop act Ravi) plays tasteful trumpet passages while cellist Isak Andersen (a respected performer on the contemporary scene) adds effective strokes with the bow. How important has it been to introduce new impulses we ask Fløttum: ‘We feel that it’s important to bring in other people and new impulses. We’ve known Ivar for a long time and we’ve played with him at festivals such as Øya. We’ve also had a dialogue going with Susanna for many years. Isak was a friend of (producer) Helge Sten and we were very fortunate to have him contribute to the album.’
Producer Helge Sten (also known as Deathprod and a key contributor to improv collective Supersilent’s unique sound), plays an important part in the distinctive Birch sound. Sten also produced the trio’s last album, a process that was so successful that it led to Sten producing the latest outing. Don’t change a winning team seems to be the right motto for The White Birch: ‘As long as we continue to develop together with Helge, we’ll continue to work together’ says Fløttum. ‘Sten understands the value of slow development. He’s got an extremely well developed understanding of music and he’s also very concise. Helge gives us a sense of security, and when we’re safe we can also dare to take more chances.’
This article originally appeared at MIC Norway’s Norwegian site Ballade.no and has been translated.
Bare The White Birch facts:
Discography: Self Portrayal (1996), People Now Human Beings (dBut 1998), Star Is Just A Sun (Glitterhouse Records 2002), Come Up For Air (Glitterhouse Records 2005)
Line-up: Ola Fløttum (vocals, guitars), Ulf Rogde (bass) and Hans Christian Almendingen (drums)
Live dates for France, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany in late March and early April will be confirmed soon.
Recently, The White Birch lauched a video for their Seer Believer that has taken 33 years to complete. The video contains footage dating back to vocalist Ola Fløttum's birth and up to present. Watch the video here.sd
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