courtesy of Serena Maneesh.
Norwegian, neo-shoegazer, wunderkinds Serena Maneesh (finally!) returned to the DC area on Wednesday night when they played a painfully short but brilliant set at DC9. It has been four long years since Serena Maneesh first brought their mammoth live sound to our area; when they played to an embarrassingly small crowd at the State Theater in 2006. I was one of the lucky few in attendance that night and I have been a babbling fool about this band ever since; singing their praises every time the shoegazer revival is up for discussion and playing just about every track off their first self-titled debut at my DJ nights over the years. If you read my original review and then their #2 spot on my 2006 best shows list, it is obvious how taken I was by their My Bloody Valentine-esque approach to live performance. The State Theater show is one of the best shows I have ever attended. Hence my many years of agony awaiting their return.
Serena Maneesh have finally returned with a ridiculously titled new album, “No 2: Abyss In B Minor“, which they ridiculously recorded in a cave just outside of Oslo, Norway. Yes, they recorded their sophomore album in a cave. For a friend of mine, that fact alone was the selling point on checking out Wednesday’s show with me. When a band up and moves their studio into a cave it is a strong indication that they are either brilliant or insane, or in Serena Maneesh’s case a bit of both. The product of their spelunker, field recording, ”No 2: Abyss In B Minor”, is without a doubt the best shoegazer album of 2010. It not only increases their style ties to MBV’s “Loveless“, it also embraces a mid-90’s Primal Scream-ish approach to rhythm, and a Telescopes-like devotion to discordance. The new album combines all of this to make for one noisy but beautiful, challenging yet dreamlike listen. While I was giddy as a schoolboy that Serena Maneesh were making their return to DC, I was also intensely curious as to how they would pull off all of the new album’s intricacy and conflict in a live show.
I knew from the State Theater show that Serena Maneesh could bring the guitars and the noise to challenge genre heroes, My Bloody Valentine (who I have since seen in concert 3 times and whole-heatedly confirm as the most beautiful, insane live band of all time). But I was having a hard time visualizing Serena Maneesh successfully live-playing all of the disparate elements going on behind the new songs’ wall of sound. Going in I figured it was either going to be a noisy-mess or a raging success. A band like Serena Maneesh are far too dedicated to settle into some kind of middle ground.
DC9 is the perfect venue to watch technically intricate performers. With the intimate nature of the place you can not avoid being mere feet from the show. January’s Adam Franklin show and Wednesday’s Serena Maneesh concert have me totally sold on the merits of seeing shows at DC9 right now. We were practically standing on top of Emil Nikolaisen’s line of effects-pedals and Aadne Meisfjord’s impressive electronics rig. Between a generous use of keyboard, samples, drum-pads, and effect-pedals the two managed to recreate a broad palette of weird sounds found on “No 2: Abyss in B Minor”. But it wasn’t until they combined their sound squalls with the dead-on and powerful rhythm section of drummer Tommy Akerholdt and the hypnotically beautiful bass player (Hilma Nikolaisen or Jenny Frasier?) that it all started to make perfect sense. Once they added second guitarist Øystein Sandsdalen to the mix my concerns about how the new material would translate literally washed away in a shimmering shower of sound.
One of the most impressive aspects of seeing Serena Maneesh this time was how, more often than not, sounds from the album that I was sure had been created with electronics were actually being generated by the live drums and bass. The Primal Scream “Xtrmntr” style techno beats were played live, while the electronics rig was reserved for adding conflict, dischord, and atmosphere. There was an awful lot going on on-stage in front of us. It was sometimes hard to track exactly who was doing what while the beauty and power of their music swirled around on-stage in some kind of sonic critical mass.
One thing was for sure: lead-singer, guitarist, group mastermind Emil Nikolaisen is one eccentric genuis of a guitar player and vocalist. His singing on ‘Honeyjinx’ and ‘Don’t Come Down Here’ were everything a shoegazer vocal performance should be. I’m talking a text-book example of whispered beauty with an eerie, ethereal edge. His mouth zooming in and out on the microphone to add or subtract just the right amount of volume to keep the vocal at a constant level of barely-distinguishable in relation to the band’s energy level. Meanwhile he was unleashing and wrangling all sorts of mad guitar screeds and scrawls. Emil had particularly impressive guitar freak-outs during the breakdown section of ‘Don’t Come Down Here’ and the entirety of ‘Selina’s Melodie Fountain’. Speaking of freak-outs, Emil ended the show with an awesome physical spazz while the band blew-out the finale of ‘Blow Yr Brains In The Morning Rain’. He moshed around the stage, wrestled his guitar and mic-stand to the ground, then dove into the crowd, thrashing around, and head-locking an adoring fan under each arm. It was an hilarious display of punk energy to match the oft critically-unacknowledged power of shoegazer music.
As I mentioned before, the show felt torturously short. Their set was about an hour long, but after years of waiting and weeks of build-up since the show was announced, the crowd could have easily eaten up another hour of their Norwegian, shoegazer greatness. Online reports are that this tour was ragingly successful for Serena Maneesh. Unlike in 2006, they are definitely a buzz band now. So hopefully (pray, pray, fingers crossed) we will get another visit from Serena Maneesh in the not too distant future.
PS- Here’s a transcript of Emil’s set-list:
Don’t Come Down