A Brief Survey of Scandinavian Rock

by Rick Rockwell

A long time ago, in a universe far, far, away, there was a four-letter word that summed up the only international music from Scandinavia.


That four-letter abomination begat various four-letter epithets by rockers, because it grew like a cancer across the musical landscape.

Some might even hypothesize that Sweden’s Abba was just one of the reasons for the rise of punk rock. The dreck produced by Abba and other pop bands of its ilk dominated the mainstream airwaves of the 1970s. The punk revolt was partially formed to up-end that musical hierarchy.

Although that generalizes the problem of one era, Abba truly eclipsed other Scandinavian music and undercut the credibility of bands from the region. Whether those bands were experimenting with the edge of psychedelia (Sweden’s International Harvester), glam (Hanoi Rocks from Finland), or heavy metal (Denmark’s Mercyful Fate and later King Diamond), few outside of the region would take them seriously.

Fast-forward a mere six years after the demise of Abba to see the genesis of Scandinavia’s current lively music scene. No, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are not providing the next British Invasion. However, during a generation of growth, out from the shadow of over-hyped pop giants, the region has proved to be fertile ground for a number of genres and top bands.

Leading the way, in the late 1980s, Iceland’s The Sugarcubes: an alternative band with a lead singer who seemed to take inspiration from Peter Gabriel with her onstage costumes and theatrics but who had her own signature vocal style. The BBC gave The Sugarcubes an opening on the international airwaves and the group grabbed the chance. After the band dissolved in the 1990s, their singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, dropped her last name and went on to a successful solo career. This year, her album Volta was up for a Grammy for best alternative release (The White Stripes won that category instead), Björk’s 13th Grammy nomination. In the wake of that success, Iceland also spawned Sigur Rós, a band so creative its members fashioned their own language, a type of musical Esperanto for progressive fans. (For more on that band's latest, please see: "Music Review: Sigur Rós' Hvarf-Heim.")

With Iceland restoring credibility to the region, Sweden proved to be the core of Scandinavia’s new generation. Sweden’s Entombed pioneered the sub-genre of black metal in the early 1990s. Evolving from post-punk roots, in the mid-1990s, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, now is regarded as one of the leaders of Sweden’s alt-rock scene. Garage rockers The Hellacopters emerged in the late 1990s with an edgy, slashing guitar sound to shake that scene to its core. Currently, Sweden is also home to power-pop kings The Hives, a band with the energy level of a dozen American acts combined. (For a different view, please see: "Music Review: The Hives' The Black & White Album.")

In Norway, alternative music was also stirring in the mid-1990s. Led by Madrugada, a band with an alt-rock approach and poetic underpinnings, Norway also spawned Turbonegro and Gluecifer.

Finland proved to be the cradle of heavy metal. In the late 1990s, led by HIM (His Infernal Majesty), Finland produced at least a half-dozen metal bands that toured Europe and the U.K., although HIM is the only one to go gold in the U.S. In an interesting twist, Finland also produced a blend of progressive and metal with the group Apocalyptica (originally an all-cello metal cover band specializing in Metallica, but now featuring a rhythm section and sometimes vocals).

With the exception of metal bands, Denmark’s sound seemed moribund until the arrival of The Raveonettes in 2002. The duo’s eclectic blend of 1950’s rockabilly, Morricone spaghetti Western tremolo, feedback, and vocal harmonies caused critics to dub them as the vanguard of noise-pop. Denmark’s Crunchy Frog Records, which broke The Raveonettes, is attempting to launch a second wave of interesting Danish rockers with releases from Snake and Jet’s Amazing Bullit Band and Wolfkin.* Snake and Jet’s Amazing Bullit Band aspires to be the second-coming of The B-52s. Meanwhile, Wolfkin creates a sophisticated fusing of influences from Roy Orbison and Phil Spector right on through to Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd. Although both of these Danish acts show promise, neither is equal to The Raveonettes. Nor do they ascend the peaks built by any of their musical mentors. Yet. (For a different view, please see: "Crunchy Frog & its Danish Rockers.")

Nevertheless, Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia are generating great music. If for some reason you haven’t discovered these acts yet, there’s a wide palette of choices to sample.

* Crunchy Frog is also home to New York rockabilly band Heavy Trash, which is handled concurrently by Yep Roc Records.

(The promotional photo of The Raveonettes playing D.C.'s Rock & Roll Hotel in 2007 is from Vice Records. To see The Raveonettes performing "Aly, Walk With Me" from an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, last week, please check below. To see Björk’s latest video from
Volta, "Wanderlust," released this week, please go to the second video below.)

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