Denmark’s Under Byen evoke the rainy, windblown coastlines of Scandinavia. The four men and four women continually circle masculine and feminine sonic poles with melancholic dread and ice flower filigree. By turns sinister and percussive, then velvety smooth, their tintinnabular chimes, feather-soft vocals, strident cello and violin march macabre, make this a fitting soundtrack for the end of times.
Under Byen (pronounced somewhere between Oh-nah Bewn and Oh-nah Boon) means “under the city.” They just released their first North American album, “Samme Stof Som Stof” (roughly, “Same Stuff as Fabric”), and have begun to catch the ears of critics around the world.
Rolling Stone magazine’s senior editor David Fricke once called Under Byen “probably the best band in the world.” So why haven’t you heard of them? Perhaps because they have only played one show in the United States, and sing only in Danish. In the age of American pop-culture hegemony, choosing to sing in Danish could be considered a way to remain defiantly underground. Multi-instrumentalist Nils Gröndahl offered me a simpler explanation: “We don’t want to sing in English because we do it best in Danish.”
As a non-Danish speaker, I hear their words as I do Sigur Ros or Dead Can Dance, with their own intensely personal, closely held meaning. Even in Danish I’m told the lyrics are not straightforward. Singer Henriette Sennenvaldt and her friend Katrine Stochholm founded the band in 1995 around Henriette’s stream-of-consciousness poetry. Blended words such as sukkersmuds, which delightfully means something like “sugarsmudge,” and novel twists of phrase render them difficult to translate. The lyrics I found translations for revealed threads of melancholy and darkness, as in “Heftig” (Intense), which speaks of profound loneliness, of confiding in sheets and linens, finding company in mirrors. This, after all, is the country of Kierkegaard and Hamlet.
Their sound can be brooding and harsh. One song in particular crescendos to a maelstrom of feedback, tortured from bowed saw, violin and effects, producing a boreal squall of noise.
Under Byen give us sweeter, if atmospheric, fare as well. There are some charming instrumentals, some quieter lullabies such as “Tindrer” that evoke foggy dreams or stray childhood memories that pop up at unexpected moments. One quiet instrumental was recorded in an old school in a Swedish forest. Between the notes you can hear the hiss of steam in the radiator pipes.
Scandinavia has exported a fair share of musical talent. There’s ABBA, of course, and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, along with a host of metal, prog rock and jazz bands who have dedicated international followings. But most would trace a uniquely contemporary Scandinavian pop esthetic to Bjork. “She defined the beginning of a certain sound and was the first to sing in a different way,” says Nils. “But we are too close to the Scandinavian sound to hear ourselves that way. We do what we do.”
The first couple times I heard Under Byen, I would find myself later singing Bjork songs, ones I knew the words to. Under Byen do, I suppose, resemble Bjork at her least histrionic. But after a few more listens, I no longer heard them this way. Under Byen sound like Under Byen.
Like Halou and Goldfrapp, Henriette uses a second microphone as a vocal treatment. She says she recently fell in love with one that distorts the sound, and perhaps even their meaning. When they are at their most delicate, they recall Blonde Redhead, or fellow Scandinavians Mum, Sigur Ros and Aniima.
Under Byen have a very busy percussion section, with two drummers, junkyard percussion and marimbas a la Tom Waits. Add to the mix tuba, bass clarinet, bass guitar, bowed saw, violin, cello, piano, synths and arrays of effects, and it makes for a very crowded stage. “We can’t really describe the music ourselves,” says Nils. “We try to play rock with alternative instruments.”
The opening track in particular presents something of a challenge, with an unrelenting pizzicato pound on the tonic for 45 seconds before Henriette finally enters with her cool wispy coo. “This was a band choice after lots of discussion,” says Nils. “Start with a bang … and if you get through that you’re ready for the rest.”
This album was recorded with British producer Leafcutter John keeping them on task, and done live in the studio, which means the concert can hew close to the recording if they choose. And by all accounts, Under Byen is one of the best live bands playing today. Projected onto the band are kaleidoscopic red, white and black images of simple folk motifs — birds, leaves, flowers. Henriette, a sometime fashion model, cuts a striking figure as the singer, even in the demure dresses she often performs in.
Under Byen will be touring North America this spring. As for me, I can’t wait that long — I’m flying to Denmark at month’s end to catch the last show of this tour.
Read more about Under Byen at their officially sanctioned fan site: http://www.larsdideriksen.com/underbyen/. “Samme Stof Som Stof” is available on Paper Bag Records: http://paperbagrecords.com/bands/under-byen.