A camera tracks the movements of a young woman walking in a provincial French town, slowly, steadily, before increasing speed, pulling away from her and, finally, stopping altogether, fixed upon a thorny knot of bare branches. The shot is accompanied by a strident, terse string arrangement, and the sensation resulting from the entirety, images and sound, is an indeterminate and inextricable tension. It is from Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond), an Agnes Varda film released 1985. Whenever I watch it, the unease which certain passages in the film produce has a deep effect on me, due to both their intensity and their originality. On Samme Stof Som Stof (Same Fabric as Fabric), the Danish band Under Byen’s third album—their first released in North America—a startlingly similar sense of tension is generated, absolute and enigmatic, subtle and encompassing.
To many, Under Byen’s sound may seem immediately suggestive of its Scandinavian origin. But if one seeks to define it with more precision by nestling it comfortably among existent genres, he runs the risk of falling comically short of his mark. They are not an electronic band, nor a band dominated by waves of glacially-amputated guitar noise. The predominant instruments are piano, bass, violin, cello and drums. Henriette Sennenvaldt’s voice—be it a throaty whisper, a childish coo, or an ethereal howl—sways comfortably amidst the torrential sequences generated by the band, and like the band as a whole, always veers into unexpected territory.
This unpredictability is one of the Under Byen’s defining characteristics. When listening to Samme Stof Som Stof, one feels as if anything is possible, as if each song can alter its shape at any moment and become something altogether different. There is a palpable sense of a band, not attempting to exhaust the possibilities of each song, but to consciously and playfully invent each twist and turn, to patiently compose labyrinths constant to their musical vision. The unexpected chord change which shifts the tone completely, the ebbing and flowing of unearthly instrumentation, skeletal arrangements which explode into fissures of sonic debris—Under Byen are masters of each.
What most defines Under Byen (pronounced Oh’nah-Boon, by the way, meaning “Under the City”) is the impenetrable tension that they consistently create, as well as their unwillingness to fully resolve it. This tension is so enthralling that to resolve it would be to do away with their greatest asset. This constancy demands a constancy of attention in return. Samme Stof Some Stof is not background music. It is disruptive and entangling. Of course, there are songs less dramatically, less visibly suffused with anxiety. For instance, the lullaby-like “Tindrer,” or the closing track, “Slå Sorte Hjerte,” a crackly recording bathed in anesthetic strings. But even these, soothing as they may seem on the surface, revolve around a mysterious center, glisten with sharp edges of ambiguity. More representative is “Den Her Sang Handler Om At Få Det Bedste Ud Af Det.” Basking in theatricality, the song begins with a plinking of strings which soon swells into an angular flourish. Before finally crashing down into its unsettling piano coda, it thrusts and sifts, trembles and throbs, careens, struts and drifts. With each new passage, Under Byen erects a new set of scenery which will then be destroyed, enveloped in the fervid realization of the next.
Toward the end of the title track, a saw breaks into the mix, a warped sound, ethereal and transfixing, the perfect complement to the simple piano figure played by Thorbjørn Krogshede’s and Seenenveldt’s artfully distorted vocals, her repetition of the words “Samme Stof Som Stof.” The passage, like so many others, gives the impression of a band constantly experimenting with the sounds their instruments, voices included, can produce. They seem to take the same approach in recording their songs; each piece of equipment has its own set of possibilities to be explored and utilized to maximum effect. The result is a set of pop songs buried in voluptuous layers of sound and emotion. They are songs which have obviously come through vastly different incarnations to arrive in their current form.
In the end, what holds everything together is Under Byen’s unflagging attention to the realization of their particular vision. One of my favorite songs, “Siamesisk,” drew me in with its somnambulant pace and its petal-like inflections of feedback. Now what I hear is the ghostly silence which surrounds it, which one is always conscious of amidst it. “Film Og Omvendt,” the album’s longest track at nine minutes and fourty-nine seconds, spins in cycles, always suggesting an eruption around the corner before returning to a stasis of sorts. Of course, it does finally erupt, but only to then collapse upon itself in a hail of feedback.
When I talk about always expecting something around the corner, perhaps I come closest to what makes Somme Stof Som Stof such an exhilarating album. Under Byen is incredibly apt at enrapturing one with what is happening while at the same time putting her in suspense over what will come next. They are a band that boldly declares that they don’t sound like anyone except themselves. And they are a band that proves it time and time again.
Björk – Vespertine
Múm – Summer Make Good
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa – Slowthinking