[Sexdrome; all photos by Oda Egjar Starheim]
Once a year, the Distortion Festival takes over the clean, wide streets and sidewalks of Copenhagen. Over a five-day period, the city is home to hundreds of official festival parties and DIY raves; the activity moves from one neighborhood to the another with each passing day, though it leaves no corner, alley, or storefront untouched. It's a true spectacle, unlike any I have ever seen. I found myself wandering around in a lush garden, watching a hundred Danes vogue-ing to "Better Off Alone", then venturing into a eight-foot alley housing the skinniest dance party I've ever attended (to Darude's "Sandstorm"). The fest is hosting some really stellar American acts this year-- Laurel Halo, Abe Vigoda, Lucky Dragons, and Gang Gang Dance, to name a few-- but it's really a showcase of Denmark's vibrant musical culture. Thus, it was only fitting that the organizers pay credence to overnight post-punk sensation Iceage by giving the band’s own zine-label hybrid, Dogmeat, free curatorial reign over a night of mayhem at Stengade, one of the biggest, dingiest dives around the Nørrebro district.
Dogmeat's "DANISH PUNK FUCK YOU" showcase was the black sheep of a fest that consisted almost entirely of trance, house, and minimal techno raves. But with tickets punk-priced at the insanely cheap price of 30 Danish kroner ($5), this incongruence didn't stop the Dogmeat stage from completely selling out. Interestingly, many of the bands at the Dogmeat show had received almost zero blog coverage up to this point, and successfully eschewed any sense of obligatory online presence via MySpace, Bandcamp, or SoundCloud. Most shocking, however, were the strong live performances from locals Lower, Torchlight, and White Nigger, who were playing their first or second shows ever.
The grassroots feeling of the showcase was reinforced by the audience, largely composed of rabid followers of the local scene and its prolific participants. Even that happy-go-lucky bloody kid was there. "I am worried that Iceage think I stalk them," one Danish woman confessed to me in broken English. "There is nothing else to do, and all my friends are always at the shows." She went on to explain that DANISH PUNK FUCK YOU was a gathering of everyone she had ever seen attending an Iceage show. Jonas Frederiksen of Pregnant Man, who opened the night eating pizza during his set, said that Iceage had become a "real, established band," and boasted that they could draw about 50 people at a regular show with local favorites Sexdrome.
When you come from New York, 50 people from a hometown-draw seems pretty poultry for a band that has been generating as much viral excitement as Iceage. Still, the number is impressive granted the size of the tightly knit scene that's been incubating in Copenhagen over the years. Most musicians playing the showcase had either collaborated in the past or had something new and exciting in the works. Puce Mary, who recently did a cassette with Sexdrome frontman Loke Rahbek for his own Posh Isolation label, was the highlight of Stengade's basement. Sandwiched between two Swedish one-man noise acts-- Arv & Miljö, who runs the Release The Bats label, and Blodvite, who does the cassette label JÄRTECKNET-- Puce Mary looked down at two cassette players, some handmade oscillators, a few pedals, and a cellphone stopwatch and played one of the most engaging dark ambient sets I have ever seen. Despite the basement’s stripped-down set-up of a bass cabinet and a guitar amp, she operated with complete control. Mostly, it was the precision of her subtle variations in pitch and texture that made her stand out from the hodgepodge of noise acts that played the same stage.
The most abrasive and oppressive force of the night came from a masked three-piece called White Nigger. Their hulking bodies covered in brown paint, they managed to disgust with their insensitivity to common decency, intrigue with their modified instruments-- a guitar, for instance, with its strings replaced with two coiled wire torsion springs--, and inflict pain on innocent bystanders and friends alike (the former via deafening loudness, and the latter via light asphyxiation). With its mural-covered walls and low ceiling-- plastered with shards of broken mirrors-- the basement was at its most physically grating during their short, ten-minute set. But not all of the bands inspired moshing last night. Torchlight, the five-piece doom metal outfit who played the main stage before Iceage, prompted a slow but consistent head bang through chromatic chord changes, angular guitar work, and black metal screams.
Iceage took the stage midway through the eleven-band bill, despite being the main event of the night-- maybe even of the Distortion Festival as a whole. Burning through six songs in 20 minutes, they divided their set between as-yet-unrecorded material and tracks from New Brigade, which were invariably greeted by a mosh-pit. When frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt approached the mic and muttered the title of the song "White Rune," the crowd went ballistic before the band had played a single note. The most active mosher in the storm was the frontman of Kolyma, a hardcore band that had played earlier on. He hurled himself from one end of the pit to the other, targeting familiar faces for a tackle, push, or punch. Though they provoked the most intense physical reaction, Iceage were actually the least abrasive of the Danish acts at the showcase, which shows that the previously publicized violent displays of aggression are less a product of a depraved youth culture and more a sign of mutual admiration and camaraderie.
While Iceage was definitely what all the buzz was about, it was Sexdrome that provoked the most spirited mosh of the night. It wasn't just their unique crossbreed of earsplitting black metal and hardcore, or Loke Rahbek's arresting, mad-man malaise. As fans honored both qualities-- for better or for worse-- with Nazi salutes, there was something akin to pride in the air. The show felt like a coup for a Copenhagan punk scene that, until now, has gone largely unrecognized, both domestically and internationally. For decades, Escho label co-founder Anders Jørgen Mogensen told me, local bands had been condemned to the same reaction from the public: “They're alright, for a Danish band. " Let’s hope that now people will start listening.