Peder Balke—a visual artist of the mid-1800s—painted dramatic scenes of the Norwegian northern provinces. Struck by a significant feeling of insignificance while traveling, Balke repeatedly attempted to do justice to the awe-inspiring terrain and its tinctures. As nature helped Balke discover what soon became his art's second nature, Norwegian "Kraut-techno" quartet 120 Days have embraced an epic pining to capture infinity.
"With Peder Balke, I like that he's a very romantic painter. But the way he paints landscapes from Norway... it's clichéd but with a strange, dark twist," says 120 Days' Ånde Meisfjord when asked to imagine his band's visual counterpart. "There's strangeness in the colors. It reminds you that nature isn't all good. A lot of painters celebrated nature to a point that's almost ridiculous. He balances it out."
Balke would retread the land many times over and stay within his themes. Yet, with an eye for intimate tracts and a dramatic, subdued palette, he would never paint any landscapes that felt retraced. Equally, 120 Days use bass to anchor analog-electronic diffusions that repeatedly aim for the horizon while echoing throughout different craggy fjords.
"I've always liked those bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Velvet Underground, where there is something that sounds very pretty and fucked up at the same time," admits Meisfjord on a break from a New York press-junket photo shoot. "We started as a pop band, indie kids, but also drawn to noise records. In between we discovered '70s German bands [Neu!, Cluster, Can, Kraftwerk], drum machines, and synths and became something else."
Four teenage friends from the northern coastal town of Kristiansund—Meisfjord, Kjetil Ovesen, Arne Stöy Kvalvik, and Jonas Dahl moved together to Oslo in 2001. Here they began, like many bands, jamming and living almost atop one another. In turn, their music eventually balanced out a similar overlay of harmonic halftones and oscillating melodies. With vintage synths and motorik sequencers, plus the occasional squinty constellation of guitar notes, 120 Days' rhythms are passed from Krautrock to Italo-disco through New Order on their self-titled Vice Records debut. The quartet balance corrugated and perforated sonics—like a Salvador Dali painting as done by Roy Lichtenstein.
As perverse as that sounds, there is an undercurrent to 120 Days that could be much more so. The name nods to the 1784 Gothic novel The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. It is the story of four libertines, their accomplices, and victims encountering and recounting the development of fetishes. As the lyrics are partially subverted by smudges of sound throughout the album, making meaning almost inconsequential compared to texture, it's hard to say whether 120 Days directly espouse Sade's manifesto of digital manipulation (and not the electronic "groove box" kind). Titles like "Come Out (Come Down, Fade Out, Be Gone)," "Sleepless Nights" and "I've Lost My Vision (Kraut #1)" make you wonder about the darkly romantic twist to nature Balke could have detected in 120 Days. As for 120 Days' most obvious fetish, it would seem to be constantly playing to the back rows.
"Skiing is how we vacation, so scaling mountains and wide horizons are in our blood," says Meisfjord. "Maybe this is why we are drawn to music that's equal parts earth and air."
The median in the spectrum extending from fellow Norwegians Lindstrøm (who does cosmic disco) and Serena-Maneesh (psychedelic space blues), 120 Days aim for celestial melody through a wiry veil of spiritualized pulsations. Consider 120 Days the northern lights of rock, the way they attempt to command the listener's entire sense of sense. Balke would. And—belying the belief that all Norwegians are introverted, cold and clinical—120 Days aim squarely for the hips, not the head; the ass, not only the analytical.
"Dancing is like a drug—you can forget all your troubles and go doooowntown," sings Meisfjord, who then laughs. "Dancing is very important, and people should do it more to make the world better. The world should be like a musical."
Balke subverted his sense of self in the process of doing his natural surroundings justice, eventually resulting in finding his identity inseparable from his subjects. The same can now be said of 120 Days, whose total appropriation of Krautrock repetition and exploration may make it hard to discern what the lyrics are searching for, but enforces that the band have wholly embraced their natural direction.