When you think of the concept of "rock god" (which you probably should do only once a year, max), imagine Emil Nikolaisen. The frontman for Oslo, Norway's Serena-Maneesh
strikes a regal pose onstage: Garbed in flamboyant poncho and headband, blessed with angular Nordic features and a svelte frame, and fluidly kinetic with guitar and percussion implements, Nikolaisen comes across as a 21st-century Scandinavian Hendrix. His music ain't bad, either.
Nikolaisen is the auteur of Serena-Maneesh, a group featuring sister Hilma Nikolaisen (bass), Tommy Akerholdt (drums), Aadne Meisfjord (electronics), and Øystein Sandsdalen (guitar), who coolly carry a torch for shoegaze-rock deities My Bloody Valentine. Serena-Maneesh's 2005 self-titled debut album established them as one of the few MBV disciples to match the masters' slashing, vertiginous dynamics and androgynous melodic beauty. S-M repeatedly located the golden mean between honeyed tunesmithing and whirlwindy cacophony, levying the same paradoxical immense intimacy that Kevin Shields and company achieved on their classic Isn't Anything and Loveless LPs. S-M's music hit like a lavender- and turquoise-hued tornado.
After extensive touring and mind-blowing appearances at South by Southwest, Serena-Maneesh seemed poised for stardom—albeit indie-label-sized stardom. But it took almost five years for them to follow up that explosive North American bow. Momentum has been lost, even if the underground's lust for shoegaze rock hasn't completely waned, as Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, and MBV reunions and a new generation of starry-eyed FX-pedal-worshippers prove.
Serena-Maneesh's return to the recording and performing fray is heralded by the new No. 2: Abyss in B Minor (4AD). A velvet hammer blow to the psyche, the album mirrors the flagrant MBV-esque fervor of Serena-Maneesh, but plumbs deeper inward into lush, gracefully turbulent sound pools. Abyss doesn't rock so much as it oozes and swirls. The unbearably pretty "Melody for Jaana" evokes Loveless's sublime enwombment, its acoustic guitar swarmed by motorized electric guitars and bass, all of it swathed in creamy, dreamily distant boy/girl voices. Similarly, "Magdalena (Symphony #8)" is a delicate, baroque ballad in the vein of MBV's "Moon Song" and "Swallow"—a meringue-light confection inflated to grandiose proportions. The methodical, ominous dirge "Honeyjinx" is like a Mazzy Star song imploded into a nightmare scenario; it's a titanic head-swirl of a ballad. "I Just Want to See Your Face" and "Reprobate!" veer into Medicine's warped-pop sweetness, with careening guitars that squeal like tires in a car chase, tempered by Hilma's diaphanous coo.
The Stranger caught up with Nikolaisen as he was pulling into Austin, Texas, for another SXSW bacchanal. He e-mailed from the road: "35-hour drive with our lovely backline, a friend and me, through the South and an even better, closer look to the swamps—oh so near, so close—with nose deep buried in the smells and intriguing worlds therein. What an incredible experience. Look at the answers to follow in the context of such flow. It came to [me at] 4:30 a.m., so I hope you see my presence through it all."
As that bit of florid prose hints, Nikolaisen's presence is that of a no-limits kind of creator who'd rather shake a maraca than micromanage the mix in Pro Tools (though he's capable of that, too). He isn't even sure if "musician" properly describes him. "Is it like being a tone-carpenter, a craftsman, a manual worker?" he asks rhetorically. "Or is it a high-flying soul, high-talking dreamer, legitimizing his place in decadent life positions? Or someone hopelessly caught in between, or none of these?"
Interesting propositions, for sure. So it's no surprise that studio sterility is anathema to Nikolaisen, who prefers to retreat to the wilderness to record.
"It is just about leaving the chaos of your mind behind," he says. "No code, no practical ritual has ever worked for me. I need to enter the mind of my creating, of my dreaming, the adventure of fantasy. Inhabit the songs, live with them, spend time in a constructive, exciting, and somehow free environment. Try out things, dare to dream despite your limitations or embarrassments, disappointments. Go deeper and deeper. Hopefully, you get out alive in the other end."
Nikolaisen and crew emerged from that crucible with a stellar full-length in Abyss. He pushed himself and the band to the limit of their abilities and imaginations.
"I 'simply' tried to just take the ideas even further out on a limb—tried so by using every known vehicle, song idea, sound, recording space, technique, cutting it up to pieces and put it back again... basically through the giant mixer and somehow consciously putting past and present thoughts, good moments and failures, into perspective and daring to dream again. It sounds ridiculous, but that is the only way for me to even think of new music. New people and places really inspired and helped the overall new Serena-Maneesh perspective, but in essence, this is what happened."
"Abyss" is usually considered a depressing, hellish word and thing. Yet the overall feeling the new album inspires is a kind of hazy elation tinged with a light melancholy. Why did Nikolaisen use that word in the title?
"It is basically an expression of the huge contradiction in terms—a completely ridiculous overstated headline of expression," he says. "You got a grain of hint in the symphony in one certain key, historically weighted as the 'wrong' one, a Black Mass interpretation of pop music and all therein, referring not only to an opening track in a certain key, but to a female presence that is inseparable. It is just saying way too much, and that is somehow what I wanted to do. Something of a statement of the over-the-top, the wild, ridiculous, self-sarcastic..."
These aren't qualities Americans normally associate with Scandinavians, which makes one wonder if Nikolaisen thinks that there's an essential "Norwegian-ness" that he feels compelled to suppress or emphasize in his sound.
"It has never been a conscious move to brand the band a certain way. We grew up in the wilderness of Norway, and slowly discovered the world. But nothing can hold us back from being who we are. In pop culture, this is the inmost corner of the corner of the world. But a corner always is the corner of the picture. A picture without a corner is not a whole. And what if the corner has some exciting new little corners of aspects to show? I love my country, but of my own territory, it isn't mainly rock 'n' roll from here that [moves me]. I grew up with [Edvard] Grieg, and he still speaks louder than any high-octane, hipster, black-metal band from around the block."
The 900-pound gorilla in the figurative room are My Bloody Valentine, the last group to really catalyze a paradigm shift in rock music. Their influence upon Serena-Maneesh is unmistakable, but S-M apply their own distinctive traits to MBV's template, especially live. Nikolaisen deftly deflects the observation.
"I grant myself the freedom to step out of the rock 'n' roll historic examination laboratory for a second and [say] how much of greatness in pop music and personality in writing and sound [MBV] first delivered and always did. And, yes, there were a few records from the early '90s that carved a mark of sound for the future that has hardly been seen since. But I adore them more than anything still for what the essentials, the substance of songwriting and personality, that wrote its own story in my heart."
Abyss, essentially, is Nikolaisen's bloody valentine to My Bloody Valentine. It's a rock-god-like accomplishment in which all can bask.