One of the greatest attractions of Norway's Punkt Festival is the discovery of groups who may not have a large audience yet, but certainly will in the future. At Punkt Elope, which spotlighted up-and-coming talent at Punk '08, the undeniable winner was Lama, a group led by multi- instrumentalist/vocalist Nils Martin Larsen. Combining electronics with dense guitars and largely lyric-less vocals, Lama's performance rattled more than a few ears. In its ability to traverse a broad range of dynamics with catchy melodies and a counter-approach to songwriting that was more about gradual evolution than verse-chorus-verse form, Lama was clearly a band to keep on the lookout list.
The group's debut, Guidebook to Lamaland clarifies what was largely apparent in performance: Lama is Larsen and Larsen alone, and his sextet is simply a performing group, the same way that Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen hit the road with a larger touring unit. Still, while much of Guidebook is written and performed by Larsen alone (with but a few guests on a handful of tracks), there is one live song that features the group, the high octane indie rock anthem, "Fighting Your Shadow." Splashgirl keyboardist Andreas Lowe, guitarist Goran Obad, trumpeter Jonas Vemoy, bassist Mats Gregor and drummer Andres Lonmo Knudsrod, make "Fighting Your Shadow" Guidebook's most overtly dramatic and cathartic track, with Larsen's vocals echoing (or propelling) the melody throughout, before switching to saxophone for a brief solo at the song's energetic conclusion.
Larsen's voice is a signpost throughout Guidebook, which is largely a softer affair. The opener, "Keep Smiling," is initially driven by a synth sequence that acts as foundation for Larsen's low register but lyrical saxophone. As with most of Larsen's writing, "Keep Smiling" is episodic, shifting to a piano-driven figure that gradually becomes more groove-laden with the introduction of a percussion program and, ultimately, real drums. Larsen works in layers, as he gradually incorporates violins, cello, saxophone, voice and washes of synth to create a near-minimalist repetition, but with a stronger yet curious sense of song form. Elsewhere, "Karins Waltz" is an electronics-drenched piece of neoclassicism, a lullaby complete with elegant violins, played by Johanne Rosenvinge.
"Man:Machine" and "Machine:Man" explore the same melancholic melody: the former, though drenched in reverb and utilizing some electronics, is still largely driven by acoustic instruments and Larsen's multiply overdubbed vocals while the latter is taken at a brisker tempo and defined by layers of synthesizer, with Larsen's solo voice this time singing the haunting melody only near the song's end. It's a contrast that Larsen explores throughout the album, as the more propulsive "Disruptive" combines drum programming, an ethereal middle section and a more dynamic ending with multiple strings and Larsen's voice, buried in the mix, carrying the compelling melody.
And it is melody that carries the day on Guidebook to Lamaland. Peel away the layers of instruments and electronics, and beneath every song is a strong theme, making Lama's unexpectedly gentle debut a different but still consistent parallel to its more powerful live performances.
Personnel: Nils Martin Larsen: all instruments, vocals; Johanne Rosenvinge: violin (1, 6-8, 10); Line
Hauk: cello (1); Andreas Lonmo Knudsrod: drums (1, 4, 6, 9), electronic drums (9),
percussion (9); Chris Allen: additional drums; Goran Obad: guitars (9); Andreas Lowe: Rhodes
(9), Casio (9), electronics (9); Jonas Vemoy: trumpet (9), synths (9), laptop (9), glockenspiel
(9); Mats Gregor: bass (9).