Finding a sound somewhere between a sixties surf band, easy listening library music, Saint Etienne’s quirky instrumentals and Air, Norway’s Orions Belte make neo-psych pop and downtempo sounds that totally mess with the fabric of time. Their debut album ‘Mint’ plunges the listener into downbeat moods that seem to constantly waver back and forth between sixties kitsch and mellow alt-pop from the 90s mellow pop. Occasionally, it’s as if things are deliberately presented at the wrong tempo, but the results are always finely crafted.
Whatever the motive, the album is always interesting and often oddly tuneful in an unexpectedly retro way. At its absolute best – and most broad sounding – ‘Le Mans’ delivers a deliciously downtempo groove, with retro drums underpinning slightly reverbed jazz guitars, locking firmly into a slow tune that’s never a million miles away from one of Saint Etienne’s twee instrumentals meeting with the soul based sounds of Louis W. An occasional vocal almost seems surplus, but it’s there intermittently adding extra interest – heavily treated and echoing, with a sound as if Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus has stepped in for a guest spot. At the point where the number seems settled, things change up and the downtempo beats give out to a weird tango; this is muzak for the 90s attuned post-modern ear…and it’s great. The beats and jazz guitar are enough alone to maintain a constant interest, but the reverb and various other electronic treatments often suggest a pleasing unease. Taking things even slower, ‘Papilon’ is almost like hearing a dreamy surf-rock tune re-imagined for future decades. It flaunts a guitar tone that would suit Brian Setzer when covering Santo & Johnny, or perhaps Chris Isaak on one of his more mournful days, but despite being instrumental, very 60s tinged and low-key, there’s a root sound that’s easily identifiable as the same band. The simple melody is lovingly replayed in an almost sprawling manner; the bass is suitably warm and by the time everything drops into a set of crisp staccato notes, it really impresses.
Fading in slowly with clean guitars, ‘Atlantic Surfing’ takes the band’s favourite sounds and boosts them with an unwavering drum part. A very mechanical piece, it really holds the attention through repetition, with phased guitar sounds weaving into an unshakable groove. In terms of a musical hook, things get louder and the riff taps into something more of an indie rock variety, but such deviations are very brief, since the rhythmic backdrop isn’t about to give in. A lot of people who’ll ultimately find appeal within this album might be quick to point out that most of the best elements of this number are hugely influenced by Neu!’s classic ‘Hallogallo’ – that influence is about as subtle as a brick – but the heavy homage/lack of originality here doesn’t make the track any less of an enjoyable experience. ‘Delmonte’ casts aside the typical trippy vibes and replaces them with a tight mix of funk sounds and world music pepperings, leading to a couple of minutes worth of bouncing melodies that are only really recognisable as Orions Belte thanks to Øyvind Blomstrøm’s guitar work, choosing to cast out various broken sounds in place of a more obvious melody. More of a glorified interlude than a finished piece, you’ll certainly find yourselves wondering where things might have gone had this musical sketch been allowed to truly take root. One of the only vocal tracks – and the ideal single – ‘Joe Frazier’ sets up a bluesy mood, feeds that through a Mercury Rev prism, shoehorns in some downtempo soul and 60s fuzz and ends up sounding like Mercury Rev meeting with Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel – especially by the time a distorted guitar solo takes a dominant role. As with most of the material here, it wouldn’t necessarily work as well as it does if bassist Chris Holm and drummer Kim Åge Furuhaug weren’t able to lock together in such a way that makes the groove appear effortless. As it is, by the time the final bars have descended into a world of distortion and guitar echoes, there’s no question that – along with ‘Le Mans’ – this is essential listening.
Making great use of an old analogue sound in places, the woozy ‘Moving Back Again’ starts out a little like a backporch echo, before blooming into another tune that seems more typical of the Orions Belte sound; there’s an easy listening heart mixing with more steel guitar sounds for a desert island mood – something far more detached and sun-filled than Oslo, at any rate. It’s one of those numbers which seems familiar from first play, largely due to being completely in sync with the band’s retro sound at this point in the album, but there’s always that feeling in the back of your mind you’ve heard the melody before. With a small amount of fuzz, treated beats and a blues-jazz guitar coming together in fine form, ‘Picturephone Blues’ isn’t as smooth as the bulk of Orions Belte’s material, but still provides a good showcase into some almost otherworldly sounds. Particularly strong are the notes from Blomstrøm’s guitar, which quickly establishes a riff for a hook and rarely veers from that, at least until things reach an unexpectedly early fade. With tinges of indie, a pinch of space rock and a swathe of downtempo cool, while it isn’t necessarily the album’s best track, it provides a great example of the band’s favoured minimalist approach. ‘New Year’s Eve #2’, meanwhile, opts for something a touch busier, with the fuller sound often dictated by rattling drums. On this number, especially – regardless of the swirling organ that sounds like a holiday camp from hell and a steel guitar suggesting Hawaiian easy listening combined with a pinch of country – the influence from Mercury Rev’s peerless ‘Deserter’s Songs’ LP is hard to avoid. Most bands would like to go out on a high: but not Orions Belt, it seems, since the closing number ‘Alnitak’ is particularly odd. After a world of pleasing melodies and soundscapes to help you conjure a selection of mental images, the album’s final offering is rather uninspired. A disjointed collection of noises that sound as if they’ve been pulled from previous tracks are placed within a light drone-rock framework and then played back as if the master tape has been stretched. It’s a reasonable experiment that’s good for a couple of listens, sure…but it’s far from an ideal final statement. Still, the rest of the album’s been so good up until now, Orions Belte can easily afford a blip.
Up until that final track, there are no fillers on this record; it’s clear from first listen that Orions Belte have thought hard about its overall flow and it’s one of those albums that definitely works better as a whole. For those who like easy blues, funk and jazz hybrids or perhaps wish Mercury Rev would collaborate with Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs at their more obtuse, on their debut, this Oslo based band serve up a smorgasbord of treats galore.