DENMARK: Det er Mig der Holder Træerne Sammen - Under Byen
This album full of interesting musical ideas and consummate musicianship certainly succeeds in creating an intellectually and emotionally engaging masterpiece
The avant-garde stylings of Danish post rock group Under Byen (which translates from Danish as ‘under the city’ and is pronounced as ‘Ohna Boon’ apparently) might not initially sound like rock at all. Rock is guitars, choruses, solos, powerful drums, you might think, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There is little to connect these guys with, say, The Rolling Stones or Status Quo. The more apt comparison would be with their fellow Nordic art rockers, Sigur Rós, who similarly push rock to its boundaries by taking it in artistic and symphonic directions. And yet, I would say that Under Byen’s third album, Det er Mig der Holder Træerne Sammen, translating as ‘it’s me who holds the trees together’ does have a rock core to it in a way that Sigur Rós don’t quite have. Post rock, as with a lot of musical and cultural definitions is loosely applied, with it often taken to mean the use of rock instruments for non-rock purposes, such as using a guitar for creating a musical texture rather than a face-melting riff.
“This is Under Byen at their best, inasmuch as they take what we know of pop music and reinterpret it in their own experimental style, elevating the musical form as well as recreating it in their own image.”
Under Byen, however, eschew guitars completely, instead opting for pianos, organs, cellos, drums, the violin, and an electrically distorted saw. Yep, you read that right. This unorthodox approach allows for music that is very much their own, despite some superficial references to the Icelandic superstars Sigur Rós, who the band themselves cite as influences. Instead, the sparse instrumentation alongside the dark, moody, atmospheric vocals of lead singer Henriette Sennenvaldt create something like rock music from another planet. For example, if you listen to the opening title track, with its oneiric vocals and apocalyptic drums, you can hear the rock influence coming through. The plucking of the guitars and the droning of the electric saw both contribute to an almost metal-adjacent aural aesthetic that is at once very idiosyncratic and yet evocative of the cityscapes their name evokes.
This ‘alien rock’ sound is found throughout, but perhaps best shown on Plantage and Mission, in which Plantage’s discordant drums and the light sprinklings of keyboards sound like they could be a soundscape to a modern retelling of Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, with its scenes of workers in a futuristic city trudging to and from work like clockwork drones. Cinematic is the word for a lot of this album, and that’s not just a cop out phrase I’m using to try and shy away from actually probing what I think about it. Rather, post rock in this style is often symphonic even when an orchestra is not used, and as such it does not necessarily stick in the mind in the way, say Even Flow by Pearl Jam does. That song has a catchy chorus, roared out by grizzled American rocker Eddie Vedder and powerful repeating riffs. These songs have none of that, however, what they do have is skilled musicianship and a perfect sound, a sound that they have honed over years to help create the maximum musical texture as possible, and with that texture, one’s brain is able to associate pictures and moods to it. My first love is cinema so perhaps that’s why to me it evokes the social sci-fi greats of the silent era, but one’s individual response could very well be different perhaps reminding one of winter in a nondescript Scandinavian city, or a sunset in the Danish countryside.
Furthermore, Mission starts off with a piano repeating a chord progression based off two chords, and this repetition is compounded by the droning piano notes alongside it, which is then contrasted with the distorted bass riff and the soft vocals. This then gives way to beautiful strings and piano, which in some ways sounds like a post rock parody of ballads, and yet it completely works. This is Under Byen at their best, inasmuch as they take what we know of pop music and reinterpret it in their own experimental style, elevating the musical form as well as recreating it in their own image. This takes the necessarily repetitive nature of pop and rock and turns it on its head, taking it down to the essentials and nothing more, and then seeing where they can go with it. That said, it is also a beautiful album as well, with the song Byen Driver containing some truly gorgeous piano on it, and when combined with the calming vocals it becomes an emotionally-driven piece. Free of the post rock idiosyncrasies, this is the one song I would say probably everyone would like or at least appreciate, as it shows Under Byen at a more accessible level. The same goes for Lenin, which is in essence a beautifully complex piano solo piece sandwiched between two more musically ambitious pieces, and as such acts as a moment’s repose between the post rock
Det er Mig der Holder Træerne Sammen probably won’t be for everyone’s tastes. I can see how Under Byen’s preference for sound and musical textures over the thrills and spills of modern popular music might rub people up the wrong way and make them feel like this is an exercise in intellectualism or academic musicianship, but I would wholeheartedly disagree. Det er Mig der Holder Træerne Sammen is a profoundly beautiful and moving masterpiece of the post rock genre that has the capacity to enthrall me every time I listen to it. For me, this album shows that music can be experimental and ambitious and succeed on every level, there isn’t a beat out of place. If you choose to listen to this, do listen with headphones on, as you will notice the sheer detail of the music that Under Byen have made, and that will only enrich your enjoyment of the album.