A Definitive Guide to Norway’s Early Techno Era
With the rise of the Detroit techno movement in the ‘80s, its influence touched dance music localities around the world. One such remote region — that of northern Norway — began adding its own atmospheric elements to the burgeoning genre, reflecting the cold and desolate elements that are a part of everyday life there.
“Arctic music,” as described by influential producer and label owner Per Martinsen, whose very work helped define the area’s growing techno influence. Artists such as Biosphere, Bjørn Torske, and Mental Overdrive — Martinsen’s project — all stemmed from the Arctic city of Tromsø, which acted as the scene’s unlikely hub. That Tromsø — a city that sits closer to the North Pole than from the majority of European capitals — has had such an impact on the music scene is astounding. For a few months of the year, it receives no sunlight at all. Though perhaps that’s worked to the advantage of Tromsø’s producers.
“Tromsø has never been this big rave capital,” explains Martinsen, who also runs the influential label Love OD Communications. “It’s more bedroom musicians and people hanging out in cafes.”
The techno that came from Tromsø acted as a precursor for a myriad of different styles to eventually emerge from Norway. Along with what is termed the “Bergen Wave,” which gave rise to acts like Röyksopp (originally from Tromsø), pop icon Annie, and Erlend Øye, Norway would eventually add cosmic disco to the global lexicon of refined, uplifting dance music, making the likes of Todd Terje, and Lindstrøm household names.
Back in the ‘80s, and Norway’s primary electronic protagonist was Geir Jenssen, AKA Biosphere, who is arguably as influential today as he was back then. Along with his early electronic experimentations as E-Man, Jenssen was responsible for founding one of Tromsø’s most important contributions to electronic music with the synth-pop band Bel Canto. During this period, while Bel Canto were recording in Brussels for the label Crammed Discs, his fellow Norwegian musical peers were spread throughout Europe, toying with electrontrics and discovering techno in their own way.
“Then in the summer of ’88, we were invited by Crammed Discs, and its sub-label SSR, to put out some dance records,” explains Martinsen. Thanks to this opportunity, some of the first Norwegian techno records came to fruition, featuring Martinsen recording as Syamese, Jenssen as Bleep, and Torske as Alegria.
Here, Martinsen has selected ten tracks that defined the birth Norwegian techno scene, along with a few choice cuts from the modern era that are still heavily influenced by it.
Bleep – Mr Barth In The Sahara [SSR] (1989)
Following Jenssen’s departure from Bel Canto came his first techno LP, The North Pole by Submarine, recorded under the Bleep pseudonym. “This was [Jenssen] going out and exploring influences from techno, and even hip hop,” Martinsen says about the record. It was an album that hinted at what Jenssen was capable of, and supposedly (if you believe everything a press release tells you) was “recorded under the combined influences of the subpolar landscape and the intensive listening to shortwave radio at night.”
Mental Overdrive - New World (TOS Mix) [R&S Records] (1990)
Inspired by the industrial side of techno, “New World” is particularly representative of the Tromsø sound. “This was recorded onto a four-track cassette at home in Tromsø, whereas everything else was done in the studio in Belgium,” he says about the record. “It was even recorded without a sequencer, just all done manually.”
Biosphere – Microgravity [Biophon Records] (1991)
“It was the first time that something had a Nordic, or Arctic, techno sound,” Martinsen says. “In the beginning, he released “Microgravity” on a tiny ambient label from Oslo. “Then I remember I was at the May Day event around ’91 and I gave it to Renaat [Vandepapeliere] at R&S, and I remember his reaction. He told me it was something special and then it got signed to Apollo [a sub-label of R&S]. When that came out properly, then the response was amazing.”
Ismistik – Flow Charts [DJAX Upbeats] (1992)
Following Bjørn Torske’s release as Alegria on SSR — named for Tromsø’s airport code — he was sought after by legendary Dutch techno label Djax-Up-Beats. Alongside Ole Mjøs (with whom he also collaborated with as Open Skies on Reinforced Records), Torske set out to produce a set of hard hitting but minimalistic EPs — his hardest before finding his own sound. ”Bjørn then moved into disco in the early ‘90s and stayed in this very quirky-Bjørn sound. He left the harder sound, and his stuff has been very organic ever since.”
Biosphere – Novelty Waves [Biophon Records] (1995)
And then in 1995 came Tromsø’s breakout hit — “Novelty Waves.” “This track was put on a Levi’s ad, and this was the time when a Levi’s ad had a great impact,” Martinsen says. Unorthodox, desolate, and “arctic sounding,” the track helped turn Biosphere into a global name, putting Tromsø on the map.
Mental Overdrive: Disto Disco [Love OD Communications] (1995)
It was around this time that Martinsen began laying the foundations for his own imprint, Love OD Communications, a label that would eventually be home to many of Norway’s breakaway talents. “I started to go into more into atmospheric listening stuff,” Martinsen says about his own music. “I’d spent so much time in the UK and Belgium, that when I moved back to Oslo, the desolate Norway came back into the music.” And so, returning to the classic Tromsø influences, Martinsen released his debut LP, Plugged, in 1995.
Krisp – Footnotes [Love OD Communications] (1996)
After Bjørn Torske’s string of techno 12”s on Djax-Up-Beats, he began experimenting with more unconventional sounds. But before his big Nordic releases that came towards the end of the century, there was Krisp. “He didn’t have a label, so I put out this 12” of his,” Martinsen says. “I then gave Derrick May a white label of it and he freaked and played it right away. That was a big moment.”
Aedena Cycle – Green Day [Beatservice] (1997)
Around the turn of the century, Tromsø made its biggest impact on the global stage when local duo Röyksopp released their debut LP, Melody A.M. Prior to this, however, the two Röyksopp producers, Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland, were making more atmospheric music on Apollo, along with Kolbjørn Lyslo and Gaute Barlindhaug. “Aedena Cycle was very much ambient techno,” Martinsen remarks about the project. The band of producers released The Travellers’ Dream — a true Norwegian, arctic-techno ambient masterpiece — on R&S sub-label Apollo before disbanding shortly after. Brundtland went on to form Those Norwegians, an act credited as being one of the catalysts for the Norwegian disco scene, while Berge and Brundtland went on to become arguably Norway’s largest electro export. Barlindhaug went on to carry the project’s legacy forward, carrying on the wintery, electronic sound into the next century.
Needless to say, that as tastes and shifts in scenes moved on, so did the Norwegian music scene. Oslo more became the hub of what was happening, and disco became the music of choice of many. “For the whole cosmic disco scene, all of this had to do with it,” explains Martinsen. “It all morphed into different scenes, but with Norway being small, and with the dance scene being very underground, it all still remained much a tight-knit gang.”
That said, the beginnings of Norway’s early techno scene still remains deep-rooted in a lot of the country’s contemporary output, albeit with a modern take.
Andre Bratten – Trommer Og Bass [Correspondant] (2014)
Featured on Erol Alkan’s fabriclive mix, Oslo’s André Bratten’s “Trommer Og Bass” is largely considered his breakout record. “For me, this was so refreshing as it brought back some of the harder sounds of my ravey days, but he brought it back with the Oslo-disco sound,” Martinsen says. “As an artist, he’s one of the most explorative, and he’s always trying out new stuff.” Bratten’s sound, which has meandered through experimental, atmospheric, and dance floor ready, has helped to establish him as an integral part of Norway’s modern, dynamic scene.
Boska – Wires [Trax Couture] (2016)
Part of Tromsø’s new wave of producers, whose sound is a mixture of contemporary bass music, house and techno, is Boska. With a new artist project called Hydropsyche, and several releases on Love OD, he’s very much on Martinsen’s rader. “His new music is very interesting, and a return to very atmospheric stuff of old.”
Charlotte Bendicks – BON-SEXY [Accidental Jnr] (2019)
“She’s really brought something interesting to the scene,” Martinsen says about this Tromsø producer. That she’s released on both Hivern Discs and Cómeme should speak volumes about her type of percussive-driven, dark, psychedelic house and electronica. Bendicks also helped create Insomnia Festival, the leading electronic music event in Tromsø, and arguably Norway, and which has helped champion experimental music in the region.