Bel Canto ‘White-Out Conditions’

We’ve followed the secret map of electronic music past and found a hidden chest of lost gems. This month, we’re pulling out and polishing Bel Canto’s ‘White-Out Conditions’

It bites. It gnaws. It gets at your bones. Right down to the marrow.

If there’s a single starting point for what we now know as Nordic electronica, it’s surely ‘White-Out Conditions’, the 1987 debut album from Norwegian trio Bel Canto. I’ll bet a penny to a pound of reindeer poo that Röyksopp, The Knife, Husky Rescue, Efterklang and Múm all have this in their record collections.

The three members of Bel Canto – Anneli Drecker, Nils Johansen and Geir Jenssen – hail from Tromsø, a small city around 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s a place of extremes, with 24-hour daylight at the height of the summer and 24-hour darkness during the depths of winter. The sun simply doesn’t rise between late November and late January. And it’s the influence of those long dark months, a time of thick ice and deep snow as well as the endless night, that is reflected in ‘White-Out Conditions’.

The wintery vibe endures throughout, even in the album’s lighter moments, the perfectly rounded synthpop of ‘Dreaming Girl’ and the wildly cavorting folktronica of ‘Agassiz’, for instance. The latter is driven by mandolins and woodblocks as well as keyboards. Add in some often oddball lyrics, some of which would have done Hans Christian Anderson proud, and it’s wonderfully otherworldly. Several tracks are a bit 1980s 4AD-ish, especially the neoclassical ‘Capio’, which could just as easily have appeared on a Dead Can Dance album of the day. Anneli Drecker’s vocals are terrific here and everywhere, demonstrating a style quite of her own, a remarkable feat since she was just 18 years old when ‘White-Out Conditions’ was recorded.

The album climaxes with ‘Baltic Ice-Breaker’ and ‘Upland’. The first is a slow and ponderous furrow, clanking metal cutting a path through the massive floes – “The scratching, the screaming, the whining, you’re frozen to death / Or is it just the sounds ice under your keel?” – but the pay-off is the seven-minute long ‘Upland’. It has a similar feel to ‘Capio’, but with a greater and more obvious sense of drama. The beats are like the drips of a thawing icicle and when the big waves of synths burst in, it all gets rather celestial. That little blob of yellow over there? That’s a flower, that is.

Bel Canto’s sound thawed as the 80s rolled into the 90s. By the time they got to their third album, 1992’s ‘Shimmering, Warm And Bright’, the title of which says everything you need to know how much they’d upped the temperature, Geir Jenssen had left the group, initially recording as Bleep and then as Biosphere, the name he’s used for the last 20 years. Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen meanwhile continued to work together up until 2007, and while they’ve been focussed on their individual projects since then, Drecker as a solo singer and Johansen as a film and TV music composer, there have also been rumours of some new Bel Canto recordings. Here’s hoping.

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