The Danish four-piece — Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild (vocals), Jonas Kenton (keyboards), Simon Muschinsky (keyboards) and Silas Moldenhawer (drums) — are a complicated mix of influences. There’s dance music in there, for sure, but also post punk, some experimental electronica in the Aphex Twin mould, and, crucially, a healthy dose of pop. You could describe the end result as a heady mix of Caribou, The Knife/Fever Ray and Arthur Russell. But, really, it doesn’t sound like anything else out there.
The band formed in 2007. They started out making dance music, but quickly left four-four beats behind and started fusing electronics with pop melodies. They caused a local stir when Danish radio picked up on some tracks they’d uploaded onto Myspace. The buzz meant that their first ever gig was at Vega, one of Copenhagen’s leading venues. Then, last year, they opened the Roskilde Festival in front of 45,000 people, an experience Nikolaj describes as “fantastic”.
The band’s debut album, ‘Konkylie’, (Danish for ‘conch shell’ incidentally), has been two years in the making. It sees them moving their sound on into new, uncharted territory. On ‘Parix’, Nikolaj’s spectral vocals, a mix of Antony Heggarty’s tremulous falsetto and Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis, are pitched against a shimmering mirage of synths. There’s an echo of their clubland past on ‘Kelly’, which is underpinned by a chugging, mid-paced beat. It’s the jumping off point for four-minutes of electro pop perfection, like Empire Of The Sun with some added Scandinavian cool. Nikolaj’s vocals, meanwhile, are never more beautiful that on the closing track ‘Add Ends’, where they float over skillfully orchestrated strings and gently popping electronics. It’s an atmospheric reverie that transports you to another place. All told, it’s stunning stuff, esoteric, yet instantly accessible, the kind of underground record that everyone can buy into.
One of the things that sets When Saints Go Machine apart from their peers is that there’s a warmth to ‘Konkylie’. Electronic music can sometimes sound rectilinear, like a Cubist painting. It was something the band were keen to avoid. They went to great lengths to inject an organic feel into the record, experimenting with new recording techniques and locations. All the vocals on the title track and opener ‘Konkylie’ were recorded outside in such unlikely spots as a tunnel and a forest. Then there was the assemblage of effects they created to inject a random element into proceedings. “We had this set-up of effects that we ran sound through to create an organic feel. Like tape echoes, other effects and synths. We’d control one element each and we’d mess around,” explains Nikolaj.
The band make no apologies for the fact that ‘Konkylie’ is a dense, at times complicated record. It’s partly down to the fact that they’ve spent a lot of time on it. “If you spend two years on 11 songs then there will be a lot of detail and strange sounds in there,” confirms Nikolaj. But it’s also a product of the four members different music influences. “Our musical backgrounds are so different from each other. Jonas and Silas are from a clubby background and they still make house and techno together as Kenton Slash Demon; Simon’s is jazz and neo soul; and I’m somewhere in between, ’60s and ’70s breaks, bands like Broadcast and The Slits and White Noise. That’s why there are so many elements in there — dance, post-punk, classical. But it’s hard to pick out tracks and connect them to one particular song. I think that’s a good thing.
And if it’s been a difficult, at times protracted process, the band are convinced it’s been worth it. “We’re really pleased with the album,” says Nikolaj. “All the songs fit together more than anything we’ve done up to this point. A lot of details we left in the songs from earlier versions. I think it gives the record a sense of many layers. The arrangements are bigger and better. It’s more evolved all round.”
True enough. When Saints Go Machine: you’ve never heard anything like them.