Musically speaking, Norway is too often unfairly overshadowed by its neighbors, the overachieving Sweden — which has mastered the art of speaking modestly while flexing outrageously — on the east, and the eccentric Iceland and Scotland to the west. But with a population of just under 5.5 million, the comparatively understated country punches far above its weight in both the world’s music scene and its economy, and its booming talent was on ample display at the latest installment of the long-running Oya Festival in Oslo last week.
While there were plenty of Anglo and American acts — ranging from headliners Gorillaz, Florence + the Machine and Nick Cave to H.E.R., Little Simz, Freddie Gibbs, Remi Wolf and Perfume Genius — equally if not more compelling was the diverse array of home-grown talent. It ranged from pop thrush Aurora to veteran metal act Kvelertak, from stellar pop singers Dagny and Emilie Nicolas to pop-punk act Combos and death metal outfit Blodkvalt, multiple electronic acts and DJs, and rising alternative or pop artists like Mall Girl, Metteson and Kamara. Not part of the festival but playing a 10-night residency a half-mile away was one of Norway’s biggest acts, the multi-cultural hip-hop duo Karpe, who put on an elaborate two-hour bespoke series of shows at the city’s Spektrum arena.
As evidenced by Oslo’s clean streets, sleek architecture, world-class public transportation and omnipresent recycling bins and electric-car charging stations, the country has a refreshingly sensible attitude toward the common good, and the government’s support of the arts is no exception. Music Norway provides substantial support to artists and the festival — the country’s Minister of Culture and Equality, Anette Trettebergstuen, paid a visit on Friday — and this attitude was also evident at Oya, which featured a roughly 50/50 ratio of male and female artists, an enormous emphasis on environmentally friendly policies (there were hardly any disposable plastic containers; food containers and cutlery were not only compostable but edible!), and, of course, musical diversity.
Energized by a rare week of virtually cloudless 80-degree weather that had seemingly half of the city basking in the sun, this year’s Oya — the first since 2019 — delivered four days packed with a diverse array of music that ranks with any festival of its size in the world. Many of these artists sing in English and have their sights set on the globe, but their pride and emotion at performing at the country’s biggest festival was evident and clearly shared by the capacity audiences. Below is a roundup of some — but hardly all — of the most impressive Norwegian acts at the festival, which is just a sampling of the country’s growing talent and influence.
DAGNY Anecdotal consensus pegged this 32-year-old singer’s set as the most impressive of the festival. An innovative pop singer whose music is often reminiscent of Robyn, her songs are powered by electronic rhythms and effervescent hooks topped by her soaring voice. She’s released just one album — 2020’s “Strangers / Lovers” — but has issued a long string of singles reaching back to 2010, and her joyous set played out like a greatest-hits collection filled with fireworks, sparklers and good vibes all around. She was joined by fellow Norwegian singer Astrid S. for a duet of their hit “Pretty”; later she sang a song from a small platform deep in the crowd. Dagny also showed a graciousness toward her band that one rarely sees from a pop artist, giving each musician not only a shout-out but letting them take center stage multiple times during the set. (Sharing the spotlight is apparently a Norwegian thing: Virtually every act took a bow together at the front of the stage at the end of their set.)
GIRL IN RED We saw the fast-rising 23-year-old Marie Ulven Ringheim perform in the U.S. on an early tour, and although she may have been pulling out the stops for this home show, her live set has gotten exponentially bigger in every way: It was like seeing a formerly skinny friend who’s been training for a triathalon. Her lively power-punk band amped up the energy on every song, transforming the effortlessly melodic, electronic-based tracks from her 2021 debut album “If I Could Make It Go Quiet” — not to mention her early bedroom-pop songs like “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” — into brawny, full-on rockers, complete with pyro. (There was a lot of pyro at the festival, maybe that’s a Norwegian thing too?) While the band’s synchronized jumping was a little over the top, the power of this set made it feel like Girl on Red is just one big album away from headlining arenas.
AURORA One of Norway’s biggest acts, Aurora delivered a special set to close out the festival, with an elaborately theatrical stage set featuring both male and female dancers that seemed designed to capitalize on the sunset that took place during her performance. While best known for her dance pop hits, this set leaned much more folky and bucolic and found her living up to her self description as a “forest person.” A veteran at just 26, she’s released three full-length albums and this set leaned heavily on her latest, “The Gods We Can Touch,” drawing a rapturous response from the voluminous crowd.
KARPE While not officially part of the festival (although they’ve played it in past years), this this proudly political, multi-racial duo was nonetheless very present there via dozens of fans wearing T-shirts presumably purchased at their concerts that ran concurrently with Oya. Karpe has been one of Norway’s most popular acts for nearly two decades, and is also one of its most ambitious: They has sold more than 100,000 tickets for a ten-night stand at the city’s Spektrum Arena, and built a wildly elaborate set encased in a giant illuminated glass box that rose and descended several times during the set (sometimes with the musicians performing on top of it), elaborate lighting, a hydraulic platform and a stage that was literally covered with sand. The two rapper-singers — Egyptian-Norwegian Magdi Omar Ytreeide Abdelmaguid and Indian-Norwegian Chirag Rashmikant Patel — were accompanied by a band, led by producer-guitarist Thomas Kongshaven, that swelled to as many as eight members, and featured so many dancers that there were 30 people onstage for the finale, which saw the stage completely covered by fake grass and showered with rose petals. The two-hour-plus concert had many wild moments, the most amusing of which came when Abdelmaguid rode a giant inflatable shark into the crowd, holding on for nearly a minute before falling off (apparently “jump the shark” doesn’t have a Norwegian metaphorical equivalent).
The group’s music as well as its stage show shows a strong influence from Kanye West and the Weeknd, with an occasional Bad Bunny-esque “eh!” thrown in, and they’re strong rappers and singers, although it’s harder to connect with if you don’t speak Norwegian. However, its message of unity and tolerance in unmistakable: Their hit “PAF.no,” which closed the two-plus-hour-long set, features a chorus of “Allah, Allah, Allah,” a remarkable thing to hear a crowd of 10,000 boisterous Norwegians joyously singing along with.
METTESON We were told that you don’t get the full Metteson experience until you see him live, and it wasn’t hard to see why. A former theater kid and “Angels in America” lead, his music is a stately, melodramatic strain of pop-rock, heavy on electronic rhythms and powerful harmonies from no less than four female backing singers. Yet his stage moves — imagine “Ziggy Stardust”-era David Bowie with formal dance training — and the group’s synchronized choreography are as powerful as the music if not more so, creating an exhilarating tension and release in the stage show that kept the audience waiting for a payoff they knew was coming, and left them wanting more.
EMILIE NICOLAS One of the country’s biggest pop artists, this four-time Norwegian Grammy winner would probably be an even bigger name if not for her aversion to touring. Her gain is the world’s loss: She turned in a rousing performance during this year’s festival, loaded with hits and powered by her soaring voice, which is often reminiscent of Adele’s less-melodramatic moments. The influence of jazz is prominent in both her music and singing, particularly on her third and latest album, 2020’s “Let Her Breathe.”
MALL GIRL One of the more unusual acts to perform at the festival, the members of this quartet have moonlighted in everything from jazz to metal acts, and play an odd fusion of what they describe as “math pop,” combining melodic hooks driven by Bethany Forseth-Reichberg vocals with unexpected, incongruous instrumental breakdowns that, in at least a couple of places, sound like everything from Rush to Death Cab for Cutie. We’re going to stop trying to describe it, just listen to their excellent latest album, “Superstar.”
KAMARA One of the rising stars of the festival, 24-year-old Kamara has only released an EP so far but is a strong songwriter who plays a lively strain of pop buoyed by her tight four-piece band. She also has no small amount of stamina, playing a boisterous half-hour set in 80-degree heat while wearing a close-fitting pink wool outfit with fringe off of the arms and heavy makeup. “I’m sweating all over but it doesn’t matter because we’re having such a great time,” she said, according to a friend translating her Norwegian.
KVELERTAK This veteran Norwegian metal quintet has long served up a bruising fusion of shrieked, death-metal-esque vocals with heavy, basic, commercial song structures and bludgeoning riffs from its three guitarists. Subtlety is not on the agenda and it certainly wasn’t during the group’s festival closing set, which included not just the festival’s biggest dose of pyro, but also the two pyramids flanking either side of the stage bursting into flame and singer Ivar Nikolaisen waving a comically huge banner (and also taking off his shirt, wringing out the sweat and pouring it into his mouth. Gross!). It could not have been more different from fellow festival-closer Aurora’s set — and perfectly demonstrated the diversity of the music from the festival and the country.