Norway’s Ungdomskulen are the kind of dudes who can take an idea that sounds primed for sparse simplicity, namely ten songs timed at about one minute apiece, and wind up with the tangled, knotted songs of last year’s Gimme Ten. For something that seemed like a doomed venture from the start, there were (a very few) moments that made it seem like prog rock actually was actually meant for one minute snippets. Given more time to unpack those songs on their new disc, Secrecy, and the jumpy, amped-up trio wound up with longer tangled, knotted songs.
The downfall of Secrecy lies in the fact that these overfilled suitcases of music are too often hard to tell apart from each other. The rhythmic bed of “Facemask” is pitch-perfect dance-punk, with guitar ratchets and thrumming bass tumbling over busy polyrhythms. It’s momentarily invigorating, but as the track fades into “Austin Love”, familiarity breeds contempt. The same oleo of motorik rhythms and slick guitars smacks of paint-by-numbers insouciance when stuttered like this.
At their best, as on the insistent “Marilyn”, the trio sound like Jens Lekman fronting TV on the Radio at some eastern European night club’s Prog Night. Kristian Stockhaus’ accented English and low register, moaning tones add a haunting quality to the droning piano and aux percussion onslaught. “Those days are over,” he intones, as the krautrock groove builds to swank guitar nose-dives.
But when Ungdomskulen decide to add layers and develop movements within a track, they got lost in their own ideas. The competing guitars of “Young Hearts” solo at each other without meshing or competing, clashing in dissonance while everything around them (up-strummed rhythms, thundering bass, and hard-charging snare fills) sync perfectly. Suddenly, Stockhaus’ lyrical hat-tip that “there’s so much to wrap our heads around” makes a lot of sense.
Seven minute album closer “Justify My Grudge” exemplifies the over-ambitious and at times messy nature of Secrecy, which is sections of a handful of different songs jammed into one. For many bands, a track like this would mean some airy, building expanse, but for Ungdomskulen, it’s just a way to add in a passage where clarinets drone, and another where the guitars twirl off into an algebraic math equation, and another where auxiliary percussion dominates the mix. Ungdomskulen aren’t afraid of clutter, and here struggle to be found in its midst.
Essential Tracks: “Marilyn”