Norwegian Space Disco

Scandinavian club-pop music has been something of a known quantity internationally since at least ABBA’s heyday, even if tastemakers from outside the region have often framed it as kind of kitschy and alien. And in a part of the world like Norway, where club culture’s connection to the idea of “nightlife” could range anywhere from six twilit hours in summer to 18 hours of darkness in the winter, it can be a tricky vibe to pin down — especially since anytime dance music spreads to the furthest-flung corners of the world it’s inevitably accompanied by a subgenre-splintering granularity that never keeps trends fully intact. In strictly commercial terms, the most successful dance acts out of Norway over the last decade or so — tropical house megastar Kygo, EDM hitmaker Alan Walker, prolific complextro synthesist Savant — could be considered the vanguard of the movement, and at least a couple of those names probably come to mind first for the average layperson with a passing knowledge of something that could be classified as Norwegian house music.

But something else ran through Norwegian dance-music currents starting around the turn of the millennium, not just in big cities Oslo and Bergen, but smaller municipalities where music provided an escape from semi-rural boredom. It was an idea that built off a few different impulses that had been percolating throughout dance music circles for a long time, identifiable in certain elements of French touch’s pop-disco reclamations or American indie-dance’s nu-no-wave or Kompakt’s microhouse minimalism. The Norwegians just synthesized something that was redolent of all these movements, and settled on calling their version of it “space disco.” 

Space disco is, as forms of house go, fairly recognizable as a sort of link between the sun-kissed mid-tempo Balearic sound that endured from the ’80s through the ’00s, and the more crowdpleasing big-room song-driven tropical house wave that blew up in the mid-’10s. What makes it stand out is how deftly its practitioners sidestep the line between high art and low kitsch. Space disco is deliberately eclectic, largely because it reflects the lineage of the fans-turned-artists who came of age piecing together bits of other countries’ dance cultures in an attempt to figure out where they stood on their home turf. This generation of producers was primarily turned on to club culture and dance music through an adolescent fascination with hip-hop and electro. Like most nascent dance scenes, this one benefited from a nexus of independent radio and club DJs and their labels, like Vidar Hanssen’s Beatservice Records and a disco-revivalist wave championed by future Mungolian Jetset member Pål “Paul Strangefruit” Nyhus. These were people who learned as they went, but learned fast, picking up word-of-mouth highlights of a constellation of dance music scenes written about in UK and American press and developing a largely borderless eclecticism through a voracious yet discerning urge to hear something, anything new. Norway’s relative isolation from the musical hotbeds of England, continental Europe, and the USA didn’t prevent these DJs from finding a real connection to this music, but it did cultivate a breadth through restlessness. 

Artists like Nyhus and Prins Thomas (who both hailed from the rural town of Hamar) and a group of scenesters originating out of the far-North small city of Tromsø (including Hanssen, Bjørn Torske, Ole Johan Mjøs, and Röyksopp) were able to maintain a tight-knit community of dance music heads who kept the faith as its popularity rose and receded during a revolutionary stretch of the post-rave ’90s. Oslo might’ve seemed like the ideal big-city culmination for space disco’s development, but the club scene there was a bit mercurial, frequently subject to overzealous policing, and contingent on an earlier-than-usual 3 a.m. curfew — Berlin it wasn’t — that left little room for slow-burning sets and demanded a dense highlight-reel momentum. And while the city’s clubland thrived in the late ’90s, it hit a massive snag by 2000 when two big epicenter venues, Jazzid and Skansen, closed down. But that obstacle just proved to be an important pivot point. The radio partnership of Strangefruit and Olle Abstract ultimately proved more influential than anything emerging from the masses spinning deep house at the nightlife spots. And a dearth of suitably daring club venues meant that developing DJs and producers had the tendency to stray from the genre-bound demands of populist sets and lean into a more personal and rangy, just-play-whatever idea of disco steeped in bedroom-studio networking — though they proved both popular and foundational to the next phase in Norway’s space disco movement when they were let out to do their own thing. (Strangely enough, this also meant that for what seemed like an idiosyncratic regional scene, most participants wound up becoming significantly more popular outside Norway than at home.)

What they developed was a version of disco-house that was eclectic yet accessible, a sound that was less retro or even retrofuturistic than it was unconcerned with putting an actual timestamp on anything. It explored a symbiosis between avant-friendly art-dance and the unselfconscious anthemic drive of big club bangers, and the vibes this sound provided felt unpretentiously cool in a way that felt more welcoming than gatekeeping because it needed all the ears it could get. The intra-scene camaraderie and frequent brainstorming collaboration between a handful of artists proved to be more communal than insular, and the divergent yet compatible backgrounds of its leading practitioners meant that these sounds could retain their intrinsically funky-meets-artsy character without too much risk of it turning into a stagnant tunnel-vision aesthetic. A wave of small but strong artist-run labels ensued — Prins Thomas’s Full Pupp, Lindstrøm’s Feedelity, Todd Terje’s Olsen — though the polygenre indie label Smalltown Supersound proved just as crucial in spreading the work of artists like Torske and diskJokke.

And this stuff really endured. Some of the earliest gems of space disco date back to the turn of the 2000s, with the surprise success of Röyksopp’s debut Melody A.M. in 2001 proving something of a watershed catalyst. But it’s really just a continuation of the original spirit of disco as it existed in its pre-commercial Loft-era days, one that allowed for the kind of versatility that allowed room for proggy instrumental jams and pop-adjacent vocal tracks alike — not to mention the tendency for these guys to remix and edit anything they could get their hands on. (Terje’s litany of edits in particular are well worth tracking down, from excursions into classic disco deep cuts to stunning transformations of big-deal pop hits everyone knows, while the prolific remixer Thomas is equally unpredictable; in 2017 he even drew from his prog/psych enthusiasms to concoct a masterful reworking of Dungen’s H​ä​xan.) Norwegian space disco’s big buzz moment might have come and gone, and in the scheme of things it seems a bit like a niche scene that vastly outperformed its potential. But it still feels vital just because its relatively small core of musicians have stuck with this malleable groove, one that continues to give them a lot of room to experiment and test and eventually expand what few flimsy borders might’ve originally delineated it.

Feil Knapp cover

One of Norwegian house’s more eccentric synthesists, Bjørn Torske tends to approach dance music with an attention to spaciousness that’s usually the main province of dub producers. Turning up the volume on Feil Knapp (highly recommended) means widening all the negative space on the record, leaving melody-first minimalist pieces like “Hemmelig orkester” and its rhythm-heavy counterpoint “Tur i maskinparken” sounding roomily immersive, while also causing the funkier, dance-minded cuts (“Hatten passer”; “God kveld”) to wrap around you like a sweater. But that’s not his only trick: when he’s not tweaking and gliding his way through ambient, glitch, and nu-disco, Torske’s actually diving headlong into dub reggae itself, concocting goofy but studious little nods to Prince Jammy Destroys the Invaders computer skank (“Spelunker”) and the more dread-stoked and moody corners of 2Tone ska (“Kapteinens skjegg”). And feel free to sink into the warm environs of “Møljekalas,” which simultaneously recalls the archly tropical retro-swing of Kid Creole and the Coconuts and the jùjú reverie of King Sunny Ade.

Staying In cover

Joachim Dyrdahl, b/k/a diskJokke, had a brief window in the spotlight and put out a succession of three increasingly minimalist dance albums on Norwegian dance powerhouse Smalltown Supersound before more or less going dormant after 2011’s ambient exploration of Indonesian Gamelan music Sagara. And while it’s usually kind of a bummer to note that a niche, relatively underrated artist peaked with their first album, it’s hard to feel bad about a peak as breezily friendly as Staying In. diskJokke’s debut shows off a versatility when it comes to the bottom-end side of his beats: his drums are slippery yet propulsive whether they’re evoking click-track austerity or the fullness of a percussive ensemble, while his basslines are nothing if not insistent, no matter whether they manifest as analog-fizzy Worrell-ian synth growls or more nuanced pseudo-organic low-end tones (with “I Was Go to Morocco and I Don’t See You” providing infectious examples of both working in tandem). But it’s the oddly textured melodies that stand out the most — his spaciness is a low-orbit kind, far out enough to feel alien but still more lighthearted than most of his cosmic peers. It all feels a bit warmly, endearingly silly, a tropical oasis in the midst of a deep wintry landscape: check out the complex piano figures of “Folk i farta” that give way to and banter with a succession of increasingly bombastic old-school sci-fi synth stings, the dizzying juxtaposition of downcast seething bassline and upbeat crystalline melody on “Større enn først antatt,” and the chirpy squirting blorp sounds that drizzle cartoon slime all over the electro-funk kicks and snares of “Cold Out.” Some high points hew a little closer to the more straightlaced disco of Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas — “Flott flyt” as the more jittery and uptempo magnification, “The Dinner That Never Happened” as his take on its midtempo, velvet-bass wheelhouse — but it’s clear from the get-go that diskJokke was already sure of his ability to do his own thing.

Square One cover

Torske and Thomas were two major pillars of Norwegian space disco — the former a foundational architect, the latter a prolific disciple — and yet it took them roughly two decades for them to follow up on the early collaborative potential they’d heard in an unfinished late ’90s recording session together. But maybe it’s for the best that it took this long: after finding their footing in the early ’00s and filling out a formidable catalog by the end of the decade, their creative rapport here feels like a necessary step back, taking stock of what they’d built and figuring out how to maintain its essence in more streamlined and headphone/at-home listening forms. Square One feels spare and subdued at first — a canny trick by veterans of the form who are so adept at nuanced depth that even the quietest, simplest moments have the underlying tension of a slow-burn buildup. There’s a few deliberate gestures in dub’s direction, some more glancing than others:  “On U” attaches an Adrian Sherwood label namedrop onto a track that might not outwardly sound quite like anything he engineered for that label, but its deceptively simple motorik art-rock churn unfurls a climactic rhythmic sprawl as it grows out of its constraints. “Steintongt” and its open-field reverb looms with a pared-back spaciousness that drives home the unruly interplay of its skulking bass/conga groove and the lustrous synths that coats the rhythm with melting chrome. And some tracks draw so deeply from a dynamic atmosphere of layered percussive interplay and metamorphosis that, with the shuddering, rumbling ambience that drives cuts like “Arthur” and “12 Volt”, all they really have to do is introduce a minimalist bassline melody or a few stray synth/piano chords to bounce back against the drums to make that groove feel on the knife’s edge of unpredictability. Square One almost feels relaxed in its minimalism, but it’s the kind of relaxation you might feel in the passenger car of a train hurtling through a late night voyage where the weather could turn inclement at a moment’s notice.

III cover

On their own, Norwegian producers Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas were two of the most exciting producers working in dance music since the mid-2000s — purveyors of a sort of ineffable post-genre form best described as “space disco,” a vibe years before everything was considered “a vibe.” Their first two albums as a pairing were so integral to the post-Balearic sense of how to make relaxed yet dynamic body/mind music around the parameters of house, disco, and even kosmische-adjacent prog that it seems almost like an admission of receding trends that it took eleven years to go from II to III — or maybe that it was best left saving their collaborative tendencies for their best ideas. III is something of a slight paring back in that the sense of epic scope has lessened just enough to make their grand ambitions feel a little easier to sink into. But it’s also the case that the breathing room in these six tracks is spacious enough to draw out all their curious melodic details. They continue to nail that still-waters-run-deep internal-voyage dance music atmosphere, elaborately unfolding rhythmic structures that use dance music’s emotional directness as a front to pull some “15 minutes after thinking these edibles ain’t shit" left-field surprises. And while it’s tricky to express exactly what makes these voyages so resonant, it’s just as easy to find that resonance in the first place, especially the intangible codeine-dance refractions of ironically-positioned spacecruiser opener “Grand Finale” or second-half highlights “Oranges” (you’re regaining your Vitamin C) and “Harmonia” (deluxe hausmusik gone midtempo).

II cover

To listen to any of the three full-length collaborations between Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas is to be disabused of the notion that dance music’s 4/4 insistence doesn’t have space for noodly wandering — that, in fact, the rhythmic depth actually makes those excursions feel exciting. And if their first collaboration in 2005 was a formative statement about how well this stuff could work and how effectively lively they were under the post-Balearic chill-vibe atmosphere, II further emphasizes the techno-organic possibilities of a dance music strain that shrugs at the analog/digital line, one where the resonant bursts and shivers of live drums and the atmospheric melodicism of their piano chords and ambient synths take on the mechanical yet handcrafted feel of a kinetic sculpture. Their dance roots run everywhere here, while also doing right by a psychedelic-pop tradition that puts a Jaki Liebezeit-worthy sense of art-funk groove front and center. The rhythmic heart of “For Ett Slikk Og Ingenting” can be traced to Funk Brothers late ’60s Motown while the yearning, unresolved melodies of its piano-and-keyboard refrain evoke everything from ABBA’s wounded romanticism to Vangelis’s electroclassical grace. “Gudene Vet + Snutt” is pure pastoral acid-folk jamming, as hypnotically immersed in the potential of reverie-as-rock-anthem as anything put out by Beta Band or Super Furry Animals earlier in the decade. And closer “Flue på veggen” unfolds from a rhythm box/acoustic guitar/banjo interplay into a post-rock drone like Miami disco going on a fanboat ride through the 3AM Okefenokee marsh that Tangerine Dream alluded to on Stratosfear.

Søndag cover

Søndag is Norwegian for Sunday, and Rune Lindbæk’s Sunday is the 3 a.m. carryover from Saturday night: still driven by the fading impulse to move, but accommodating the feeling of wanting something to propel you on the journey home from the club. It’s also something of a carryover from some late ’90s leftfield/downtempo/acid jazz inclinations that Lindbæk showed during his time as a co-producer in the Those Norwegians/Drum Island collective — a refinement of tendencies that he’d arrived at through a near-decade-long circuitous route through hardcore techno (Open Skies) and diva house (Volcano). Account for that, then throw in a few big beat/trip-hop maneuvers — the spacey sleazy-listening boom-bap of opener “Ok, Kjør Romskip”; the rubbery bloop-funk of “Fotihusedit”; the bleary-eared closer “Søndags Beste” (which samples both Ryo Kawasaki’s cult-classic fusion gem “Bamboo Child” and the radio play of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) — and Søndag feels like the early vanguard of a sound that seems half-formed but on the verge of becoming definitive of something. And that something was the space disco sound that former collaborators like Bjørn Torske and Röyksopp’s Torbjørn Brundtland were arriving at around the same time: almost preposterously smooth, blissfully relaxed in Balearic tradition, but still driven by the kind of bass-first warmth and buoyant hip-swivel energy that made for lighthearted yet sure-footed disco reclamations. The yacht-fusion glide of “Sin Zen” and the synths-and-strings boogie-down jam “Junta Jæger” are musts for anyone who caught on to space disco by the turn of the ’10s, but still hold some curiosity over what its early phase sounded like at the turn of the millennium.

Cosmos cover

Bård Aasen Lødemel is, oddly enough, something of a hip-house practitioner, establishing his club DJ rep as Skatebård concurrently with his membership in the Norwegian rap group Side Brok. That might not necessarily make him Norway’s answer to Arabian Prince, but it does at least hint at how hard it is to box him in — a hint that Cosmos provides a pretty definitive answer to. At a time when most of his peers were waxing Balearic and mellow, Cosmos, ironically enough, is one of the less kosmische highlights to emerge from his scene’s orbit, playing up the electro and Italo sides of house and space disco instead. But in retrospect it sounds like a bridge between the electroclash hangover and the synthwave boom that doesn’t fully commit to either aesthetic, and feels more timeless than trendy as a result. “Into the Crypt of Rays” anticipates the John Carpenter-oid palpitating arpeggios and decadent menace of the Hotline Miami neon-palm-tree aesthetic by a few years, but that’s just the most distinct point on an album that tends to blur its vibes into an agreeably impressionistic atmosphere. The title of “June Nights South of Siena” might place its locale in Tuscany, but the sound shifts from ’80 Milan to ’87 Chicago to ’97 Paris from its ’08 Bergen perspective. Midtempo cuts like the fidgety, rippling Afro-ambient “Marimba” and the pop-lock noir of “Early Morning” tread the fine line between dancefloor energy and afterparty comedown that sinks lesser grooves into stasis; here they’re elevated by a subtle sense of rhythmic interplay that refuses to let the momentum flag. And his range of anthemic bangers is sweeping — you could just as easily picture the spacious bounce of “React 2 Rhythm” as the realm of early Basement Jaxx siphoned through Kompakt’s spacious minimalism as you could trace the lineage of “Gamle furutrær” from ’80s synthpop and Hi-NRG through the dynamics of skybound progressive house.

The Big Cover-Up cover

If there was any doubt that the Norwegian space disco scene was primo record-geek turf, Todd Terje wound up as the ideal man to set you straight. His edits are legendarily transformative, his mixes are deliriously enthusiastic, and his own material from classic Blondie-tweaking single “Ragysh” to his giddy LP It’s Album Time absolutely screams its pop-music fandom to the rafters. Of course Terje would put out a covers record at some point, even if it was technically just an EP’s worth of material (doubled up by a suite of respective remixes). But he curated a wild four-fer for he and his live band to pay homage to. They riff off YMO’s riff off Martin Denny’s “Firecracker” to create a hall-of-mirrors take on orientalist reappropriation and drops some gloriously fat acid 303s over it. They spool up a re-revival of a French disco oddity, Martin Circus’s “Disco Circus,” as a burbling, steam-powered contraption gliding down frictionless, gleaming rails. They cavort through Boney M’s “Baby Do You Wanna Bump” in a concerted effort to make it sound fifteen times squishier and leans so far into the whimsical loopiness of the vocals he turns into a Nicktoon. And they forcibly eject all the pseudo-bossa out of Vangelis’s “La Fête Sauvage,” punting the ’76 suite a decade into the future where it lands as a coke-smuggler speedboat-chase montage. The remixes don’t do much more than amplify these songs’ best qualities, but that’s plenty — Daniel Maloso’s “Do You Wanna Bump” foregrounds the bass, Dan Tyler’s “Firecracker” dubs it up, Prins Thomas’s “La Fête Sauvage” blunts the synths’ serrated edges with warmer conga beats, and Øyvind Morken’s “Disco Circus” goes immensely cavernous.

Where You Go I Go Too cover

Though his first full-length collaboration with Prins Thomas was a notable exception, Hans-Peter Lindstrøm spent most of his early career working in the traditional dance music format constraints of the 12" — most of which, as collected on the 2006 compilation It’s a Feedelity Affair, showed off his ear for tersely efficient and miles-deep nu-disco grooves that didn’t need to go much longer than six or seven minutes to feel epic. That made Where You Go I Go Too the kind of “debut” album that also served as an ultra-ambitious expansion of its creator’s sound: it’s a three-track, 55-minute opus with a nearly half-hour-long title cut and two other 10-minute-plus excursions that could hardly sound more different from each other. The slow-unfolding sprawl of the titular leadoff plants its flag early — the ambient drift of Tangerine Dream, the staccato guitar-pierced motorik of Manuel Göttsching, the hypnomelodic electropop of Jean-Michel Jarre, the beautiful-horror synth-disco tension of Cerrone in “Supernature” mode — and watches it flap in an increasingly brisk and shifting wind current, pacing it so there’s always some striking new touch to continuously elevate the mood throughout its formidable length. (The sweeping synth chords that first emerge around the 7:20 mark serve as the basis for one of his most breathtaking recurring motifs in the final third.) It’s such an audacious and effective distillation of his influences into a distinct vision that the other two songs risk being overlooked, but they’re compelling contrasts, too. “Grand Ideas” is Lindstrøm steeping his impulses in the seething pulse of early ’80s Italo and finding it equally foreboding and joyous; it’s like an ideal midpoint between Kano’s “It’s A War” and Led Zeppelin’s “Carouselambra.” And “The Long Way Home” sets up a frenetic, arpeggiated sense of journeying restlessness that transforms unexpectedly yet sleekly into a smooth-soul fugue that sinks impossibly deep into its own overupholstered relaxation.

Melody A.M. cover

One of the surprising benefits of late ’90s dance music being packaged under the generic trendwatcher catch-all “electronica” is that it coincided with a sample-heavy, genre-agonstic expansion that more granular categories like big beat and downtempo couldn’t quite fully encompass, even at the time. Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge were widely classified as the latter when their first album as Röyksopp dropped in 2001, but Melody A.M. perseveres because it’s a bit more than that — arriving as it did at a crossroads where the lines separating house, trip-hop, breakbeat, and retro-exotica were shifting rapidly enough to start dissolving. In retrospect, what it sounds like more than anything is an open-ended precursor to the “space disco” sound that would soon become prominent in Norwegian dance music, something a little more compact (and Kompakt) than the jumped-up big beat stuff their Wall of Sound labelmates were notorious for. Melody A.M.'s vibe starts off lighthearted and frivolous — the opening 1-2 of elevated-Muzak ether frolic “So Easy” and the Bob James-riffing bounce of “Eple” is bridged by a phone conversation where two guys discuss “good frequencies” like they’re working out a black market transaction — but it’s too good-natured to succumb to inanity, instead using its initial atmosphere of mellow good cheer to sneak in some remarkable flourishes. “In Space” boasts a harp-driven glimmer wedded to a Timbaland-caliber stutter-step you could imagine Aaliyah doing something amazing with. Kings Of Convenience’s Erlend Øye provides a key voice, serving the emotional peak of the album on the keening, lonesome, searching disco-house gut-punch of “Poor Leno” and a more hushed presence on the micro-acid “Remind Me” (which sounds crystalline and fragile while also riding off the same rollicking knockout Grady Tate drum break the Chemical Brothers used for “Chemical Beats”). And one deep cut, the 7 ½-minute “Röyksopp’s Night Out,” is the kind of sprawling, jammy, shapeshifting fusion of midtempo disco/funk/prog that Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas would soon make a definitive element of the region’s dance music.

It’s Album Time cover

"What if Todd Terry but Norwegian” is a self-aware premise to start with; so’s the LP title, which lends a “well alright then” glibness to the fact that he built his rep off a decade’s worth of wiseassed Scandi-house singles and collabs and edits before deigning to commit to a full-length. But there’s no time like this album’s present: retro-electro that shows the synthwave kiddies how it’s done (“Delorean Dynamite”), balearic disco that revels in old-school synth burble (“Preben Goes to Acapulco”), an honest-to-god Robert Palmer cover featuring honest-to-god Bryan Ferry (“Johnny and Mary”). Louche and loving it.

Prins Thomas cover

Prins Thomas’s solo headliner material is typically positioned as the work of someone considered the Art Garfunkel or Parrish Smith of the partnership that made him better-known — a sidekick to Lindstrøm whose own albums aren’t quite as revered, even if people still rightly swear by Thomas’s more collaborative work. But he still deserves to be appreciated for more than just his top-notch remixes and partnerships and DJ sets (which, to be fair, there are a lot of). And there’s an unchallenging yet engaging feel to solo debut-of-sorts Prins Thomas — the “of sorts” meaning he already had a rep to live up to after more than five years’ worth of singles and teamups — that actually makes its accessibility and low-stakes geniality feel welcomingly unpretentious. Sure, the references might be obvious to aficionados — this is one of the most hey, shouts out to Conny Plank albums to come out of this whole Norwegian space-disco wave, right down to the Motorik 101 nu-NEU! of “Sauerkraut” and the Cluster-circa-Zuckerzeit gelatinous boogie synths of “Slangemusikk”— but they’re dropped with a reverence that doesn’t congeal into preciousness. In some ways, it’s the closest that someone from this scene has gotten to capturing the same sense of dance-punk exploration of DFA stalwarts like the Juan MacLean or Holy Ghost!, with guitar-laced cuts like “Nattønsket” and “Ørkenvandring” balancing the post-punk, disco, and krautrock elements of his fusion in a way that plays up just how miles-deep this groove can feel even at midtempo. And “Wendy Not Walter” (as in Carlos) is one of the best progressive-synth-dance cuts to emerge from Thomas’s whole discography, something of a companion piece to his 2005 single “Goettsching” that takes his fascination with E2-E4-informed art-dance into dubbed-out, recursively shifting malleability.  Much of Prins Thomas might fall in an uncanny space somewhere between dancefloor movement and headphone isolation, but even when it sounds familiar, it never feels inert.