Photo by Anna Drvnik.
Entering the town of Norberg can be a surreal experience. Not least because it carries some of the enigmatic mystique of David Lynch’s fictional town, Twin Peaks. Like Twin Peaks, Norberg is sat in the middle of a forgotten municipality, surrounded by fir trees, silent lakes and humdrum local businesses. Where the automatic lawnmowers outnumber residents and everything seems to be permanently closed. If you’re not lucky enough to hitch a ride in Maria W Horn’s famous Volvo, it typically takes two buses and two trains to arrive from Stockholm.
Reflecting on the creation of his fictional setting, Lynch once explained that, “in a town like Twin Peaks, no-one is innocent”. That certainly feels true at Norberg. Beneath its sleepy suburbia, there is a mischievous underbelly. And once a year, Norberg reveals its alter-ego with strobes, gabba and lolz.
First, a few words on the venues of Norberg, because they are by no means typical. At the centre, you have Mimer (pictured above): an ex-ore mine of colossal proportions. But rather than roaming around in its shadowed corners, you explore across shaky staircases and precarious planks. During the noisier sets, you have to cling to the safety rails to stop yourself from falling. The venue is so hazardous that alcohol and dancing are prohibited and (so I heard) any acts that are “too banging”. Next, Kraftwerk: a venue that once housed a steam engine used for operating the mining processes in the area. Kraftwerk acts like a kind of techno-Tardis. From the outside, it looks like a venue for country music and line dancing. Inside, it’s a steely power station. Dubbed ‘Barnhain’ by Manni Dee.
The 303 stage is interesting in so much as it began as a guerrilla stage in the campsite. Once it had outgrown its shell, 303 was brought in-house, supplying the summer jams as the primary outdoor venue. The campsite now instead hosts an upgraded ‘727’ tent. You can go there after the ‘official’ music has ended and listen to rogue DJs blast out jungle sets (hearing jungle abroad is the only time I ever feel national pride). There is even the ‘Really Open Stage’, in which punters are encouraged to jam on analogue gear to passers by. Finally, you can take a tiny historic train two kilometers through the forest to a wooden workshop to watch a showcase from Stockholm’s EMS.
As I collected my wristband, I was mistaken as a journalist from VICE. Almost immediately I heard a hushed voice behind me, “…for fucksake, VICE are here…”. Beyond this amusing miscommunication, I began to feel guilty for my presence (at least, more than usual). Because Norberg Festival is indeed very precious. Despite running for nearly two decades, it continues to contain under 1000 attendees per year, with no corporate sponsorship at all as far as I could see. And so it should remain. There’s an undeniable delight in having such great music located within a small, obscure radius of the world.
Sarah Davachi. Photo by Vlad Brateanu.
Still, you can’t gate-keep a festival. Especially one this good. In the words of Mad Mike, “the true essence of techno music is that everybody can come to the party”. Indeed, the feeling of inclusivity is part of the reason why Norberg is precious in the first place. The gender balance in particular is better than any festival I have seen before. It would not be right to start policing its attendees to a subset of those cool enough to be ‘in the know’. So despite my wobble, I remain certain that everyone should get to Norberg one year. In fact, it should be on the fucking NHS.
Part of Norberg’s charm comes from its staff, 100% of whom are volunteers and many are returning veterans of the festival. This is no small feat since the volunteer time at Norberg comes to around seven days of unpaid work. They exchange this labour for shelter, free vegan meals and drinks. The volunteer set-up brings with it an unspoken camaraderie. I heard one person describing it as being in the middle of one’s own personal Truman Show. Everyone seems to know everyone and there are no clear celebrity hierarchies, nor divides between punters and artists. I talked A.I with Daniel M Karlsson, shared cigarettes with Ikonika and danced with the carefree queers. It was genuinely touching. Only my dire British cynicism could be rattled by such frank friendliness. O brave new world, that has such people in it!
Another impressive aspect of a festival this small is its embrace of opposites. At one point, we had Benjamin Noys speaking on accelerationist music and the dangers of techno-futurism — Shouldn’t we be suspicious about the nascent obsession with YouTube sound collage and MacBook aesthetics? — This talk was right next door to a ‘Radical Dance & Movement’, within a participatory group circle. After all, there is nothing wrong with being a bit Rainbow Rhythms from time to time… On Friday night, I had Pharmakon scream obscenities an inch away from my face as she stared into my eyes. The next morning, a group yoga session took place in a local garden. One night, I am skipping around with gun-fingers to a happy hardcore gabba set in which nothing matters but the next drop. The next evening, I am staring into the abyss during a tribute show to Arthur Russell.
Photo by Vlad Brateanu.
The long daylight hours in Norberg can also trip you out. A day in Norberg lasts on average over 17 hours. This makes the woodland afterparties an evermore surreal experience. Go for an early morning swim in the idyllic lakes, frolic on dunes of sawdust or snort Ketamine in an abandoned tractor. Whatever you fancy.
There are also two (almost contradictory) facets to Norberg. On the one hand, Norberg is immediately welcoming. Beatrice Dillon’s set in particular accommodated the audience, with seductive dub grooves. 111X also blasted 90s pop hooks over dancehall beats and sound effects. There were artist talks, film screenings and tours of the mine to provide context to the weekend. Moreover, the camaraderie of the volunteers, the hodgepodge of artists & punters, and the picturesque scenery make this feel more like a summercamp than a music festival.
But some of the music inside the venues requires serious consideration and patience. In Kraftwerk (Coucou Chloe, KP Transmission, Ikonika), I could feel my ear drums rattling around my head. At times, the smoke machines were enough to make me forget where I was. In Mimer, ambient sets from Sarah Davachi and Anna von Hausswolff brought my heart-rate dangerously low. There was even naked interpretative dance in clay and Shibari bondage art. It was challenging at all the right moments.
Saturday delivered the festival with the ending it deserves. With accelerating exit velocity, we were treated to the SIREN DJs, EVOL and Manni Dee & Ewa Justka. SIREN occupied the 303 stage in its final hours, with a flawless selection of floor-fillers: from Claro Intelecto to Shed. You could also bliss out to the dreamlike twists and turns of Sci-Fi songwriter Moonbow. EVOL delivered an abstract and mesmerising visual show. Here, the performance explored that most basic of elemental subjects: sound waves. Pure square-, triangle-, and sine-waves materialised against Mimer’s titanic walls. It was like watching fireworks in Flatland.
I don’t really want to talk about Manni Dee & Ewa Justka’s set. The primary use of Justka’s ‘Motherfucker’ machine should give you some idea of their basic intention. Climaxing to a tempo of 300bpm (or higher), the overdriven kicks began to lose their distinction. The stroboscopes became fast enough to elicit hallucinations and my brain began to shut down. It completely destroyed me.
After the chaos is over, the volunteers run their own party. Which is no less debauched than the previous nights, complete with guest DJ slots, live sets and free alcohol.
I’m not saying it’s the best festival in the world, but it is the best festival in the world.