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Track-by-Track: DATAROCK’s Fredrik Saroea Breaks Down His BIT20 Ensemble Collaboration

Fredrik Saroea of Datarock fame joins us for an intimate track-by-track overview of his collaboration with the BIT20 Ensemble, ‘Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Grieg Hall, Bergen).’

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When it comes to his craft as an artist and songwriter, there is no one as capable and high-minded as Fredrik Saroea. The frontman for the widely acclaimed Norwegian electronic rock group Datarock, Saroea has branched out in a big way with the release of Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Grieg Hall, Bergen), a musical collaboration between him and the award-winning string quartet known as BIT20 Ensemble. The partnership brings together Saroea’s introspective indie rock with the distinctive qualities of a chamber orchestra. The album is a re-envisioning of his Rona Diaries album, released last year, as a live piece, with the added dynamics and dimensions of a brilliant string quartet.

The album was recorded last year at the infamous Grieg Hall during Norway’s 69th annual Bergen International Festival on May 28th, 2021. Grieg Hall is widely regarded for its exceptional sound and acoustics, which made it the ideal location for Saroea to see through his vision. The challenges of combining such diverse worlds of music seem apparent, but nothing about this collaboration seems forced or out of place. You’ll be able to hear it for yourself once the album sees its official release on June 10th via YAP Records.

To discuss this fabulous new release, Saroea joins us today for a special track-by-track rundown of each song on Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Grieg Hall, Bergen) in which he dissects each track in intimate detail.

1. “I’m a Rock”

“This track is one of the totally naked songs on the original Rona Diaries album, meaning just three strings on a guitar plus vocals. On the various songs on the album, I play layers of rhythm guitar, leads, bass guitar, drums, percussion, and a bit of keys, but on a few there’s only minimal rhythm guitar and vocals, like on ‘I’m a Rock.’

“This orchestrated version totally captures what I tried to do with those limited means, but the new version adds and elevates the original ‘loner tune’ solo version to a totally different beast. The original is pretty depressing to say the least, but the new arrangement totally embrace the energetic, low end, rhythm pattern of the original guitar, but also capture the little glimmer of hope –  emphasizing a hint of optimism.

“I guess the difference between the two versions stems from the fact that the original tune was written, arranged, and recorded during the total COVID lockdown over here, while the orchestration was written to be performed live in front of an audience at a festival!”

2. “Battered & Bruised”

“This is the only track that I added fake strings to on the original, so in many ways I guess this is the reason why we ended up making this entire orchestrated album.

“The arrangements are pretty similar to the original, and we even kept the original bass riff, slightly inspired by Madness’ ‘Our House. A serious song about the left and disowned, served on a bed of beauty, presented by arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen and the amazing BIT20 Ensemble.”

Artwork for the album ‘Rona Diaries: The Chamber Versions (Live at Greig Hall, Bergen)’ by Fredrik Saroea with BIT20 Ensemble

3. “Bulletproof Vest”

“I guess this is one of the tracks where you can hear how the orchestrations were slightly informed by the wonderful arrangements on David Byrne’s Grown Backwards. And yet again the beauty of the strings alter the song from max depression (about the nature of a toxic relationship) to emphasizing the original’s minute element of romantic optimism.

“We left out both the hint to Bowie’s ‘This Is Not America’ and the twin guitar movement of the original, however, and though I’m really fond of the original too, this orchestrated version is one of my personal favourites on the new album.”

4. “The End”

“This is yet another naked original (Blonde Redhead and The Smiths inspired) track taken off to a very different place by its delicate arrangement, but this time with slightly dissonant, falling string movements on top of a sturdy and strict harp. It’s almost like BIT20 are acting like backing singers agreeing to the lyrical content, supporting the message so to speak: ‘I would like to take a walk inside your skull, smash everything around me, break you like you broke me again, we’ll make up and break up in the end,’ with an end tail of saddened strings concluding (like a Mandalorian) that ‘this is the way.’”

5. “A Matter of Dying”

“Equally sad, again the strings are falling in their movements over a sturdy harp, but also offering beauty and nuance to the lyrical statements while agreeing to the simple truth of the statement that ‘life’s just a matter of dying.’

“Very different to the slightly Strokes-like arrangements on the original, and we didn’t keep any of the melodic ornaments, but again, even though I’m very fond of the original, I think this turned out especially well. Especially considering the fact that this is the very first time any of us performed any of this material.”

6. “Bergheim”

“This is one of the two songs that are exclusive to this album, so this is the original version, though of course originally written for guitar and vocal melody. I realized there were similarities to the feel of (Italian composer) Ennio Morricone’s amazing music from the wonderful film Cinema Paradiso, so I named the song after the Cinema Paradiso of my own childhood.

“You see, as a kid growing up on an island in Norway we had our own provincial cinema called Bergheim, and that cinema too served as a community house, a gym for indoor soccer practice, a concert venue, and even housed parties and discos. So I guess the song is a wordless sentimental gaze back to an innocent childhood in the 1980s. And the orchestration enhances that, in a cinematic, score-like kind of way.”

7. “Understatement Love Song”

“This is the second original.

“I guess I felt the urge to add something a bit cheerful to the live album, yet not overly positive, so an understated expression of joy and happiness in a relationship felt like the way to go. I guess there’s a hint of Bertrand Burgalat in this one. Perhaps even a bit of Pizzicato Five. There’s tons of pizzicato at least. Like a crooner tune backed by a gentle TV orchestra. Light and easy, balancing the grave seriousness of the remaining material.”

8. “Stray Cats”

“Following the note that it’s nice to balance the heavy nature of most of these songs, this is the second positive tune, yet sort of set in a musical-like scene (including the style of the orchestration) where a couple of stray cats face a life of supposed hardship with an unrealistic, optimistic go-getter approach that the arrangements kind of support, yet in an almost saddened, realistic sentiment of empathy. So darkness does cloud even these shiny, blue skies.”

9. “Dragging You Down”

“Back to the heavy… This is about a bad guy, and a victimized partner, and again the arrangement kind of works as opinionated supporters of the message the voice so desperately tries to convey to the belittled partner.

“On the original, I was thinking there’s a bit of Sam Prekop, The Sea and Cake, but that’s somehow totally gone as the arrangements take a totally different direction. And that’s the beauty of collaborating with the wonderful arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen; how he adds, elevates and/or totally changes the course and enhances the most signature strong aspects of each song.”

Fredrik Saroea with BIT20 Ensemble by Thor Brødreskift

10. “The Family You Got to Choose”

“This song is actually equally about recording artists and all the world’s bartenders as trusty companions to saddened or uplifted souls. I guess the arrangements capture the spectrum of the spirit mentioned throughout the lyrics; at times almost hysteric, others with falling motions of sobbing sorrow and grief, even joyously playful, comforted, and uplifted. And of course all exquisitely executed by BIT20 at first try.”

11. “Feather in the Cap”

“On this track, the arranger Bjørn Morten Christophersen quite obviously wrote the arrangements specifically for BIT20, knowing their masterful competence and experience with executing contemporary art music in all its complex, emotional drama; like modern dance performed by 59 strings (47 on the harp, four on the cello, four on the viola and four on the violin equal 59. And then 65 if you count the guitar!).

“And what a song to max their skills; originally arranged and recorded with a hint of punk rock and hard core, this pretty aggressive display of a badly handled break up is so well captured in the arrangements and the performance by BIT20.”

12. “Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent”

“This is the last song on Rona Diaries, basically pardoning the fact that I wrote such a sad and depressing album that the listeners obviously just endured to the bitter end. Originally imagined to be inspired by stuff like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon or Mark Kozelek’s Rock N’ Roll Singer, or even his What’s Next To The Moon, the orchestrated version took a totally different, more unique direction – heaven sent by Bjørn Morten Christophersen and BIT20.”

Born in 2003, V13 was a socio-political website that, in 2005, morphed into PureGrainAudio and spent 15 years developing into one of Canada's (and the world’s) leading music sites. On the eve of the site’s 15th anniversary, a full re-launch and rebrand takes us back to our roots and opens the door to a full suite of Music, Film, TV, and Cultural content.

Classical

MIZU Releases Hypnotic Video for “Pavane” Single [Video Review]

MIZU (fka Issie Herr), the breathtakingly talented cellist, has released a stunning video for her new single “Pavane” (NNA Tapes).

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MIZU, photo by Chong Gu
MIZU, photo by Chong Gu

MIZU (fka Issie Herr), the breathtakingly talented cellist, is releasing her second album, Forest Scenes, on March 22. Now, she has released a stunning video for the lead single “Pavane.”

These four minutes of mesmerizing imagery would work as effectively as an art installation in a gallery as it does a music video. Shots of the artist in a deep forest setting, dressed in angelic white rags, are juxtaposed with a narrative sequence of the androgynous movement artist Lili (Luyan Li) emerging from a mysterious mirrored casing and crawling across the forest floor.

The film, directed by Dan Silver, is almost hypnotic as strings soar across the claustrophobic landscape and the lone figure of Li seemingly attempts to escape her surroundings. A preview of the album reveals a set of equally immersive soundscapes that, even through the most rudimentary equipment (a battered laptop), swirl around the listener’s head like a soft aural tornado.

Those who found pleasure in MIZU’s relatively recent 2023  debut release, Distant Intervals, will find much to treasure in this new release and accompanying promo.

MIZU ‘Forest Scenes’ album artwork

MIZU ‘Forest Scenes’ album artwork

Director: Dan Silver
Starring: MIZU and Lili
Distributed by: NNA Tapes
Release Date: January 8, 2024
Run Time: 4:20

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Album Review

Peter Jonatan and Metropole Orkest – ‘Psalms Symphony’ [Album Review]

Crossing multiple musical margins, ‘Psalms Symphony’ stands as a complex, exquisite testimony to the genius of Peter Jonatan.

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Peter Jonatan and Metropole Orkest ‘Psalms Symphony’ album artwork
Peter Jonatan and Metropole Orkest ‘Psalms Symphony’ album artwork

Composer and pianist Peter Jonatan recently teamed up with the Metropole Orkest, one of Europe’s premier ensembles, on his debut album, Psalms Symphony, a wonderful work that illuminates four of the Psalms.

Presented in four movements blending classical and jazz with elements of gospel, video game scores, and film, Psalms Symphony includes Psalm 29, Psalm 136, Psalm 121, and Psalm 96. Within the ensemble, Jasper Soffer (piano), Aram Kersbergen (bass), and Martijn Vink (drums) form an improvisational jazz trio that not only shifts and bends but maintains the orchestral measures.

Originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, Jonatan began playing piano when he was four. Later, he obtained his Doctor of Musical Arts from the New England Conservatory. He is now a professor at the conservatory while simultaneously serving as an Associate Professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

A majestic overture, “movement 1” opens on layers of elegant strings highlighted by rapturous brass accents. Drenched in expansive, interweaving orchestral ambiance, the tune soars and then gradually descends to a glittering jazz piano accompanied by soft percussion and a plucking bassline. The harmonics elevate to glowing, sweeping textures, shimmering with strident colors that imbue the melody with tension.

An adagio, “movement 2” features a bewitching jazz piano that ebbs and rises, followed by gentle, luminous strings topped by lustrous flutes. There’s a quixotic flow to the melody, rippling with tender coloration and inviting, velvety tones.

Light and playful, “movement 3” drifts, rolls, and flutters on a sparkling piano backed by extroverted strings. A finessed drum solo intertwined with an orchestral reply shapes a delightful call and response.

Peter Jonatan and Metropole Orkest, photo by Bernise Salim

Peter Jonatan and Metropole Orkest, photo by Bernise Salim

Opening with a regal choir, “movement 4” segues into grand strings, followed by descending to a riffling jazz piano that leads to a female vocalist whose voice streams into an operatic choir. Once again, the jazz trio takes over, injecting the tune with improv jazz flavors. The choir re-enters, conveying the song to a grand finish.

Jonatan explains the grand conclusion, “In the progression of the work, it made sense to put it there, to give a weight to the final movement, to create some sort of different level from everything that comes before.”

Crossing multiple musical margins, Psalms Symphony stands as a complex, exquisite testimony to the genius of Peter Jonatan.

Psalms Symphony Track Listing:

1. Psalms Symphony, movement 1
2. Psalms Symphony, movement 2
3. Psalms Symphony, movement 3
4. Psalms Symphony, movement 4

Run Time: 41:23
Release Date: January 19, 2024
Record Label: Independent

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Classical

Allan Palacios Chan – “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” [Song Review]

Luxuriously sensitive, “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” reveals the color, texture, and balance of the voice of Allan Palacios Chan.

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Allan Palacios Chan “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” single artwork
Allan Palacios Chan “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” single artwork

Philippine-born American tenor Allan Palacios Chan recently released his holiday single, “Coventry Carol/What Child is This,” presaging Chan’s forthcoming crossover album, highlighting reinterpreted classics and Chan’s hypnotic voice.

Speaking about “Coventry Carol/What Child is This,” Chan says, “I love the contrast this music provides and did not expect the subject matter to become so horrifyingly relevant as the world seemed to be set on fire during the recording process.”

The genesis of “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” occurred while Allan Palacios Chan was touring the Philippines, raising money for indigenous students at the Notre Dame school in Mindanao. Perceiving Chan’s enormous talent, Renen de Guia of Ovation Productions introduced him to LA-based agent Gina Orr and acclaimed arranger and pianist Leonardo de Bernardini.

“Coventry Carol” is a lullaby for the children murdered by King Herod, followed by the tender strains of “What Child Is This,” a Christmas carol set to the tune of “Greensleeves.”

The song opens with Allan Palacios Chan’s haunting tones, infusing the song with hints of Gregorian timbres. As the strings enter, the melody takes on soft depth and resonance, escalating to compelling, impassioned surfaces composed of multiple sonic layers.

Rich and round yet gentle and under exquisite lilting control, Chan’s vocals imbue the lyrics of “What Child Is This” with reverent hues, glowing with all-consuming, fateful significance. There’s an evocative, compassionate fervency to Chan’s vocals, at once alluring and elegantly fluid.

Allan Palacios Chan at Village Studios in Los Angeles, photo by Ted Soqui

Allan Palacios Chan at Village Studios in Los Angeles, photo by Ted Soqui

Intimate and luxuriously sensitive, “Coventry Carol/What Child is This” reveals the color, texture, and balance of the voice of Allan Palacios Chan.

Run Time: 5:23
Release Date: November 21, 2023
Record Label: Ars Nova Records

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