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Our Friends in the North: The Rise of Nordic Noir

It’s safe to say that the last few years have seen a steady rise in what can only be described as a worldwide fascination with Scandinavian drama.

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Wallander. Borgen. Forbrydelsen. It’s safe to say that the last few years have seen a steady rise in what can only be described as a worldwide fascination with Scandinavian drama. Self-titled ‘Nordic Noir’, their increase in popularity has been forever enshrined by the ultimate seal of approval – the remake. But where did this captivation come from? Why has it seized the attention and imagination of so many? And is such an all-encompassing engrossment really such a new phenomenon?  

A Certain Tattooed Girl

Perhaps the first significant impact that Scandinavian drama had on other parts of the world was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series of novels. Published posthumously in his home country of Sweden in 2005, they became something of a revelation upon their release – both at home and, soon after, abroad. Swedish movies of each book followed and were swiftly released into cinemas worldwide. From a meagre budget of only $13 million, Dragon Tattoo alone grossed over $104 million globally – a not-so-insignificant chunk of change. 

Since then, the number of Nordic dramas that have made their way across the water have steadily risen. Shows like  Forbrydelsen, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge have all been broadcast in numerous countries to great success, raising the profile of the actors involved substantially. When Sofie Gråbøl, who plays leading detective Sarah Lund in  Forbrydelsen, pops up in a dream sequence in British comedy Absolutely Fabulous (complete with trademark woolly jumper), it’s a clear sign that these shows have permeated the public zeitgeist. Not to mention, of course, the fact that nearly all of these shows have now been remade by various networks – and in some cases, more than once. Forbrydelsen became the fairly successful US drama The Killing (which despite the emergency assistance of streaming giant Netflix was cancelled after three seasons), the BBC screened Wallander and then remade it themselves as the Kenneth Brannagh-starring show of the same name, and The Bridge was remade under the same name in the US and in the UK as The Tunnel. Of course the one-that-started-it-all received the remake treatment itself by filmmaker David Fincher just two years ago, casting Daniel Craig as leading man Mikael Blomkvist.The question remains however: why the sudden popularity?

If It Ain’t Broke

Ultimately, of course, this is a question which is rather tricky to answer. Since its swift rise to stardom, Nordic Noir has become a genre unto itself. And like any good genre, it has certain elements and tropes that must be adhered to, that we can see repeating time and time again. Traits and trends are present in everything from horror movies to romantic comedies; the serial killer stalking his high school victims one-by-one, or the discovered betrayal forcing the love-struck couple apart, before reuniting again for the end credits. These are the reasons that people tune in to genre entertainment – they know the loudmouth, arrogant quarterback will probably be the first to go, but that’s not really the point of it all. So perhaps we should begin by breaking down the various shows into their constituent parts and seeing what we find. 

First on the Nordic Noir checklist has to be a strong female lead. Lisbeth Salander, emotastic hacker heroine of Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo series – check. Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, elected Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen’s very first episode – check. Sarah Lund, lead detective into Nanna Birk Larsen’s death in Forbrydelsen – check. Saga Norén, oddball but brilliant cop in The Bridge – check. Do people enjoy seeing women empowered in roles traditionally reserved for men? Possibly. It’s clearly a major theme throughout Scandinavian dramas, and certainly it’s something that we’ve come to expect from most of their output. 

Next up? It has to be the strong socio-political eddies that run deep through many of the shows. The killer in The Bridge strikes at the heart of various failings he sees in the make-up of both Sweden and Denmark: education, homelessness, government. In Forbrydelsen there is a major subplot involving a local election, and in Borgen the entire show revolves around the workings of the government. 

Finally, the setting of these shows must be taken into account. Usually the stories unfold in bleak, chilling landscapes, permeated by a sense of isolation or loneliness. Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia portrayed this perfectly – a cop slowly being driven mad by the constant sunlight and his ever present guilt over the death of his partner. Remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan, he transported the action to Alaska, but successfully retained the sense of seclusion necessary for the story to truly work. Characters, too, carry a sense of darkness and dread with them. They are flawed people, with real imperfections and they make no bones about it. They don’t always act in the way a hero should. They lie, they cheat on their wives, they don’t always strive for the happy ending. And sometimes the baddie gets away with it. The sense of redemption that is nearly always present in British or American dramas is shaky at best here, and often absent altogether. Does this make the shows more real? More compelling? Regardless of the reason, it still doesn’t quite address the original question: Insomnia – both the original and the remake – never really kicked off the trend in Nordic drama the way Dragon Tattoo did. Why? Well, as they say in Hollywood – timing is everything. 

Their Time To Shine

When it comes down to it, maybe there’s another answer to it all. Something that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Something simpler. Maybe, just maybe, we’re all caught up in this whirlwind of Scandinavian TV and their various remakes because it’s their time. Confused? Let’s start back at the beginning. Way back – to the time of the western. 

It’s a fairly well-known fact that John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is a remake of acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. But that wasn’t the only western to be based on a Japanese movie. The Paul Newman-starring The Outrage is a remake of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (unfortunately, however, Leone made the film without first getting the rights from Kurosawa, who successfully sued for a cut of the proceeds – he is rumoured to have made more from Leone’s remake than from his original film). Over the course of just under a decade, we see numerous remakes of successful Japanese films, rejigged and shaken up to fit into a different market. Flashforward a few decades into the late 1990’s/early 2000’s and Asian horror is all the rage, with remakes of Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge)clearing up at the box office. 

Is the current fascination with Nordic drama simply an example of our cyclical hunger to latch on to new, foreign entertainment and remake it as our own? Will the current spate of remakes soon peter out over the next few years, allowing us to look back on the decade-or-so of media as merely a fad? If so, it is arguable that we are already entering the decline of the genre – The Killing has been cancelled, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo did not perform nearly as well as was hoped (so much so that the sequels are on rather unsteady ground), The Bridge has finished its first season in the US to rather average reviews and NBC recently decided not to go ahead after all with their remake of Borgen, titled The Independent. 

And yet, Scandinavian film and TV is still on the rise. Films like Headhunters and The Hunt are oft-quoted in ‘films of the year’ lists. Season two of The Bridge has successfully retained substantial viewing figures. Perhaps we are looking at this problem the wrong way around – this is not the decline of the genre, but rather the decline of the remake.

Standing Unaided

When Japanese samurai movies were redone as westerns, people hadn’t seen the originals, and likely wouldn’t for a number of years. By the time Asian horror was on the scene, however, it was a different story. Instead of simply enjoying the US remakes, people sought out the originals – often proclaiming them to be far stronger (and scarier) than their US counterparts. We began to see a gradual shift into what can only be described as an acceptance of subtitled film on a large scale. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where the remake is often too late, made redundant by the fact that the foreign original has already been enjoyed by the vast population. When David Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo was released, it wasn’t hard to argue that it had missed the boat by a good couple of years – everyone and their dog had read the book and/or seen the original Swedish film. People loved Lisbeth Salander long before Roony Mara played her. Indeed, they were maybe even a bit tired of her. 

The problem with these remakes aren’t simply that they are remakes, but rather that they are unnecessary remakes, coming so swift on the heels of the originals that people haven’t had a chance to breathe, to take it all in yet. Why have we found ourselves in a situation where The Bridge and The Tunnel are both out before the original has even finished its second season? Studios are falling over themselves in their rush to adapt these dramas into English, and isn’t that the real problem? If people are becoming more accepting of subtitles and of foreign entertainment, then isn’t the remake largely redundant? Do people not recognise that a good story is a good story, regardless of the language that the actors are speaking? 

Given that Scandinavian drama is still performing well (as is Asian horror, incidentally), perhaps we are entering a time of remake-fatigue. There will always be people who refuse, point-blank, to watch anything with subtitles, but it is arguable that they are a dying breed. Nordic Noir has become a viable genre in its own right, and no longer needs the quick remake to introduce it to the rest of the party – it has earned its name on the guest list. Perhaps in time we will look back on this era not as the age of Nordic drama after all, but instead as the age of the subtitle.

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The Beauty and Journey of Hellions’ 20s Series

Australian alternative band Hellions have written a series of songs that journals the band’s history and growth. Josh Hockey explores.

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Australian based Hellions are an alternative heavy band that have taken their audience on a journey of evolution. They have taken their sound from brutal hardcore to an atmospheric theatrical production unlike anything else. Over the years their music has matured and developed as they have as people into something special. 

Hellions have established countless themes through their music since their 2014 debut album, Die Young. The prominent example of this is the series of “20” based songs that appear on each of their albums. “22”, “23”, “24”, “25”, and “26”, are all songs the band write to keep track of themselves. Through the lyrics of these songs, they explore where their lives are at that point in time, and touch on their current values and beliefs in a powerfully emotional way. While each tie in with another, each one is unique and has its own meaning. They have become some of the most highly anticipated tracks of every Hellions release. 

(L-R): The Hellions discography- Die Young, Indian Summer, Opera Oblivia, Rue

22

This all began back in 2014 when Die Young released featuring the closing track “22”. The song takes you on a passionate journey through the exploration of youth. The freedom of youth is often underutilized, and the innocence and joy of being young can all go to waste. Worrying too much about silly issues or stupid mistakes drag you down, and you lose the passion for life that was once the only thing keeping you going. This is what “22” is about. It is preaching to you to be everything you want to be. It is telling you to break out from the norms. It is telling you to make the most of the time you have. If you take the leap you’ll fly, and this song makes you feel like you can.

An empowering chorus asks the bitter question of “why should we squander ever-waning youth”. The fast verses build perfectly and work to mesmerize you into a feeling of inspiration and freedom. This all leads up to, and hits its peak, with the final verse. “We are the wild ones, forever free, forever young!” A warcry of the aforementioned emotions, this section of music is as effective as anything I’ve heard. Every time I listen, it fills me with adrenaline and puts a smile on my face. Passion and joy fill the vocals and sends a shiver down your spine as the raw-strength of this closing verse hits you at your core. 

The message that “22” sends out is important, and the way it does is breathtaking. “22” shows the array of emotions they were experiencing at that time in their lives, and adds an optimistic edge to everything else they touched on during the album. Looking on the bright side, at this stage, the entire world felt like it was at their feet, and was theirs to explore. They’re determined to fight off mediocrity and are desperately trying to maintain their freedom.

23

“23” was the closing track of Hellions’ 2015 album Indian Summer. Tying back in with “22”, it speaks of releasing oneself from the rut of mundanity. They dealt with the ditches of mediocrity and conformity and despised it more than anything. “23” explains the inner monologue behind dealing with these issues and takes you through their mental journey to regain their freedom. 

Opening up with an erratic rhythm of guitars and drums, and leading into frantic structured verses, “23” is an intense listening experience. Lyrically it walks us through the process of self-discovery. The world cannot hold you back, and you embrace the freedom that comes with realization. Liberated and elated, you reject the conformity of the wooden world. “Brother can’t you hear the inexorable sound? The march of time drawing close.” The walls of the world are closing in and “23” wants to inspire you to get away. 

Hellions want you to be the wild ones that they referred to in “22”. An enormous build and phenomenal riff-filled instrumental and vocal release references “22” and shows how they have changed since then. “These contemporary lies are no longer bothering me, I’ll never squander ever-waning youth, the bullshit doesn’t matter because you’ve always got you.” Much more certain of themselves now, they are grabbing their dreams with both hands and running with them. It isn’t the time for talking, it is the time for acting. 

There is a sensation of empowerment as the certainty and assuredness hammer home the power of “23”. It has its peaks and lows and appears to be fully designed this way. It wants to take you on this journey with them, and it does so in a beautifully powerful way that ends Indian Summer on an incredibly high note. 

24

Opening up as the first track on the 2016 album Opera Oblivia, “24” kicks in by referencing “22”. “Breathe, be still, be free” are the opening words of “22”, and is representative of the process of reminiscing. Moving on lyrically they speak of getting bogged down in the judgment of others, and how this brought them waves upon waves of embarrassment and discomfort.

Instrumentally “24” takes a heavily theatrical approach, and involves a conscious effort to make everything sound dramatically bigger. This musical dramatization works fluently, with every note feeling like it is exactly where it needs to be in order to create an uplifting anthem.

Finding out who you are is integral, and although it may cause some social discomfort, Hellions want you to discover yourself. “We are born and raised as cattle to be the same, but we are not the same we have to change and if we don’t we’ll suffocate.” This chorus features the strong clean vocals as well as the passionate yells and adds to the emotional effectiveness. “24” begs you to help change the world. Referencing “23”, they ask their mother and father for forgiveness and express their fear of time closing in. This slides nicely into the final anthemic singalong of the chorus and ends “24” with the bringing together of people. Feeling like an enormous group hug, multiple voices come together to serenade you through the chorus as the song comes to a close. An incredibly strong way to open an album and a fine addition to the series, “24” was the indicator that Opera Oblivia was going to be something special. 

25

“25” is the closing track on Opera Oblivia, and is a message about the importance of valuing the past as much as the present. It also touches on reclaiming oneself, the beauty of art, love, and having a passion. It is the most diverse of the “20” songs as it touches on so many things, but it does this in a way that isn’t messy. Every word feels like it belongs, as does every instrumental note, and it is clear the amount of love that went into crafting this song. 

Why spend so much time regarding the work of others and drawing from it when everyone could be making their own inspiration? “25” takes on a form of self-dialogue as well as everything else as they empower themselves with the idea of continuing their freedom. “And as long as we sing, we can stay young like this.” They acknowledge their inspirations and their creations and examine the fact that they are living out their childhood dreams every single day. The reason that they are living these dreams is because of those inspirations, and that is why we need to cherish every single piece of art that means something to us. You have no idea just how much it could end up meaning in the future. 

Reinvent the world, like we used to: screaming.” Take the initiative to make whatever change you want to see in the world. Nothing is stopping you. Years can pass and things can change, but if you create something that means something to you, or to other people, it will be immortal. Like Lennon, Cash, Sinatra, Morrison, or Jackson, anything you create will maintain its beauty until the end of time. “25” is Hellions taking pride in their own art, as well as acknowledging the great musicians, poets, and artists before them that inspired them. As time slips away from them and they feel like they are losing grip on their youth, they know deep down that they will always have their art, and they will have the undying love and passion for it that will keep them forever young. All of this passion, inspiration, and integrity, comes from love. The love for art and the love for creating, as well as the love for the world. They want to help fix it, and “25” is asking for your help.

26

“26” is the closing track of Hellions’ 2018 album, Rue. It is a good indicator of how far they have come. It is more polished and theatrical, and thus makes it a perfect album closer.

Suggesting a series of battles against mental health and one’s inner demons, “26” deals with what holds people back when dealing with such troubles. They work themselves half to death to numb the pain, and when they finally take a second to rest the demons come for them. They run and run, and the next thing they know the world has passed them by. People they relied upon are getting on fine without them, the world continues to move without them in it, and that feeling of isolation only makes things worse. Happiness is an impossibility when the idea of suicide is constantly in the back of their minds, reminding them that they always have that escape plan if they need it. 

Maybe we’re dredging up the discontent we’ve held subconsciously, accumulation of the pain we’re not acknowledging. But my dear friend we’ll survive.” Things may be hard at times but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. This anchor dragging you forever down needs to be cut loose. Hellions are saying it is time to revolt against the inner demons. They don’t want to become another product of an unrelenting mental disease, and “26” takes you through their pain, their anguish, their suffering, and their rise out of that rut.

We may be plagued by a glitchy condition but your voice isn’t forbidden, speak up”. One of the more powerful messages sent through Hellions songs. They don’t want you to waste your freedom, and on that charge through to the end of the song with soft instrumentals that remind you that it will all be okay. “26” is one of the more heart-wrenching additions to the series, and closes out Rue in a painfully beautiful way. The lyrics and instrumentals work together in a poetic and vulnerable fashion that makes it all the more effective and admirable.

The 20s Series takes you on a journey and is an indicator of the mental and emotional journey Hellions have gone on together over the years as a band. From the inspirational uplifting “22” to the daunting and vulnerable “26”, they have expanded themselves musically and personally in every way possible. These 5 songs are just the surface of Hellions near flawless discography, but picking them out and exploring them on their own merits has been an experience that I have loved. My admiration for this band is unmatched by almost any other act, and I think their music is something that needs to be experienced to be believed. Having listened to this band since their debut release in 2013, it has been an honor seeing them expand their sound. More recently I attended their Rue album tour at Max Watt’s in Melbourne. There was a special feeling throughout their entire set, and as the deafening singalongs were a constant throughout, it hammered home just how much this band means to people. The 20s Series documents the highs and lows of what they have gone through, and builds up the Hellions that we see today.

You can purchase Hellions’ discography from Bandcamp or from UNFD.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once more on vinyl

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, ‘Once More With Feeling’, comes to vinyl. We take the record for a spin.

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The acclaimed genre-bending series Buffy the Vampire Slayer pushed a whole lot of boundaries — but few were as wild as the 2001 musical episode “Once More With Feeling.” It was one of the first modern TV musicals (a trend that’s only gotten more popular in recent years) and an insanely ambitious proposition.

Series creator Joss Whedon (who would go on to direct the first Avengers film to universal acclaim) wrote and directed the Season 6 episode, which featured all original tunes that were not only catchy and creative in their own right — but also integral in moving the plot of the episode, the season, and even the series forward with some momentous reveals hidden amongst those show tune lines. He also scored a surprisingly great musical performance from the show’s actual cast, as opposed to simply dubbing in professional musicians.

The episode’s soundtrack received a CD release back in the day and drifted into geeky cult icon status for the past decade and a half. But, Buffy’s iconic musical is getting a new shot at primetime all these years later thanks to niche distributor Mondo. The company puts out everything from special edition posters to soundtracks, and its latest offering is a high-end take on “Once More With Feeling.” The pressing is on 180-gram vinyl and comes on blue splatter vinyl as well as a red variant. Like most Mondo releases, it features some gorgeous cover art, as well as in the gatefold, and even a geeky bonus for old school fans. Original creator Joss Whedon has written up some all-new liner notes to go along with the release (complete in its very own “Slaybill”), giving fans a bit more insight into the beloved episode.

Though the appeal here is obviously meant for Buffy fans, it’s worth noting there are some great songs on this album. Whedon is a proven songwriter and would go on to pen the award-winning web series musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. He showcased those skills in spades here, with a line-up that spans everything from rock ’n roll to ballads. “Under Your Spell” is a slow, foreboding track about love. “Rest In Peace” is a snarky punk rock number loaded with Buffy-centric gags. There’s “Standing,” a ballad about growing up and moving on in life; and the full cast closer “Where Do We Go From Here?” a sweeping tune that set the stage for the remaining run of the series. Then, there are the clever gag tunes, such as the medley “I’ve Got a Theory / Bunnies / If We’re Together,” and the short tunes such as “The Parking Ticket” and “The Mustard.”

Buffy was a low-key hit when it debuted, and the show has only grown in popularity and acclaim in the years since. Along with being an excellent album all its own, “Once More With Feeling” now lives and breathes as a pop culture artifact of a creative force who would go on to make a couple of the biggest movies (Avengers, Age of Ultron) and most beloved TV shows (Firefly) of the modern era. It’s also one of the boldest episodes of network television ever put to the airwaves, and yes, that still holds true to this day. If you’re a Buffy fan from way back, a new fan who found the series on streaming, or just a curious collector who digs on colored vinyl sets — “Once More With Feeling” deserves a spot on any shelf, regardless of what leads you to pick it up.

Buffy on red vinyl

Order a copy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once More With Feeling on vinyl from Mondo.

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