After abandoning leftfield disco for a more eclectic brand of weirdness a decade ago, the producer revisits the space disco sounds that made him one of Norway’s original house innovators.
A2012 single from the mischievous Scandinavian dance label Sex Tags Mania came packaged with a shout-out: A message on the label of the 12" read, “Dedicated to Erot and Torske for giving Norway a true HOUSE era!” It was no exaggeration. At the turn of the millennium, in a country with no dance music tradition to call its own, Tore Andreas “Erot” Kroknes and Bjørn Torske hit upon a disco-indebted sound that would influence a wide range of their countrymen, from Röyksopp to Cashmere Cat, Annie to Todd Terje. Erot, who produced Annie’s breakout single “The Greatest Hit,” might have become a household name had he not tragically passed away in 2001, at just 23. For the better part of this century, Torske has turned his attention from leftfield disco to plain ol’ leftfield weirdness, as evidenced by the catholic giddiness of 2010’s Kokning and alien gurgle of his 2013 KokEP.
After more than a decade up in the clouds, Torske has slowly come down to the dancefloor again with a string of bristling percussion workouts for Sex Tags as well as the Oslo label Smalltown Supersound. Byen marks his first solo album in eight years and his first record in ages to wholeheartedly embrace the space-disco sound he helped pioneer. But instead of crisp disco drums and claps that would immediately show his hand, what beguiles on Byen is Torske’s gentle way with other instruments. His keys shimmer on “First Movement,” drifting along with a walking bassline, then playfully flitting around the hand drums to give the track the feel of a spiritual jazz number until it slowly gives way to crashing waves and seagulls.
These mellow sounds usher in the contemplative opening of “Clean Air”; for a moment, it seems like Torske might be venturing even deeper into ambient territory. But a bass throb, a conga beat, and a hi-hat pattern perk up after about a minute, and the track struts towards the stratosphere. This is the kind of streamlined space-disco beauty that Torske helped to export in the early 2000s, but “Clean Air” ascends beyond even those heights, as slowly unfurling piano fills and electric keyboard solos cast a pensive mood over the groove. It’s a rare composition that’s suited for both the club and for wistful daydreaming.
Byen’s biggest surprise is not the range of sounds Torske brings in (fans of his previous efforts know eclecticism is his métier) so much as the fact that he remains firmly planted on the dancefloor throughout the whole album. Most of its tracks are DJ-friendly epics that hover around the eight-minute mark, perfect for unfurling slowly within a set. “Chord Control” offers some gentle deep house moments, and “Gata” harkens back to the heady early days of Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas, finding a sweet spot between prog, Italo, and moon-booted disco. But just when the track seems headed for deep space, Torske introduces some out-of-place chanting that starts to drag down the mood.
Recent singles like 2016’s “Fuglekongen” and this year’s “Kickrock” signaled that Torske was returning to dance music: Both featured meatier drums and psychedelic touches that imparted dancefloor dizziness. But Byen feels a little safe and complacent by comparison. Perhaps because he has spent the past decade upending his listeners’ expectations, this largely successful attempt to string together a cohesive set of nu-disco tracks has the odd effect of making him seem kind of predictable.
Although Byen came out of a recent burst of inspiration, with all seven tracks dating back to last year, its 11-minute centerpiece, “Night Call,” sounds like it could have been crafted at almost any point in Torske’s 20-year career. It’s a nimble disco number, full of relentless drums, rubber-band bass, spacey synths, clean guitar strokes, and jungle calls that resemble the cheeky disco and house edits that helped put Norway on the dance music map in the early aughts. Byen might be a decade removed from the form’s peak, and it might not break much new ground, but it does mark a welcome return to space disco for its creator. After years of wandering in the weeds, the idiosyncratic Torske has rediscovered his old path—yet he remains proudly out of step.