After 40 years of enjoying music of many different genres, it’s very unusual for me to be entirely bowled over by a new band. Of course, a great deal of music being made today is still of the highest quality as this website demonstrates, but I am rarely stopped in my tracks these days. Rock music is, almost by definition, very derivative and sometimes I’m convinced I’ve heard it all!
However, in May 2019 at Norway’s excellent We Låve Rock festival in Hurum, I witnessed a live set by a group of youthful young musicians called Meer, that completely stunned me. Within a couple of songs, I knew I was witnessing something very special. The band are certainly progressive, but it’s a long time since I saw a group of musicians that channel their undoubted instrumental talents into such devotion to their incredibly strong material. There are no solos – instead, their often-complex musical arrangements exist only to serve the track – and what pieces of music they are. It’s the songwriting that impresses the most. This is certainly progressive rock but written with devotion to melody and the use of the human voice to the fore. This band can write hooks!
Hailing from Hedmark area, including the charming lakeside town of Hamar a couple of hours north of Oslo, Meer are an impressively voluminous eight-piece band. Alongside the ‘traditional’ prog configuration of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, the group have a two-piece string section of violin and viola (their violinist is Asa Ree, who some might have seen perform in the UK with Wobbler) and two vocalists, the brother/sister duo of Johanne and Knut Kippersund Nesdal. Indeed, the combination of voices is crucial to the band’s sound, with Johanne the more expressive and expansive singer, yet possessing that charming Nordic lilt, while Knut’s voice is softer, with a more mellow timbre. Together, their voices soar. Oh, and they write great lyrics in English. Is there anything they can’t do?
Their eponymous debut from 2016 – picked up at that performance in Norway – rapidly became my most played album of recent years, and it was with some excitement that I learned that the band had at last produced a follow up, this time called Playing House. Could it match or even exceed the debut?
Thankfully, it’s another triumph. Each of the eleven tracks – generally around the four to six-minute mark – is a mini-epic in its own right, with its own atmosphere, yet the album also feels wonderfully cohesive and well sequenced.
Beginning with a piano flurry from Ole Gjostol, opener Picking Up The Pieces weaves a tapestry of strings around a wonderful song, sung by Johanne but with lush support from her brother. It’s a sumptuous, up tempo start, featuring an instrumental coda that mixes Yes with hints of heavier prog. This feeling of density continues with the powerful Beehive, built around a unison riff carried by guitar and piano, while the strings weave a countermelody. Again, the two vocalists combine with great aplomb, with Johanne again taking lead, while the instrumentation, this time, suggests Gentle Giant as much as anything. All At Sea brings things down, with a tense guitar and strings introduction, with Knut this time taking the lead vocal, harmonising with his sister as the song builds to its charming chorus, before segueing into Songs Of Us – another piece that begins pensively with guitar and male vocal before another lovely chorus and a build to a powerful climax that suggests Mew at their most soaring.
The third of Knut’s lead vocals in sequence – these tracks feel like a little suite of sorts – is Child, showcasing the warmth of his voice in a song that dials back the expansive band arrangement to something much more spartan. There’s a shift in tone on the delightful You Were The Drum towards something that borders on fusion featuring the string section in a short track that combines the warmth of both The Jean Luc Ponty Band and Solstice with an emotive vocal from Johanne, who remains on lead vocal duty for another mini epic, the beautifully crafted Honey, with piano – the band’s most-used keyboard texture – again prominent, and yet more soaring backing vocals.
Slightly buried at track eight is the shimmering Across The Ocean. This is one of the older pieces on the album, having been issued as a stand-alone video a couple of years ago (see below). Indeed, it almost feels out of place shorn of its visuals, but it’s s very special song, seeped in pre-covid Summer sun, with an euphoric climax that suggests some of the choral majesty of The Polyphonic Spree. She Goes is much more angular and dare I say it, heavy, with both singers featured and another effortlessly impressive chorus. In direct contrast, the pensive Where Do We Go From here stars Knut’s solo vocal and Eivind Stromstad’s richly reverbed guitar, before the big climax, Lay It Down, with its string-laden intro suggesting Kansas. Johanne takes the lead vocal here, and there’s a jazzy build to a stunning chorus. A quieter section – dominated by strings and wordless voices – builds tension, and just as the listener is expecting a reiteration of the chorus, we get an almost disorientating, off-kilter synth melody, and a stunning prog-metal section, THEN that final chorus. It’s an astonishing end to an equally astonishing album.
Now, I am biased of course. I have made several happy trips to Norway, and I have a natural affinity for music from the country. Hell, I’d want to live there if the cost of living weren’t so high! I’m a sucker for great pop melodies and music that is based around strings. But I urge anyone with an open mind to give this band a try. They are, quite simply, the best young band I’ve heard in ten years, and this masterpiece of an album is essential listening.