A number of regular New Music Tuesdays readers have been writing in lately, commenting, "yeah, your indie pop reviews are great, but where's my Norwegian synth-metal fix when I need it?!" Well, it just so happened an interesting young outfit from the land of the Midnight Sun has recently emerged and was already targeted for profiling this week when your missives were received. The debut album of Oslo's own Johnny Poe and the Salvation Circus bring you Smile When You're Down and Cry When You're Up, released this past Monday.
Featuring a blend of The Killers-style synth pop and darker Scandinavian metal influences, the four-piece traces a path through both brisk uptempo pieces and heavier, more thematic works on the 11-track effort. Fortunately, for American audiences largely unfamiliar with such a hodgepodge, the premiere number – "Autosexual" – is the collection's best, with a hooky chorus, guitar figures in the vein of their Sweedish neighbors, The Hives and plenty of bite. Frontman and keyboardist Johnny Poe (assuredly a stage name) channels a vocal space between Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, The Arcade Fire's Winn Butler and The Killer's Brandon Flowers, with just a touch of Jack Black's rock spectacle to highlight the metal signature.
Meanwhile, its follow-up, "Dr. Führer," is less melodic but no less driving, as Poe's synth performance takes a more prominent role at the outset before guitarist Stein Stølen Bjerkaker underscores the track's heavier bent. Conversely, the circus theme in the band's moniker emerges in the third offering, "Let's Go to France," with Poe's piano serving as the number's offbeat center and a nearly minute-long organ fanfare at its conclusion marking a distinct change of pace from its predecessors.
After a few solid, but not spectacular mid-collection efforts like "Some People" – featuring Poe's most Winn Butler-esque performance – and the instrumental "The Fury of Love," are two of the best numbers on the collection: the aggressive "Damaged" and the more gentle piano ballad "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," which features an uncredited (to date) female guest vocal which pairs well with Poe's more unpolished tenor. On the former, Poe's influence via Brandon Flowers is more accentuated and the rhythm section of bassist Christoffer Pedersen and drummer Richard Berby does ample work to pace the arrangement.
However, it's not all so well-executed, as demonstrated in the final two offerings. "The Festival" battles with itself for nearly six minutes without much to show for the effort, while closing (and self-referential) selection "The Ghost of Johnny Poe" is a bit too self-indulgent for its own good, as Poe positions his alter-ego "outside the temple of rock-and-roll / in the wasteland of vanity / and in the psychiatric hospitals dead souls lay scattered like soldiers on a battlefield." No thanks, Johnny, but keep up the work with more tracks like "Autosexual" and "Damaged" in the meantime.
Come for: "Autosexual"
Stay for: "Damaged"
You'll be surprised by: "Put Your Head On My Shoulder