Accidental Epic: Afenginn’s Unexpected Journey to Chamber Pop Complexityby Tristra Yeager
“A towering force in modern Nordic music” --fRoots
Chamber pop renegade Kim Nyberg, better known as Afenginn, writes in big, bold colors, in structures with symphonic ambition. Even at his most epic, however, he circles back to the earthy starting points, the odd meters and sonorous modes, the eccentric intensity, of his roots.
Nyberg, a Swedish-speaking Finn, grew up in a small town in southwestern Finland. When Nyberg decided to pursue music professionally, Copenhagen, with its lively scene, beckoned. There he started a Balkan brass-inspired, deviously clever party band with friends. They called their project Afenginn (both “strength” and “intoxication” in Old Norse). The group rose to local cult fandom and later to prominence, first on the Scandinavian and then the European folk and rock festival circuit. They played SXSW, toured North America and beyond.
Yet despite numerous Danish music awards, prestigious grants, and several albums, Nyberg felt he needed to do more. A musicologist by training, he heard how classical forms and compositional approaches could intersect with more groove-oriented popular and global sounds. An unexpected sojourn on a Tasmanian farm gave Nyberg the space and open-ended days he needed to push this idea further, to bring his most ambitious work to fruition.
On Opus, the result of that creative burst Down Under, Afenginn ties together far-flung influences, Scandinavian heritage, and compositional rigor into a fiercely imaginative, long-form piece. Each movement pivots around several near-apocalyptic texts in an invented language he created with a childhood friend, playfully based on Latin.
The move toward more epic scale flowed naturally from Nyberg and Afenginn’s musical past. Nyberg had long loved the grand gestures of late 19th and early 20th-century classical pieces. He longed to use their forms and structures, but to contain and propel very different musical ideas.
Some of these ideas sprang from Eastern Europe, from Balkan brass. “I was really fascinated by all modes and melodies, as well as the meters this music has in common with some Swedish and Finnish music,” recalls Nyberg. “I wanted to write stuff that would challenge the band. It was a young, brash thing. It’s really fun to play.”
The odd meters and winding melodies of some Eastern European traditions resonated with Nyberg’s Swedish and Finnish heritage, another important influence. The pulse and tonality have seeped into his compositions. “I draw on Swedish folk music, on the polska with a heavy one and heavy three emphasis. From Finnish folk music, from the Kalevala epic, you get a lot of meters in five,” muses Nyberg. “You can also hear a lot of Swedish folk tonality in our music.”
Afenginn’s early years were filled with rowdy, smoky club gigs, your typical rock band craziness, which gained the band a passionate following. After a while, however, it stopped feeling artistically satisfying. Nyberg realized it was time for a shift.
“Six years ago, I changed my lifestyle radically. I stopped being stupid, I stopped partying,” he recounts. “I wanted to play more shows in concert halls, less in late night smoky bars. The music I wrote was very mellow, chamber music-like. Soundscape-y, nordic. This was a conscious choice to work more like a classical group would work.”
Afenginn went from a more free-for-all group, where everyone had a say, to a more rigorous ensemble, able and willing to tackle complex chamber arrangements. “I studied musicology, including ethnomusicology, but mostly classical arrangements and orchestration,” explains Nyberg. “I’m particularly interested in the late Romantic period.” He figured out he didn’t need the era’s huge orchestras to engage with big ideas and create massive sounds. He got there via an extended rock band, and thanks to a bizarre mishap.
On tour in Australia, Nyberg went on a beach outing in Tasmania, only to end up with a serious injury. It was so serious, flying home was life threatening. So he holed up at a friend’s farm. The house had a piano, and Nyberg finally sat down and got to work on a major cycle of pieces he’d been contemplating for years.
“It was obvious to me how fragile everything is. I was collecting oysters, and this happened to my leg. I couldn’t get away. I had this enormous feeling of the brevity of life, how important it is that we do what we’re supposed to do.” Nyberg went to the piano daily, in the middle of farm’s hustle and bustle, far from his usual haunts and companions. The fresh perspective influenced his work: “I think somehow the music turned out very Nordic sounding. My identity is that I’m Scandinavian, and I was responding to this, to the distance.”
He created a chamber pop symphony in four movements, Opus, each with its own distinct color and mood, from dreamy to sweeping. Some movements spiral out, extending on and on. Some are dense and succinct, packed with licks and curious meters. The careful craft is audible, yet the pieces feel roomy, lush, and just the right amount of raw. Nyberg had played with using classical long forms before, on Afenginn’s Reptilica Polaris album. He had created dreamy soundscapes on his previous (fifth) album, Lux, experimenting with a more classical approach to ensemble playing. But he had never sat down and developed his ideas to this extent.
Each movement in Opus is punctuated with a vocal piece in a mysterious invented language, created by Nyberg’s childhood friend and outsider poet. “He sends me huge amounts of lyrics in his homemade language, Street Latin,” explains Nyberg. “I ask him if he could write something about this or that, about love or other topics. He does that and I chose from his huge mountain.” The effect hints at both punk and Orff.
“I wanted the themes and elements to be connected,” Nyberg reflects. “I could dig into this bubble, connecting this harmony sequence. Everything is used and reused in different ways, all the melodies, harmonies and rhythms.” Together, the elements combine in the nuance and intellectual glee of classical composition, while carrying the listener forward, the way a good rock song can. The effect is intoxicating.