Wednesday 15th February
Oslo Bar, Hackney, London
On Wednesday evening I headed to the Oslo Bar in Hackney for the UK launch of ‘Blood Jungle’, the latest album by one of Sweden’s most influential Rock bands, Johnossi. Johnossi is a rock duo from Saltsjöbaden in the outskirts of Stockholm, simply named after its two members: John Englebert (songwriter, vocals, guitar) and Oskar “Ossi” Bonde (drums, percussion). Initially formed as teenagers back in 2004, the band has already ventured outside its native Sweden, where it has achieved platinum sales and Grammy awards, with a series of European tours, and occasional concerts in Japan and America. ‘Blood Jungle’, Johnossi’s fifth album, maintains the band’s characteristic style, but seeks to adapt it for a wider market.
The Oslo is easy to find - right outside Hackney Central Overground station. Its downstairs bar is a typical gastropub, boasting a wide selection of draught beers and an enticing menu. Unfortunately, the three real ale pumps were all dry, and the bar staff weren’t willing or able to connect another barrel. I hope this isn’t another of those venues that whets your appetite with the promise of real ale - but rarely actually has any! At least the food was succulent and tasty; the only problem was finding a free table to eat at – its culinary expertise seems well established locally! The Oslo’s upstairs concert room is, not unusually, somewhat less salubrious than its downstairs pub, with a small bar and an even smaller selection of canned and bottled beers, but it was a reasonable size for an intimate live music venue, with good acoustics and an excellent sound system.
First on stage were Swedish compatriots Francobollo, a quartet who met at school in Lund, but are currently based in London. Francobollo took to the stage with an immediate vigour and enthusiasm, stomping, jumping and dancing until the floor shook. Their music wavered between Indie and Alternative Rock: wobbly guitars and a stirring rhythm section seamlessly welded to frontman Simon Nilsson’s incensed, abrasive vocal quips. The overall effect was a wonderfully deranged, completely engrossing set, ranging from energetic, excitable Rock to joyful, alternative songs oozing with experimentation.
It was now time for Johnossi, the regular long-time duo supported on stage by a guest keyboard player. Johnossi launched straight into ‘Air is Free’, which, although included on their new album, had already been released as a single back in October. The recorded version breaks new ground with backing from horns and a female choir which, unfortunately, it is impracticable to replicate live in the Oslo. Nevertheless, ‘Air is Free’ is the perfect introduction to Johnossi’s core sound: John's significant guitar riffs heavily backed up by Ossi's pounding drumming. Its message of living life by your own accord remains intact, and it is lively enough to have the audience clapping and bouncing from the first minute. Next up is ‘Gone Forever’, a song about an old friend that is even livelier. ‘Weak Spots’ is another song from the new album, as is ‘Hands’, the band’s latest single that explores the issue of police brutality from the perspective of both the victim and the police officer. However, the serious nature of a potentially classic protest song is lost when it degenerates into a singalong, wave-you-hands-in-the-air number.
These songs from the new album were interspersed with a selection of old favourites including ‘What’s the Point’, their breakthrough song and biggest hit in Sweden to date, ‘Summer Breeze’, a yearning, quieter acoustic solo by John and ‘Man Must Dance’, with its distinctive hard beat and repetitive “And you” chorus line. Finally, saved for the encore, was ‘Roscoe’, another well-known song with a loud, heavy, rhythm and a crescendo that rises steadily to a fitting finale. Even these older songs were new to me - but not to the large audience at Oslo, many of whom knew all the words and needed little invitation to join in - enabling John to occasionally stand back and leave them to it. This familiarity was largely because at least half of the audience was Swedish, out in force to see their home country favourites - though I’d previously had no idea there was such a large Swedish population in and around Hackney!
A key feature of Johnossi is their unique guitar sound, achieved by running an acoustic guitar through effects pedals and electric guitar amplifiers. As well as providing a myriad of pedal effects, this approach enables John to switch quickly and easily between acoustic and full-on Rock anthem guitar sounds, supporting a wide range of musical styles. However, although their music style may shift dramatically, Johnossi’s lyrical themes rarely do, invariably revolving around personal soul-searching, existentialism and/or angsty situations. These charateristics all help give Johnossi’s music a unique flavour, a flavour that has been influencing Swedish Rock music for over a decade. If they continue performing sets like Wednesday’s at Oslo, and producing albums like ‘Blood Jungle’, Johnossi’s influence will soon be felt over a much wider field.