Hellbillies emerge from hellish year

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A year ago, disaster hit Aslag Haugen and his popular band, the Hellbillies. He fell off a stage and broke his neck, throwing the fortunes of the band into jeopardy. But to almost everyone’s surprise, these boys are back, raising more hell than ever.

Gotta wear shades. The future seems bright for Aslag Haugen (center) and his Hellbillies band, despite a horrible year. PHOTO: Hellbillies.no

Watching the Hellbillies kick off a long summer of concerts around Norway, it’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, this band seemed dangerously close to doom. On July 3, 2009, towards the end of a long set, singer Aslag Haugen fell off a stage in North Norway, breaking his neck and both wrists.

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Haugen’s severe injuries could easily have been fatal, and also threatened bankruptcy for one of Norway’s most popular rock bands for nearly two decades.

They’re back
Fortunately, none of that happened. Surgeons pieced Haugen’s neck and arms back together, while the band’s lawyers reached a settlement with Skippagurra Festival in Finnmark. Organizers of the festival conceded that the stage had been unsafe, but had insurance (which Hellbillies didn’t, despite a tour budget of several million NOK and about a dozen people relying on it, according to newspaper Hallingdølen.)

Now the six-man strong outfit is back with a vengeance. The new and 12th album Leite etter lykka (Searching for happiness) is topping the local charts, and the ageing rockers are back where they belong: On the road, with a lengthy schedule of concerts around the country between now and September. They kicked off their tour over the weekend with a smoke-filled show on the banks of Karpedammen, a pond inside Oslo’s historic Akershus Fortress.

Voice of the valley
The Hellbillies build on a long, strong tradition of what some Norwegians call dialektrock, meaning lyrics sung with a local dialect. This style of song-writing began in the 1970s with the trønderrock of Åge Aleksandersen from Trøndelag in central Norway, a reaction to the massive influx of translated international hits. Several other acts followed suit, most notably Stavangerensemblet offering their challenging Rogaland dialect, and Vazelina Bilopphøggers making their often funny points in thick and colorful language from the Mjøsa region.

Hellbillies hail from Ål in Hallingdal, one of Norway’s main valleys. Their songs tend to reflect valley mentality, like the virtues of getting lost in the mountains or the curse of visiting city slickers from Oslo. A recent hit, “Hallo Telenor” centered on the poor quality of internet connections in rural areas.

Aslag Haugen, age 49, writes most of the music and also does lead vocals, while his younger brother Lars Håvard embodies the classic guitar hero, sometimes sporting an anaconda green double-neck guitar, his long hair flowing with the machine-made smoke and wind. More than a few fans claim Haugen is Norway’s number-one electric guitarist, taking over the legacy of Norwegian masters like Terje Rypdal and Ronni Le Tekrø.

Playful senior
The band’s widely acclaimed lyrics are mostly written by Arne Moslåtten, a music scholar educated at the Bergen music academy, who has strong ties to Norwegian folk music traditions. The white-haired 62-year-old is reputed to be the most playful of the six, frequently transforming himself into his alter ego Moaguten to explore social media and obscure activities such as geocaching, a GPS-based orienteering game. His geocaches around Hallingdalen are widely regarded as some of Norway’s most creative and adventurous ones.

As for lyrics, Moslåtten skilfully introduces hyper-local phrases like krasafaren (windblown) into mainstream Norwegian language. The two-word title of Hellbillies’ first album says it all: Sylvspende boots is not only a striking combination of nynorsk (“new norwegian”) and English: at the same time it is a reference to the silver clasp on a traditional Norwegian bunad shoe, and the preferred footwear of a true rock ‘n roller.

This mix of a valley mindset and a universal rocker’s attitude may well explain the Hellbillies’ long-lived popularity. Wrote Audun Vinger, who reviewed the new album for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv: “The lyrics in Norwegian enable them to reach Norwegian hearts, but in a purely musical sense, the Hellbillies speak a global rock language.”

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