Progressive rock can take musicians to all kinds of unexpected places, but it rarely requires them to put on their dancing shoes. Back in 2021, Ring Van Möbius were contentedly beavering away in the studio in their native Norway, working on the follow-up to The 3rd Majesty, the band’s second full-length that was released the previous year. Then, from nowhere, opportunity knocked.
“After we finished the last album, we figured we’d just continue with new material, which is always refreshing to do,” explains vocalist/keyboard maestro Thor Erik Helgesen. “You can start all over again and get creative, throwing the ideas out there. We were nearly finished with the sketches for the next album, when this guy Harald Beharie approached us, and he asked if we could make some music for his next abstract dance performance. We had absolutely no clue whatsoever about that world, so of course we said yes immediately!”
A respected dance maverick in Norway, Harald Beharie confessed to having little prior knowledge of progressive rock, and that he had discovered Ring Van Möbius via a simple Google search. Helgesen and his comrades, Håvard Rasmussen and Dag Olav Husås, were too thrilled by his offer to care.
“We’d spent half a year writing a new album, but we just paused that thought,” Helgesen recalls. “There was no discussion, because this was a very interesting opportunity for us to work with something completely different. We had no clue whatsoever about abstract dance or that whole area of the arts, so we were quite honoured. We had a meeting soon thereafter, and he didn’t really spell out a specific direction for what the music should be, and we had no clue what he was going to do. But we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s just do it!’ It’s good to move away from your comfort zone.”
After some minimal discussions with his new creative partner about how this project was to unfold, Helgesen set to work on writing some music that could be moulded to fit Beharie’s vision. With riffs, improvisations and ideas conjured during months of lockdown isolation, and an assortment of additional material from Ring Van Möbius’ rehearsal jam tapes, the trio were able to piece together an album-length demo for Beharie to use as a musical starting point.
“The demo was kind of like an album, because we can’t help it, we make albums! But then it was fascinating to be working with these people, because they had a very different approach to music, and a different take on why it was being used on the stage. For them, music is just a tool for building up expectation, you know? They use a lot of repetition. There was a riff that was only 20 seconds on the demo, but for Harald I played it for eight minutes, because he wanted that specific feeling. It was a cool way to work. After a while, you don’t hear the riff anymore because your brain gets used to it, and then you get to hear the room, the acoustics and the overtones, what’s going on between the tones and notes.”
This is where things become a bit complicated. Ring Van Möbius completed the composition for Beharie two years ago, swiftly recording the finished music for the choreographer to use as the soundtrack for his show Batty Bwoy: a study of “Black, queer self-consciousness” that opened to much acclaim in Oslo in January 2022 and that, Helgesen notes, is still being performed.
Meanwhile, the original ideas that they had presented in demo album form to Beharie had been manhandled and repurposed to such an extent that they no longer resembled a coherent body of work, at least in prog rock terms. Fortunately, Ring Van Möbius love making albums, so they returned eagerly to the drawing board. “We realised that we needed to release something from this, because we liked it! We went back to the old approach, to the demo with the original ideas that were much better suited to an album. We developed those ideas, added some vocals, and there you have it!”
Hot off the vinyl press, the third Ring Van Möbius album is among us. Enigmatically titled Commissioned Works Pt II – Six Drops Of Poison, it’s a multi-part prog odyssey that ebbs and flows with dramatic flair, eschewing the band’s trademark wall of 1971-flavoured sound n favour of a more eclectic, dynamic and unpredictable splurge of brown’n’purple-toned ideas. Helgesen cheerfully notes that the album’s lyrics are loosely (“I mean really, really loosely...”) based on Beharie’s hazy explanation of his project’s core concept. Consequently, amid fits of chortling, he tries and fails to nail the essence of the new album’s narrative.
“Of course the lyrical themes come from my own thoughts, but partly inspired by what I understood was Harald’s actual theme. But because it’s all quite abstract, I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly what’s going on! I just added my own thoughts and made up my own story. I think it’s more than just a linear thing: it’s not something that starts and ends. It’s more like a combined process, with the chapters of the story being more like representations of different personalities and different themes... but like I say, it’s rather complex and abstract!”
Could it be summed up in one sentence? “I guess not! I would say that Harald’s original idea was about how we see people and judge them, exaggerating who they are and focusing only on that exaggerated perception. This is the story of those exaggerations and the personifications of those characteristics. That’s part of it, but I need more time to work this all out!”
Back in the slightly less cerebral world of thunderous prog rock, Ring Van Möbius are now one album ahead of themselves and almost overburdened with music to capture on tape. As its title suggests, the new album is the second commissioned piece the Norwegians have produced, following their composing of a new soundtrack for legendary Italian horror movie Suspiria back in 2018. The latter remains unrecorded, but Helgesen notes that he fully intends to get it down for posterity eventually.
Meanwhile, the album that Ring Van Möbius were just about to record when their new dancer friend came knocking is now back on the production line. “When we were working on Harald’s project, Covid was still around and so it became an amazing job opportunity. We had something exciting and creative to do, while everyone else was stuck at home. After we finished with Harald and then recorded the new album, we went straight back into the studio again to rehearse the next album, which we are recording as we speak! It’s full of energy and it’s far more hectic than Six Drops Of Poison, which has much more air in it – it breathes better than our other albums. There’s more space. But that is exactly what the next album will be lacking.”
These are fruitful times for Kopervik’s retro-prog kings, at least in the studio. Helgesen admits he would like his band to do a lot more touring, with single shows in Sweden and the UK their only performances outside of Norway to date. Unfortunately, however, he admits that Ring Van Möbius “are horrible at doing all that stuff” and keep finding reasons to hit the studio instead. What a terrible shame.
“I think we need help with the touring thing!” he says with another laugh. “We never tour because we’re always recording something. I think I would explode without doing gigs every now and then, but until then we’re just here, making music, and that’s all there is to it.”