Reflections on Bjørn Torske’s Ismistik

Before Bjørn Torske was Bjørn Torske, he was merely a name on the back of a record sleeve. A producer/writer-credit appearing on numerous EPs and LPs under various aliases and collaborative efforts, few knew the man behind these projects as we would come to know him today. Open Skies, Volcano and Algeria mark some of the early days of Bjørn Torske’s work in the field of electronic music, at a time before the name would become synonymous with the Space Disco sound that would sweep the world and install Bjørn Torske in the echelon of electronic music greats.

We’re going back to a time before the great wave of Norwegian electronic music, when Bjørn Torske was still a student radio disc-jockey in Tromsø. It was a time of great experimentation in electronic music, a time when Bjørn Torske, Rune Lindbæk, and Ole Mjøs, creating music under these various guises, would lay the foundation for a group of electronic music heads and DIY enthusiasts to build a scene that would make a serious mark on the world stage and imprint itself in the electronic music history books. 

It all started in a storage-room-cum-radio-station called Brygga and while Bjorn Torske’s own star would cement in the firmament of electronic music with records like Trøbbel and Nedi Myra enjoying the ranks of classic electronic music records today, it wouldn’t be if it were not for those early projects that first established Bjørn Torske’s talents for this music and there’s one project in particular that set this artist on that course. 

That project was Ismistik and today it marks the start of an immense and significant career some thirty years on. Those early records that Torske created together with Ole Mjøs as Ismistik continue to make significant impressions, drawing newer audiences to this incredible music thanks to a 2020 re-issue on Emotions Electric, and holding their own in the classic canon of House music.   

Originally released on the legendary Dutch Techno label, Djax Up Beats between 1991 to 1995 three EPs and an LP constitute the entire Ismistik catalogue and it reflects a time in electronic music that has aged significantly well. Floating between elements of Techno, House and Ambient styles, these records came from a time as electronic music matured into a serious artform, predicated by new technology and latent professionals exploring the limits of production and composition in this field. 

As electronic dance music went from an adolescent pastime to a viable career, it garnered a new reputation that lived beyond the corporeal as a thinking wo/man’s music and a serious music, which unlike rock n roll for instance, maintains a countercultural appeal today. 

It’s at this point that Ismistik appears with Bjørn Torske and Ole Mjøs siphoning sounds from Detroit and Chicago into an approach that seemed to soften the harsh edges of that music and brought a refined atmosphere that seemed to imbue the spirit of the music. It lived beyond the functional aspects of the music and while the EPs could and would be played in DJ sets, the album would certainly have accompanied a fair few after-parties in the mid-nineties.

“Ismistik as a project mirrored my early years when Chicago and Detroit were my biggest influences,Bjørn Torske told If Only UK back in 2018. The project came about as an extension of Bjørn and Ole’s tastes as reflected by their “Brygga” radio station show, where they piped out these new American sounds to the local students, who would reluctantly, but eventually endorse and perpetuate the sounds, starting what would become a virile and legendary Norwegian music scene in what was essentially a small fishing town at that time.  

That “freedom to play what we wanted was the main trigger to start experimenting with crude ‘remixes’ and tape edits, which in turn led to the employment of drum machines and synthesisers,” suggests Torske. “We got access to tape recorders, four-track cassette recorders so we could develop our pause button remixing ideas,” he continues in a Paperrecordings interview. “We started to make remixes and megamixes for our own shows, splicing tape and other techniques. Before we knew it, we had our own sound.”

When that sound eventually matured, Bjørn Torske approached friend and fellow producer Geir Jennsen, whose reputation as Biosphere at the time, helped the young Torske get a foot in the door, releasing his first record as Algeria in 1991 on a crammed disc imprint. That almost certainly led to an introduction to Djax-Up-Beat where he and Ole Mjøs released their first record as Ismistik in the same year. 

Quite possibly the rawest of the Ismistik releases, their debut, Bonus Bouncers features a fearsome onslaught of staccato drum machines, punching out irreverent rhythms through a foggy atmosphere of chirpiing synthesisers and luxurious pads. It has that unhinged energy of a debut dance record, but there is also this sense of trying to wrestle something into something more than just a beat to dance to. Melody and harmony conspire throughout to give the listener more than just a marching order and, possibly inspired by what was happening in the UK at that time, Ismistik finds something beyond the immediate, displaying an uncanny maturity through a first record.

It’s even more refined on the second EP, Oasis released the following year, as they seem to draw their main inspiration from Chicago rather than Detroit in what is arguably one of the best House records of that or any time. Flickers of the bubbling “disco” sound that Bjørn Torske would later cultivate, emerge in the bubbling bass-line of the title track, while everything else is ingrained in the sound of Chicago House music of the time. 

It is particularly the production of this record that sets it apart for its time. It’s a refined, honed sonic aesthetic that sounds out of place with contemporary records of that time, and listening to the record today it could easily be mistaken for a modern production. It’s that level of skill in the studio that would later set Bjørn Torske apart from every other producer, and start the beginning of that crossover success he would enjoy later on.

By the third EP, Bjørn and Ole would cement the sound of Ismistik, leaning towards the more harder sounds of Detroit again with 3rd Trace. Retaining something of that refined aesthetic of their second EP, but applying it to the harsher metallic sounds of Techno at the time, it sounds like Bjørn and Ole found a comfortable balance between their Chicago and Detroit influences on  this record. 

Later, Bjørn Torske, would reflect that although it was the sounds of Detroit and Chicago that piqued his interest, in recent times he sees “music more as a whole rather than fragmented in different styles.” This comes to the fore already in 3rd Trace, with a sound that is not already breaching the borders between Techno and House and beyond, but also incorporating those bubbling melodic phrases that would later help cement the appeal of Space Disco that would shadow Torske’s solo career.

In 3rd Trace you find a sound coagulating around Ismistik and with the backing of Djax-Up-Beat it seemed like only the start of something great, but just as they built it up, it would almost immediately cease to exist with 3rd Trace being the last record Bjørn Torske and Ole Mjøs would make together as Ismistik. It’s unknown what caused the collaborative project to dissolve, but Bjørn Torske maintains that Ole was “crucial” in the success of Ismistik to this day. A quick search of Ole Jon Mjøs suggests that he veered into a career as an academic, which might be the reason for his ultimate departure from the music scene. Whatever happened, it was not to be the end of Ismistik however… well not  for Bjørn Torske at least. 

Two years later, in 1995 Bjørn Torske would revive the project for its finale, an LP with an ironic title. In many ways Remain would be the perfect title for the record, because while the project might have dissolved the record sealed the fate of this brief, but significant era in Bjørn Torske’s legacy, one that might have all but disappeared in the the long shadow that his future records would cast, had it not been for Emotions Electric who bought these records to the fore again. 

While the EPs were a collaborative effort, Remain is a Bjørn Torske record through and through, and an album that negates the immediate impulses of a dance record, for an album narrative in a format Bjørn Torske would perfect on later records like Trøbbel. Bouncing between elements of Ambient, House and Techno, the record takes us on a journey through the earliest influences of Bjørn Torkse’s music and those first steps towards what has become a legendary solo career. 

Bubbling basslines and friendly keys cut through the icy arrangements where sharp metallic stabs and foggy atmospheres create immersive textures. It’s the type of record that could live beyond the club and the soundsystem with its charming melodies and welcoming atmospheres indulging a more introspective listening experience. It has those key ingredients that made the EPs so popular, but it’s a record that lives beyond the DJ’s record crate today and while it might be an underground classic, it still sounds as fresh as the day it left the pressing plant. 

Today, the LP together with the 3 EPs might all seem a bit arbitrary in the legacy of Bjørn Torske as the first, youthful impressions of a career that would only mature later on, but all the ingredients for that career are contained within, and thirty years later, these records are now classics in the House and Techno music canon, or at least they should be. They show a marked technical advancement in the genre and a singular voice, which still stands apart from anything coming from that era.    

And it was only the start of a career which lives on in the archives of electronic music legends today. Bjørn Torske might have moved on from those sounds, but it’s still there in his music, and even a record like Byen is very much familiar in a catalogue that also contains Remain. The genius is already present in those early records. It’s just the versatility and the skill, which is yet to come, and by the time Nedi Myra arrives on the catalogue it’s all ingrained in the legend that has become Bjørn Torske. 

 *Bjørn Torske plays ØyaNatt for Frædag.