Bel Canto: 
Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen
image © 2003
click on images to visit Bel Canto official website

Bel Canto

ethereal vocals and worldly sounds

album reviews and artist reflections

Dorothy's Victory (2002)
Retrospect (2001)
Rush (1998)
Magic Box (1996)
Shimmering, Warm & Bright (1992)
Birds of Passage (1992)
White-Out Conditions (1988)

reviews, interview and HTML © R. W. Elliot and J. R. Elswick 2003
with selected review contributions from
Images © 1987-2003 as indicated below
all images used with permission
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Last updated: 30 March 2003

Bel Canto is one of the top acts in Norway with numerous gold records to their credit. They have achieved tremendous notariety worldwide, and have received excellent reviews for their albums and live concerts all over the world. Read our own evolving set of comprehensive album reviews and explore a recent interview with lead vocalist Anneli Drecker. Credit for our biographical introduction flows to the Anneli Drecker website.

Bel Canto is perhaps for some still a hidden pearl in the vast ocean of music. Coming from the ice cold fjords of Northern Norway, Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen have developed their own original blend of music. With a mixture of guitar based electronica together with world, dance or sometimes even European classical elements, Bel Canto state their own definition of what pop music may be. A perfect balance between ancient magic and modern sophistication together with the magnificent voice of Anneli, Bel Canto creates a purely magical experience.

Back in 1986, as teenaged musical computer pioneers in the Norwegian electronica scene, Anneli, Nils and Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) recognized the need of a genuine Northern Sound. Growing up north of the arctic circle simply had to result in a very special musical approach. These are the people that started it, and they have inspired a large number of bands from the same district to do the same. Names like Röyksopp, Illumination, Aedena Cycle and Lene Marlin have all sprung out from Bel Canto's hometown, Tromsö.

As a natural result, Torbjørn Brundtland from Röyksopp has worked with Bel Canto on their two latest studio albums. Anneli's vocal contribution on Röyksopp's recent debut album is another example of a number of cross collaborations that has occurred between the different bands from Tromsö.

In addidion to Röyksopp, Anneli has also lent her voice to acts like A-ha, Jah Wobble and Hector Zazou. Well known artists like Gavin Friday, Tim Simenon, DJ Krush and Simon Raymonde are also on that list. Anneli and Nils have also composed music for a number of film and TV productions, both as individiuals and together as Bel Canto.

The members of Bel Canto use a large array of different musical instruments, and combined with Anneli's unique stage presence - she has acting experience in leading roles in several motion pictures and theater plays - they have become famous for their spectacular live shows.

Over the years, Bel Canto has gained a true fan base from all over the world. People shake their heads over the fact that Bel Canto is not a major selling act. Perhaps it is not that important for Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen, as long as they reach out to the real lovers of music. Read the article below for further details.


Musical Discoveries: Your most recent full-length album release, Dorothy's Victory, is very positive and upbeat. Was this a conscious choice, and if so, what affected your decision to make a more "sunny" album?

Anneli: We Worked all day and night in very homy and cosy surroundings, up in Tromsö, our hometown. The atmosphere during these late-night sessions was somehow private and relaxed and we didn't have anyone from the record label breathing down our necks during all this time. We had freedom and space to play around. I also slept in the studio, on a matress nearby the mixer because I was too tired to drive home. Like that, I would be working, even in my sleep.

Anneli Drecker
Image © Thomas Olsen 2003

Anneli, you have lent your distinctive and beautiful voice to various collaborations. Which one was your favorite?

Working with the Torbjørn and Svein in Röyksopp is always great and good fun.They are so enegetic and full of surprises!

Is there any artist in the music world in particular that you would like to work with?

Hmm ... Aphex Twin!

Some of your music displays strong classical influences. Were either of you "trained" in the classical sense?

Nils is the most trained. He played cello and actually also the flute when he was a kid. Then he started to play bass in a punk band called Peder Xem from Tromsø until he bought his first synth, a DX7, and started to programm new Yamaha sounds and arctic music with Geir Jenssen in 1985/86.

I sang in a choir and took piano lessons for three-four years and later on I took some private singing lessons. But my most important teacher and big mentor in music was my big brother and his weird record collection.

Do you feel that your music is infused with any specific "Norwegian" elements?

It's hard for us to see but if you think of Norway as being the land of trolls and Northern Lights and Midnight Sun, I guess we cannot help being influenced by our origin. Also, the people from the very north of Norway have a great sense of humour. You need that for to survive the long, dark and cold winters! I guess people who live in such extreme polar climates, need to escape by daydreaming and by having lots of social contact.

When I read interviews with Björk, I immediately recognise the way she describes Iceland and the Icelandic people.

Some of Bel Canto's melodies reflect Middle-Eastern musical influences. Where did this influence originate?

Norway is far north, yes, we live 800 kms north of the polar circle but Norway is also stretching far east! Kirkenes, a town in Norway, is actually as far east as Istanbul!

Nils and I have always felt a strong attraction towards the Mongolians and of course we are very much influenced by the Sami people up in the north. The natives in Norway have always been present in our daily life, their music is played on the radio and we have played many concerts in Finnmark, the land of the Sami people. I think you can draw musical-lines between the way the Indian singers sing and the old traditioanl Norwegian folk-music.

When I think world music, I don't see a map with borders but layer on layer in history of mankind with singing teqhniques and nobody has the copyright to some ways of singing because you find some of the same elements everywhere else in the world. One other example is the Sami´s joik and the native indian's chanting. We all originate from the same tribe anyhow!

What are some of Bel Canto's musical influences, and who are some of your current favorite artists/bands?

My early influences are OMD, Blancmange, David Bowie, Kissing the Pink, Clannad, 4AD-artists, Kate Bush, William Orbit, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Virginia Ashley, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Tuxedomoon, David Sylvian, The Swans, Ruichi Sakamoto, YMO, Diamanda Galas, Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, Blue Nile, and many more.

These days I listen to Beck's new album, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Sigur Ros, Hoover Phonic, Emmylou Harris, U2, Mew (Danish band), Bjørk, Illumination, Souvenire, Magnet, Mari Boine, Nils Petter Molvaer, Boards of Canada, Truls Mørk, Radiohead, Coldplay, The Latvia Radio Choir, (Baltic Records) Johnny Cash's latest and a female singer from Tuva called Seinko and so many more.

It is clear that Bel Canto's music, while maintaining a unique and core sound, has evolved in many ways over the past decade and a half. How would you describe the evolution of your music from your first album release White-out Conditions to the most recent release Dorothy's Victory?

It's hard to describe your own evolution over so many years, in fact since I was 16 years old until 33 now. We started up with the philosophy that we wanted to be an electronic pop band with only arctic sound elements instead of trying to sound like any other European pop band. It was important for us to describe our origin with our music.

On the first two albums, we were three, with Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere). He left the band in 1991. Since then, Nils and I had a period when we listened to African- and middle eastern-music. Then, the house- and techno-scene came and we went out clubbing for many years. Now, I feel like we are a bit back to the 80s and we are focusing on melodies.

Nowadays, it is so easy for anybody to program music and to buy software, samples and plug-ins, so Nils and I have the philosopy that a good song is one you can actually also perform accoustic and which will still come out strong and keep its essence.

Do Bel Canto have plans to continue producing albums, and can we expect any tours outside of Norway in the future?

Right now we are focusing on trying to get a distribution in Europe and the rest of the world for Dorothy´s Victory. I hope that when and if this happens, we will be able to tour and promote our album. We love doing concerts and getting responses from the audience. This is what makes you a true musician.

Has the internet affected Bel Canto, and if so, how?

It has helped us to communicate with our fans all over the world, especially through the unofficial site We have also been able to get in contact with other musicians/producers by using the net, instead of going through their record labels.

What is Bel Canto's most memorable musical moment of the past fifteen years?

Playing at the New Morning Club in Paris in 90? I don't know, different concerts all over the world, in Tokyo, Mexico City, Israel. Also meeting the audience in general, I guess. And meeting our own heros. For me, it was a great moment when I fist met Simone Raymonde and Robin Guthrie. In Mexico when we got a personal greeting from Dead Can Dance via their label manager where he said that they were sorry they missed out on our concert, since we never expected that they even knew of us. But also those magic moments we've had while composing our songs throughout the years. So many great moments.

How would you distinguish between the Anneli Drecker albums and those under the moniker Bel Canto?

Hmmm. My chords are simpler and the lyrics are more personal, since I am representing myself solo. Bel Canto is a world you have to enter and when we are two people composing, the music from Bel Canto compared to my own material will automatically be different.

How has the internet influenced your solo musical career?

A lot, especially because I am so lucky to have my own site where even I can get some useful information about myself sometimes and where I also talk to the fans.


  Dorothy's Victory
Image © EMI Music (Norway) 2002

Dorothy's Victory. The most recent musical offering by Norwegian duo Bel Canto (EMI (Norway) A/S 7243538974 2, 2002) is an album full of smooth melodies and catchy tunes. Displaying a more light-hearted mood, vocalist Anneli Drecker and guitarist/keboardist/all around instrumentalist Nils Johansen have written a collection of true pop gems.

While their previous album Rush was more experimental and disjointed in sound, Dorothy's Victory sees Bel Canto once again demonstrating their unmistakable knack for crafting excellent songs. Except for a few tracks on the album ("Disappear Club 5," "Night Lady," and "Ladonia"), most of the songs from the new album are warm, breezy, and romantic in tone.

Despite this change of color, Dorothy's Victory is probably one of Bel Canto's best albums--behind Shimmering, Warm & Bright (review) and is its own victory for the band. The trio of songs that open the album, "Foolish Ship," "Feels Like I'm Already Flying," and "You Rock My World Tonight," feature a pleasing blend of electronic and acoustic elements. Anneli's sweet vocals on the contemplative and dreamy "Foolish Ship" conjure images of lost love. "Feels Like I'm Already Flying" recalls the 1980's with an Erasure-esque synth line and a carefree chorus.

The highly pop-flavored "You Rock My World Tonight" has a vibrantly catchy verse/bridge/chorus combination that makes one want to sing along. It is not until the mysterious "Disappear Club 5" that Bel Canto return somewhat to their earlier and darker roots. Anneli utilizes that famous banshee wail in the chorus--and long-time fans are assured that Bel Canto still retain their ability to create aural moods of strange fantasy. The drum-n-bass sprinkled "Night Lady" is also more somber in tone but futuristic, modern and "chill" at the same time.

Dorothy's Victory is a magnificent ode to Dorothy Gilmore that is musically rich, melancholy, and tender. The slightly trippy "Tree" is an ambient jewel that matches the best of the Cocteau Twins. "Happy Times Fly Fast," and "I'm Best'n Beihs" are notable for their unusual melodies and for the way in which both songs make use of Anneli's full vocal range. "Corals, Jade and Pearls" is somewhat reminiscent of Abba, but twists and turns in clever modulations.

The final track "Ladonia" is an ethereal and classical-sounding track backed by a mid-tempo disco flavored drum track. Anneli's goddess-like singing weaves throughout in brilliant fashion. Maybe Bel Canto have matured--likely the duo have experienced love and sorrow in their own lives--whatever the case, Bel Canto show that they can still write amazingly original music that is transporting and sonorous. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

Image © WEA (Norway) 2001

Retrospect. Bel Canto's compilation of best-of material is a treasure for any collection (WEA (Norway) 9548 49720 2, 2001) serving to capture the band's work--from 1987 through 2001--for long-time enthusiasts as well as newcomers. A limted edition (WEA (Norway) 9548 397112, 2001) of the title includes a second CD with eleven bonus tracks consisting of various remixes and b-sides. All material has been digitally remastered. The result is stunning

With material spanning all of the group's previous offerings, they truly did select a "best-of" tracklist for enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Released prior to their most recent album Dorothy's Victory, the album even includes one track from it: "Disappear Club 5." The balance of the tracks span the band's earlier releases.

The album opens "Bombay," one of several tracks from Magic Box, the others being: "Didn't You Know It?," "Paradise," and "Rumour." The title track from Shimmering, Warm & Bright is included as are the tracks "Summer," "Spiderdust," the hit single "Unicorn" and "Waking Will" from the same album. Only "Idly I De-Ice" and "Images" from Rush has been included.

From Birds Of Prey the tracks "A Shoulder To The Wheel," "Dewy Fields" and "The Suffering" are included. Finally from White-Out Conditions, the stunning tracks "Capio" and "Blank Sheets" are included. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here. The album truly spans the vast array of Bel Canto's recordings and is a must-have for long time enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

Image © EMI Music (Norway) 1998

Rush. This album is the release (EMI (Norway) AS 7243-4-93831-28, 1998) by one of the best bands hailing from "the land of the Midnight Suns." The album was also released in France under the name Images (Sony/Saint George (France) SAN 491957, 1999) with different cover artwork. Anneli Drecker and Nils Johansen, the duo known to their fans as Bel Canto, have been pioneers on the Norwegian music scene since first appearing in 1987. Always at the forefront of electronica, Bel Canto have been creating lush and unique sounds for over 15 years; and Rush proves that the band shows no signs of slowing down.

Arguably their most "experimental" album, Rush is a breathtaking collection of songs that display myriad influences ranging from jazz to pop to ambient to traditional. Anneli's heavenly voice, perhaps more than on any other of Bel Canto's albums, is on full display on Rush. Nils and guest musicians combine guitars, strings, keyboards, "extra-terrestrial sounds" (that's what the liner notes say), and other exotic instruments in marvelous fashion. While it may seem strange that such a disparate hodge-podge of styles and sounds could be described as "brilliant," that is exactly what Rush is.

Tracks like the jive-packed "Spacejunk" and hypnotic "Images" are pure sonic energy. Just try to listen to the songs without smiling! Others, like the alluring and icy "Idly I De-Ice" or "Verena" are rich in texture and full of grand strings and otherworldy electronic sounds. Bel Canto are even skilled at creating the occasional romantic and tender ballad like "All I Want to Do."

Despite the wide-ranging influences that are reflected in the music of "Rush" the album is highly listenable from start to finish. It cannot be denied that Bel Canto are always original and always ahead of the game. Hopefully the "Midnight Sun" never sets for Bel Canto. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

Magic Box
Image © Atlantic/Lava (USA) 1996

Magic Box. Bel Canto's breakthrough release (Atlantic/Lava (USA) 92617, 1996) consists of the ten tracks included on the international release plus a bonus track for American audiences.

There is definitely a change in sound; gone is Bel Canto's dark, shiver-inducing style that crafted albums like Birds of Passage and Shimmering, Warm & Bright. Here, the group often bases songs more on a trip-hop/techno foundation. Still, surprisingly, Magic Box is musically very organic and the overall sound is unmistakably Bel Canto. The album carries on with their instrumental inventiveness, marrying world influences with atmospheric experimentation, and the uniquely lovely vocals of Anneli Drecker.

The songs "Paradise" and "Big Belly Butterflies" are absolutely comfortable alongside other Bel Canto favorites -- Drecker's voice is gorgeous, almost playful on the latter, the instrumental canvas is rich, and the atmospheres are seductive. A few of the other songs took some warming up to, but are endearing before long. "Sleepwalker" is worldly with a dreamy exotic atmosphere. "FreeLunch in the Jungle" has twittering amusingly strange vocal phrasing, plus compelling layers of percussion, both electronic and acoustic. "Bombay" fuses Punjabi dance music with Drecker's dexterous vocal melodies. "In Zenith" is carries something of an Indian flavor, with hauntingly keyboards and violins.

"Kiss of Spring" is a joyful piece lit by chiming steel guitar and scuffling percussion, over which bouncy vocals sing friskily. "Rumour" has an infectious instrumental hook and a catchy chorus too. If you like previous Bel Canto albums, you should enjoy this one too. New listeners might try Birds of Passage or Shimmering, Warm & Bright first. --review courtesy of Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

  Shimmering, Warm & Bright
Image © Dali (USA) 1992

Shimmering, Warm & Bright. Bel Canto's third album (Dali (USA) 61412, 1992) is arguably the best album by the group. Appropriately titled, Shimmering, Warm & Bright is a scintillating piece of musical ingenuity. Moving away from the more 4AD styled sounds of their two prior albums, this album sees Bel Canto rely upon exotic instrumentation and ingenious songwriting to create a trippy and otherworldy listening experience.

Once again, lead singer Anneli Drecker's voice is the mesmerizing centerpiece of the album, weaving in and out of the strange and wonderful soundscapes. Like Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) to whom she is often compared, Anneli stretches and contorts her vocals in marevlous ways--whether sounding like an opera diva, an arabic market singer, or a wandering phantom, Anneli has the uncanny ability to sound perfectly "right" on every track.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Shimmering, Warm & Bright is the way that each separate track carries its own sound and message without disturbing the mystical and shadowy ambience of the entire album. In the end Shimmering, Warm & Bright takes the listener on an almost paranormal journey through light and darkness--and the emotional impact felt after the journey is complete is palpable.

"Unicorn" is the fantastical electronica-flavored upbeat opener that sets one to thinking about deep woods, strange beasts and hidden treasures. The pulsing of the brilliant "Summer" allows Anneli to really display her vocal gifts as she is backed by driving percussion and swift guitar strums.

The dark-toned "Waking Will" is melancholy, sparse and dream-like, but demonstrates Bel Canto's ability to write engaging music at the most fundamental level. The title track "Shimmering, Warm & Bright" is one of the most original pieces of pop music this reviewer has heard--although "pop" might be the wrong word to describe this song. Opening with the lyrics "There's an old, old giant sneaking around inside this house--help move the cupboard, make a huge barricade so he won't enter," one is instantly put on notice that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill song. Bel Canto cleverly create a menancing "Hans Christian Andersen" fairytale that stays on the mind long after the song is over.

The mournful and moving "Sleep in Deep" is a more simple, but subtly effective song featuring Anneli's lamenting vocals, strange woodwinds and steel-string like guitars. The largely instrumental "Buthania" is an effective and mediatative segue that blends seamlessly with the previous track. The eerie and entrancing "Le Temps Degage" is one of the standout tracks on the album, sounding like a hybrid of Schubert, Enigma, and Ofra Haza.

The punk-rockiness of "Spiderdust" provides a comical (and slightly unsettling) change of pace with Anneli's voice moving frantically over pounding drums and electronic whirrs as she sings about a witch who breeds toads and ends up getting burnt by her own magic.

"Die Geschichte Einer Mutter" is a classical-tinged sweeping masterpiece that relates the disconcerting story of a woman and a dark forest. Musically, "Die Geschichte" is highly complex, again showing that Bel Canto are no mere three-chord act--and Anneli's piercing vocalizations in the middle of the song have to be heard to be believed. Finally, the pop-sensible "Mornixuur" is a sweet and pleasing closing number that lifts the listener from the more ominous feelings generated by "Die Geschichte Einer Mutter."

Paradoxically, Shimmering, Warm & Bright has that rare quality of sounding both modern and timeless. Although recorded in 1992, the album still sounds alive and fresh over 10 years later. Credit must given to Anneli and Nils for crafting progressive music that stays grounded in traditional-based melodies and for selecting instrumentation that never sounds dated. Evocative and strange, Shimmering, Warm & Bright shows Bel Canto at the top of their game. Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

Birds Of Passage
Image © IRS/Nettwerk (Canada) 1990

Birds Of Passage. The second full length album (IRS/Nettwerk (Canada) W2-30036, 1990) by Bel Canto is comprised of eleven tracks. A bonus track and different running order are included in the Canadian pressing.

The second release from the unique Norwegian group Bel Canto is a significant improvement over White-Out Conditions, which was already a fine album. On Birds of Passage, Bel Canto marries the gorgeous female vocals of Anneli Drecker, frosty and languid synth textures, subtle electronica rhythms, and ethnic touches. The difference here compared to White-Out Conditions is that the group has expanded their lush sonic tapestry with more diverse instruments (violins, cellos, trumpets, dynamic keyboards, and "stardust").

The warmth of the overall sound is derived from Anneli's warm voice which sounds much prettier on this album. She has abandoned that clipped form of singing from the previous album, and now she lets the words flow with grace and fine control. Her voice is the main instrument, and she more commanding by not flaunting her singing ability and just singing with the song. When she's not singing low and spooky, as on the Depeche Mode-ish "Intravenous" or parts of "Look 3", she has one of the prettiest voices out there. On one song, "Time Without End," Drecker is accompanied by bandmate Nils Johansen on vocals, and their harmonies create a nice effect.

Most songs are slow-tempo beauties, although there's the feisty, Mediterranean-flavored "The Glassmaker," where Drecker whoops and coos playfully, and "Oyster," where Drecker sounds a little peppier, with a lovely and cool melody fixing the chorus. Anneli's voice will melt you on this song.

If you are wondering what Bel Canto means, we're told that it is Italian for "beautiful song." Fitting name. --review courtesy of Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

  White-Out Conditions
Image © Nettwerk (Canada) 1988

White-Out Conditions. The debut album (CD Nettwerk (Canada) W2-30030, 1988) by Bel Canto is comprised of the nine tracks included on the international release plus a bonus track for North American (and Japanese) audiences.

Hailing from Norway, Bel Canto is a group with a unique blend of musical ideas that creates something fresh and wonderful. For a debut, White-Out Conditions reveals a remarkably strong songwriting affinity within the Drecker-Jenssen-Johansen unit of Bel Canto.

Anneli Drecker is the band's most distinctive quality. She's a lovely, ethereal vocalist who develops quite a unique sound on later albums. Geir Jenssen and Nils Johansen create serene tapestries of electronics along with flutes, mandolins, and dashes of eclectic ethnicity for variety. More diverse instrumentation would also come on later albums. Over the layers of synthesizers, Drecker creates melodies with her singing, and the cool gentleness of the overall musical effect is absolutely enchanting.

The lyrics are simple, but conveyed through Drecker's voice they gain an unusual dimension of feeling, like on "Without You" where the solemnity of the song is powerfully expressed by Drecker's sweeping vocal style. The big highlight for many is "Upland," a brilliant work of electronics with striking melodic progressions and haunting vocals. The playful "Agassiz" evokes a folk-dance, with Drecker's feisty vocals cooing with infectious liveliness.

The wonderful vocal melodies in "Blank Sheets" and the dramatic "White-Out Conditions" also make for great music. --review courtesy of Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order the album from here.

Concluding Remarks

We have endeavoured to introduce Musical Discoveries readers to the music of Bel Canto in this feature. The project spanned several months of work and numerous contacts with Bel Canto's management whom we could not have completed the project without. We are indebted to Eivind Brydøy and Anneli Drecker for their contributions.

Bel Canto's music will appeal to the majority of our visitors. Interested readers should also explore Anneli's solo material and further recordings with A-ha. For those that have not yet heard Bel Canto, the Retrospect album provides a superb introduction to their material. Clearly worth a trans-Atlantic journey, the music of Bel Canto--spanning their entire career as the article above does--is a must listen!

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