For a country with a population of 330,000 – and a total area of 102,000km2 (in comparison, England has a total area of 130,000km2 and a population of 54 million) – Iceland has a remarkable musical heritage. Obviously it goes back a long way, Iceland having a well-recorded history going back into the first millenium BC, and some of that folk music developed over a long period is covered at the exceptional Skógar Museum in the south of the island (founded by Þórður Tómasson, now well into his nineties and I believe still going strong).
That music, and the historical isolation of an island so hard to reach before air travel became viable, meant that things clearly developed in a different way to elsewhere. To foreign ears, certainly in the UK, too, the Icelandic language sounds like nothing else, with little context and barely any loan words. So many Icelandic bands that came to global prominence, starting with The Sugarcubes in the eighties, sounded rather exotic and different. It is something a number of the bands here have played on, perhaps, but it is true that many of the artists featured have taken established styles and put a very unusual spin on them.
I’ve been to Iceland twice over the past fifteen years, and long to return again to explore more of a fascinating country (and indeed more of the local music scene firsthand) – and the Sólstafir show in London this coming weekend got me thinking about the fascinating Icelandic music I’ve bought over the years, hence this post. The photos within this week’s post are my own work, from my latest trip there four years ago, in 2012.
Of all of the major artists who dominated the nineties – and Björk Guðmundsdóttir was undoubtedly one of them – absolutely none of them came even close to the individuality and crazy experimentation of her work. Her early singles were a fascinating spin on the fashionable electronics and post-rave culture of the time, but it took her no time at all to explore just about any route available, and every album since has been different. There have been amazing videos, films, remix collections, the odd collaboration, high fashion, high-profile relationships and other things besides, including amazing multimedia work in more recent times. Her fearless experimentation has not always worked, granted, but is there any other artist anywhere that is so fascinating when they break boundaries?
I remember my dad playing Birthday in 1987, and nine year old me was very, very confused. What were these weird, screechy vocals? Those odd basslines? Nope, I didn’t get it at all. Indeed it took me until Björk’s Debut until I caught on, and suddenly Birthday and Hit all made glorious sense.
While Björk was the main vocalist in The Sugarcubes, her bandmate Einar Örn was also a major part of the band, adding additional, often bizarre, vocals and trumpet to the distinctly odd sound that the band cultivated. That odd, chaotic sound – their punk origins made for more than a bit of an “anything goes” attitude – has made sure that the band have remained absolutely unique, and I’ve only ever heard one cover of one of their songs, led by Jo, now of Desperate Journalist, to amazing effect.
Just because they don’t come from a country that is associated with a warm climate, doesn’t mean that the music has to be cold too. GusGus have always had an unexpected warmth to their techno/electronic sound, although as early single Ladyshave helped to make very clear, they had a sense of humour too…
Anyway, the band: more of a loose collective, various other things have spun out from their twenty year career, including the solo artist Emilíana Torrini and an entire filmmaking arm too. In addition Biggi Veira (Birgir Þórarinsson) has worked closely in recent years with John Grant, producing his exceptional album Pale Green Ghosts (which also used a number of local, Icelandic musicians to record it).
I remember first stumbling across this band when someone played me Modern Haircuts from Jesus Christ Bobby. A track that starts out as a simple bass/drum rhythm with a nagging guitar line..before a short breath and then all hell breaks loose, as it sounds like each member of the band are playing to be louder than the other, and while they are doing this they are throwing their instruments around the room. While Krummi roars “THE HAIRCUT THAT I WANT HAS ALREADY DIED”. Uh-huh.
(Note: Spotify has the tracks mis-labeled. What is marked as Misdo is actually Modern Haircuts).
After that album – and what was something of an international breakthrough – they did seem to mellow their sound somewhat. I say somewhat – there was still hardcore-rock going on, but there were melodies, properly audible vocals, and a sense that there was a general sense of order to their sound. A shame, really, as the dangerous sound of yore was amazing. They have long since gone on hiatus, and vocalist Krummi went off and did some solo work, before starting an electro band, apparently out of nowhere.
…and this band was Legend. They made a splash in Iceland first, before Artoffact snapped them up for elsewhere, and after hearing early singles Sister and City (and their striking videos), I was utterly hooked (and it was in my top three for 2012: Best albums). The sound is something of a dramatic take on gothic synthpop, but from the point of a view of a band that usually play guitars but have switched to synths. In other words, it is less sterile-sounding that some synthpop can be, with many songs having sweeping, epic structures, and they hit hard with many massive hooks. Live, the band are perhaps even better, and album number two is finally in the works at the moment. It can’t come soon enough.
There are a surprising number of post-rock bands from Iceland, but Sigur Rós are by far the best-known to the mainstream – partly for their extensive use in soundtracks. As I’m sure by now you’ve noticed, though, like other artists from Iceland, what they do is not exactly adhering to trends. Although described as ‘post-rock’, Sigur Rós incorporate sweeping classical movements, falsetto vocals, piano, and are maybe closer to the dreamy, stargazing side of avant-garde than anything. But either way, the blissed-out sound clearly lends itself well to cinematic moments, whether they originally intended it to or not…
Or in English, “puke”. But don’t let the band’s name distract you – they are actually a very good, and slightly quirky, post-punk band, who use established post-punk styles (the basslines in particular), but throw caution to the wind when needed by way of taking unexpected side-steps into thread-like melodies, or shouting from the rooftops accompanied by killer riffs. Recent single Your Head Is My Ground contains all of this, and going on the video, appears to also show a wicked sense of humour too. The video contains cross-dressing, glitter beards and some very strange interpretations of a fairytale or two…
A band we initially discovered in 2012 thanks to the recommendation of our Reykjanes peninsula tour guide, who put on their debut album for us (long before it got to the UK – although it was already a US hit by then), they might be considered an unexpected band for me to like. Quirky, melodic folk-rock, with fantastical visions and metaphors in the songs, and spectacular videos to match them, too. Their second album didn’t have half the impact of the first, though, sadly.
An “Atmospheric Icelandic Rock and Roll” band, in their words, and they have come a hell of a way from their origins as a Black Metal band. A recurring theme this week, but again this is a band who’ve strayed a long way from the usual path, and now specialise in near-shoegaze based rock, but with the cold, frostbitten edge of the Icelandic winter nights, and an emoticnal core that makes for some extraordinary songs.
Links to other Icelandic bands – again – have come to prominence, too, with a split 7″ with Legend a year or two back, where they covered the other band’s best-known song (so Legend covered the majestic Fjara, while Sólstafir covered Runaway Train), and then just recently a video was released of the two bands joining forces at last on Runaway Train. I kinda hoped that maybe they might bring Legend over for the show on Saturday (where Ótta is played in full, with a string section, followed by other songs), but I suspect it’s a vain hope…
While Sólstafir have long since left their Black Metal roots behind, there has been quite a scene building over the past decade or so within Iceland, and it seems that some of these bands are now getting recognised overseas. The Eistnaflug festival in July – possibly the most remote festival in Europe, in the small eastern Iceland village of Neskaupstaður, some 700km from Reykjavik and nine hours drive at least (or an expensive internal flight and then drive) – has helped to push that recognition, I’d suspect, as word has spread about how good the festival is, and the additional clout that brings has resulted in none other than Meshuggah and Opeth headlining this year.
But back to the Icelanders, and a recent Terrorizer scene report assisted with working out which bands are currently active, and who is part of what. My takeaway is that it seems to be that they are all interlinked in some way, and there are some cracking bands involved, including Misþyrming.
Their debut album (Söngvar elds og óreiðu, or Songs of Fire and Chaos in English) came out last year, and it is a white-hot blast of black metal fury from the off. Little in the way of bombastic intros, it is underpinned by blastbeats most the way – aside from the odd dark ambient interlude where it sounds like they burnt the studio to the ground while they were still recording in it – and sounds awesome. There is also a fascinating interview with one of the band on Noisey from last year.