by Emily Strong
Twenty years and six months ago, a group of young, restless, and talented musicians in the world's northernmost national capital decided to form a band called the Sugarcubes and a record label called Smekkleysa. Meaning bad taste, Smekkleysa has anything but that; to the contrary, it has been directly responsible for the cultural and musical explosion in Reykjavik over the past two decades, and has nurtured the talents of an impressive number of aspiring artists, the result of which is a scene that has made the rest of the world sit up and take notice. With Reykjavik's population barely clearing 190,000, its music community is disproportionately large and its musicians are of an unexpectedly high caliber. Of the 50-something bands I was able to listen to while researching the scene, 47 of them were good enough that I wanted to review them. Unfortunately, I can only cover a few of them, but Iceland holds enough treasure that I hope you will be inspired to do a little hunting of your own after this.
Björk bjork.com The mother of Icelandic independent music.
Sigur Rós sigur-ros.is The father of Icelandic independent music.
Múm randomsummer.com The good sons.
Singapore Sling myspace.com/singaporesling The prodigal sons.
If you've seen Sigur Rós perform live lately, chances are good that you've seen Amiina. Not only have they been Sigur Rós' opening act since the beginning of 2005, they've also been the band's string section in many shows as well. Their own music, however, is not some cheap imitation of their tourmates'. Having met at the Reykjavik School of Music in the 1990s, they are a string quartet that utilizes whatever objects they can find to create the atmosphere they desire. From office bells to crystal glasses to bowed saws to whatever else you could imagine, they use the world around them to create a new one as bright and delicate as the morning frost.
Former lead singer of the now-defunct band Maus, Birgir Orn Steinarsson has now struck out on his own with a stunning solo debut, Id. Playing with what he calls the Bigital Orchestra, his music is a combination of programming, guitars, drums, glockenspiel, oboe, violin, cello, accordion, keys, flute, and of course, his voice, which effortlessly vacillates between Icelandic and English. I would call it beautiful, but gorgeous doesn't even begin to describe it. Simply put, it's the kind of music you'll pay import prices for, and while you wait for your CD to arrive, you'll listen to the same four songs on MySpace over and over and over.
[See also the projects of other former members of Maus: Sometime (myspace.com/sometimegroup) and Fræ (myspace.com/eydileggjumokkur)]
Daníel Ágúst daniel.is
Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson, formerly of the highly successful trip-hop act GusGus, has recently released his debut solo album, Swallowed A Star. Veering away from the dance-friendly beats of his former band, Haraldsson has presented the world with a charmingly accessible yet alluringly sophisticated orchestral-pop record. Signed to One Little Indian in the UK, he has already garnered quite a bit of positive attention in Europe. It's only a matter of time before his music crosses over to the United States.
[See also GusGus (gusgus.com)]
I can't imagine this band not becoming hugely popular. With more hooks than a bait shop and vocals that soar and swoop like a hawk, the whole world is their prey, and we will all be devoured.
Hailed as one of the best new soloists of 2006, with appearances on The O.C. and MTV2, Eberg is on the verge of a major break, and deservedly so. With a sparkling personality and tongue-in-cheek wit that shines through the digital coldness of laptop bleeps and vocal effects, Eberg has created a surprisingly warm sophomore album. Icelandic onomatopoeia for a dog's bark, VoffVoff is a testament to his heart, humor, and talent.
When Einar Örn, formerly of the Sugarcubes, collaborates with multi-instrumentalist and producer Curver to create Ghostigital, nobody really knows what to expect. If this were a sci-fi film, Ghostigital would be the vortex in space where all of pop culture gets sucked in and is flung back out, compressed and distorted, too weird and wonderful to recognize.
[See also Curver's other projects: Sometime (myspace.com/sometimegroup) and Evil Madness (myspace.com/evil666madness)]
As an Icelandic man living in Norway signed to a British label playing music heavily influenced by American bands, it's no wonder that Gisli is a little difficult to pin down. Apparently unconcerned with being easily categorized, he writes songs that vary so much from one to another that they cast a broad net, allowing practically anyone who listens to hear something they like. From Jack Johnson to Eels to Beck to The Streets, he bounces around in delightfully unpredictable ways, making the anticipation of what you'll hear next all part of the fun.
For a bunch of boys who aren't even old enough to drink in the States, Jakobínarína is incredibly well put together. Their explosive performance at SXSW last year blew away the above-capacity crowd, and their recorded music is no different. Packed with the same balance of energy and professionalism, they play hyperactive dance-punk in the vein of Devo and The Futureheads with clean edges and razor-sharp precision that belies their youth. Definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Jóhann Jóhannsson johannjohannsson.com
Jóhann Jóhannsson has built a name for himself throughout Europe as a composer of modern classical music infused with electronic experimentalism. Although his music exudes a certain elegiac dignity that commands a stillness and respect from the listener that no popular music ever could, it nevertheless achieves a beauty and empathy where most experimental music falls short. He truly is one of a kind.
[See also Jóhann's side project, Evil Madness (myspace.com/evil666madness)]
This is a band that has endeared itself to me by breaking all the rules of indie rock hipsterdom, and yet coming out at the end as hip as any of Williamsburg's elite buzz bands. Wearing their 1970s prog rock influences on their sleeves and in some cases, tattooed on their chests they aren't afraid to use old tricks to create new sounds. They wear what they want, they play what they want, they say what they want, and they fully expect you to like it. And they are not wrong. Blasting onto the scene with reckless self-confidence and unabashed eagerness, it's easier to dislike a litter of playful puppies than this group.
My Summer as a Salvation Soldier myspace.com/mysummerasasalvationsoldier
The boy-guitar-laptop triumvirate is not a new invention, but like all singer/songwriters before and after the advent of laptop music, some are more worthwhile than others. My Summer as a Salvation Soldier, a.k.a. Þórir Georg Jónsson, takes all the components of glitch-folk and uses them to write music that speaks the language of human nature. Jónsson's phlegmatic, confiding voice utters one-sided dialogues that require an emotional investment, making active listeners from even the most incidental bystanders. It is no surprise, then, that his debut album, I Believe in This, was hailed as one of the best debut albums in Iceland's history. With a second album, Anarchists Are Hopeless Romantics, under his belt and a third album on the way, it looks to be a very long, glorious summer for this particular salvation soldier.
As you might have guessed by the exclamation point in their name, Reykjavik! are very excited about what they do, and are intent on spreading their enthusiasm to anyone who will listen. They cheerfully blur the edges between noise rock and art punk, screaming and howling their way through three-minute explosions of sound. With such passion and joie de vivre, their energy is indeed contagious. So, watch out: Reykjavik! are coming to get you!
Definitely my all-time favorite band to come out of Iceland, Seabear's music is difficult to define but easy to describe. Moody but hopeful folk with a shiny synth raincoat, it both thrives in and protects against the cold, rainy gloom of the arctic north. Originally the solo project of Sindri Mar Sigfusson, who played all the instruments and sang all but some of the background vocals on his 2004 debut, Singing Arc EP, Seabear has since gained popularity on its home turf and throughout Europe, and has subsequently acquired two new members: guitarist Örn Ingi and a charming little violinist who goes simply by the name Guggý. They are in the process of recording a new album, which is set to be released on Berlin-based label Morr Music.
[See also Sindri's side project, RokRef (myspace.com/rokref)]
Shadow Parade shadowparade.com
Though many bands usually move from acoustic instruments to a more electronic sound, Shadow Parade started off as a digital duo that converted to acoustic instruments with the addition of four new members. Now, with music as darkly beautiful and brooding as their name and the impending international release of their debut LP, Dubious Intentions, they are poised to march their haunting melodies right across the globe.
Storsveit Nix Noltes nixnoltes.tk
Imagine twelve people onstage with an array of instruments rarely seen outside of orchestras or marching bands, playing what can only be described as a cross between rock and Eastern European folk music, feverishly dancing all the while. Strangely fascinating.
[See also cellist Hildur's side project, Lost In Hildurness (myspace.com/hildurness)]
There are countless other local bands from the Reykjavik area who are worth mentioning, and I regret not having the time, space, or attention span to feature them all; however, the following resources will help you to go forth and discover more of what Reykjavik has to offer. I encourage you to do so.
Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) smekkleysa.net
12 Tónar 12tonar.is
Pineapple Records pineapplerecords.net
Kitchen Motors this.is/kitchenmotors
Bad Taste Record Store smekkleysa.is
Iceland Airwaves icelandairwaves.com
General information about Reykjavik reykjavik.com
All about Icelandic music, culture, and community musik.is/dofine.html