Colorful Music To A Nordic Backdrop
Iceland has introduced some notably odd things to the rest of the world. A massive air travel-disrupting plume of ash. A delicacy known as "svi," or boiled sheep's head. And, of course, there's always Björk. But economic collapse, coupled with a small, supportive scene has brought on a blitzkrieg of new music, ranging from club fare to heady orchestrals to self-aware -- and often pantless -- electropop. Here's a look at the new, quirky face of Iceland.
The first thing you notice when visiting Iceland is its alien landscape; it’s spookily devoid of trees and other obvious signs of life. There’s the soothing, otherworldly calm of its myriad natural hot springs. Yet in nearby Thingvellir park, there’s evidence of an enormous volcanic rift that slices though the island near its midsection, two massive plates pulling in opposite directions. Geologically speaking, it’s a land in the middle of tearing itself apart.
It’s hard to avoid such dramatic metaphors when describing Iceland’s current music scene. Much like its bizarre and beautiful topography, on a human scale, Iceland’s culture is both muted and refined, but it can also be incredibly fierce. And it’s these dynamic, opposing forces that make Iceland’s music scene so fascinating, exhilarating and maddeningly diverse.
There is no singular Icelandic “sound” to speak of — though there’s no mistaking Björk’s iconic voice or the swelling orchestral pomp of Sigur Rós and Jonsi. With artists running the gamut from lush indie folk (Sin Fang) to sweetheart acoustic pop (Lára Rúnars) to rave-y dubstep-influenced techno (Jungle Fiction), there’s no exploring music here without being open to genres you might’ve dismissed out of hand in the past.
Iceland’s economic woes mirror that of the rest of Europe, but Iceland actually went over the brink in 2008: its three main banks folded and its citizens literally fired the government, while bankers implicated in the crash fled the country. (There’s an “Occupy Reykjavik” currently in the works.) Iceland may be deeply in debt, but some think the impact on the music scene has been, if anything, positive. “We never had any money to begin with,” laughs Haukur Magnússon, editor of the English-language paper The Reykjavik Grapevine. “There’s more music now if anything, as some people are unemployed and playing more.” And this spirit of playful lawlessness is evident in music like that of electropop group FM Belfast (above), who dedicated an entire song to the glory of pantlessness.
I had a chance to visit Iceland back in 2002, for the second edition of the now-annual Airwaves festival, a SXSW-style music event based in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. From those early days the festival has evolved into a five day and night affair, with bands and DJs performing everywhere from clubs and bars to airplane hangers to the new Opera House, where Björk made her Airwaves debut this year with her new musical project, Biophilia.
Iceland’s tiny size (its total population is about 320,000, around the size of Pittsburgh) and geographic isolation has lead to a very tight-knit artistic community, so many musicians tag-team in each others’ bands. “Because the scene is so small here, there’s always one drummer that plays in like eight different bands,” says Jón Trausti Sigarðarson, a passionate local fan. “But no band wants to be like anyone else’s band either.” So it makes sense that, sonically speaking, Icelandic groups often have little in common save the people who play in them. The neoclassical composer Ólafur Arnalds, for example, might be best known for his delicate piano-and-string instrumental compositions, but he also plays drums in the hardcore band Fighting Sh*t, while producing leftfield minimal techno records as one half of the group Kiasmos. His sister, singer-songwriter-violinist Ólöf Arnalds, plays with the experimental indiepop band Mum, but her solo work is feathery folk set alight by whimsical vocals.
Because Iceland is so small, it is possible to absorb much of the local scene during a festival like Airwaves, where bands take advantage of a rare international press presence and squeeze in as many gigs as possible over the course of the event. “Airwaves is harvest season for Icelandic musicians — lots of people release albums around then and bands play up to five venues each festival,” said Magnússon. “We’re on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, so you can’t just drive to the next town — Airwaves is the only time for many bands to play in front of an international crowd,” he says.
In addition to his newspaper job, Magnússon plays guitar in the band Reykjavik!, whose driving, hook-fueled rock might represent more of the conventional (in a good way) music to be found here. “The music industry has changed [over the past decade], and so has the Airwaves festival,” said Magnússon “You used to play to get a record deal, but now people aren’t playing just for that purpose, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Top Photo Courtesy of FM Belfast