Dr. Gunni's List
Eight Icelandic bands you've probably never heard of (but should check)
Dr. Gunni is the author of Eru ekki allir i studi?, a huge book about the history of Icelandic rock (only available in Icelandic). He also runs Bad Taste Mail Order, where you can get all good things Icelandic. Aside from his solo work, he has been in the bands S.H.Draumur, Bless and Unun, which he is too modest to mention in this article. His new album, FLATUS LIFIR!, is coming in the fall.
Isolation and feeling unwanted were big factors for Icelandic musicians for a long while. This all changed with The Sugarcubes and Bjork, who opened the door for Sigur Ros, who opened still more doors for Mum, Stilluppsteypa, Quarashi, The Leaves and what have you. It seems all doors are currently wide open for Icelandic bands. Here are eight bands from Iceland's murky past that you've probably never heard of (but should check).
Hljomar / Thor's Hammer / Trubrot
Formed in 1963, Hljomar was the first real rock group in Iceland, and the first one to play original material. Dubbed "The Icelandic Beatles", their first releases were genuinely Beatles-influenced with a dash of Burt Bacharach-y pop. From 1965-1966, they changed their name to Thor's Hammer, started to play freaked-out, fuzz-drenched rock and tried to make it in Britain. This resulted in few rare singles (recently collected on a CD from Ace Records), but by the beginning of 1967 they fought waning popularity by going all soft and mushy-mushy.
They ruled Iceland with two LPs in 1967 and 1968. Those LPs have some original stuff and some covers with Icelandic lyrics. In 1969, the band evolved into Trubrot, soon to be the most popular group during the hippie years. Trubrot made four LPs. The third one, Lifun, is often called a masterpiece, but all their stuff is good if you like it early '70s style.
When Hljomar were too heavy for the Icelandic audience, Datar (The Marines) ruled the scene. The band played covers and light original songs written by their legendary singer, Runar Gunnarsson. Datar made two EPs but split up in 1967 just before the debut LP was supposed to come out. Runar committed suicide in 1972 after many years of mental illness. He was only 24 years old. Datar must be one of the most cursed bands ever, as only their bassist is alive today. The two guitarists committed suicide in 1967 and 1978, the keyboard-player died in a car accident in 1991 and the drummer died of cancer one year later.
A few Kinks-fans from the Kopavogur suburb found no current music to their liking until they discovered punk. So they decided to form the first punk band in Iceland (as late as 1978) and played their first gig solely to disgust their fellow Grease- and Meatloaf-loving students. Slowly they built up a following and continued to disgust and shock the Icelandic nation, especially left-wing punkers and the intelligentsia. Their 1980 album Viltu nammi vaena kicked various asses, but then the band became more pop oriented and finally split up in 1983. Playing under various names for the rest of the '80s and the early '90s, Fraebbblarnir reformed in 1996 following a CD reissue of their masterpiece and are still playing to this day.
The first all-female band in Iceland, formed by Ragnhildur "Ragga" Gisladottir in 1981. She had earlier sung with braindead sugar combos and did duets with the Icelandic Barry Manilow, Mr. Bo Halldorsson, but wanted to do more progressive and wild things with Grylurnar (The Hags). She did, and the band became popular on its own merits. They sounded like some crazy Japanese girl group, hopping on stage in wild costumes and had the 90%-male audience staring and slobbering. Grylurnar did one EP and the fine album, Mavastellid, before disbanding in 1983.
Formed by Einar, Orn and Bragi of later Sugarcubes-fame and two pals in 1981, PP had a motto they lived by: "It only matters what you DO, not what you are capable of doing". Three weeks after their first rehearsal/gig, the band recorded their debut ten song 7" EP "Tilf", and numerous gigs later they recorded their masterpiece, LP Ekki Enn in the fall. Autumn 1982 meant still another record; this time a double-12" EP/LP GooGooPlex.
PP's music was raw and powerful, hectic and strange, and it all had much to do with Einar Orn's madman performances and personal angst-ridden lyrics. Mark E. Smith fell in love with the band when he came with The Fall to Iceland in 1981. He asked PP to support The Fall on a UK tour in the autumn of 1982. During the trip, PP recorded their final EP (sung in English this time), No time to think, which came out in September 1982 after the band was already dead. The fireworks up their bums had finally died off.
This band had two girls up front singing and playing violin and sax and three boys in the back on bass, drums and guitar. The music was joyous and jumpy and sounded like a mix between the early '80s girl groups (Liliput, Raincoats, Slits, etc), Nancy Sinatra and Les Negres Vertes but maybe not. Reptile was one of the bands the Sugarcubes tried to push after they became known, and so Reptile toured the USA and released their album Fame and Fossils (1989). Despite good reviews, Reptile never broke through and slowly broke up while working on their second album, which didn't come out until some years later when the band made a short comeback. One of the lead singers is Magga Stina, who released a great solo album in 1998 and is hopefully coming out with a new album soonish.
Self-claimed "stupidest band alive" and widely recognized as "the ugliest band ever", Ham was fronted by two interesting-looking guys: the tall Sigurjon, who sounded like a medieval monk with lung cancer, and ever changing pimp/gimp Ottar, who rolled around on stage drunk and vomitingóoccasionally stopping to make a croaking sound like a frog. Ham started out as a Laibach/Swans-influenced doom-band in 1988 and had songs like "Transylvania" and "Missionary licker"; three years later they had been influenced by Metallica and The Cult and had great songs such as "Party Town" and "Bulldozer".
When they gave up in 1994, they were a bit influenced by perhaps Queen and Toto! Loved by people as diverse as Jello Biafra and Bjork, but never really breaking through, Ham tried to hit the jackpot in New York in the summer 1993, playing CBGB's and other holes. They came back broke and desperate and then decided to break up after one final gig in May 1994. Ham had never really released THE album they had in them, so the live CD from the final gig is the closest thing to THE album. At the first gig Bjˆrk did in Iceland after becoming a superstar (in August 1994), she asked the crowd to be silent for two minutes to mourn the depart of Ham. Unfortunately, most of the people did not know what the hell she was talking about.
Botnledja (a.k.a. Silt)
A trio of friends formed this band in 1994. They started as a grunge band but then developed toward a unique mix of rock and power and melodies. They supported Blur in 1996, and later Blur ripped off one of their songs and wrote "Song 2". Botnledja have made four albums so far, each a triumph and they are rehearsing for the fifth one. Currently liked by Jim from Sparta, Botnledja might be supporting Sparta on a UK tour this summer.
Botnledja is the only band on this list that is working today, but Iceland has plenty of great bands to offer: slow-experimentalists Nattfari, easy-slow-boys Sofandi, fun puppies Runk, experimental electro/world music pioneer Kippi Kaninus, arty rocker Egill, hard core experimentalists Minus, crazy mixing stylers Trabant... to name but a few and skipping the usual suspects. Check the action at the Smekkleysa website.