fimmtudagur, febrúar 22, 2007

Icelandic music

ICELAND MUSIC - an evolving guide

A LOT HAS BEEN SAID ALREADY about Iceland's creative and original music scene, and I don't want to add to this bulging body of truisms and old cliches. I'm not out to convert people to the joys of the Iceland music scene, because frankly I'd prefer to see it kept a secret. In a world where rock music has become corporatised and homogenous and bland ("Planet MTV, Sponsored By Enron-Lite"), it is thrilling to find isolated, localised scenes where the old innonence and creativity is still alive. Iceland is one such place (Greenland is another). On the Internet there are websites where you can download music recorded by Icelandic bands which don't even have a record deal, and probably never will -- but which sound wicked and cool, with original styles and rocking energy. On this site I want to pay homage to some of these bands which have entertained me, enriched me, even though they got nothing from me in return (until now!) On this site I want to provide information for people who have become interested in Iceland music through their introduction to more established names such as Björk and Sigur Ros. The interesting thing is that the deeper you delve into the Icelandic rock scene, the better it gets. The creativity is bottomless, inexhaustible. There is definitely an Icelandic "sound" which is hard to describe in words -- is it the jangly guitars? For such a small country, there is such an awesome array of good bands. I feel like an explorer, discovering a lost world, a world completely forgotten by MTV and Enron-Lite.
Listening to all the new Icelandic music on the Net, it is always interesting to listen for the influences, to see from where and from whom the new inspirations in Icelandic music is coming from. It becomes inevitable after some time spent listening to Icelandic music, to hear the influence of Mogwai coming through.

Finally We Are No OneFinally We Are No One by Múm
FINDING A GOOD NAME for something -- or someone -- is always the hardest thing. To sum up the spirit of a work of art with a short name takes real skill, and I always admire those who are able to do it. Recently I purchased a copy of the CD "Finally We Are No One", by Múm -- my first introduction to the Icelandic band. Within just a short time of listening I was overwhelmed by the strangest feeling (admittedly I had drunk a particularly strong batch of ginseng juice from the neighbourhood Korean shop, and was under its smart drug spell.) But anyway, the feeling was real, and in an abstract, intuitive way, I could understand what this rather strange title actually means. Finally We Are No One. Finally, after so much trying, we can annihilate ourselves -- we can annihilate the ego -- in a burst of Zenlike joy. The ecstasy of dissolving oneself. That is what this CD is about. Yoda or Buddha might have said that deep down, "we are all one", but Múm take things even further, state things even truer -- in truth we are not even "one", we are no one. And this is a magnificent realisation to reach -- the state the Japanese call "satori".
According to Mark Richard-san's review at pitchfork media, Múm's sound lacks a "sense of struggle". "They're almost too good at making simple, pretty music at this point, and the tracks content to pursue these qualities alone come across as fluffy. With the digital aspect of the sound played down in favor of uncomplicated acoustic melodies, Múm seems just a bit less substantial," he concludes. But I think Richard-san is missing something -- there is a sense of struggle in this work, it is just a kind of struggle he doesn't understand. There is a tension here, but is the tension of disappearance, dissolution -- the heroic journey towards self-annullment. You can hear it in the song "Green Grass of Tunnel" in which the narrator rises up through the ground towards what? -- Nirvana no doubt! The direction of this album is always up...

Unlike some of the bands to be featured on this website, Ulpa does indeed have a record deal, and have built up a fan base. According to the StarPolish website, Ulpa is a "a hard-working foursome that serves up a healthy dose of guitar-driven indie rock that somehow manages to mix in elements of their many influences -- everything from heavy metal to theatrical-style ballads -- while keeping it all honest and, more importantly, unique and interesting". I agree with that, and I will add that among Ulpa's influences, I can discern an interest -- which I share -- with the Norwegian 80s band Aha. In fact, it was Aha which got me interested in Scandinavia and Iceland to begin with (or maybe I was there in a past life). Up until recently, on their website you can listen to a beautiful song featuring Aha's former lead singer Morten Harket -- "Mokkadur Madkur", a haunting, slightly bluesy account of a failed relationship, with the vocies of the two male vocalists mixing together sublimely, Harket a little on the grizzly side. The song is at once folsky and rustic but shining with the electricity of the Aha of the early 80s, when the band dazzled the world with its cold Nordic pop. The lyrics in this song are also pure Harkett, once again demonstrating the Norwegian's uncanny ability to bring out the etheral in the mundane.
Not only is Ulpa obviously infleunced by Aha's frontman, but its lead vocalist Magnus Leifur Sveinsson can sometimes sound like him. On their perhaps most famous song to date, "Dinzl", Sveinsson manages to recall the soaring angelic vocals of early Aha. The song itself is a driving, icy, killer track -- Icelandic to its core, evocative of life in that gloomy and jagged and crystalline land, Sveinsson's athletic voice rising like a ghost above the hard-eged guitar...
On their website Ulpa describe their sound as "space guitar driven Indie rock from the top drawer, that is influenced by everything, but still sounds like nothing you've ever heard before." I agree with that assessment, and can discern something of a David Bowie influence in their track "Attempted Flight". The website continues to say: "When the debut album Mea Culpa was released in Iceland in the fall of 2001, Ulpa had already become a house-hold name in the music scene and shared stage with artists such as Stephen Malkmus, Blonde Redhead, Trans Am and The Fucking Champs. A limited edition single that preceded the full-length album was also a shock hit and was aired quite often on Icelandic radio in the following weeks. The album, recorded by Valgeir Sigurdsson (best known for his work with Björk) didn't disappoint, although some had probably hoped it would be more mainstream. It took some time for it to sink in and, instead of fading away, it just became better and better to the listener-a true measure of a good album. They are now working on their second album which is in the final stages of completion."
I can hardly wait until the album comes out, and provide a review here.


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