New Music From Iceland
Iceland's Musical Exports Take You on a Spritual Journey Unlike Any Other
November 18, 2005
Iceland, an isolated island perched in the North Atlantic above the Arctic Circle is home to a mere 290,000 individuals who strive to survive yet another blistering cold winter. Through the deafening icy blast of air that constantly surrounds and engulfs this mysteriously beautiful country, a tone begins to emerge out from the geysers and blizzards. At first glance, one might think that the winds are beginning to sing of their celestially arctic sorrows. One’s ear begins to tingle, not with the sting of arctic breath, but from the vibration of sounds not heard before. It is at that moment when the beloved listener begins to believe that he or she is dreaming that they realize it is not the enchanting atmosphere of this transcendental piece of land that is resounding in their ears, but that of certain natives singing out into the night.
It seems that through this hyperborean country, the constant blowing of piercing wind has somehow fabricated several inhabitants into angelic composers of music that transcends every aspect of tones and notes previously known by humankind. It is no surprise, however, that the latter would ensue due to the fact of the hypnotic effect Iceland has on its inhabitants. This extremely interesting and unusual geographic setting is located in a geological hot spot, leaving this amazingly hypnotic countryside extremely active – which makes itself known in its inhabitant’s form of artistic expression. Could it be that the gods controlling Hekla, the country’s most active volcano, are spewing more than just melting rock? It is the extremes of this vast landscape that beckons its natives to begin to slowly transform themselves into their environment. Going from a volcanic intensity of a thousand suns to the uninhabitable glaciated deserts of the Highlands of Iceland. Beyond the environments capabilities to capture and swoon one’s mentality, Iceland’s literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and the love of literature, chess, and other intellectual pursuits is widespread throughout this magnificently enchanting country.
There have been two amazingly talented and spiritually focused artists to emerge out of the dream induced landscapes of Iceland – Björk and Sigur Rós. Though these two artists are from the same part of this breathtakingly beautiful country, their music styles are deafeningly different. It is obvious when observing the foundation of their musical dwelling that the cement is of the same grade, but the color and texture of each foundation are as diverse as night and day. The glorious sounds that secrete from their souls are to be compared differently. Even though Björk has become more of a celebrity between the two artists, Sigur Rós has begun to engrave themselves a star on the Walk of Fame through the chisel of euphoria that penetrates their albums.
But if one was to find themselves in their local record store with only enough money to purchase a single album which musical genius should the melody hunter choose? Through the cultural success Björk has obtained, one might find oneself reaching for her diverse selection of CDs. And why not, she is an amazingly talented and vocally gifted artist. Born and raised in Iceland, she has definitely not strayed far from her celestial roots of embracing the notion that music should take oneself to another level. It is a fact that no other solo artist has produced a more mesmerizing concoction of schizophrenic melodies. It’s her unique ability to combine several different elements of music genres into one massive theatrical production for the ears that will utterly consume the listener.
Björk has been producing symphonic melodies since the tender age of eleven, when she released an album of cover tunes ranging from The Beatles classic “Fool on the Hill” to Stevie Wonder’s song “Your Kiss is Sweet.” The album also featured original songs written by various Icelandic songwriters. Oddly enough, for such a talented songwriter, Björk did not write any of the tracks on this album. From there she moved on to other works, forming a band entitled “The Sugarcubes” which became Iceland’s largest musical export up to that time. The group was formed in 1986, and although had much success, they dismembered in 1992. It was through this tragically ordained dismantle that Björk started her solo career.
Before moving to London after “The Sugarcubes” fell apart, Björk studied classical music at a local university. It is this formulation of classical music that becomes evident in her most influential works of art. Her intensive study of classical music along with the absorption of house music and other various techno beats begin to make a harmonious blend in her second album as a solo artist. In this celebrated album entitled “Post” Björk used this beautiful and unique stylistic approach to her artist work by successfully using her own blend of music to write and produce the hit “Hyperballad.”
It is the element of surprise and originality that Björk embodies in this song that stirs the soul and inspires you to think beyond the spoken lyrics. Upon listening to this amazingly haunting track, the music lover will be overcome by emotions. “Hyperballad” is a song about humans weighing all of their options, including death, to realize the importance that the role of their loved one has in their life. It is the bringing oneself to brink of insanity in order to come to the realization that their partner is the one thing that contains their sanity. Beautifully sang and written this song stirs the mind to comprehend that we as humans sometimes must bring ourselves to the point of no return to understand that we do want to return.
Along with being an amazingly talented singer, Björk is also an extremely celebrated actress. She has won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her contribution to the film “Dancer In The Dark.” It is clear that her talent is not limited to the confines of music as so many American artists are. Could it be that the stars that cover Iceland’s crystal clear sky have bestowed upon Björk a talent from days gone by? She is truly a rare seed in the vast generic fields of the entertainment industry. In the opening title page of the book entitled “Björk – A Project by Björk” it begins with a fascinating “definition” of this astonishingly talented soul, “Björk: Artist. Species: human (-ish), sex: female, natural habitat: an ocean of sound, outstanding characteristic: instinctive curiosity.”
Our eyes now opened to the world of Björk, in all it’s amazing splendor, what about Sigur Rós? Could this out of the ordinary band possibly compete with the poignant beauty of Björk? With over one million records sold internationally I believe the answer to that is a resounding yes. Fellow Icelanders Jon Thor Birgisson, whose amazing vocal range and breathtaking guitar playing sets him apart from the masses, bassist Georg Holm, and drummer Agust formed Sigur Rós in early 1994. The name of the group was inspired in part by the sister of one of the musicians, and it is beautifully translated into meaning “Victory Rose” which completely unifies the sound and message this trio embodies.
It was only time before the recording industry became aware of Sigur Rós and their edgy and organic material. Though only teenagers, their first recorded song earned them a recording deal with Iceland’s Bad Taste label. They released their first LP entitled “Von” (hope) in 1997 which was quickly followed a year later by a remix of this beautiful album coined “Recycle Bin.” It was only when their 1999 album “Ágætis Byrjun” (Good Start) was released that the trio truly reached recognition for their contribution to the music world. It was with this platinum selling album that they became a recognizable name around the world, and not just within the frozen confines of Iceland. After releasing “Ágætis Byrjun” Iceland declared this magnificent piece of art Iceland’s Best Album of the Century.
With the average song lasting over seven minutes long, Sigur Rós experiments with simple instruments, and transforms them into thunderous crescendos of high-pitched vocals with such intensity and spirituality that it will shake the soul of the listener. It is literally impossible to try to pigeon-hold a single song into one genre, due to the fact that the song may span several genres or musical approaches. Though it is in the least melodramatic moments of these tracks that Sigur Rós truly reveals its true poetic genius. With the tender melody of a repetitive piano chord accompanied by the slowly increasing drone of some unknown source, it begins to drown the audience in a lagoon of emotional turmoil. The ghostly voices that swirl above the delicate guitar eventually coalesce into a two-voice psalm, first soaring and then decaying, this adds a supernatural quality to their cinematic watercolors. There is an element to every song that evokes some primal feeling from its listener. With the ambiance sculpting of rhythmic progression this band delves into the emotional element of every note played. Sigur Rós has truly mastered the art of connecting a listener’s physical ear to their spiritual eyes.
Sigur Rós made a spark on the music scene in Cameron Crowe’s film “Vanilla Sky.” Though this huge step for the trio did not make them an easy fit in Hollywood. This being because they insist on controlling their art, and in an industry where recording companies more or less owned performers, devising and controlling their repertoires and packaging them for mass consumption, Sigur Rós represents the new relationship between performers and record companies. The evidence of the group’s individualism is in their album titled (). On the cover of this album there are no words, just parentheses, this shows the true artistic freedom that this band demands. From the editors of Amazon.com they offered a very distinct review of Sigur Rós, “Very few bands can actually change the way you look at music and the way it can affect you emotionally. Sigur Rós is one of those bands.”
Both of these musical entrepreneurs have their positive qualities as well as their negative ones. Björk’s music is obviously more commercialized than Sigur Rós, but the latter can also probe too deep into the spirituality and openness of music than the majority of consumers are used to, or even comfortable with. The ultimate decision is that of the customer, but there is one thing that is certain, with either choice be prepared to be swept away to an unknown and mysterious world within oneself – also known as Iceland.