Post-Bjork: New Music from Iceland
These three bands, like their trailblazing mistress before them, contribute to the musical universe with experimentation.
It's highly likely that we all know (and love) that multi-talented pixie/fairy/woman-child Björk, Iceland's biggest export since the Vikings. But while she's branching out into acting with the critically acclaimed film, Dancer in the Dark, other names from her frosty island are beginning to take root in America. Some possess residual traces of her electronic influence while others imitate patently American styles. Either way, it's nice to see this tiny nation continue to provide the world with offbeat artists.
Perhaps most akin to the techno-pop princess's lineage are the players in the quartet, Mum. Comprised of two guys and two girls with names that make "Björk" look like "cat," Mum blends programming know-how with classical training. The band's 2000 self-titled debut leads off with "Zero Gravity," a bouncy opener laced with subtle strings. It's the kind of track that makes newcomers wonder whether or not the rest of the album maintains the feel. It does, but if you need more convincing, check out their sophomore effort, Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is Ok. The second track, "Smell Memory", utilizes the tiniest of sampled phrases to piece together a coherent mosaic; it is a sonic bridge from the ear to the psyche, built with bits and pieces of static but with a hook resembling a marble of pure electricity bouncing on linoleum. Mum's third album, released earlier this year, takes experimentation further. Finally We Are No One tends to test the listener a bit more. Slow moving crescendos of multi-layered textures open most tracks and the title track, buried deep in the play list, is no exception.
Slowing things down even further is the more traditional quartet, Sigur Ros (Victory Rose). Four guys blend guitars, drums, and keyboards into a snowdrift of shimmering sound. The guitars manage to stay in the background as heavily processed drones, sometimes manipulated by a cello bow in a Jimmy Page fashion. The band released two albums in Iceland from 1997-98, Von and Von Brigoi, the latter being a remix of the former and featuring one track retooled by Mum. In 1999 the band released its second full-length disc, Agaetis Byrjun (A Good Beginning). This album features the highly successful "Svefn-G-Englar" (Sleepwalkers), which also appears on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. Brushed drums, moaning feedback, and the trademark falsetto of lead singer/guitarist Jonsi make this the perfect introduction to the band's modus operandi. Also "Flugufrelsarinn", the fourth track from Agaetis, illustrates the power of the dirge with rising drama and a rare switch from girly vocals to more manly vocals. Currently Sigur Ros tours Europe and will be appearing at Virgin Records' V Fest in England this August. But if you go make sure to have your Icelandic-English dictionary handy because, in case you hadn't noticed, all titles and lyrics are in their native tongue.
Quarashi moves away from the experimental world of whole notes and half tones and are very unlike Bjork. Built on a foundation laid by Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, this quartet aspires to drag rap-metal out of its ditch of cliches and breathe new life into the white rapper. Hössi Olafsson fronts the group, backed by Omar Swarez and Stoney Fjelsted. Sölvi Blondal not only provides the beats on drum kit but also produces in the studio. Although seasoned with two albums in Iceland, the group's U.S. debut on Sony really raised international eyebrows. Jinx (2002) features "Stick 'Em Up" as the single, a track also adopted by the Orange County soundtrack. It's a pretty standard tune, instantly accessible to anyone with a penchant for aggro posing or Adidas rock. It doesn't hurt that mixing guru Brenden O'Brien appears in the credits, along with Howie Weinberg on the mastering end, but traces of individuality do surface in the album. "Tarfur", billed by the band as the first rap song written and performed totally in Icelandic, makes even the most skeptical listener's head bob. The vocals sound weird, almost like talking backwards, but work in the end with the combination of some funked-up guitar and soothing female vocals. A lot of critics dismiss Quarashi as too much like the current American formula for success: give some moderately talented rockers a sampler and huge studio budget and see how well they can make a hip hop album. But if the group can take what's good in songs like "Tarfur" and develop it across the length of their next album, then this definitely won't be the last we hear from them.
The title "Iceland" is a misnomer. So is "Greenland". In fact, Iceland contains more green than Greenland and vice versa with ice. The names were given by crafty settlers hoping to reserve prime locations for their ilk and leave others chasing geese. Experimental music does the same thing: it scares off the impatient but rewards the intrepid. These three bands, like their trailblazing mistress before them, contribute to the musical universe with experimentation. Mum, to paraphrase Geddy Lee from Rush, present electronic music honestly and therefore remain open-hearted. Sigur Ros demonstrate alternative paths available to guitar-minded males. Quarashi incorporates their cultural heritage into a very foreign genre. It's going to be very hot outside soon, but one can benefit from relaxing indoors and taking the time to experiment firsthand the cool tunes afforded by these three bands.