laugardagur, mars 24, 2007

What's on Magazine (Iceland Review) on Icelandic Rock

Rock in Reykjavik

It all began with The Sugarcubes. Ever since they were splashed over the front covers of the English music press back in the '80s, Iceland's reputation as a musical hotspot has consistently reached new levels. Icelandic music has been a hotbed for rock since the very early '80s with the emergence of post-punk bands Purrkur Pillnikk, KUKL and The Sugarcubes, the latter two starring Iceland's number one export: Björk.
Over the last 15 years or so, this sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic has produced a horde of bands: from funeral post-rockers Sigur Rós, inventive melody-makers Múm, house ensemble gusgus, trip-hoppers The Bang Gang, to indie-crooners Leaves, and left-field indie bands Singapore Sling, Apparat Organ Quartet and Trabant. All of these bands are notable for their experimental outlook and impressive originality. It seems that there's a new wave of musicians wanting to reinvent the island's musical profile from scratch, and the trend does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Airwaves is on the map The Iceland Airwaves Festival, sponsored by Icelandair, was started four years ago as a way of showcasing some of the new blood the country has to offer - which is a lot. Most of the artists mentioned above have played the festival in the past, and some of them landed their label deals there. But the promoters are keen to keep the fresh music flowing and choose to fill a majority of the slots with up-and-coming rather than fully established bands, although they offer a couple of big international acts, such as 2002's Fatboy Slim and The Hives. Iceland Airwaves was recently listed as one of Europe's top festivals by BBC Radio, which is considered quite an achievement for such a young festival. Last autumn, the local "underground? music mag Undirtónar awarded Iceland Airwaves founder and promoter Thorsteinn Stephensen with a special appreciation prize for his efforts in putting Icelandic music on the scene. This spring, the City of Reykjavík caught up, setting up a special fund for aspiring artists in conjunction with Icelandair, to help bands finance concert trips abroad. It is safe to say that there's an enormous vibrancy about the festival. Not grounded to one specific festival location, the city centre comes alive as dozens of bands play at different pubs and bars. An international atmosphere abounds, with hundreds of music buffs and journalists scouting through town to enjoy both the music and the multitude of restaurants, bars and clubs that the city has to offer. "I was totally amazed by the atmosphere,? recalls French journalist Antoine Columbine. "This was no mud-splattered outdoor festival; it was about totally new sounds taking place in a very cool city. It was deeply decadent."
This year the festival's slogan is "There's no excuse for lost youth", and Icelandair are already rapidly selling package deals to the five-day event. "Last night I heard over 40 new bands," said a representative of Fat Cat Records at last year's Airwaves, and he wasn't exaggerating. Bands form, break up and recombine at an alarming rate, and a great number of them are impressively good. New York Times journalist Neil Strauss sums it up, "One's chances of stumbling into a bar and being blown away by a previously unknown band at Iceland Airwaves are much greater than at comparable music conventions in America.?
Rock attitude "Life is killing my rock and roll," says Singapore Sling frontman Henrik Björnsson. That seems rather far from the truth, as the band has just released its debut record in the US to rave reviews and are set to follow it up with a one-month US tour, including a concert at Central Park Summer Stage. His tongue-in-cheek attitude is rather typical of the underground music movement in Iceland, which struggles for playing time on Icelandic radio. Writing off mainstream music as the "FM" crowd, he's conjuring up his own brand of rock, influenced by his retro American heroes. Two years ago, Björnsson and his mate Bardi Jóhannsson from Bang Gang produced their own local television show. High on anarchy, it involved a bunch of surreal sketches and the two musicians spitting, vomiting and setting fire to the set. Sabrina Silverberg, of NYC label Stinky Records, who recently signed Singapore Sling, believes that the Icelandic attitude adds a refreshing touch to the music. "There's an irreverent, ironic sensibility in some of the music that seems to reflect the strange Icelandic sense of humour.?
Jóhannsson is currently based in Paris, having signed up with the French division of EMI. "The French are very taken with Icelandic music. Björk, Sigur Rós and gusgus are huge here," he says. And, also it seems, is Jóhannsson himself, who is recording with French stars such as Keren Ann and MC Solar. "Actually, I think there's so much crap music in Iceland that only the best survive,? he states, blaséed, referring to the host of local commercial radio bands.
Ragnar Kjartansson, singer of both country outfit The Funerals and circus-pop band Trabant agrees. "Foreigners always think that Icelanders dance around with the elves to the sounds of Björk, whilst actually most of the population only listens to mainstream bands."
But even if Iceland has its host of silly pop bands, the kind of music that the Icelanders are really good at is the left-field, experimental kind. According to Jóhann Jóhannsson of Apparat Organ Quartet, "There's an atmosphere here that's open to experimentation and collaboration and different hybrids happening. In every family, there's at least one person who's an artist or who wrote a book of poetry or something.?
In fact, you'll find that many of the musicians du jour are also part-time artists, writers, TV producers and designers. It seems Iceland is a place where there are no borders and everything is possible.
The open road "There's a real buzz going on in New York and Los Angeles on the new wave of rock from Reykjavík," says Silverberg of NYC's Stinky Records (producers of bands such as Citizen Bird and The Lowflying Owls). "People who are really into the music scene are really excited about everything that's coming out of Iceland. The Iceland Airwaves festival is definitely becoming the festival to note. There's a huge awareness building up both in the US and the UK." She believes the festival is a sure-fire boost both for Icelandic tourism and for the music industry. "It's helping to draw the spotlight on to Icelandic music. There was great media attention around Sigur Rós, and that attention is now shifting to more recent bands."
Hard-core rockers Mínus are one band set to hit the big time. They are touring the US this summer to follow up the release of their second album Halldór Laxness with Victory Records, and have received outstanding reviews by magazines such as NME and Kerrang. "Our music is for open-minded individuals with strong opinions," says their Morrison-esque singer Krummi, "...people who are unafraid of being themselves, dress however they feel like dressing, and brave enough to have independent opinions on society... people who enjoy life."
Silverberg, like so many international producers, believes that there's something special about Icelandic music. "It's definitely different. I would say it's a very pure musical vision; a very intelligent approach to music. There's a definite sense of the landscape; a sense of openness, largeness." She, like so many others, is astounded by the level of creativity in such a small population. Perhaps it's exactly that smallness of the population which makes individuals thirst for innovation and experimentation. Gusgus manager John Babbitt believes that "Icelanders are highly independent thinkers; almost entirely unfazed by any outsider's opinions? Their fashionability has nothing to do with fashion. It's the way they live their lives that's couture."
Silverberg is confident in the international success of Icelandic music. "The time is very right for the new wave of Icelandic bands. In the US, the audiences are finally getting fed up with being force-fed. Bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes gave rise to a new sort of consumer. There's a new generation hungering for great music out there."


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