The History of Icelandic Rock
Icelandic Hippie Prog Metal
Dr. Gunni in Grapevine Magazine (Issue # 12, August 2009)
It is the beginning of 1971 and yet another line-up for the premium hippie band Trúbrot is born. Trúbrot 3.0 has organist Karl Sighvatsson and drummer Gunnar Jökull back on board. The latest recruit, pianist Magnús Kjartansson, is still a member, and the old stalwarts from Hljómar—Rúnar Júlíusson and Gunnar Þórðarson—round off this five-piece powerhouse version of Hljómar.
The idea of pop music as an artform had been in the air for some time, but few Icelandic bands had considered the matter seriously. Until now. For months the nagging argument for Trúbrot had been: should we be entertainers playing cover songs for drunk people or should we try to do something more progressive? Early in 1971 that question was answered and the band had its most ambitious idea yet: to make a progressive concept album.
This was a successful move, as the resulting album "Lifun" would be considered one of the best albums in Iceland for years to come (still number 2 in the extensive 2009 poll—right behind Sigur Rós’ "Ágætis byrjun"!).
Rehearsals for the album started in a garage on Laugavegur in January of 1971. To seal the artistic plan, every member brought a pail of paint with their choice of colour. All five colours were mixed in a bucket and the garage walls painted with the result. The band locked itself up in
the garage and no women were allowed inside. Early on, it was clear that the album would deal with “the course of an unnamed person, from the cradle to the grave, and the influence of the environment on that person,” as the band announced proudly when the project was premiered live that March. The album was recorded in London some months later and came out in the summer of 1971.
Lifun fulfilled all of Icelandic pop musicians’ most ambitious dreams. The reviews were good and the album sold well. The album has thirteen interconnected tracks, and came in a hexagonal cover. The music is prog-metal of sorts, equally influenced by Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But what can you do after such artistic success, especially when you live in a place as small and unpopulated as Iceland? That fall, Trúbrot was back to playing (MOR super light-weight hit) “Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep” for drunk kids.
Back then, just as now, the only way out of the grind was international success. The band was optimistic and for a while it looked as the Fantasy label (home of Creedence Clearwater Revival) would sign Trúbrot. Nothing came of this. Disappointed, Karl Sighvatsson left yet again, but the band soldiered on, making the fourth and final record in 1972, "Mandala".
Although it is fine in parts, Mandala is quite drab as a whole. Not content with the album and with no idea what to do next, the band fizzled out early in 1973.
The main rival for Trúbrot’s hippie crown was Náttúra (Nature). Formed in 1969 in the same cauldron that begat Trúbrot by singer Jónas R. Jónsson of Flowers, the band’s line up changed often and would total eleven members in all.
For the first year the band played mostly cover songs, music from The Who’s "Tommy" and Jethro Tull, for instance, but later original songs would become prevalent. As the hair grew longer and the smoke thicker, the music stretched in length and depth. Drunk kids were not always so receptive to a 20 minute drum solo, though.
The band had at least twice written music for their purported début—in 1970 and 1971—but twice the material was abandoned. In 1971 they were signed on to perform at the Icelandic staging of the musical "Hair". The band then suffered a tremendous blow when all their instruments were destroyed in a fire when the legendary club Glaumbær burned down in December 1971. Glaumbær was situated where the National Gallery of Iceland is today and was the definitive place for the young crowd during the late sixties and early seventies. The only Náttúra album, "Magic Key", came out in 1972 with Shady Owens handling vocal duties and Karl Sighvatsson playing the Hammond and singing a bit.
The band released the album themselves (like Trúbrot did with Mandala also in 1972). Náttúra’s album has never been released officially on CD but many bootlegs exist and is a sought after item. Along with Lifun and Óðmenn's double album, it represents the best of the Icelandic hippie years. In 1973, Náttúra performed the music for "Jesus Christ Superstar". The band then quit when the show stopped.
Progressive hippie music just wasn’t the thing anymore. Now it was time for the content free and silly seventies!
Iceland Prog Blogspot to listen to all the records mentioned here, as well as other fine albums from the same period: Svanfríður’s What’s hidden there (hard rock from 1972), Mánar’s hippie rock debut from 1971 and Icecross legendary heavy metal gloom LP from 1973, along with later period prog and folk music.
By Dr. Gunni, based on his 2000 book "Eru ekki allir í stuði?" (Rock in Iceland). A revisited up-date of the book is forthcoming in 2010.