Oh, halló. Let’s become acquainted. I suppose I should introduce myself, being that I am the newest addition to the pack, so don’t worry if you were unaware of my existence hitherto. I’m John, or Jón, as it’d be more appropriate in the context of this article, and also because I like that version much better. I’m an architecture student and I lead a mostly uneventful life – I draw, paint, read, and listen to a variety of musical styles (I’m also a huge fan of Icelandic and Japanese cultures). I’ll try to be as open-minded and precise as possible with my opinions, so that the subjective doesn’t account for the objective and vice versa.
So yes, here we go. The Icelandic music scene. What a seemingly remote subject to write about. We don’t hear about Iceland very much in Armenia, do we? (Ok, avoiding euphemisms – we don’t hear about it at all, perhaps except for rare volcanic incidents). Considering that the country has a population of a little over 320 thousand (although being thrice+ the size of L’Arménie), it is not unimaginably surprising, though. Nevertheless, this little island republic has a thrilling, vibrant music scene, which, while echoing other Scandinavian populations’, is entirely unique in a variety of fascinating ways. The majority of rather attentive audiophiles nowadays have at least a vague conception of the scene through its big-name musicians – Björk, Sigur Rós (I’m sure more than one Rekwired reader has heard of them). But, if anything, it hasn’t been like that always – more like not until the last few decades.
Enter 1962. The Beatlemania has taken over almost all of Europe and has even progressed, although scarcely, into Asia and the Americas – perhaps also Africa, who knows. Maybe even Oceania. Iceland? No dice. Not even a hint. You’d have to be really musically vigilant to have listened to a single Beatles track by now if you were living in Iceland.
Essentially, we have a Japan-like situation here. Iceland was involuntarily isolated for quite a while. Although, officially, under Danish rule up until the middle of the past century (independency was declared on 17 June 1944), its location was so remote that most big events in history – musical ones, also – passed it by. Not to have it sound too fairy-taleish, but Iceland was a lot like a piece of alien land on Earth.
The seventies were a little bit better – the actual Icelandic rock music scene was pioneered by the likes of Trúbrot and Náttúra, as well as creative individuals like Magnús Eiríksson. I know these names tell nothing, so I will stop just about here. Yeah.
To quote a famous article by Gestur Guðmundsson published in Journal Young in 1993, “The rock scene in the eighties, especially the more experimental part of it, has had much closer contact than before with similar rock scenes, especially in England, but also in France and the US. At the same time the gradual production of a synthesis between international trends and the national cultural heritage that I have tried to describe has remained a strong part of the rock scene. It has also been the key to international success as the youth of the world has become interested in successful crossings between international mass culture and local cultural roots.”
Ah! There we have it, at last. Globalisation. European ideals. Call it whatever you want – this is the new black and you have to accept it. What an exciting time to be alive. This is exactly what happened to the cheery little country that is Iceland way back in the mid-eighties. Or, at least, to its music scene(s). This is also when the enigmatic band Þeyr was active – antagonising opinions, popularising symbols and conspiracy theories, essentially surrounding themselves with talk and gossip unlike anyone that came before them could.
What do we have next? Guðmundsson calls the current era of Icelandic music, originating in 1984 nonetheless, the ‘pluralistic era’. I’d call it the ‘conventional era’ – the era during which Icelandic music and musicians were finally welcomed abroad and encouraged to share their wonderful, ethereal sounds. There are around three hundred active bands and musicians, spanning nearly all genres and tastes. There are even a few brutal death metal bands – can’t recommend them myself, though – to each his own.
Surely, if you’re reading this and have reached this far into the article, you must know who Björk Guðmundsdóttir is. Or if you don’t, never mind. She is evidently the biggest-selling singing offspring of Iceland. I still remember the first time I ever heard Army of Me and Hyperballad, and I shall never forget her in Dancer in the Dark. Oh, how I love her – and my last.fm profile is no proof for this, don’t go there. Besides being an extraordinary musician, she is also an amazing human being, being an environmentalist and philanthropist is among her other virtues. I wish we had someone like her in Armenia here. Alas.
We’ve reached my favourite part. I truly can’t coherently express my feelings for Jón Þór Birgisson – Jónsi – and his unbelievable band Sigur Rós. These guys and their music have been huge, colossal sources of inspiration to me throughout the years. I’m listening to them for, what, four, five years already and only my last.fm account knows how many times I’ve played the songs. They are the reason I began learning Icelandic and that I had certain success with it at all. I know more than a dozen sheets of their lyrics by heart, and I also understand these. Takk, takk, takk, elskurnar mín! They have seven equally wonderful albums that you should all check out if you still haven’t – I hope you’re not missing out.
There is also Henrik Bjornsson’s enticing band Singapore Sling, which, that’s correct, takes its name from the 1990 art-house film. Almost 98% of their songs is in English, unfortunately, but they still hail from Reykjavik and are deserving of more attention. They always sounded like The Dandy Warhols to my ears, but they have this uniqueness about them – blame it on Iceland.
I really want you to listen to amiina, as well. They are some sort of freak instrument virtuosos. To quote Wikipedia, “In their performances each member will play many instruments, sometimes moving across the stage, going from one instrument to another in mid-song.” J’adore. Kurr is one lovely, soothing collection of sounds. Múm is, by the way, plenty similar, and worth checking out if you liked amiina.
Of course, I would never ever consider this finished and done with if I skipped classical music and composers. Iceland is really not very big about classics, but they have an exciting bunch of upcoming icons. Take Ólafur Arnalds, for example. He is a tremendously acclaimed neo-classical composer from Mosfellsbær, and his piano works are as heartbreaking as the pain of first love, or as inspirational as graduating high school. I don’t even know, I love it so much. His latest release, For Now I Am Winter, is a magical blend of instruments and adapted vocals, as cold as the coldest Icelandic winters and as sudden as these volcano explosions (ok, no more comparisons, I swear). Other Icelandic composers I recommend are the late Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, Jón Leifs, Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson (largely experimental) and Haukur Tómasson.
…And, obviously, Emilíana Torrini! Or, as she could have been called in case the Icelandic name regulations weren’t cancelled, Emilíana Davíðsdóttir. She is a lot like an Icelandic PJ Harvey or Kate Bush, although I guess you can’t really compare them. Emilíana has been singing and creating since 1994, but she achieved international recognition just recently, with the release of Tookah in 2013. I suggest you check her out if you want accessible indie/progressive pop of really, really high quality. Lovely, lovely woman.
I guess that is all. You know, I could go on – Iceland is one of those topics I’m never ever even slightly bored talking about. I just don’t think you’ll be willing to hear me showering compliments upon a couple dozen more performers. So, I’ll finish here – hope this wasn’t too bad for my first ever legitimate article! Comment to let me know, hey.