We’ve (almost) reached the end of this seven-week series on Nordic pop, and this time we land in Iceland. It’s interesting, this: the country’s physically isolated from most of the world, even its Nordic neighbors (although you can argue Greenland is Denmark, and they’re closer there). That’s meant the country’s had a chance to evolve its culture on its own terms. Just think of Björk, who we wrote about a few weeks back. But also, her musical journey’s involved a lot of genres: in recent decades the country’s also seen its fair share of outside influences, and yet its music is, in a way, distinctly Icelandic.
The most obvious example, of course, is Sigur Rós. We know them now for their sweeping post-rock, merging classical cues with later rock influences for some truly distinct music. (Or, more likely, you know them – you knew them first, like me – for “Hoppípolla”, which provided the band their “Elbow moment” before Elbow actually got theirs.) Admittedly their music can be hard to get into, but perhaps it’s context that helps most here: if you’ve seen their 2007 documentary Heima, you’ll get a better grasp of how Iceland’s geography helped shape their compositions. It’s tranquil, but if they choose to be, it can be shocking and surprising, too.
It’s also an idea that’s open to misinterpretation. The band was first signed up to record label Bad Taste – owned by the Sugarcubes – in 1997, with the belief that Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto vocals would appeal to a teenage market. Course-correction happened a couple of years later when Ágætis byrjun was released: the record set Sigur Rós’ template for lush arrangements and became a critical darling (and a particular favorite of music supervisors everywhere). It also established another of the band’s trademarks: the use of the made-up language Vonlenska (or Hopelandic), which sounds Icelandic but means nothing – it powered their 2002 record ( ), which allowed listeners to interpret their own lyrics. But that sounds gimmicky for a newcomer: their music speaks strongly nonetheless.
Another band taking a cue from the early success of the Sugarcubes is Gusgus, but having debuted in the mid-1990s they embraced club culture rather than the punk and new wave aesthetic of the decade before. Founded in 1995 as a cinema collective, it somehow evolved into an electronica band that had up to ten members, before whittling itself down, focusing its sound (and its membership) at the turn of the century. But it’s not like they were bulky: they produced interesting music in their early days, and earned a dedicated following thanks to exposure in England and Germany (through record labels 4AD and Kompakt respectively). Now they’re leading the way for some quite accessible techno, still with a degree of cool.
Oh, about those other members – Gusgus has launched the career of two internationally-known names in Icelandic music. Emilíana Torrini was an original member of the band and later established herself for some decidedly quirky folk pop (and for singing a song about Gollum for the second Lord of the Rings film). Going in a slightly poppier direction is Hafdís Huld, who released her solo debut Dirty Paper Cup in 2006. Gusgus’ leader, Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson, also set out for a solo career, but remains part of Gusgus to this day.
We switch back to the more experimental side of Icelandic music and to yet another darling of music supervisors everywhere. You may have also heard of Ólafur Arnalds‘ music in many places, particularly if you’re looking for some vaguely classical end credit music. That’s not meant to be a slam, no. He’s a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist who previously played drums for a metal band, and is now fusing quiet strings and piano tinkles with ambient beats everywhere. You may have heard of his solo stuff, or perhaps you’ve heard of Kiasmos, his project with fellow Icelander Janus Rasmussen (from the band Bloodgroup).
I have always been curious about this very experimental streak to Icelandic music. I really think it’s the isolation, and how it allowed them to develop their own music on their own terms. While there have been a lot of influences coming in since – and the next couple of acts we’ll focus on can be decidedly… conventional – they have still maintained that sense of whimsy, for lack of a better term. Take Múm: the eight-piece’s music has this soft, almost child-like quality, but it’s not something you can shoehorn into the “quiet music” or “whimsical” categories (although “Green Grass of Tunnel” can fit, arguably). They can get glitchy and almost Avalanches-like too. Oh, and also, one of their members – vocalist Ólöf Arnalds – is the cousin of Ólafur.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that Of Monsters and Men can be lumped into that “conventional” category. Perhaps it’s because the release of their breakthrough “Little Talks” coincided with the time when Americans decided folk-pop with a liberal amount of “hey!” scattered all over it. Suddenly, they’re big in the United States, relatively; suddenly, they’re identikit indie. But then, listen in to their other songs and there’s that Icelandic quality, of tranquility breaking through, attempting, somewhat succeeding. The band actually stemmed from lead female vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s then solo project Songbird, which follows Iceland’s indie pop leanings. (And you’ll hear her better in, say, this track with Ólafur Arnalds.) But hey, we all love our heys, right? Right?
Following their footsteps towards some sort of American domination is Kaleo, whose sound is quiet bluesy – you wouldn’t think it’s from Iceland; it fits right at home in the boozy American sound. But then, when you figure that Nordic connection out, it all makes sense. On the other end of the indie pop spectrum is FM Belfast, whose electropop can be sunny, but is regardless quite… intense, to say the least. And back on the folky lane is Seabear, which reminds me a bit of a quieter Polyphonic Spree, and is perhaps now better known as the starting points for two of its founding members, Sóley and Sin Fang.
Like its neighbors (loosely) Iceland also has a burgeoning metal scene, but as you’d expect it’s a little more different than the rest. Sólstafir is one of the country’s best known, starting off as a traditional heavy metal band before shifting to a more post-metal sound on their 2005 album Masterpiece of Bitterness. While now you can still hear that crunchy, dense guitar you often associate with metal acts, there’s a profoundly distinct sense of brooding on their tracks – no wonder the press releases call them “Sigur Rós goes metal!” And yet it hasn’t turned off metal fans, with an international following.
Another distinct take on metal is from Skálmöld, whose music and lyrics are heavily inspired by Norse mythology and Icelandic history – and yet hearing them, err, pillage Viking traditions with those dense guitars does not feel hokey to me. Finally, there’s Agent Fresco, which isn’t exactly a metal band, although their music does have some metal influences. Should we call them pop? Perhaps, but not really. It’s alternative rock that does not exactly fall into indie, and is perhaps the most illustrative example of how diverse Icelandic music can be. They can be loud, but they can be soft too – and their vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson has worked with… Ólafur Arnalds. It’s easy to play connect the dots with Icelandic music – and it’s rewarding, too, quite. [NB]
[Later today: we asked someone who’s deep into Nordic pop to explain to us just how it’s made an impact across the world.]