The Iceland Playlist
This perfectly framed my jaunt into Iceland's music scene. Despite being so tiny that you can find its biggest stars buying bread around the corner, Iceland produces a prodigious amount of world-class music, and most of the bands coming out of there sound nothing like BjÃ¶rk or Sigur RÃ³s. There's no single Icelandic "sound" or "vibe" or anything like that, just an incredible number of artists playing excellent, well-crafted, often very innovative music.
Playlist | Download the full playlist here.
Thanks to the friendly cooperation of several local artists and music aficionados, I was able to put together a playlist with some of the country's newest and best acts. It's not a comprehensive or perfectly balanced selection, just a sampling of the music that blew me away while I was there and had to share with everyone back home. Iceland has one of the best, most vibrant music scenes on the planet, and I wanna see each and every one of these bands get popular in Montreal and play shows here. Let's get cracking on that, okay readers?
Stop here if you just want the tunes. Read further below if you want the whole story...
Agent Fresco - Eyes of a Cloud Catcher
Who Knew - Made Belief
Sudden Weather Change - Kajaks
Parachutes - Your Stories
Pascal Pinon - Ã"sonlagiÃ°
ÃštidÃºr - Fisherman's Friend
Ruxpin - She Played this Song For Me When I Was Young
Nolo - Fondu
Weapons - Mister Mister
DLX ATX - Mirage Axe
ReykjavÃk! - TERROROCRACY
Ã"lafur Arnalds - HÃ¦gt, kemur ljÃ³siÃ°
For a Minor Reflection - KastljÃ³s
It was supposed to be a quick, easy stopover on the way to Scotland. Iceland Air had offered super cheap seats to anyone interested in seeing Reykjavik en route to Europe - surely a way of bringing tourist money into Iceland's troubled economy - and I figured I'd take the bait. Fast forward to midnight at Keflavik Airport, an hour outside of Reykjavik, where I had arrived nearly 24 hours later than expected after the EyjafjallajÃ¶kull volcano screwed up the plans. By then I had become well acquainted with the Toronto, Boston, Manchester, and Glasgow airports, set my watch to three different time zones, used three different currencies, and thoroughly confused both my internal clock and my parents. Not even sure how long I'd been awake (best guess: 36 hours), I emerged from airport purgatory and hopped into a car to Reykjavik with a geologist I befriended during the voyage who was there studying the infamous volcano.
Nice dude, but he spent the car ride scaring the living shit out of me with geological facts about Iceland. First he explained how the road we were driving on was built over new lava flows. Then he explained how EyjafjallajÃ¶kull is so unique because it's very rare that a volcano erupts next to a glacier. That means (I made the mistake of asking) the glacier will start melting and relieving pressure on a region of intense volcanic activity, and like uncorking a bottle of champagne, a much, much bigger volcano could blow at any second. Big enough to cause airport closings across Europe for months, even years; big enough to change the face of Iceland; and if the ash moved into the top layers of the atmosphere, big enough to spread all over the world and change the Earth's climate. Any second. He assured me, though, that Reykjavik would "probably" be spared.
As I watched the highway lights winding over the vast, black lava field, I had two different voices shouting in my head. 1. Holy shit, what am I doing? 2. BRING IT ON!
The geologist dropped me off a block away from my hotel, which wasn't really a hotel so much as an apartment rental with no front desk and no room service. A guy named Siggi met me at the front door, handed me a key, and told me I didn't have to lock the door to my room because there was no one else staying in the building. Then he took me on a 1am walking tour of downtown Reykjavik. Within spitting distance was the central square, "where everything is measured from," the nightclub "with the hottest girls in the world," a bank that "didn't have any money, like all the others" and 24-hour grocery store where I could buy anything I needed, except bottled water, because "Iceland has the best tap water in the world and only pussies drink bottled water."
I picked up some food since I hadn't eaten anything substantial in over 24 hours, and while I was waiting in line, a couple of drunk people waked into into the store holding full pints of beer from a bar, picked up a cigarette lighter, and got in line behind me. Yes, you can actually do that in Iceland, along with so many other things that would get you a fat ticket in Montreal. My head literally started hurting as I tried figuring out how many Quebec laws they were breaking. I think it was four.
I began exploring Reykjavik for real the next afternoon, taking a walk through the harbor and up the main drag, which at different parts is called AusturstrÃ¦ti, BankastrÃ¦ti, and Laugavegur - each name about equally incomprehensible and difficult to remember. Not to knock Icelandic at all - it's such a beautiful language that I would actually pay someone to speak it to me for five minutes a day - but that shit is complicated if you're coming from a western/anglo/romantic-language framework. Asking for directions was like inviting someone to hurl consonants at you for thirty seconds. I mean, in a good way.
The real fun began when I found an indie record store and asked the guy behind the counter where I could find local show listings. As it happened, the Canadian band Woodpigeon was playing in town that night, along with a local group called ÃštidÃºr that he said were very good. Evening plans: locked down.
Around 11:00, when the sun had just started setting, I walked a couple blocks to a small venue called SÃ³dÃ³ma that seems to host the majority of Reykjavik's indie shows. Just coming on stage was the quirky and bizarrely enthralling folk artist Pascal Pinon, whose lullaby-meets-dissonance sound reminded me of Mirah or lower key Regina Spektor. She is also the only artist on my playlist who sings in Icelandic - and even then, only half the time. (There are more people in the world who speak Klingon than Icelandic, so everyone knows English, and often a couple other languages.) Mark Andrew of Woodpiegeon called her one of his favorite Icelandic artists.
ÃštidÃºr took the stage next with their massive army of horns, strings, guitars, keys and singers. They more or less looked like a blonde version of Arcade Fire or Beirut, and sounded a fair bit like the latter, if Zach Condon admitted electric instruments and enveloped half of Belle and Sebastian. I don't know if that made any sense, but the point is, they had a fresh and catchy sound that I'm sure will travel well beyond Reykjavik.
In the post-show crowd outside the venue I chatted up a few people about Canadian bands and ended up getting invited to the aforementioned after party with the whiskey and the music talk. It was a first hand lesson in how the internet has affected music consumption around the world: there I was on an island two degrees south of the Arctic Circle trading notes about the recently leaked (and still then unreleased) LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene albums. It also happened to be the house where ÃštidÃºr practices and a couple of the members live (at least I think... they were there, but further details are fuzzy). The guy who owned the place (or at least it seemed that way... again, fuzzy details) was one of their fathers and a fifty-something banker who, first of all, partied as hard as the rest of them, and secondly, explained the banking crisis from an immensely interesting insider's perspective. I felt at home with these people right away, not least because Icelanders are some of the nicest people I've ever met while traveling, and this group of guys exceeded all standards with their friendliness and hospitality all throughout the rest of the weekend. I stumbled home at 4am, sun rising, with plans to hang again but no idea how to get back to the house.FrÃ¦bbblarnir. Originally formed in 1978, the band was heavily influenced by The Clash and other early punk bands, and have remained semi-active through the present. The really strange thing about this show was that it appeared to have no cache among younger audiences, unlike other recently-united punk bands from the same period, and was actually just full of people in their 40s and 50s who liked the band back in the 70s. Seemed more honest if anything.
In any case, I left the show around 1am and entered the completely batshit-insane world of Reykjavik on the weekends. Montrealers pride themselves on their party spirit, but let me tell you, Reykjavik has completely destroyed any beliefs I had about Montreal being a crazy city. Bars close there around 5 or 6am and hardly fill up before 2 or 3am. Pre-partying starts around midnight or 1am, traditionally so people can get smashed on cheaper booze at home and avoid getting price gouged on drinks at bars. I should say, however, the krÃ³na's sharp decline in recent years has made drinks and everything else pretty affordable for North Americans. A pint of beer typically costs 700 kr, which at the current exchange rate is about $5.75 including tax and tip. I don't need to tell Montrealers that an all-inclusive pint at that price doesn't exist outside of happy hours.
Two of the guys from the previous night took me to a bar/club called Bacchus that was basically Green Room + being able to take your pint onto the sidewalk + open past sunrise. The only other major difference was that Icelanders clearly don't mind pushing each other around and getting close in tight public spaces. Walking through the crowd meant shoving people aside in a way that would get your ass kicked in Montreal.
The next day I overcame my general disdain for tour buses and did some sightseeing outside of the city. Oh man. Pictures of the Icelandic countryside give you a good sense of what's out there - a landscape intermittently barren as the face of the moon and overflowing with mind-boggling geographical features - but nothing can capture its overwhelming vastness, or the sense of completely alone, so far from anything you know, but surrounded by such enthralling beauty. If that sounds like waffle, just check this out and trust me when I say it's a whole other experience being there.
In all seriousness, people go nuts over Icelandic hot dogs, and especially over one particular stand that's little more than a trailer next to the harbor but supposedly serves the best hot dogs in the entire goddamn world. Someone even explained to me that you have to get the hot dog with a Coke because the Coke is made with Icelandic water and apparently better than any other soft drink I've consumed in my entire life. So I got a couple all-dressed hot dogs and a Coke and sat by the harbor watching drunk Icelanders walk home in the morning sun.
I'm in Edinburgh now having nowhere near as much fun as I did during my brief stay in Iceland. This is a good thing, since I have no idea how I would get any research done for my PhD with Reykjavik going on outside. Someday, however, I must go back. This might happen for the Iceland Airwaves festival - a musical buffet with a format similar to Pop Montreal - where most of the bands in my playlist are performing.
Speaking of which, I'll give a brief rundown of the artists I didn't mention in my recount of the weekend.
Agent Fresco - They play something between disco, punk and prog-rock, but overcome the potential pitfalls and excesses of each genre. Somewhere I saw them named Iceland's best new band, which only seems like an overstatement in light of all the talent surrounding them. Either way these guys are heavy hitters. They told me they have a new album coming in a couple months with all kinds of new sounds. Definitely looking forward to it.
Who Knew - I'll just say it: these guys sound a helluva lot like Wolf Parade, but considering Wolf Parade is one of my favorite bands, I mean this as a deep compliment. And it's not as if they're just a carbon copy of their Montreal counterparts. Sure, aesthetically there's a lot of Krug-ness going on, but they add so much more urgency and so many more catchy hooks than anything Wolf Parade has done since their debut album. I spent a long time laboring over which Who Knew song to put on the playlist because every single one I've heard is equally excellent. If you like this one, go buy the album.
Sudden Weather Change - This group writes some of the most organic noise-driven indie rock I've heard in a long time. It's like Pavement or Built to Spill minus any hint of pretension. But as their songs move along and develop, they bring in deeper, more ambient or post-rock tones. Hard to explain but easy to love.
Parachutes - This band came onto the world scene whey they toured with Sigur RÃ³s in the mid-2000s, sadly (but amicably) breaking up in 2009. They very kindly made their entire discography available for download on their myspace page. Go get that shit and don't bother listening to me describe them.
Ruxpin - Known in real life as JÃ³nas ÃžÃ³r GuÃ°mundsson, Ruxpin produces IDM that sets the mood, lays down a groove, and chills you out all in one go. His most recent album, "Where Do We Float From Here?," sounds exactly like its title.
Nolo - A young duo producing lo-fi psychedelic guitar-and-drums music that has enough vibe to get your grandma dancing. Can't wait to hear more from these guys.
Weapons - I hung out with this guy Ã"li all weekend and he didn't even mention that he was in this band until later. Weapons play short, impeccably-crafted rock songs that reveal a deep talent for writing rhythms and melodies. I'm sure these guys start a party every time they play live.
DLX ATX - Of all the bands I came across in Iceland, this one is the most intriguing, largely because I don't understand how a drum and bass duo ends up sounding like the recording they sent me. Apparently they rely very heavily on bass and vocal effects loops. This doesn't clear things up very much, but nonetheless, their music stands perfectly on the fault line between nuanced experimentation and manic energy.
ReykjavÃk! - A punk band with layers of electronic noise, a badass attitude, and a killer sense of humor. The song I used came from their first album, entitled, "Glacial Landscapes, Religion, Oppression & Alcohol." What more can I add?
Ã"lafur Arnalds - The kind of person who makes you feel like you haven't achieved enough in your life. Only twenty three years old, Arnalds has gained international attention for his neoclassical compositions that make use of electronic textures and ambient soundscapes.
For a Minor Reflection - This group plays energetic, guitar-driven post-rock that's equal parts rock-out and bliss-out. Just listening to the difference between their first albums and their newer demos makes it clear how restless and innovative they are. Definitely a group worth following in the long term.
All of the songs included in this podcast came from artists, their PR people, or free downloads on the artists' websites or related pages. If you see your song in here and would like it removed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will take it out immediately.
Photo of ÃštidÃºr taken from their facebook group page.