2014 Top Ten List Spotlight: Iceland Bands

2014 Countdown, Iceland Airwaves
12/29/2014
Jim Beckmann
photo by Morgen Schuler (view set)

It's mind-boggling how a place so small can create so much terrific music. This year, as I was compiling my list of top Icelandic releases, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd find as many great albums as last year and the year before. Would I find ten? Twenty? Actually, as it turns out, a lot more! What city in America can produce as much as this isolated nordic country with barely half the population of Seattle? I'm not sure I could find even ten albums as good coming out of New York, or Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville or anywhere else. Gathered here are ten, and then a whole bunch more, of my favorite albums that came out of this densely talented island nation in 2014:

Mono Town - In The Eye of the Storm (Record Records)

First of all, I could have sworn I already included Mono Town on one of my earlier "best of" lists, since I've been listening to various mixes of their debut LP for over two years now, and we've been playing it on KEXP since then... but apparently not. In The Eye of the Storm was released, finally, in Europe last March but got no real publicity in the States. That's too bad because the Icelandic trio really deserves a much wider audience, and their sound -- a muscular, Britpop byway of spaghetti western alt rock -- should have a fairly broad appeal. That Pixies picked them to support on a string of nordic dates is telling. The songs on In The Eye of the Storm pack a punch. Throughout, singer/guitarist Bjarki Sigurdsson's voice resonates, always in perfect pitch, from rough growl to sweet falsetto, and the production by brothers Börkur and Daði Birgisson, who make up the other two-thirds of the band, is top notch. Plus, they tapped Grammy winning mixer Michael Brauer, whose credits are far too long to list, to add a lustrous sheen. In the mid-80's, this album would be a no-brainer. Today, it's still a great album, maybe a bit harder to sell to the hipsters and, fortunately for us, not saccharine-sweet enough for the Coldplay crowd.

Low Roar - 0 (Tonequake Records)

I had mixed feelings adding the band Low Roar so high up on this list, considering that frontman and principle song writer Ryan Karazija was raised in California and cut his teeth there with previous band Audrye Sessions. But truly, his excellent 2014 release, 0, could not have been made anywhere but in Iceland. For all its geographically imposed insularity, the arctic island nation is both eager to accept new influences and supportive of like-minded artists, like Karazija, who land on its shores. Upon arrival, Karazija recorded much of his first Low Roar album by himself and with world-class producer, engineer, and mixer (and Tonequake label owner) Andrew Scheps. But whereas the first LP reflected a sense of isolation and transition, this new LP fully embraces the cinematic landscapes -- physically, culturally and emotionally -- of his adopted home. With Scheps still on board, Karazija draws upon the talents of bandmates Logi Guðmundsson (drums and keys) and Leifur Björnsson (keys, samples, etc.), the haunting strings of Icelandic group amiina, and the ear of co-producer Mike Lindsay of UK band Tuung, also a fellow ex-pat living in Iceland. The result is a deeply emotive exploration, not unlike Radiohead's journey through the silicon dreams of OK Computer, but rather upon the vast local terrain. When listening, at times I feel like I'm wandering alone upon the snow swept tundra; at others, like I'm warming beside a glowing hearth. You can read other things I've said about Low Roar's new songs here and here, but you should definitely pick up this album.

Sólstafir - Ótta (Season of Mist)

This won't be the first time I've described Sólstafir as the "Sigur Rós of metal", and I’m certainly not the first to say it either, but it's easy to compare that now iconic group's take on post-rock to this band's approach to hard rock and metal, which is to say, epic. Sólstafir is not a new band -- they've been together nearly 20 years and have now produced five albums, starting from a sort of "post-black metal" sound on their 2002 debut LP (recently reissued) to a more grandiose sound that transcends particular genres. Their 2012 double LP, Svartir Sandar, was mind-blowing and seemingly inconceivable to best, so the anticipation for its followup was huge. Thankfully, Ótta is a magnificent album, one that bears repeated listening. Its production is brighter, its songs more dynamic -- granted, in their own glacial way -- and there's certainly a surprise or two. Just as the album's title track, for instance, seems to slowly rise from the earth, like steam from moss-covered rocks in a thawing field, the southern gothic twang of a banjo kicks in and suddenly, you could be anywhere, dark and alluring, in the world.

Oyama - Coolboy (12 Tónar)

Last year, Oyama made it to my list with their "I Wanna" EP, which showed a lot of love for My Bloody Valentine and even more promise. Sure enough, the band's official debut LP, Coolboy, expands on their shoegazey sound and drips through woozy layers of dream pop and psychedelia. The five band members, most of whom play in other excellent bands (including another on this list), interweave more tightly then before, as Pétur Ben's rich production allows room for their songs to build from a mellow groove into a heady rush without seeming muddled or overly busy. Still, there's enough detail for headphone nodders to decrypt and enough haze for navelgazers to nod off. Coolboy is definitely for and by the cool kids.

Prins Póló - Sorrí (Skakkapopp) This recording project of Iceland's Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, Prins Póló, is named after a Polish chocolate bar commonly found in convenience stores around Iceland, yet the songs on his second album, Sorrí, are hardly sugary sweet. Instead, Prins Póló develops dark synths into catchy hooks around which he twists clever, if sometimes nonsensical, lyrics. It is regrettable, to us non-Icelandic speakers, that much of the wit is lost, that we won't fully get the jokes and plays on words in songs like "Hamstra sjarma" (meaning "hamster charm"). Regardless, Svavar sure knows how to cast some irresistible pop hooks, and the songs are quirky enough to warrant repeated listening by everyone.

Samaris - Silkidrangar (12 Tónar/One Little Indian) The first true full-length by this trio of Icelandic youngsters is perhaps the most gorgeous album you'll hear all year. Samaris' sound is formed from an unlikely combo -- vocals, electronics and clarinet -- but each element is full of such rich depth! Jófríður Ákadóttir's vocals are so breathy, they'll take your own away. You might remember her as part of Pascal Pinon, but here she skates within the ether as she exhales lines cribbed from 19th-century Icelandic poetry. Her former classmate, Áslaug Brún Magnúsdóttir, runs her clarinet through so many effects it's barely recognizable and alluringly alien. And then there's Þórður Kári Steinþórsson. His wizardry draws upon downtempo and ambient electronica, triphop, dub, techno and the gods know what else, creating such an atmosphere that's not fully dark but is certainly at least twilight on an ancient world, on which Silkidrangar, or the “silk cliffs”, could only exist.

Börn - Börn (PBP)

Maybe because the band members are mostly young women, Börn gets compared a lot to Savages. Certainly, they share a love of dark post-punk with the U.K. band, but this Iceland quartet hasn't quite abandoned their punk roots on their self-titled debut, which seethes with defiance, self-possession, and raw emotion. "Doom" and "death" seem quick and easy references to their sound (the band themselves make reference to Christian Death and Killing Joke, among others), but rather than mope or gripe, their songs most confidently, and confrontationally, take issues of feminism and body image to the fore.

Kiasmos - Kiasmos (Erased Tapes)

Before composer/performer Ólafur Arnalds had earned accolades of his own, he'd worked as a studio engineer with Janus Rasmussen's Bloodgroup. After several years each following their own careers, the friends rejoined to pursue a shared love and create a fully electronic album as Kiasmos. Their self-titled debut is as earthy as it is ethereal. Full of bass heavy downtempo beats, minimally orchestrated melodies and grainy ambient textures in pulsing, often free flowing compositions, the songs have a gravity of some planet's moon, maybe ours, maybe elsewhere. They leap slowly, land gently, and flow almost weightlessly. Arnalds' twinkling keys on songs like "Looped" are unmistakable, but he and Rasmussen, who normally trades in dancey electro-pop, have both turned inward, only to find a whole other universe spinning there.

Kippi Kaninus - Temperaments (Mengi)

Is there an Icelandic word that means "completely engrossing on both intellectual and emotional levels"? If so, that's what I'd call Kippi Kaninus' music. Kippi is actually Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson, an electronic musician who we first met when recording amiina back in 2009. Recently, he reinvigorated his solo project, which had been on hold for the past dozen years or so, by adding six all-star musicians (including Pétur Ben and Sigtryggur Baldursson of The Sugarcubes) to turn his krautrock carnival fantasy into a dizzying reality of programmed beats, ambient soundscaping, free improv, epic climaxes and winding electro/electronic jams. This 30-minute album could be the soundtrack to your life.

ADHD - 5 (self-released)

Apparently, every odd numbered release by ADHD is on the mellower side of modern jazz, which is fine by me. Maybe "jazz" isn't the best term to describe this quartet's sound, as it's a fully loaded term for most people. Rather, dig this: ADHD play atmospheric instrumental music that can be as smooth as a Sea Ray Sundancer cutting through glassy water or as skronking as a bebopper on two hits of acid. Occasionally, they sprawl westward toward the cactused hands of Calexico and Friends of Dean Martinez. But mostly, they build soft cushions of ambient haze by which to lie your head back and just chill.


FIVE MORE EXCELLENT ICELANDIC ALBUMS RELEASED IN 2014:

Geislar - Containing the Dark (self-released)

I wish that I had more time to spend with this very late release of 2014 because I know I'm going to love it more in the weeks of listening to come. Fans of Icelandic music will immediate recognize the dulcet tones of singer Sigríður Thorlacius of Hjaltalín, and will be thrilled to know she's joined by three-fourths of modern jazz band ADHD plus renowned bassist Valdi Kolli and Styrmir Sigurðsson, also known for his t.v. writing and directing, on keys. So, yes, Geislar is a "supergroup", but few others on this list can't be called the same. Still, there's serious talent on this album, and listening to it at times recalls American prohibition era jazz, musical theater I remember while growing up, and, as on the opening track and first single, "Stone Cold Stone", glammy synthpop.

Grísalappalísa - Rökrétt framhald (12 Tónar)

I love the crazy punk energy of Grísalappalísa. One of my absolute favorites from last year, they released yet another LP in less than 12 months' time. Rökrétt framhald, or "logical extension", is just that. On it, the band follows the winding cord extending from their love of late 70's post-punk groups like The Birthday Party and The Pop Group and experimental kraut rock bands like Can to the outer reaches of pop-dom, where listeners may be fewer but their minds more expansive. It's a risk in that the songs aren't all as immediately catchy -- though "ABC" still retains that "I don't care how smart this song is, I just want to dance" energy of their first LP -- and they get plenty weird, but the rewards are greater. They're not a band growing up but growing out.

My bubba - Goes Abroader (Fake Diamond)

Half of this heartbreakingly charming duo is Icelandic, so I'm going to go with it (plus, one song is sung completely in Icelandic). My bubba, formerly My Bubba and Mi, illicit sighs worldwide with alluring, sultry sweet songs that might have stepped out of 1930's American cinema. Their second LP, Goes Abroader, is a bit of a colonial fantasy to tropical islands and verdant jungles afar, but mostly it's an endearing journey into the heart itself, featuring gorgeous harmonies, adept fingerpicking and catchy melodies.

Teitur Magnússon - Tuttugu og sjö (self-released)

Another late year release I wish I could have spent more time listening to before now: This solo project of Teitur Magnússon, known to many as the singer/guitarist of Icelandic reggae group Ojba Rasta, is another tropical excursion, though one fueled by a lot more psychedelics. Tuttugu og sjö, or "27", is quirky fun and not unlike the work of album producer Mike Lindsay of Tuung, the Brit expat who also worked with Low Roar. It's refreshing to hear Teitur Magnússon draw from a wider array of sounds and blend elements, of tropicalia for instance, into his own brightly colored tapestry.

Pink Street Boys - Trash from the Boys (Lady Boy Records)

I'm not sure if this was really meant to be an album or rather an accumulation of recordings by the self-proclaimed "loudest band in Reykjavik". Trash from the Boys was originally released as a limited cassette and then offered for free via The Grapevine, and yes, it is trashy! Raw, distorted, garagey - you can easily imagine songs like "Sleazus" or "Warrior" coming out of NYC in the late 70s. But there's a lot else going on here, like the 5 1/2-minute "Korg Madness" followed by nearly 3 minutes of the foreboding ambient instrumental "Fautar" that wraps up the album, and the trippy "Psilocybe Semilanceata" (you can probably guess what inspired that one). I'm eager to hear what comes next from these boys.


BEST (MOSTLY) INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC:

2014 saw a lot of amazing instrumental, or mostly instrumental, music coming out of Iceland. Three of the albums above are entirely instrumental, and here are a few more terrific instrumental (or mostly), ambient, and experimental albums that came out this year:

Hildur Guðnadóttir - Saman (Touch)

Hildur Guðnadóttir, a member of múm, is an award-winning cellist, composer and singer. Her fourth solo effort, Saman, is a somewhat somber album, though delightfully so, of classically inspired compositions that combine ancient and contemporary influences. Hildur's voice, when she does sing, is a soothing balm.

Óbó - Innhverfi (Morr)

The debut of Sigur Rós' touring keyboard player/percussionist Óbó (Ólafur Björn Ólafsson) is like a walk from a thawing nordic Spring into sun-swept Summer. The expansive orchestral folk sound is a natural progression from his earlier soundtrack work. An added bonus: the songs with whispered vocals, like "Rétt Eða Rangt?", sound a lot to me like Tindersticks.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Aerial (Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Classics)

From her press release: "Anna Thorvaldsdottir is an Icelandic composer who frequently works with large sonic structures that tend to reveal the presence of a vast variety of sustained sound materials, reflecting her sense of imaginative listening to landscapes and nature." In other words, you need patience and about an hour of otherwise unencumbered time to truly experience the geologic pull. Aerial? Maybe, but only after you've risen from the craggy depths on skyward seeking mountains of earth over microcosmic eons of time. You'll may eventually find yourself, cloudbound, balancing on some some sharp arête, but then you may also find yourself tumbling right back down.

Jóhann Jóhannsson - The Theory of Everything (Back Lot Music/Universal Pictures)

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for this sweeping soundtrack to The Theory of Everything, the 2014 biopic of celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, his early life and his romance with Jane Wilde. Jóhannsson seems less earth-bound than his compatriot composers on this score, which is suitably airy and delicate for the topic, but as is typical with film scores, the songs are each too short to fully absorb before they flitter away.

Ben Frost – A U R O R A (Mute/Bedroom Community)

The borealis this ain't. While Australian born composer Ben Frost has been living in Reykjavik for nearly a decade, he hasn't traded industrial sounds for organic ones, and you're not going to find any representation of wispy green lights on his LP. Rather, he uses the tools he's most accustomed to -- usually metallic ones -- to imagine what magnetic chaos

Pétur Ben – Metalhead (self-released)

Released only two weeks ago, this original score for the Icelandic film Metalhead, by director Ragnar Bragason, is moody collection of instrumental clips that are not, as you'd imagine, metal sounding. Instead, Pétur Ben composes with piano, cello, organ, and other instruments to convey a starkness and sadness that pervades the movie -- it's a great fit in that context but otherwise makes for a somber listening experience. The album is bookended by two versions of a song by the main character's death metal project, sung by the actress, Þorbjörg Helga Dýrfjörð, herself. The "demo" version is quite cathartic.


There were a lot of other great releases by Icelandic artists this year but just not enough time for me to write about them all. If there were, I would certainly rave about the latest from Rökkurró, Valdimar, and FM Belfast, whose third LP, Brighter Days, is a synth-heavy celebration of ecstatic electro-pop that will chase away all your worries as it compels you to shake your ass. Also, of note are two EPs, one by each of Retro Stefson's Stefánsson brothers, whose projects, Uni Stefson and Young Karin, ought to be making bigger waves next year.

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