The Reykjavik Music Mess
For a nation formed from such violent beginnings some 70 million years ago, Iceland isn’t half a chilled out place. The volcanic island sits equidistant between the US and mainland Europe, and visitors can venture to the point where the tectonic plates from the two continents coalesce and see them with their own eyes; these opposing parts of the earth’s crust cause earthquakes and volcanos (there are more than 200 in Iceland, many of them active) as well as geysers, which provide geothermal energy. One of the nation’s favourite hot spots for tourists, the world famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa featured on an episode of The Simpsons recently, much to the delight of the islanders who’ve been talking about it ever since.
Reykjavik is a relatively new city. Travellers settled in Iceland as late as 7AD, and Reykjavik itself only became the capital a couple of centuries ago following calamity elsewhere. Iceland can lay claim to having the world’s most northerly capital city while Icelandic króna is Planet Earth’s smallest currency. In the 90s Damon Albarn went there following the fallout from the Britpop wars on the salutary advice of his friend Bjork following panic attacks. It’s definitely a place perfect for getting your head together, and given how small it is, you’re just as likely to bump into veteran members of the Sugarcubes as you are members of new groups like Oyama at the local municipal baths. At the Sundhöll pool near to our hotel there are hottubs, a steam room and curiously a gym next to the swimming pool. One worries what might happen if dumbbells fall from wet hands, though who can argue with a nation that reared the World’s Strongest Man’s Jón Páll Sigmarsson?
There are just over 200,000 people in Reykjavik, and the city seems no bigger than, say, Brighton. Perhaps the most pertinent difference is that not all Brightonians are heartily encouraged to take up musical instruments from an early age and become as involved in the processes of making music as they are studying. Given the relatively small population there is an incredible scene in Reykjavik (there’s a cool scene in Brighton too, don’t get me wrong!) where kids are free from the shackles of history, and not beholden to the lineage that goes back to beat combos from Liverpool half a century ago. There are unusual instruments aplenty in bands formed in Iceland, and a generic four piece is a rare sight; you can expect two musicians to multitudes with saws and violins and anything you’d care to name, while the guitar / bass / drums / singer formation is as unusual as it is predictable elsewhere in the west.
The Reykjavik Music Mess is now in its third year, and the lineup is always great thanks to the consistent quality of music coming out of Iceland. There can be nowhere else per head per capita that can boast such quality can there? Having no rules and no tradition to maintain is a great breeding ground for groundbreaking and experimental works. Here are six of the best from the weekend:
First there was Osama, a not particularly pleasant fellow all told, then Obama, certainly an improvement but he could quit all that Guantanamo and Drones shit like he promised. And now the world should get ready for Oyama, an Icelandic five-piece with a great future ahead of them. They created a genuine buzz at this year’s Great Escape Festival in Brighton with their deliciously sludgy riffs and shoegazey veneer, not to mention their angular fringes and yoot. Oh, and did we mention the fact they have some monster tunes? Only formed in April last year, theirs is a sound that came to fruition quickly and will stand them in good stead as they set out to conquer the world. Watch them as they plunder.
Good Moon Deer are a glitchy electronic duo combining beautiful and nightmarish sounds with peripatetic drumming that veers from technically elegant to flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs. Theirs is a jazz for a digital age, always inventive and compelling. At times the stop/start motion becomes aggravating as you want to immerse yourself in the groove, but few bands on earth are able to make weird sound this ethereal right now.
In Reykjavik it’s not unusual for a drummer to appear in nine different bands, and Bloodgroup’s sticksman also pops up over the weekend with Monotown and turns out to be Jónsi’s former drummer as well. There’s a good reason he’s in demand, he’s incredible, and he acts as the bedrock for the sometimes overreaching and modern operatic ambitions of Bloodgroup. Fronted by a girl / boy duo of such perfect genetic makeup you worry they’ve been sprung from a nazi machine, they sound like the missing link between nu metal and rave (as ridiculous as that might sound). Their performance brings the house down, and a few other houses besides. Expect big things from them.
Just Another Snake Cult are a rum pair and no mistaking. They kick things off with an off kilter take on ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ and their universe gets stranger by the second after that. Pórir Bogason croons and strums at the autoharp, or plays keys or picks at a guitar, and as they grind through their repertoire you wonder if the psych in their psych-pop stands for psychotic, with Helga Jónsdóttir fixed in the same spot drawing her bow slowly across her cello like some butter-wouldn’t-melt accomplice in a grizzly murder. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
They might look like they’ve just walked off the local skatepark (and quite possibly have) but Muck make an almighty metal sound for ones so young. They scream, they shake, they have an infernal bass drum. They switch from speed metal to thrash metal in a heartbeat, and back again, pulverising your very soul with their monstrous mayhem. They may not carry the hardest or most metal of names, but Muck clearly don’t give a fuck.
And finally a band who are not Icelandic at all. RVK Music Mess also throws its doors open to non-islanders and hosted a classic Deep Hunter show two years ago. This time PVT and DZ Deathrays came from Australia, though it was Edinburgh’s Withered Hand that caught the eye, or rather the ear. It’s been a long five years since the band’s last album, and Dan Willson is not a man to be hurried having only started songwriting in his 30s, though the new batch of songs have some truly killer hooks, especially ‘Horseshoe’, a song this writer heard twice and has been unable to expunge ever since. Keep an eye out for their forthcoming second album and cover your ears if you don’t want catchy folk and country tinged stories with brilliantly pithy lyrics cantering around your head all day.