Icelandic Music – Part II

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Part II – Folk

Folk isn’t really the proper genre of this category, but rather a description of a shared origin in traditional, Icelandic music. Of the three bands listed here, I suspect only one – Mugison – will appeal to any substantial audience. I’ve tried introducing my foreign friends to Þursaflokkurinn a few times with less-than-great results; my friends say the meanest things sometimes. I could have picked many bands for this made up pseudo-genre of mine – Steindór Andersen, KUKL, Þeyr, etc… – so the ones I have chosen represent my own taste more than anything.

Mugison

Mugison is at once the artist that comes closest of these to being folk, and the one that is the furthest away from what I described above. His roots in Icelandic culture lie, not as much in technique and structure, but rather in poetic lyricism and context. I’ve touched before on the rich music scene in Iceland, to the point where it seems as if anyone can pick up a guitar in Iceland and become a musician. In my mind Mugison embodies exactly that (and in fact his first records were recorded in solitude in his bedroom). Mugison’s style has changed and evolved through the years, ranging from heavily distorted electro-troubadour to rhythmic rock to melodic folk. For a musician, there are few things worse than becoming stagnant in one’s art; Mugison is in no danger of this happening.

Þursaflokkurinn

You might as well just skip this section. You won’t like it. Here is a progressive rock band that heavily implements traditional Icelandic folk music, jazz and classical music as well as lyrical scenes from Icelandic folklore. They heavily rely on an oboe in their songs, are you gone yet? The band split up in 1984 after six years of active playing, with many suspecting the decision was in large part fuelled by their lack of success abroad. Listening to their music again now, it’s not hard to see why they did not succeed in conquering the World. Theirs is a niche carved out in Icelandic ground – small, even for Icelandic standards. Nonetheless the band symbolizes an important cultural step, in that they were the first real attempt to modernize (to some extent) the ridged world of Icelandic folklore and ancient sagas. It’s sad that most won’t be able to enjoy the off-beat lyrics, but in case someone connects with the musical aspect… enjoy!

HAM

HAM never managed to reach a substantial audience during its initial period of active playing but have since gained a cult-like status in Icelandic rock-history. In 2001, HAM was revived once again with great success, and has since been a steady act at music festivals and most recently releasing their first album with new material since 1995. It’s hard to describe the band’s style. They are often said to be heavy metal, but the band (and I) don’t entirely agree. My best attempt would be something like; operatic heavy alternative rock. The music is an energetic clash of sounds, featuring two singers; one with a deep, powerful baritone providing the backdrop to the raspy growls and screams of the other. It is raw and chaotic, but behind it all lie the roots of Icelandic musical traditions; from the rhythmic structure to the conflicting vocals, resonating in parallel fifths. As great as HAM are, they are a band best enjoyed live. I’ve seen HAM a few times and it is always amazing. My most memorable experience was at Iceland Airwaves 2010, in the iconic venue Nasa in downtown Reykjavík. It was completely packed, it was so hot that the collective evaporated sweat in the room was verging on forming clouds above us and there were at all times at least four people crowd surfing. After the first roaring track, front man Óttar Proppé modestly introduced the band in his raspy voice; “we are the band HAM.” As if we didn’t all know… Below I’ve included one of their more famous songs, as well as a short clip from the concert I mentioned above. If you look closely you might see my head somewhere in the front, to the right of the stage…

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