Published June 19, 2009
It‘s been eleven years since Ensími‘s remarkable debut was released, and as a commentary on their commemorative concert on June 11th, it seems an analysis of some sort is in order.
Kafbátamúsík emerged from the Icelandic rock scene as not only something hip and in pace with its time, but also something rather novel: an Icelandic album willing to take great pleasure in its own production and sound. Rather than striving to sound vintage or cutting edge, it seemed to carve its own sonic landscape; indeed, an early description of Ensími by the members themselves said that they played “music that combined elements of the past, present and future”. Never afraid to indulge in wholesome clichés, Ensími’s songwriting never shied from hitting that one note, coming in with that one drum break, or tweaking that one synth. They loved what they did and seem to know what we loved, too.
Track 1 – Flotkví
Kafbátamúsík begins with Flotkví, a simple, urgent piece of stop-start shoegaze interlaced with biting synths and Hrafn Thoroddsen’s signature vocals. Not quite breathy enough to be a croon, but softly insistent and with a hint of awkward, unchannelled sexuality about them, they quickly become a relatable human guide to the alien warmth of Kafbátamúsík’s esoteric guitars and synths, Virgil guiding us through the fascinating instrumental underworld.
This exemplary introduction to Ensími’s modus operandi is accompanied by a free-floating saxophone, the complex and obviously well-educated playing easily justifying what could have been a gimmicky, avant-garde choice. The fierce apocalyptic vitriol of the bridge also showcases something that remains curiously rare in Ensími’s songs: a dramatic mood change. The dreamy, pink-hued verses are Ensími’s heady, enticing side, and the bridge is their unforgiving, unapologetic energy.
Track 2 – Arpeggiator/Gulur
Arpeggiator/Gulur reportedly began life as a guitar-based number; the switch to the jaw-droppingly wet synthetics, emotionally bare and so automatic, is another excellent choice. The predictable, often-heard chord progression is the perfect canvas for the dark, rich colours of the overlapping synth lines. Like a voluptuous woman covered in chocolate, it offers you pleasures so universal and timeless that, while stereotypical, you just can’t resist them anyway.
Track 3 – Kælibox
Kælibox offers decisive proof of at least two things. First, whoever’s naming these songs seems to have a queer fascination with quirky-sounding Icelandic composite words, and that guitarist Franz Gunnarsson has listened to Jeff Buckley a lot. The sweeping, arcing guitar arpeggios, never ending quite where you think they will, form the basis of an effortlessly catchy and distinctly Icelandic rock song. Buckley’s influence is particularly evident on the laconically plucked guitars of the bridge, and the entire song balances welcome familiarity with singular freshness.
Tracks 4 & 5 – Drelflík, Conga
Drelflík and Conga are two sides of the same coin, variations on a theme. Building on the same experimental, innocent-sounding themes and emerging into the same level of stunning directness in their endings, Drelflík driven by vocals and Conga by keyboards, they may lack the more listenable arrangements of the rest of the album, but they show how interesting the difference is between building on production and using it. The beginnings of both songs are very loosely defined, letting the sound textures do all the work and wafting lazily through shallow chord progressions, while the verses/endings are pure chord work, pure pop songcraft in the truest sense of the word, as if Weezer were writing the endings of My Bloody Valentine songs.
Track 6 – Gaur
If Drelflík and Conga are brief glimpses at Ensími’s pop sensibilities, Gaur is a long, hard stare at them, blindingly reckless in its defiance of what has gone before. It eschews the gentle strokes that have defined the rest of the album so far, opting instead for rambunctious energy. Ensími’s seemingly nonsensical lyrics, almost abstract, relish in belting out common, almost sloppily pedestrian phrases and turning them into mantras. Of all their work, this is perhaps most true of the informal, incomplete questions of Gaur’s chorus, so endearing in their honesty and familiarity, a hallmark of Icelandic-language rock in the nineties.
Track 7 – Hrúgald
Hrúgald is another beefed-up nod to Jeff Buckley’s quizzical, upbeat guitar hooks, the swerving intro paving the way for Kafbátamúsík’s most abjectly euphoric track, and it is weird hearing such euphoria projected so assertively and charismatically. The song is a nice little stopover between the more distinctive Gaur and Atari, and has been a personal favourite since I first heard the album.
Track 8 – Atari
One of Ensími’s more interesting accomplishments is their comfortable seating between art rock and mainstream Icelandic rock. Their concerts and albums are enjoyed both by preppy, well-groomed radio-rock fans, and the notoriously finicky indie and art crowd. While the inviting synth stylings of Arpeggiator/Gulur are by and large responsible for this crossover, Atari’s stripped-down guitar licks and almost-singalongs do hold some of the responsibility. The stuttering, bursting lead guitar, ever-exuberant lead synth and warm, knowing vocals made it an instant classic when it hit Icelandic radio. It is so deep and enticing that it is impossible not to fall in love with, like a quirky personality with a nice smile.
It is also, to my mind, the only song on Kafbátamúsík to truly suffer from its rich, mid-heavy equalization, and I feel a more focused, minimal production could have brought it out much stronger. But that is perhaps what makes Atari so remarkable for a hit song: instead of an arresting, well-defined mix like the one typically heard in radio-friendly rock, it is awash in spindly guitars and barely supported by a soft, quiet bassline. The drums click and clack with unorthodox percussion and ring out with a heavy reverb, and the vocals are kept low in the mix. No one I know is quite sure exactly what Hrafn is singing, but you can’t help but sing along anyway. In a way, it’s daring to mix such an obvious hit in this way, and makes the fact that it is one of the most recognizable Icelandic rock songs ever written even more of an accomplishment.
Track 9 – Naglabassi
As if to apologise for Atari’s softness, Naglabassi’s verses are as evil, insidious and biting as Kafbátmúsík gets, a prophecy of sorts for the toxic sneer often prevalent on Ensími’s eponymous third album. The chorus remains lofty and warm, the synths and vocal harmonising giving Kafbátamúsík yet another infectious hook.
Track 10 – Permanent
Permanent is the perfect ending to Ensími’s debut. It is remarkable in its banality, in a way; Ensími have already pulled all their neat tricks on you and let Permanent saunter through without making much of an impact, but the clever thing about the track is part of what make Ensími so special. It’s that it is such a typical Ensími song. Already, at the end of only their first album, Ensími have created their own identifiable hallmarks. You could not mistake Permanent for a song by any other band.
The ability to create their own specific character up to the extent that there is such a thing as ‘a typical Ensími song’ is not a skill to be taken lightly, and they belong in a group of select bands who have accomplished this. Although Kafbátamúsík’s general atmosphere could hardly be called definitive or decisive (Ensími do not really achieve this until four years later), it is particular to itself and not similar to many other albums. It is content to throw ingredients into its sonic soup without stirring them to the top, leaving them in as subtle flavourings to enhance its richness.
Special thanks to Nick Bernard.
- Ensími – Kafbátamúsík Myspace/Ensími