Things were pretty awesome at Amsterdam. The Warsaw Pact got things going with their vibrant gypsy folk, and I’m glad the festival organizers decided to mix things up a bit for a change. It seems like they’re trying a bit overly hard to classify things this year, grouping all the rap here, all the rock there and all the folk somewhere else and so on and so forth. But whatever. Warsaw Pact were awesome, and topped things off with an amazing version of Stolt Siglir Fleyið Mitt, declaring it should be Iceland’s national anthem. I’m inclined to agree with them.
Skelkur Í Bringu are fast making a name for themselves as a fun and lively live band, but here they proved they could do something else: be interesting. They’re not only lovably loud and off-the-wall, but they’re also innovative and original. Doing a song that has only vocals and drums, lifting a riff from an old rock song and having two bass players to solidify the sound are among the things they do that other Icelandic bands don’t dare.
Prinspóló weren’t terribly interesting, but they were genial and well-defined. There is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they want their music to sound like, and it does them credit. Me, The Slumbering Napoleon, however, have no idea what they want to be. Is it art-rock? Is it hardcore? Is it mathcore (whatever the fuck that means – my spellchecker seems to think it’s a typo)? You decide, because they can’t. Finally seeing them with a decent sound system was satisfying, and they were energetic live, as always. Smug bastards.
Caterpillarmen make music I despise. I’ll make no secret of that fact. I hate progressive rock with a passion, and would rather die than be caught listening to it. That said, Caterpillarmen are very good at making this music I so despise, and in fact, my visceral loathing of their music is proof of how good they are at making shit. Seems like bands in Reykjavík these days have become more aware and focused, carefully cultivating their chosen music instead of randomly trying stuff out. This means more variety, for sure, but too much thinking can get you into trouble, taking the soul out of your music.
Too much thinking is an unlikely occurrence in the creative process behind Zach & Foes’ music, not that there’s a whole lot of soul in there, either. Brainless guitar pop may not have killed anyone, but it can make your head hurt.
I’m starting to think Bárujárn are allergic to sound systems. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Bárujárn show where everything sounded good. The guitar is badly EQd, the theremin is inaudible, or something else goes wrong. No-one’s fault, really, but their folk-tinged surf rock relies so heavily on atmosphere that it spoils things quite a bit. That, and the singer should see a doctor about his throat.
Also suffering from bad sound syndrome were the night’s closers, old alt-rock heroes Saktmóðigur, but their performance, unlike Bárujárn’s dispassionate attitude and random stage props, more than made up for it. They were in fighting spirits, blasting their thuggish punk with a righteous fury.
All in all, a night of good clean fun, with the victors proving that sometimes it’s better not to think too hard… or too little… or whatever.
Well, that’s what we’d like you to believe. But this is what actually went down. Don’t worry. In the end, everything went well.
The Warsaw Pact were playing their frenzied folk shuffle and I sit drinking my beer at the back end of Amsterdam’s bar, by the slot machines. The last song in the set is a crazy ‘workers, unite!’ version of ‘Stolt siglir fleyið mitt’, an old Icelandic pop song. The clarinet, guitar, accordion and violin all soar into a dizzying ruckus at the climax of the song, and a drunk guy in a leather jacket steadies himself against the bar as he applauds and yells.
“I bought a beer here earlier,” Leather Jacket says to the bartender as the band say their thank yous and goodbyes. “And the damndest thing happened: it finished! I’ll have to buy another, obviously.” Okay, maybe he’s not that drunk, I think to myself as he fishes change out of his pocket to pay for his new beer. The barkeep just smiles and pours.
Skelkur í Bringu are next on. There is a lot of yelling and screaming from the lead girl, a brunette with a ray-of-sunshine smile and way too many beads in her outfit, and I decide to go to the bathroom, making my way through the inert crowd to the stairs into the basement.
I pass the back room on the way, which has been converted into a backstage area for the bands. The bassist from The Warsaw Pact looks tired and sweaty, but content, as he nurses a beer, laughing at something the guitar player is saying. I smile and walk down the stairs to the bathroom, but realise something on the way. Was there a guy sleeping in there? No, that can’t be, that’s too weird… why is that so weird? If people are drunk at nine PM, why can’t they be asleep? I have to go back and check this out.
Sure enough, a man in his late thirties, wearing a camo jacket, lies asleep in a chair in the corner of the room, in between stacks of instruments and equipment, his arms folded in front of his chest. He is totally ignored by the other people in the room. Interesting.
It’s later and I’m back at the bar, sharing a drink with Siggi from Skelkur Í Bringu and Hekla from Bárujárn. Prinspóló are playing and none of us are too thrilled about it, but Siggi tells me he has beer stashed away in the backstage area, so we go there. Caterpillarmen have arrived, and are getting their gear out. The bass player grins weirdly at me, like there’s something I should know.
Siggi wonders where we should drink the beer. I suggest outside (even though I’m not supposed to leave the venue), but Hekla wants to sneak to the back room in the basement. We go downstairs and slip behind the unmanned basement bar and into a funky storage room. I cough reflexively to hide the snap-hiss of my beer can opening and eye the random stuff on the shelves. Most of it is assorted cleaning materials, beer kegs and spare chairs, but… is that a shotgun?
I get up and walk slowly to the southwest corner of the room, where the shelves meet a wall and there is a doorway into what looks like a bathroom, but I can’t tell because it’s too dark. On the second shelf from the top lies a very impressive-looking 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. “Whoa,” I breathe quietly and sip my beer as I examine it. I feel like if I even touch it, I’ll be an accessory to some unperpetrated crime. I’ve been watching too much TV, I think to myself.
The word is whimpered weakly and I start, holding my breath and trying to figure out where it came from. I hear muted sounds from upstairs, Prinspóló wishing someone a happy birthday and making awkward jokes. Siggi and Hekla sit on the floor on the other side of the room, chatting.
There it is again. It’s coming from the bathroom. I peek in, but it’s too dark… wait. There’s someone there. It’s the girl from Skelkur Í Bringu. She sits in a huddle on the floor, knees to her chest, amidst big black plastic bags full of what I assume are bottles and cans. What the hell is going on?
“Uh… are you okay?” I ask, afraid to even step into the room. Siggi and Hekla fall silent.
The girl just whimpers. I make a decision and approach her. She looks up at me, blind terror in her eyes. She shuffles awkwardly away from me, scared out of her mind.
“Uh, guys?” I call to Siggi and Hekla, but find I am unable to take my eyes off the girl. I haven’t realized they have stood up and are standing right behind me until Siggi says “Holy shit, is that Steinunn?”
The sounds of Prinspóló are replaced by applause, then silence, then the stereo playing Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’.
“I don’t know,” I say without turning around. “But I’ve got to go upstairs and see Slumbering Napoleon. I have to write a review.”
I receive only silence as an answer from either of them, so I say “yeah…” to no-one in particular, and squeeze past them and out of the room.
I try to lose my mind headbanging to Me, The Slumbering Napoleon, but can’t take my mind off the girl, the image of her face burned into my brain. Was that fear or shame? Why can’t I tell the difference? I retreat out of the crowd, leaning against the side wall next to the backstage area and taking notes as the band wrap up.
Caterpillarmen get onstage, and again the weird smile from the bass player. Siggi and a tawny-haired guy with smoldering eyes walk up to me. I know it’s weird, but that’s the only way I could describe his eyes. They’re smoldering.
“He just raped Steinunn,” Siggi says matter-of-factly.
“What, him?” I ask, gesturing at Smoldering Eyes.
“No! Not him, he’s her boyfriend, him!” He points onto the stage.
“The bass player from Caterpillarmen raped her?” I ask in disbelief, watching the bassist play, his frilly blond hair bobbing to the beat.
Again, I receive no answer. The two boys make their way to the bar, solemn. I follow them, and spy Aðalsteinn, a fellow Grapevine reporter, at the bar ordering vodka.
“Hey,” I say absently, sidling up to him. “How’d your gig go?”
“Terrible,” he says as the barkeep pours a shot.
“Huh. That sucks.” I slump against the counter.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asks, passing the bartender his credit card and putting his hands in his pockets.
“The bass player from Caterpillarmen raped the bass player from Skelkur Í Bringu.”
“Which one?” The barkeep gives Aðalsteinn his card back, and he picks up the glass, looking down at me.
“Well, we can’t print that,” he says into his glass before downing it. “Well. I’m off to feed the cat. Don’t get too drunk.” He puts on his jacket and leaves.
Smoldering Eyes is in a huddle on a barstool, rubbing his eyes as Siggi tries to console him. Leather Jacket is back, drunker than before. Siggi asks something, the question inaudible to me.
“I’m not calling any fucking cops,” Smoldering Eyes says. Leather Jacket bumps into him, and he snaps, glaring at the older man for a second before punching him in the face.
Leather Jacket stumbles back. Blood runs from his mouth and from Smoldering Eyes’ knuckles. Smoldering Eyes picks up his barstool and brings it into Leather Jacket’s side, hard, and he crumples like a windsock. Smoldering Eyes is on him before anyone can stop him, kicking the man viciously and stomping on him.
By now he’s caused a scene and people are standing in a circle, watching. The band stops playing and the bartender picks up a phone. Smoldering Eyes takes something out of his pocket, and before I can even think ‘no way that’s a handgun’, he’s fired two shots at the stage and everybody screams and runs. I duck behind the corner of the bar. What the fuck is going on?
There’s someone else with me behind the bar, a brunette in a checkered dress with a gold paper crown on her head, and I realize dimly it’s the keyboard player from Prinspóló. She meets my eyes, peeks over the counter, and ducks back. Smoldering Eyes is yelling something indistinctly and someone else is whimpering.
“Well, he hit someone. The guitar player, I think,” Gold Crown says in a that’s-a-shame tone of voice. “Do you think you can distract him before I jump over the bar? I keep some guns in my gig bag.”
“What? Guns?” I say in a fierce whisper. “Some guns, plural? What are you, insane?”
“Can you or can you not distract him?” she says, anger creeping into her voice.
“What? Yeah, fine, whatever, I’ll distract him, you go get your guns, you crazy woman.”
I stand up, looking desperately for a prop. People are running out of the front door. Smoldering Eyes has indeed shot the guitar player from Caterpillarmen; he lies bleeding and begging on the stage, his Gibson SG still on its strap by his abdomen. The rest of the band are nowhere in sight. Siggi has pulled out a gun of his own, a big shiny revolver that can only be a .44 Magnum, and is calmly putting bullets into it.
I pick up a nearly-full beer glass“Hey, you! Gunfighter! Are you gonna talk all day, or do you want to shoot something else?” Smoldering Eyes, still standing in the centre of the room, turns to me, as does Siggi.
Siggi looks confused, but Smoldering Eyes just points his gun at me. Before he has a chance to shoot, I chuck the beer at him and catch him full on in the face. He yelps and fires blindly into the celiing. Gold Crown vaults over the top of the bar just as Siggi manages to raise his Magnum. He fires two shots in out direction, misses; bottles break. I take the chance and jump over the counter myself, following Gold Crown as she runs to the kitchen door in a crouch. She steps over the bartender, who is lying on the floor, terrified.
“Stay cool,” I say to him before following the girl into the kitchen.
But the kitchen offers no respite. A skinny boy with a scraggly beard and a distinctive nose, the bassist from Me, The Slumbering Napoleon, I think, is holding a handsome guy in a blue t-shirt at gunpoint with a Glock. The guy has a yellow paper crown on his head, and I realize he’s the main guy from Prinspóló.
“What’s going on out there?” Scraggly Beard says, cluthching Yellow Crown by the shoulder.
“Just calm down,” Gold Crown says, obviously worried for her bandmate. “Are you okay, Svavar?”
“Shut the fuck up! What the hell is that all about?”
“No worries, friend,” I say calmly. “Just put the gun down.”
“Hey pal, I’ve got a criminal record as long as your arm and an 80 million ISK debt to a loan shark, and if the cops or someone else has shown up to kill me, I’ll kill ‘em first.”
“Excellent policy, but trust me, it’s not about you. Now, put the gun down.”
“Svavar,” Gold Crown says and takes a step forward; a mistake. Scraggly Beard shoots her in the face. Svavar screams and bites Scraggly’s arm; there is a yelp and the gun is in Svavar’s hand as he beats the other man with it, but he kicks back and the gun falls to the floor. Thinking quickly, I grab Svavar by the shirt and drag him out another door back into the main room; another mistake. Smoldering Eyes and Siggi fire at us from across the room and we’re forced to duck behind a speaker by the stage.
“I can’t believe he killed her,” Svavar says.
“I can’t believe any of this,” I say. “But she, uh, she mentioned some guns in her gig bag…”
“Right, the guns! Come on,” he says, scurrying into the backstage room. I make to follow, but a hail of bullets from Siggi’s keeps me where I am, until Scraggly Beard bursts out of the kitchen and fires wildly at Siggi. Momentarily forgotten, I scramble into the back room, where Svavar is rummaging through a gig bag.
“What’s all that gunfire?” asks the bassist from The Warsaw Pact, still sitting in the exact same spot.
“Gunfire,” I say.
“That’s what I thought.” He takes a sip of his beer and reaches over to the beautiful Guerrini accordian on top of his band’s stack of gear. Incredibly, he snaps the air sack completely open and pulls out a pair of very old-looking dueling pistols.
“If there’s going to be a gunfight, I’d best contribute, wouldn’t you agree?” he says, checks the pistols, puts his shades on, and marches into the main room, shooting at anything that moves.
“Is everyone here batshit-insane? Why do all of you keep so many guns?” I yell at Svavar as he shifts a large silver Casio keyboard and retrieves a small Walther, which he throws to me, and a sawed-off shotgun.
“All musicians own guns. It’s the only way you can make it in this business. Hey, you’re in a band, don’t you own a gun?”
“Well, maybe that’s why you’re not famous.”
“I always assumed it was because my music sucks and I never promote it.”
“All our music sucks, and no-one really does promo anymore. You just have to buy a gun and threaten the right people, maybe kill a few, and you’ll make it. You’ll see.”
“Huh. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I have been going about this all wrong,” I say, absently fingering the Walther.
“I just wish I had another shotgun to lend you,” Svavar says, and a bell goes off in my head.
“I think I may be able to grant that wish,” I say, grinning as I stand up. “Come on, to the basement.”
“Oh my God, you’re Batman!”
The basement yields another surprise: one of the guitarists from Skelkur Í Bringu is on top of the bassist from Caterpillarmen, clubbing him to death with his effects board. The Moogerfooger lies in ruins next to them, and his DigiTech Whammy pedal is dripping with blood. The bassist’s blond frilly hair is soppy with blood, his eyes are open, vacant.
“What the… Albert, what are you doing?” Svavar says, and Albert looks up, sees us, and instinctively picks up his Boss Digital Delay and throws it at Baldvin. It catches Baldvin square on the jaw and cracks open; I find myself hoping it wasn’t a DD-10: those are expensive.
Baldvin falls awkwardly, and I raise the Walther, firing at Albert but missing pathetically as he sprints behind the basement bar…
…and comes up shooting, Uzi in his hands. A fucking Uzi? No way! I duck into the bathroom, only to find the singer from Skelkur Í Bringu strapping a massive M60 machine gun to herself, with Hekla holding the bullet belt.
“Could you duck, please?” the girl says sweetly.
I do as she commands and she releases a deafening blast from the gun into the doorway, and when the smoke clears I realize she’s shot Baldvin, literally riddling him with massive, 7.62 caliber holes. This brings things into clarity: the girl is not on my side. I run out, but don’t dare go up the stairs, so I go around the bar, past a surprised Albert and into the storage room.
I grab the shotgun from the shelf and turn around to find Albert bearing down on me with his Uzi; I instinctively pull the trigger.
The shotgun blast catches Albert across the chest and he’s dead before he hits the ground, but still-firing nerves make him empty his entire clip from the Uzi, recoil throwing it wildly around in his limp hand. I’m amazed to find myself unscathed.
I bend over to pick up his gun and check him for ammo, like any good video gamer does, but Hekla and the bassist from Skelkur march in with the M60, and I sprint for the back of the room as the two girls struggle to bring the gun, easily twice their size, to bear on me.
There is a corridor of sorts around a corner in the storage room, with shelves of hard liquor on the walls. An idea strikes me. I stuff a rag into a bottle of Scottish Leader, and light it with an elongated barbecue lighter I find. I chuck it around the corner, there is a crash and the girls scream. The machine gunner fires about eight rounds, but then Hekla screams even louder and the firing stops.
A quick peek around the corner shows me the Hekla’s finger has been caught in the breech, jamming the gun, and the other girl is struggling to free her. I consider my position. I should kill them, shouldn’t I? They were trying to kill me. But they’re in pretty good bands, I’d hate to break those up… but wait, didn’t I just kill a guy from Skelkur? But if I killed the girl from Skelkur, I’d have to kill Hekla too, they seem to be pretty good friends… fuck it. I jog briskly past them, stepping over the puddles of burning whiskey.
Upstairs is hellish. The bassist from Warsaw Pact acknowledges me with a nod and I duck with him behind an overturned table. Smoke, broken glass and spent bullet casings are everywhere
“The boy from Skelkur Í Bringu and his friend are over there, by the door,” he explains as we peek over the table’s edge. “Slumbering Napoleon are on the other side of the stage from us. And I think one of them has a flamethrower…”
I risk a glance over the stage, and there is indeed a stocky young man in a stylish polo sweater who has converted his sunburst Telecaster into a primitive flamethrower crouching behind an amp. Scraggly Beard sits next to him, arm still bleeding from where Baldvin bit him.
Suddenly, Scraggly Beard spots me and raises his Glock, tapping out three rounds. He misses me, but hits the bassist from Warsaw Pact in the stomach; he groans and drops his dueling pistols. I pump the shotgun and fire, but miss.
“What the FUCK?”
I look across the room: a band has just walked in, equipment on their backs or in their hands. Their leader is a man with square shoulders and a plaid jacket.
Siggi pops out of hiding, brandishing his Magnum. “Who the fuck are you?”
“We’re Zach & Foes. We were supposed to start at midnight,” says a stocky guy with a snare drum in his hands.
“Oh yeah? Start this!” yells the flamethrower guy and unleashes a torrent of burning napalm on them, much to the delight of Scraggly Beard. Zach & Foes scream as their flesh crackles in the flames.
Siggi dives behind the counter as Smoldering Eyes emerges from hiding behind an overturned slot machine and fires round after round after round at the guys from Napoleon and I duck back behind the table, only to find that the bassist from Warsaw Pact has died and Hekla and the girl from Skelkur are standing over me with Albert’s Uzi in my face. I drop my guns.
“And now, journalist swine, you die,” the girl says calmly.
I close my eyes.
There is a terrific scream and I open my eyes: a topless young man has appeared from nowhere and is on top of the girl, stabbing her repeatedly with a hunting knife, and I realize it’s the drummer from Caterpillarmen. Hekla joins the fray and I bolt into the backstage area; the guy in the camo jacket is still asleep. I search him, and sure enough, find a machine pistol with a folding stock. I run back to the main room, past the tussling girls and drummer and into the kitchen, then to the bar. I fire three quick bursts at Siggi, who is reloading his Magnum behind the bar. He dies with a gurgle. The flames snap and hiss and I trade fire with Smoldering Eyes, who takes a round in the shoulder and drops behind a table.
Another blast from the flamethrower and I’m forced to duck behind the bar again, but hear a loud clatter over the fire, and when I look again, all the windows have been shot out and three guys walk over the shattered glass and dead bodies of Me, The Slumbering Napoleon. One of them, the biggest and burliest, has a smoking AK-47, another, the red-bearded one, has a massive medieval morningstar, but the third is apparently unarmed. He just takes a drag of his roll-up, takes off his sunglasses and says in a calm, clear voice:
“No-one parties without inviting Bárujárn.”
The gunner unleashes a hail of bullets, but the two surviving members of Caterpillarmen have found their guns and force the newcomers to seek cover. I think I’ve seen it all when the rest of Moscow Parade barge through the windows on horseback with rapiers, one of them, the accordion player, slashing the AK-47 guy open from the throat to the groin, splattering blood and bile all over her pink dress. The flames are out of control and I realize if I don’t leave now, I’ll die here.
Checking to make sure everyone else is busy, I run into the backstage area where the other guitar player from Skelkur Í Bringu is dying in agony, knife in his throat. What am I doing in here again? Oh yeah, looking for a fire escape… it’s evident there is none, but the guy in the camo jacket finally wakes up and says “It’s two o’clock. Time to play our set.”
“Are you insane? The building’s on fire and everyone is dead!” I say.
“Listen, we’re Saktmóðigur, and we’re playing our set, whether you like it or not.”
I stare after him, dumbstruck as he steps onto the stage, joining his bandmates who are already there. They begin to play, the equipment amazingly unharmed, their brutish rock accompanying the cacophany of screams and fire in the room, to which Saktmóðigur are blissfully ignorant. I step in a daze over guns and bodies, making my way to the exit. I stumble out of the door onto the vomit covered sidewalk, where the unarmed guy from Bárujárn sits, smoking.
There is a dull thud under my feet. “That’ll be the kegs in the basement exploding,” says the guy from Bárujárn absently. I collapse onto my back as Amsterdam burns.
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