When you go to a music festival it is your ethical duty to do two things:
1) Check out unfamiliar music.
So, with the aim of killing two birds with one drum machine I went to the breakbeat.is night at Apótekið. Intrepid Grapevine reporter Bob Cluness loaded me up with music samples from the featured artists, Subminimal, Raychem, Muted, Hypno, Ewok & Kalli, and Ramadanman. I was quite the electronic music hound in my teens but I drifted out of it around the turn of the century. Bob told me that the night was a mix of dubstep and ambient music, which sounded like it would suit me just fine. Ragnar Egilsson, who actually does know a fair bit and then some about electronic music, gave a quick history lesson on dubstep in his review of last year’s breakbeat.is night which is handy, because if I had to do that I’d be reduced to copy-pasting the Wikipedia page about it. So, wide-eyed and open-minded I headed to Apótekið to have fun.
I’m late. I leave in plenty of time but forget which old apothecary Apótekið is in. I wander around in drizzly downtown Reykjavík, my coat wet, my glasses fogged, feeling every inch the Icelander returned after a long time spent abroad. Luckily I run into a friend who sets me right. I enter at ten past eight and Subminimal’s set is already in full swing. It’s good, good stuff. “This I can dance to,” is my first thought. Then my glasses defog and I see that the audience consists of only three guys, two of whom are wearing flannel shirts. People rarely dance in flannel. Nod their heads, sure, even bang them. But dance? No. I look at the third guy, the one not in flannel, searching for the hungry eyes of a shy dancer kept from busting out by a crippling social anxiety, his dance-yearning body twitching with eagerness to rock the floor. No such luck. Spiritually, if not actually, he is also wearing flannel. Don’t get me wrong, I own a flannel shirt or two, and I quite like them, but I’m just judging people by I can see and hear, because tonight that’s my job.
After paying an exorbitant amount of money for a beer that tastes a bit like someone fed fermented hops to a civet cat, collected the faeces, stirred it into some water, chilled it, and charged me a fortune, which, like a chump, I happily forked over. This is all a longwinded way of asking why I can purchase a fine cup of coffee in many establishments in this fair city while decent beer is the stuff of fairytales. But back to the music.
This guy is good. I may not be well versed in the intricacies of dubstep, but I do know that his set is well-structured and dynamic. The music is complex, fun and, goddamnit, perfect to dance to. I’m usually not averse to dancing by myself despite (or perhaps because of) its inherent masturbatory qualities, but jumping out on the dancefloor is less fun when you feel awkward about it. A small number of people arrive during the course of Subminimal’s excellent set, but while they may not all be wearing flannel, they stare at the world through flannel eyes (don’t mind me, I’m prone to metaphor. It’s a professional disease).
A few more humans trickle in during Raychem’s set. He is similarly solid and engaging. His style is less hectic than Subminimal, and even busts out some melodies from time to time. He starts out fairly relaxed, but about a third of the way through his set the beat kicks in hard. The urge to dance is overwhelming, but I was availing myself of the facilities at that exact moment, so I had to restrain myself. I don’t want to be that guy, you know, the one that makes the cleaning crew seriously consider resigning immediately, but then they realize that they must soldier on and do their job because times are hard and work is sparse and starving to death in a garret is only a good career move if you’re a crazy artist. I rushed back upstairs, hoping against hope to find the dancefloor heaving, but sadly no. The flannel crew is still in effect. Though, to give them credit, they do nod their head to the beat, some even with vigour. The audience enjoys the show, as they should, as it is a fine performance. I just wish there were more dancing.
I’ll admit that of the performers tonight, the one that most excited me before I went was Muted, for the rather incidental reason that he is from Egilsstaðir, a town in the Eastern fjords region of Iceland. I have family there and spent some time in my early teens working as cowherd on a farm in nearby Seyðisfjörður, and so I have an emotional attachment to the place. It’s not the last place you’d expect a progressive dance musician to grow up, but it’s not the first location that comes to mind when you think of dubstep.
Music was the first artform to truly go global. When the privileged youth of planet Earth gained access to the internet in large numbers, they were met by an endless supply of music. Suddenly, if you were interested in one type of music above any other, you were no longer limited by what you could get in your local record store or order through the mail. Almost all of recorded music is yours to download. Anyone lucky enough to have steady access to the internet (between one and two billion people, depending on who you ask) can follow the cutting edge of the type of music they most cherish, and participate by uploading their own. Thus a guy like Muted can exist, a musician living in a small town on the edge of the habitable world, and yet fully involved in the creation of new forms of electronic dance music.
If Muted is a sign of the times, then times are good. I know I’m getting a bit monotonous in my praise, but everyone so far has been really good. Muted, like the previous two, constructs his set with the skill of someone fully immersed in his favourite genre of music. I don’t need to know dubstep from UK funky (which I don’t) to appreciate how well thought-out the performance is. I still wish people would dance.
He was old school. For goodness sake, the man spun vinyl. I was immediately put into a good mood when I saw those large black discs. I was reminded of my earliest forays into music-listening with my parents’ old records, jumping around to the soundtrack of American Graffiti. He started off with a Moroder-like jam (again, perfect to dance to) which faded into some genital rumbling monstrosity. Which I mean as a term of praise, in case that wasn’t clear.
It is hard to be a critic, to criticize and pass judgment, when all that you’re presented with is of high quality, which is one reason this review has been full of digressions about people who wear flannel, the quality of beer in Icelandic bars, and the effect of the internet on contemporary music. Speaking of the internet, click on the links throughout this article.
Check them out, you’ll enjoy them. If you don’t, then it’s because you’re dead inside and have no joy in your heart. And, for God’s sake, when you’re at one of their concerts, dance.
To finish talking about Hypno, I should mention that his set was more varied than that of the first three, changing styles every five minutes or so, which appeals to my YouTube-addled mind, accustomed to receiving a new kind of stimuli every few minutes. Oh, and a couple of people started dancing. You know, while holding a beer and standing near the bar, but dancing nonetheless. Neither of them wore flannel, obviously. I joined in the dancing but there weren’t enough of us to reach the critical mass necessary to get the whole crowd jumping. In that, we, the audience, failed the first four performers, who put on a heck of a show for us.
Hypno’s set slid seamlessly into Ewok & Kalli’s. By that time more people had come into Apótekið, though the place was only half-full at best. Ewok & Kalli offered the slightly odd spectacle of two guys on stage, one of whom was DJing his heart out, while the other leaned against various bits of equipment. Which one was spinning and which one was leaning changed through the night, mind you, but it’s still kind of weird to see someone just hanging out behind the turntables. Not that I was really paying attention to who was doing what on stage because it was during their set that I finally got to dance properly. Not properly properly. Not I-danced-so-much-I-don’t-know-my-name-anymore-but-I-think-it’s-Sweaty properly. I did, after all, have to go back to my table regularly to jot down some observations and thoughts, but I did dance.
I don’t dance unless the music moves me, and any music that moves me is by my definition good. When I dance I stop thinking about the music so I can’t tell you too much about their set except that it kept me and a couple other people dancing continuously for an hour. And though it started off with just the three of us, others started dancing too and eventually there was a crowd of fifteen people dancing. In fact, so oblivious was I that at one point I noticed that there were three guys on stage. Whether that third man had been there all the time or not, I can’t tell you. In my defence, I take my glasses off when I dance because frantically-searching-for-my-dark-blue-spectacles-on-the-dancefloor isn’t a popular move to bust.
An hour and a half is a long time to keep someone’s attention, and I’ll admit that at times during Ewok & Kalli’s set, my attention wavered, but that had more to do with me than them, I had text messages to answer, waters to pass. From meagre beginnings they got a crowd of people dancing, which is enough of a glowing review in and of itself. A breakdancing crew even showed up, though I didn’t watch them much. I prefer dancing myself to watching others dance. It’s why I don’t like strip clubs (that and the exploitation and misogyny inherent in them and our sexist society, but that’s a digression for another time).
By the end of Ewok & Kalli’s set I was sweaty and exhausted, so when Ramadanman started, I sat down and wrote down some thoughts. That wasn’t too hard because his stuff didn’t really grab me at first. The stuff he purveyed was simpler than the complex beat euphoria offered up by Ewok & Kalli and everyone who preceded them.
Simpler isn’t quite the word. Different types of music take differing amounts of aural space. Some overwhelm the listener with a barrage of stimuli, making the brain work overtime to sort all the signals apart. When done right this leads to an aesthetic overload in the listener’s mind (when done wrong it’s a messy cacophony). We all know the feeling of transcendent joy when something grips our senses like a junkie pulling on the strap tied around the arm, and injects pure happiness into our mind. That’s the approach taken by the five Icelandic acts.
There are other ways of bringing pleasure to the listener. One of those is to go a more participatory route, being less intrusive, and leaving plenty of space available for the listener to insert themselves into, like jazz musicians improvising on a simple melody. A lot of dance music is like that, letting the dancers improvise movements to the sounds played for them, and not just constantly reacting to the cavalcade of sound. Ramadanman put together an expert mix of that kind of music. Rarely did I count more than three elements going at the same time, and sometimes the music dropped, leaving nothing but the beat. The entire club was dancing, except for a few beflanneled hold outs, who stood at the bar clutching their watered-down, fermented catshit. Did I dance? Hell yes I danced! When I stumbled exhausted, thirsty and famished out of Apótekið I realized I had been dancing for an hour straight. I had listened to a lot of music I had no familiarity with and danced my heart out. Just what the doctor prescribed.
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