It probably goes without saying that most everyone who came to Hafnarhúsið tonight was either coming to see Gus Gus, or intended to do so but petered out of energy after the first couple acts. This is easily forgivable, considering the line-up that we were given this evening.
Starting us off was Samúel J. Samúelsson Big Band, who certainly lived up to their name by virtue of being a really large band. Perhaps too big, to be honest. Of the dozen or so horns they had backing up Samúel’s trombone, a keyboardist, bassist, guitarist, and the absolutely pitch-perfect percussion stylings of Sigtryggur Baldursson (the original drummer of the Sugarcubes, whose sense of rhythm borders on genius), I can safely say that he could have done away with half of his horn section. I can appreciate a horn player being fond of horns, but the meandering compositions with their half-hearted albeit sincere groove weren’t really improved by having a platoon of horn players blasting their walls of brass sound at the crowd. The effect was more like having someone wake you from a hangover by banging two pans together than it was its intended funk stylings.
This was followed by Valdimar, who are currently at the top of their game, and it shows. Their soulful pop – which by contrast to our openers, used horns sparingly but in a way that added to the songs rather than drowning out the main composition – worked even better in a large, acoustic venue like the Art Museum than it did in a smaller club, where it still held its own. Their sound was more rollicking and playful, and was a pleasure to witness live a second time.
Coming on later was America’s Other Lives, or as I like to think of them, the New World’s answer to Coldplay. Between the cello, violin and trumpet, banks of keyboards washed over the crowd with a heartfelt pop that all the same seemed to try too hard. However, it seemed as though the sound was lost in the band’s own attempts to sound expansive and wondous. The final effect was much like watching Travis attempt to rock out.
One very pleasant surprise was Canada’s Austra, a dance band featuring a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and three female lead singers – or rather, one lead singer and two backing vocalists. The lead singer was quite intriguing, focused, lost in her own beats, and deftly worked the crowd up into a dancing frenzy. Sparse and tight without being overly minimalistic, this was a band that draws the stark, sharp beats of the ’80s without sounding derivative or posing; every note comes right from the heart, and their one message to their listeners is to get off their collective ass and jam.
Bringing us home was the legendary Gus Gus. I remember seeing this band dismissed in Q magazine in 2002 as a dance band capitalising on the whole “Icelanders are so quirky!” vibe that ruled the day during the height of the Cute Generation. What Q and many others didn’t realise at the time was that this was a band determined to deliver world-class dance music. Their live show hardly disappointed in this regard. Starting with their two central electronic artists, the crowd was whipped up into a froth of beats long before their three singers walked into the stage. What I, personally, think a lot of people don’t catch about this band is the sheer melancholy of their loops. Hail storms of keyboards fall down on the crowd like a nostalgic junkie remembering his childhood. A heavy use of dry ice and strobe lights added to this effect – here was a band to be witnessed, but never approached. Like the northern lights (forgive me the easy Nordic reference, but trust me, it totally applies here) you can watch them from a great distance and marvel at the stark beauty of their beats, but you can’t approach them easily, and even if you could, just attempting to grab hold of them will make your grip evaporate before your eyes.
In the end, the crowd scattered from the venue like seeds cast to the wind. You don’t need to play acoustic instruments to make your listeners feel something; in some ways, electronic music can wring out your emotions more than anything carved from wood. It is not the DJ’s responsibility to answer for the starkness in the electronic world. But tonight was a great reminder that electronic music demands something more from the average musician. It’s not enough to hit the notes at the right time; they need accent and feeling.
Done poorly, you end up sounding like an early ’80s video game theme.
But done right, you can reach into someone’s rib cage, gently pull out their heart, and let the two of you bask in the warm red glow of pulsing, eternal life.