In the beginning, Icelandic metal bands kept to themselves and were mostly left out of the mainstream. In the movie Rokk í Reykjavík (1982) for instance, the light, Loverboy-type metal band Start looked and sounded like long haired elves out of a hill. Other early metal bands, such as Þrumuvagninn (“Chariot Of Thunder”) and Drýsill (“Puck” or “Demon”) played to few diehard metal fans and both released LPs. Some of Þrumuvagninn’s members had been members of pop and ball group Tívolí and featured a convincing rock barker, Eiður Örn Eiðsson. Their self titled LP of hard blues rock was released in 1982.
Drýsill featured red haired rock star Eiríkur Hauksson (aka Eric Hawk), who would later represent Iceland in Eurovision (twice!) and front Norwegian metal band Artch. Drýsill’s sole album, ‘Welcome To The Show,’ was released in 1985 and has been called Iceland’s first “real” heavy metal album.
METAL TREE HUGGERS
Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s version of Battle Of The Bands that started in 1982, has always been welcoming towards metal. Metal band Gypsy won the battle in 1985 with its old fashioned, slightly hairmetal-ish rock. The band did not release a record and gave up when Hallur, the drummer, left to join Ham in 1989.
Bootlegs came from Garðabær and played speed metal, with Metallica and Slayer as role models. The band competed three times in Músíktilraunir, and finally won the contest’s second place in 1989. Their début album ‘WC Monster’ was recorded shortly afterwards and released by The Sugarcubes’ Bad Taste label (Bootlegs’ singer Jón happens to be Sugarcube Einar Örn’s nephew).
Around 1990, metal was in general upswing with hair metal gaining popularity popular and Guns ‘n’ Roses posters plastered on every other teenager’s walls. That year Nabblastrengir (“Umbilical Cords”) from Hafnarfjörður won Músíktilraunir, but gave up quickly afterwards, as Bootlegs stole their singer, a guy called Jón, or Jón Junior, to distinguish him from the older Jón that was already in Bootlegs.
With two Jóns, Bootlegs was at the top of the game and played at Laugardalshöll along with the kings of Icelandic pop in 1990. At the time, not least as a result of President Vigdís’ efforts, a big forestry effort was ongoing in Iceland. The concert was to raise money for a ‘Rock forest’ that was supposed to be set out in all four quarters of the reef.
The ‘Rock forest’ still has yet to materialise, but Bootlegs soldiered on and signed with local ‘major label’ Steinar. They released a self-titled album in 1990, with a tasteful painting of a tree raping a blonde woman on the cover. Shortly afterwards lead guitarist Guðmundur Hannes quit and a young boy called Gunnar Bjarni replaced him. This line-up was shortlived and Bootlegs croaked soon afterwards.
DEATH IT IS
The year 1991 saw large hair metal festival at Hafnarfjörður’s football stadium. Quireboys, Bulletboys, Thunder og Slaughter showed up, but the main attraction, Poison, did not, giving the excuse that one of the members had suffered an accident.
At Músíktilraunir in 1991 death metal was all the rage, and a band called Infusoria won. They would soon change their name to Sororicide. Garages all over Reykjavík were at this point brimming with long-haired teenage boys sporting black t-shirts, with shiny and menacing guitars, and all the right effects pedals. Death metal bands such as Gor, Morbid Silence, Insectary, Condemned, Cranium, Viral Infection, Virulenzy and Suicidal Diarrhea made the rounds at bars and recreation rooms with Sororicide as the dads and Ham as the granddads.
Sororicide made a convincing album in 1991, ‘The Entity.’ Furthermore, a death metal compilation entitled ‘Apocalypse’ was released, featuring songs from In Memoriam, Strigaskór no. 42 (“Sneakers #42”) and Sororicide. With that, the first wave of Icelandic death metal fizzled out.
GRUNGE IN ICELAND
Running side by side with death metal were bands that harked back to the golden age of “classic” rock (or just ‘rock’, as it was called then). One of them, Deep Jimi And The Zep Creams, sported most of their influences in their name. At first Deep Jimi played cover songs but soon started writing their own material. The band played enough cover gigs in Iceland to finance a trip to New York and there played various shitholes.
Deep Jimi lucked out in the big city and were eventually signed by Warner Brothers. Grunge was the new thing after Nirvana’s breakthrough and almost every band with long haired members stood a change. The label got producer Kramer (of Shockabilly and Bongwater “fame”) to work with them on their debut album.
“He was paid 60.000 dollars and showed up driving a BMW shortly afterwards,” said one of the Deep Jimis at the time. “He did almost nothing in the studio though, except smoke weed.” The album, ‘Funky Dinosaur,’ was released in 1992, but shortly afterwards all deals were off as the label had violated most of their agreements.
Grunge was not that big in Iceland. Bands such as Bone China, Deep Sea Apple, Dos Pilas, Urmull, Quicksand Jesus and In Bloom played and made music but never got that big. The only Icelandic rock band that was properly popular was Jet Black Joe, because they had what it takes: memorable, melodic songs and an outstanding work ethic.
THE FLIGHT OF THE JETS
Jet Black Joe’s was the brainchild of singer Páll Rósinkranz and the aforementioned guitarist Gunnar Bjarni (fresh from his stint with Bootlegs). At first, they made songs with a single guitar but later got three more dudes to form a band with. Major label Steinar signed the band, and their first album was made in 1992. Songs like ‘Big Fat Stone’ and ‘Rain’ got popular and the boys, all under the age of twenty, set out to work only in music – “That is going fine. We make plenty money and now drink Jim Beam instead of Brennivín,” Gunnar Bjarni remarked in November 1992. “It’s almost like a dream,” said Páll. “We play music that we love and people love it.”
The self-titled debut album sold 7.000 copies, and label Steinar used every possible connection to try and get the band a record deal abroad. Waiting for something to happen in the fickle world of the music business is a sure-fire way to mess up bands. Drinking and smoking takes its toll but Gunnar Bjarni wrote like crazy and had a new album, ‘You Ain’t Here,’ ready for 1993. It was not as popular as the first album. “Mostly girls came to our concerts at first,” said Páll. “Now we get more boys because our music is more heavy and boys are more into heavy shit.”
At the time various stories about the band made the rounds. The advances for the second album were said to have been spent mostly on pizza to eat in the studio and all around town there were said to be unpaid bar-tabs from the band. The story of how Páll shot the drummer with a rifle was the most tenacious though.
“See,” explained Jón Örn, the drummer in an interview. “I went to Páll to pick him up for a rehearsal. He said he wanted to show me something and when I came to his room he pointed a rifle towards me. He shot and the bullet brushed by shoulder and hit the wall behind me.”
“Needless to say, I didn’t know it was loaded,” said Páll.
“The best thing about it though was when we got to the ER and I was being sewn up, Páll said: Shit, now I will miss my tanning session.”
After one more album, 1995’s ‘Fuzz,’ which included the hit ‘Higher & Higher’, the band split up after a horrendous trip to Austin, Texas’ SXSW showcase festival. Singer Páll found God and left the sinful world of rock to focus on gospel music. Gunnar’s various efforts have never match the greatness of Jet Black Joe, but the band’s keyboard-player Hrafn formed Ensími, which is still active and one of Iceland’s most established rock acts. Jet Black Joe have of course had various comebacks and even released a new album in 2006, the not so great ‘Full Circle.’