Published January 27, 2014
Earlier in 2013, I was asked by a fellow Icelandic music writer to provide some insight for an academic paper he was writing on the “Scottishness” of modern music that came from Scotland. He also asked whether I thought there was an inherent “Icelandicness” that characterises popular music that has come from Iceland in recent years.
One good example of music that shows an inherent “Icelandicness” is the music of Benedikt H. Hermansson, aka Benni Hemm Hemm. Over the last decade, his big band infused, carefree folk-pop has become synonymous with aspects of the nation’s “Krútt” psyche and outlook. Grapevine reviews in the past have described his music as “Exuberantly perky,” “Endlessly optimistic,” “Innocent and Sweet” while showing “Indefatigable optimism.” I suppose that’s all fine and good if you’re into that sort of thing (not me though).
But then something interesting happened. A few years ago, Benedikt moved from Iceland to Edinburgh, Scotland, and started hanging out and collaborating with the likes of Bill Wells, Dan Willson (AKA Withered Hand), and Alasdair Roberts. This exposure to different minds and attitudes resulted in the ‘Retaliate EP’ in 2010. It passed many people by, but it was a departure from Benedikt’s usual music. Recorded in his house, the quirky hi-jinks were replaced with a darker, earthier humour, and the music that possessed a raw intimacy that held you in reeeeeeal close.
Now with his latest release, ‘Eliminate Evil, Revive Good Times,’ Benedikt has made an album that continues the progressions of ‘Retaliate,’ resulting in music that’s decidedly different to what he’s released before. The album’s art design illustrates this difference. Many of Benedikt’s previous albums were adorned with childlike drawings of boats, mountains and ice cream, splashed with bright primary colours. ‘Eliminate…’ instead comes in a clear plastic pouch containing a tiny booklet (the sort that would be forced into your hand by evangelical Christians in town centres), full on stern Calvinistic typeface, florid hypersigils and pictures of Benni drawing said sigils on walls, evoking what looks to be a form of chaos magick. It’s as if he’s channelling Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Bible John, under instruction from Grant Morrison.
The music of ‘Eliminate…’ shows an increased confidence in the production and structure of Benedikt’s compositions. Many of Benedikt’s previous albums, if we’re honest, didn’t sound that good. It felt like they were recorded in a village hall with a poorly house-trained school band that would completely overpower the proceedings. There was lots of energy, but it would fly out in every direction, leaving an empty centre. With ‘Eliminate…’ though, the music is enclosed, with everything close mic’d and hemmed in cheek by jowl. It seals in the energy of the music, allowing the natural acoustics of the instruments and vocals to provide the power. When the percussion and brass enter the fray on songs such as “I Am Free,” and “Rise, Rise, Rise,” there’s a definite rumbling undercurrent to the melody that wasn’t there before. “Siam” has him taking his minimalistic style to a new level, chanting the song’s mantric title, with his guitar giving off sitar-like harmonics.
The production of ‘Eliminate…” allows the intimacy invoked on ‘Retaliate’ to be fully realised on several songs. Benedikt’s voice is a soft, lilting thing, but even he will admit that it is not the strongest vocal out there. But there are moments on ‘Eliminate…’ where everything is stripped back to its core and you can hear the quivering in his melodies. A song such as “Lucano & Ramona,” for example just ACHES in its tenderness. Tremolo heavy guitar notes hang thick in the air while Benedikt’s fragile vocals tell a tale of love and death on an apartment roof.
This leads to the lyrical themes of ‘Eliminate…’ that are different to his previous albums. Benedikt’s pervious music would contain lyrics that could be cynical, but ultimately they were silly, knockabout fluff. The themes of ‘Eliminate…’ however are much darker, occasionally venturing into the territory of ‘I See A Darkness’ era Will Oldham. Benedikt seems much more willing to just let the black night of woe and hurt take him over. Songs such as “Beat Me Until You Are Tired,” are utterly deadpan and succinct in its depiction of New Year’s violence, while “Rise, Rise, Rise” and “Darkness” seem to revel in this abyss. But it never truly succumbs to the nihilistic self-destruction as the final track “Eliminate Evil, Revive Good Times,” finally manages to come up for air to breath in the light.
It’s this idea of national traits in music that has me wondering if Benedikt’s Scottish travels have resulted in him making music that breaks free from the inherent “Icelandicness” that was there before. Listening to ‘Eliminate…’ it certainly doesn’t feel Icelandic. Of course the lyrics are all in English, with the backing vocals done in a slight Scots inflection, but he seems to have also absorbed some of the bruised romanticism and rousing melancholia that pervades much of modern Scottish music. The romanticism that acknowledges that there’s a dark absurdity to society and our lives are essentially fucked, but we plough on regardless, no matter what the cost. When the guitar cranks in “The Mask Of Anarchy,” it definitely harks to the weeping guitars of the likes of Teenage Fanclub and Arab Strap. You can imagine some of the old boys doon the Gallowgate when hearing this wiping away the odd tear before it drops into their pints.
Whatever the nationalist imagery on display, ‘Eliminate…’ manages to side-step much of the boring clichéd shit that infests most fashionable modern “folk” music, (Empty oompah sing-along chants, sporting bespoke bohemian fashion whilst trying to give the look of being hard bitten tillers of the land). Instead ‘Eliminate…’ is an album that I can relate to intensely, as it draws you into its murky embrace. It’s contains music of a mystical fervour of a metaphysical bent, full of the intangibles that connects folk music to people, places and events.
Benni Hemm Hemm: Skot