In a bathroom with no locks, in the basement of the Amsterdam bar, I ran into Elín, the female wonderstorm at the front of the folk band Bellstop. It was an endearing experience where we laughed about what it meant to be an artist playing at a venue that is typically a black hole for daytime drinking and gambling while I pulled toilet paper off of my boots.
Elín and her husband Rúnar front Bellstop and they opened the night at Amsterdam. In the bathroom, Elín admitted to having played in far better and far worse spots than Reykjavik’s token dive bar, but she’d play most anywhere just to play. She and Rúnar play with the ease and harmony you’d expect from two people who have been making music together for years (including five years in China). Their performance was tight, the delivery smooth and the sound, folky and strong. The music was so naturally beautiful in fact, it almost seemed a shame to see it confined to Amsterdam. Should Airwaves every move outdoors, into the countryside and under the sun, Bellstop would be a must-see. Elín’s sister, a 20-something operatic soprano, was a fresh addition to the tribe and, combined with Rúnar’s folk guitar and Elín’s force-of-nature vocals, they created a majestic trifecta of indie-pop infused with Icelandic folk charm.
The band following Bellstop, Aragrúi, was by all measures surprisingly phenomenal. Aragrúi are a young group that has channeled whatever ambition or experimentation inherent to your early 20s, into their music. Guitarist Tómas Smári played skillfully and lead singer Hulda Kristín Kolbrúnardóttir was an unexpected she-yell of raw and beautiful pop rock. Hulda carries herself with both timidity and bravery, like a flashback to a coming-of-age Stevie Nicks. Violinist Margrét Símonardóttir added beautiful, ethereal violin and soprano vocals that fused well with Tómas mixed electric-acoustic performances. That they were singing in Icelandic and that the sound was so dynamic – a blend of folk, myth pop, dark indie, rock and harmony – made them one of the most original bands to be heard last night at Amsterdam.
If you had seen Aragrúi hoping for some youthful angst, follow-up act Sindri Eldon and The Ways certainly brought it.
Sindri Eldon, of Sindri Eldon and The Ways, bore his angst much like his chest hair. Exposed on both accounts, his lyrics were raw and loaded with admissions of sadness and inadequacy; his confidence maneuvering a stage, a microphone and a guitar were brazen. His performance is a hybrid of electric release and whiney ’90s garage rock and the 16-year-old version of you would probably love it.
Sindri is a great performer and an excellent vocalist, which makes the unoriginal lyrics and the sound he delivers them with a bit disappointing. The drum’s were simply loud, the songs, simply overwrought. Lyrics like “I’m so bitter and resentful” and “I wish I’d never been born” along with introductions to these songs like, “This one’s about fucking up” don’t totally resonate with a group of young adults who tried to grow out of that in high school.
Sindri has fun on stage with whatever inner turmoil he has off stage, which is why I don’t quite know if he’s being serious or ironic when he launches into some chorus of self-loathing or deprecation. The show fantastically wrapped up with him jumping off stage to play on ground level with the crowd, which was memorable. If you’re into alt pop-punk you might give these guys a try, just leave your baggage at home, Sindri’s got plenty.
If you were still stuck in the ethos of your own teen angst after Sindri’s performance, Skelkur í bringu would have been particularly jarring.
I’ll give Skelkur í bringu credit for being the most abstract band of the night. I couldn’t quite get a grip on their musical style except to say that it’s a blend of dark-wave, synth-psyche-dream pop. For playing such unconventional, experimental music, they lack much stage presence beyond lead singer Steinunn Harðardóttir’s goofy costume and led lights around her neck and fingers. At one point, the bassist just stared up at the ceiling while playing and Steinunn, in her unique glory, went about making high-pitched shrieks every once in a while that were maybe supposed to sound cute? A fog machine was brought out and the experience that was perhaps, at first, supposed to seem otherworldly turned into a weird, orange-hued acid flashback. The music was like sub-par Grimes and the show was kind of lack luster.
And then Stroff started playing and lack luster started toeing into full-blown boredom.
Stroff followed the vein of 90s grunge rock but they almost married it with Talking Heads-esque lyricism. The music was executed well and on an album it would have been nice too, but the live performance was stale and lacked the emotive factors that make you want to go to a live performance in the first place. One memorable song with the chorus of “Not to be hurried” was catchy and original but the rest of the songs seemed a bit tired and repetitive. Attempts at making experimental noises through a plastic tube into the microphone failed but trying to make an obscure, original noise to introduce to the music was admirable. Some in the crowd seemed to like the comfort of the familiar, sweater music but it was about as exciting as one.
Perhaps Stroff was an attempt at setting a mellow energy about the crowd for the final act, Bárujárn, to run away with.
Bárujárn was a choice last band of the night and the only one to finally get people moving en masse. Their music is directly tethered to 1960s surf rock and kind of like listening to The Beach Boys or The Holly’s play in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ They are the first band I’ve ever seen to use a theremin, an electronic instrument from the early 1900s that allows you to play with electric frequencies between two antennae. They use the theremin to project a ghostly, psychedelic sound and it is incredible to see theremin player Hekla Magnúsdóttir literally stroking at the air between the two antennas and making this ineffable noise. It was fun and carefree music and the band was perfectly chilled-out. If there was anything more indicative of the Icelandic take on surf rock and adaptations of California beach culture, it was bassist Oddur Báruson clad in a tank top and wool socks.
If there was anything more indicative of a night out at Amsterdam, it was meeting a woman eating a banana with a fork and walking out smelling like Polar Beer.