The results are in, the facts are solid and the bands have been consigned to their fates. The Foreign Monkeys, a straightforward, zero-bullshit rock band from the wayward shores of Vestmannaeyjar have been declared the winners of this year’s Battle of the Bands, and are now poised to face the demons that come attached to such an honour: jealousy, hype, artistic stagnation and exposure to the steadily dropping average IQ of the Icelandic media and their fickle disciples.
But their fate has hardly been set in stone, nor has their history been written in it. On the contrary, for there is very little to suggest that the result of this contest is definitive. The Battle of the Bands, or Músíktilraunir in its native tongue, is an arduous process, a dissection of musical values that seems deliberately designed to test the patience and altruism of all involved. This year, 51 bands competed (or participated, depending on how you look at it), and the ‘best’ one out of all these is picked out in two weeks, a ridiculously short period of time. There is a good deal of luck involved, obviously, and timing is, as always, of the essence.
This could not be demonstrated more perfectly than by the process of elimination by which the finalists are chosen: There are five nights of 10-11 bands each, and on each night two to three bands are selected for qualification, one by the crowd and one or two by the judges. The qualifiers then face one to two weeks of the grueling pressure of knowing that in order to impress the panel of judges on the final night, they must deliver a performance that must at least equal, if not outdo the one they were selected for.
Now That the Pressure’s On, Here’s a Reminder of What You Can’t Live Up To
With such impossible pressure to bear in mind, it confuses me greatly to consider why the winners of last year’s BotB are made to play before the finals begin. Self-assured, relaxed and with absolutely nothing to lose, Jakobínarína were intimidatingly explosive, blasting through 15 minutes of utter chaos before leaving the stage just whole enough for Who Knew? to nervously attempt to outdo a performance that had already won the title they were there to claim; the irony is mind-blowing.
The sextet conducted themselves well, however, but had discarded the affability that won them the crowd’s vote in the qualifiers in favour of concentrated professionalism. Although their irresistibly catchy alt-pop was flawlessly performed, their stage presence had all but evaporated, which also made it painfully obvious that without their unique charisma, their music aged about as well as Julian Glover in the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
They trotted offstage glistening with nervous perspiration to be replaced by Furstaskyttan, a band remarkable in more ways than one. First off, they looked and sounded very respectable, and came across as highly intellectual and intelligent. As bad as this may sound, their music, a cheesy, conservative style of pop music that would not sound out of place as the theme song to a British children’s morning show, was so irreverent and blatantly disregarding of modern tastes, so incredibly uncool, that it somehow became more punk than the most sneeringly antagonistic Sex Pistols anthem.
Compared to the music they made, We Made God’s name was modest and unassuming. Stunningly clichéd emo riffs, no-holds-barred sound destruction at the hands of the drummer and the guitarist and a singer who broke every rule in the book as far as moderation and constraint were concerned. Insanely pretentious as they were, however, every tortured scream, every pompous drum fill and every squealing noise solo in We Made God’s quarter-hour onstage was done with the solemn self-indulgence of true professionals, and in retrospect they seemed to have all the makings of a successful Icelandic band. My deepest sympathies to them.
To say that We Made God and Antík played the same genre of music would be stretching the very definition of rock. Antík plainly and honestly played the simplest, most unabashedly cheesy and hook-driven pop-punk imaginable, and although the two bands musically have much more in common than either of them would be willing to admit, the tongue-in-cheek daring of Antík’s first song was a very refreshing change from We Made God’s tour through the icy wastes of emo metal.
In fact, to fully grasp the sheer cheesiness of Antík’s music, you would have to imagine a ten-pound wad of limburger being consumed by rosy-cheeked lovers while they hold hands and watch the Hallmark channel together. It brings me great joy that somewhere in Iceland there are still musicians who exist solely for one to derive guilty pleasure from listening to.
Tranzlokal were next up, delivering goose bump-inducing rawness with their impossibly simple schoolboy punk. The songs averaged about two minutes and two chords each, with the screamed word “Já!” reappearing frequently. They were flawless, energetic and superior, but their novelty was sadly lost on the crowd, who were by now itching to stretch and freshen up in the 15-minute pause that followed Tranzlokal’s set.
The crowd returned to the sight of four young men – two keyboardists, a drummer and a bassist – standing patiently on the stage waiting for something. Eventually, a fifth young man with a seriously deranged gleam in his eye rode in straddling a child’s tricycle; together they performed furiously straightforward dancehall electro under the name Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán, with the deranged man pausing regularly to either yelp something completely inaudible into a microphone or do the night’s second movie impression, the scene in American Psycho where Christian Bale poses in front of a mirror whilst having sex with two women he has paid or cajoled into bed with him. They were impressive, and although the music was fairly standard, it was at least energetic, and the sheer creepifying insanity of the lead man was enough to give me the hibbly-jibblies. Scary fun.
The Foreign Monkeys clocked in next, however, and made all the energy of UMTb Stefán seem about as electrifying as a nylon blanket with their jaw-dropping power and stage presence. At first glance, it would seem as if the drummer was by far the best showman onboard, but upon closer inspection I discovered that every member of the band glowed with a livid, fiery passion that surpassed anything else I saw that night. And while it is debatable whether or not they were talented enough to win, there can be little doubt as to whether or not they were cool enough to win.
It should surprise exactly no one that the most pretentious band of them all was the one whose members posed as Frenchmen. Le Poulet De Romance were little more than a very well-executed gimmick in triplicate human form, but damn, did they play well. Capable players as well as overbearingly theatrical performers, they were led by a decidedly deviant-looking young man by the name of Ingi Vífill as they pranced into three incredibly ridiculous tango-folk-rock songs and left the audience hopelessly confused, but so entertained that it hardly mattered.
The rest of the night was unambiguous, really. Modern Day Majesty were a disappointment. The capable modern rock songwriting and fair talent they displayed the night they qualified for the final was gone, replaced by an uncertain, awkward performance and a new song so bad it cannot be put into words, while Sweet Sins blew mouth-watering bubble gum melodies in our faces. Girl power-pop at its delicious best, they were sadly overlooked by a restless crowd that had by now been seated far too long.
Also done in by the luck of the draw were the unassuming trio of boys that constituted the brilliantly named Ministry Of Foreign Affairs, an intelligent, dreamy act with pointed lyrics and an honest, affable goodness to them. They presented the best song of the entire evening: The Death Of A Salesman, an atmospheric and beautiful song played with the kind of earnest care that comes with truly loving what you do, and I am convinced that the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs is a band that has no need to win Músíktilraunir to make a name for themselves.
In order to sign up to play at the Battle of the Bands, it would seem that you would have to have a very specific attitude towards your own work. You can’t be so confident that you would consider the contest beneath you and unworthy of your skills, and you can’t be so meek that you think it impossible to impress people with your music, and this, I believe, is the key, the reason why Músíktilraunir seems to produce only bands that are almost universally liked, or at least respected in some form. No one is voted the best of 51 bands without being at least slightly humbled by the acts that they ‘beat’, and the winning bands that eventually become successful are the ones wise enough to realise that in the long run, winning doesn’t count for shit. Winning Músíktilraunir is an opportunity, and nothing more; an opportunity to show that the judges and the audience weren’t wrong, that they believed in you for a reason, and it is this sense of justice that will continue to make Músíktilraunir the best musical event in Iceland.