It’s been a good summer for electronic music in Iceland. At least three interconnected electronica collectives have been wreaking havoc in Reykjavík’s music venues: Electric Ethics, Extreme Chill and Hljóðaklettar. These three superpowers, in collaboration with the Icelandic Airwaves festival, will join forces on October 12th and 13th to serve up an “exciting feast of music and visual effects” at Faktorý Bar in 101 Reykjavík. And this is a good thing.
Dust in the Spiral Stairs
The show on October 12 is an off-venue one with a slender entrance fee of only 1500 ISK. The lineup: experimental Danish quintet Selvhenter, Rúnar Magnússon with Graupan & the Crying Cowboy, the ever-esoteric Inferno 5, experimental stalwarts Stilluppsteypa, your favourite DJ (DJ Musician) and the aural terror of Gjöll. Visual/sound artist Finnbogi Pétursson will also team up with his son Stefán Finnbogason of techno outfit Sykur due to “fosterage- related reasons, for both individuals” (as they put it). October 13 is an Airwaves-exclusive show where the following acts will perform: lo-fi band Peter and Wolf, electronic new-comer Arnljótur (of Grapevine Grassroots infamy), super-duo Vindva Mei, Selvhenter, father and son duo Stereo Hypnosis, industrialists Reptilicus, the psych-italo-disco stylings of Evil Madness and the mustachio’d Hunk of a Man.
But who exactly are these purveyors of electronic music? Promoter Ólafur Þórsson and musician Pan Thorarensen founded Electric Ethics in 2007 in the purpose of stirring up the local electronica scene. In that year they revived the “bruteart band”, Inferno 5, and have held a few music nights since that have combined Extreme Chill and Hljóðaklettar.
Extreme Chill was founded by Pan Thorarensen and his father Óskar Thorarensen (the two form Stereo Hypnosis) in 2007 (they were subsequently joined by promoter/DJ Andri Már Arnlaugsson). They’ve organised many music nights in Reykjavík for the past few years as well as the “Extreme Chill Festival” which was held this summer in Hellissandur.
The record label Hljóðaklettar (“Sound Cliffs”) was founded last year by Rúnar Magnússon and Sabrina Joy. It’s based in New York, Copenhagen and Reykjavík. The idea of Hljóðaklettar is to release limited edition albums bearing original artwork. The first release, ‘Options’ was released on an USB drive and the second, ‘Hljóðaklettar Dress Up’ was a compilation tape that came with a sports jacket. They’ve also held events, some of which included “dreamachines” a la Brion Gysin and William Burroughs.
“We, as experimental groups, promoters, labels and artists are driven by the basic instinct of creating releasing music and promoting electronica both here and overseas,” Electric Ethics stalwart Ólafur Þórsson tells me. “Electronica in Iceland is undoubtedly a kind of follow-up to the scene overseas and it’s our wish that this will change, and we are giving it our very best.
When asked what kind of music they promoted, the answers got slightly more vague: “It’s said that electronica started with avant-garde artists in Eastern- Europe in the beginning of the 20th century. Ambient might be referred to as “dust on blades on grass” or “dust in the spiral stairs” whereas punk is noise. Electronica has the ability to be harsh and experimental and on the other hand as smooth as the summer wind.”
In the Beginning
The scene has been evolving since the dawn of punk in Iceland, which—like everything else—came later than in other countries. In the early ’80s, Finnbogi Pétursson was a part of the notorious art collective Bruni BB that received attention from the police for decapitating chickens on stage. The performance was filmed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson and used in his legendary documentary ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’.
“Each time a new genre or trend rears its head, it’s only an echo of an older genre, but in mutated form of course,” Finnbogi answers when asked if the power of the punk mentality still echoes through the times. “Punk had perhaps a more powerful charm because of all the dreck that came before, so it definitely echoes still.”
“The Bruni BB scene [from ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’] had an immensely good influence on me. I managed to borrow a very bad copy that thankfully included that scene, because that scene was sometimes cut. That scene was the reason I wanted to see the film,” explains Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, member of Stilluppsteypa and Evil Madness, proving that the chicken-decapitations resulted in more than just legal problems. “Maybe I didn’t realise at the time, but in retrospect, that was what turned me on to what I’m doing now in music and performance art.”
A very similar troupe of musicians working with performance art emerged in the ’90s called Tilraunaeldhúsið (The Kitchen Motors Family). Composer Jóhann Jóhannson [of Apparat Organ Quartet and solo fame] explains: “Kitchen Motors Family was a group of artists, who were seemingly very different but shared considerable common ground that remained unexplored. We were three musicians with different backgrounds but we still had a core of things in common. We wanted to create a forum where these different artists could meet, work and collaborate.
We were occasionally a record label, and we produced and promoted. More often we were instigating, setting things in motion, then stepping back and learning from what happens. Now we’re working on bringing together all the documentation of our work for these 10 years and putting together a book and CD box set. Kitchen Motors sparked many good things in the Icelandic music scene, like Apparat Organ Quartet. For example we did a production of a chamber opera in a small cafe-venue with a mezzo-soprano and actor and an electronic group that we did with múm, Sjón and Ásgerður Júníusdóttir. We also produced a musical with an author, a punk songwriter and an avant-garde theatre group in one month with virtually no budget. The idea was to shake things up a bit.”
In the last years, there hasn’t really been a parallel to these two groups. We asked industrial duo Reptilicus what they think is going on in the local scene at the moment: “One of the disappointments today is the musical segregation. People that listen to this don’t listen to that, and so on: the sheep mentality. We’ve always felt that commitment in this respect is complacent. That’s why we’ve always mixed genres, ready to embrace contradiction. This has caused occasional confusion amongst our marketing strategists and listeners. What we enjoy most about Icelandic electronica today is the strong element of experimentation. Also, there are interesting contacts across generations of musicians, exemplified by acts like Stereo Hypnosis and Ghostigital. There’s definitely something brewing in the crucible of Icelandic electronica, and the lightweight numbness of the “krútt” generation seems less dominating and hopefully fading away.”
Bringing it All Back
Home These two concerts in October are the first concerts in the eleven-year history of Iceland Airwaves concentrating solely on electronic music. This will undoubtedly make a few people happy since there has been so little focus on electronica. It fell into the shadow of the guitar and the bass. These concerts are the best introduction to this unique scene. So show up, have a beer and enjoy the sounds. You know we’re going to.