Published September 4, 2014
Despite the name, this sampling of Record Records’ roster carries some of the most prominent bands in the country, and like its predecessor, travels through folk, rock, dance, and even reggae. “Indie music” and “Icelandic music” are pretty synonymous; if you’re making your own music in Iceland, chances are you could be categorized as “indie.” Furthermore, the genre divide within Icelandic music is smaller than most anywhere in the world, partly because there are fewer people in the country, and partly because the culture often embraces artists who explore many different areas.
Regardless of the compilation’s targeted market, the album is overall a great listen, displaying a diverse array of talented musicians and thoughtful songwriting that appeals to both casual listeners and those who seek depth from the speakerbox. Though there are certainly more underground, classical, metal, and experimental musicians in Iceland that could do with more exposure, the majority of music buyers in Iceland are visitors, and this album appeals to a mass market rather than your more adventurous audience.
Though the compilation sets Icelandic indie music in a more stereotypical “isolated” or folksy rural state (reinforced by the album’s landscape cover), the reality is that the country is now just as global as any other nation. Icelandic musicians are able to soak up musical influences from around the world. They also have many avenues to get their own music heard on a global scale. Festivals like Airwaves (more of which seem to pop up every year) social media channels, and digital music sharing all support these musicians’ careers, and you can bet that even old-fashioned word of mouth still works wonders.
Another factor in the appeal of this compilation to tourists is language choice. Only three tracks on this album are in Icelandic, with the rest in English. Language choice is often a very telling forecast for “saleability” and attracting a global audience (curiously, Sigur Rós manage to skirt around this issue entirely with their hybrid Hopelandic). Mammút’s “Blóðberg” (Icelandic for “wild thyme”) still appeals to non-Icelandic speakers thanks to a solid rock melody that a festival-going crowd can enjoy. But Ojba Rasta’s “Ég veit, ég vona” (“I know, I hope”) stands out as a bit of an anomaly: the band is one of Iceland’s only reggae bands, and they also sing entirely in their native language. One can assume it makes for a great live performance, and that the band’s catchy melodies coupled with the novelty of “Icelandic reggae” keep Ojba Rasta on a more global radar.
The tracks on the compilation that stand out as particularly “Icelandic” are ones with the more singular points of view; they don’t borrow traits from Björk or Sigur Rós but rather create their own sound worlds with the same convictions as their more famous colleagues. Agent Fresco’s “Dark Water” is one of these. The band is an excellent representation for the plurality of Icelandic music today. Their rhythms and harmonies are complex but tightly woven, and Arnór Dan Arnarson’s crystalline tenor cuts through the texture. Their live performances are just as riveting as their records, so any travellers who may catch them at a venue could easily be hooked. Worldwide exposure could come quickly for Agent Fresco, but they seem to always focus on the music before the marketing, which makes the band even more special.
Lay Low has been building her success seemingly one show at a time for almost a decade. Along with several international tours, she’s played venues as diverse as the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool and the remote Rauðasandur festival in the Westfjörds, as well as lending her talents to Benny Crespo’s Gang (also on this compilation). Her track “Gently” has an infectiousness which stems from her lullaby-like melodies and alto voice, a feature shared with many other Icelandic singers. The recent influx of tourists may not lead to a meteoric rise in fame for Lay Low, but it may end up providing the extra CD sales that help pay the rent each month.
Június Meyvant, a native of the tiny Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, presents a song titled “Color Decay,” which comes with a catchy, campfire-esque singability and a great brass section. One of the most interesting facets of Iceland’s music scene right now is surely its horn players. Icelanders have yet to become famous for their jazz bands or brass sections, but in recent years the impressive scope of Icelandic trumpeters, saxophonists, et cetera has become an interesting feature.
Are these musicians’ livelihoods affected by increasing numbers of tourists in the last few years? Definitely. FM Belfast have been making music for several years now, and the song “Brighter Days” catches a moment in the spotlight. This track seems less a product of tourism and more a convenient moment for the band’s Euro-influenced beats to reach new, dance-hungry audiences. Several other tracks turn a folkier direction influenced by American culture rather than Europe. Mono Town’s track “Peacemaker” recalls the infectious choruses of now-famous Of Monsters and Men, who have incidentally released music through Record Records.
The album closes with singer-songwriter Snorri Helgason’s “Kveðja,” which wishes us well. These instrumentations and guitar techniques come straight out of American folk-rock. Perhaps these sounds reflect the global market they are trying to reach, or perhaps it’s just an honest embrace of American sounds that the bands are discovering from abroad. Regardless of intention, the fact that these musicians are able to make the music they love and have people support their careers; that is a true Icelandic blessing.
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