The once-popular battle of the bands competition has been on the wane for several years now, probably because of the ubiquity of such contests and the increasing ease of access to live music through festivals and tours, but 2007 saw the format stage something of a revival to the benefit of one Icelandic band in particular.
A large part of BBC’s World Service programming focuses on global culture, from Japanese ladyboys to new music, and it’s the latter subject that they were interested in when Auntie (as the BBC is affectionately known in England; it’s old and friendly) asked for the best new bands from around the world to submit one track for a competition branded as the Next Big Thing. The judging panel, all well known in the music world and very successful in their own right, then whittled the piles of entries down to just five finalists from five very different corners of the planet. Whilst it’s debatable if the World Service has enough clout to boost a band’s profile in the same way that wretched programs like The X Factor, which can essentially rig the pop charts by acting as king maker to pretty much any idiot they choose, the competition was still a credible exercise thanks to the high standing of the judges and brilliant performances from the likes of Iceland’s Hraun, one of the bands chosen to play their song at the world finals in London.
The BBC’s Maida Vale studios, located in leafy North London, are something of a national treasure to Brits, with the run-down buildings hosting the legendary John Peel sessions for years as well as performances from just about every major band and musician to have ruffled the charts in the last four decades. With this in mind, to play there is a privilege rarely bestowed upon a band which hasn’t graced the cover of a magazine or received flattering reviews in the national press and, frankly, the first finalist, the United Arab Emirates’ Jeremie Johnson, looked quite lonely as a solo artist on the substantial stage (located deep within the bowels of the facility) but was mildly impressive when his backing tape kicked in. The said backing tape sounded like it was made by remixing Queen, Celine Dion and Phil Spector and proved to be just one of the oddities of a contest that seemed to have a little too much focus on what the end result might sound and look like when broadcast rather than being a talent competition based purely on musical ability.
How can you compare a solo singer, albeit an admirably talented one, who has a CD-R instead of a live band, to a group of Kenyan multiinstrumentalists (Yunasi) or a French art-school electro outfit (Maya McCallum) on the basis of one song? I was certainly none the wiser as to who would be the next big thing on the basis of what the bands performed that afternoon, despite my predilection towards Icelandic music. The fifth band in the final, a mass of Serbians called Vrelo who combined a gang of Lolita-esque schoolgirl singers and heavy metal to achieve the sort of result that could only be considered credible in a very remote place, were perhaps the weakest act. Even the schoolgirls looked more like the dinner lady than Britney Spears and their chosen song was, to be blunt, lacking in every way. But thankfully Hraun’s song was firmly located at the other end of the scale of credibility.
Hraun submitted a vocal-based composition, Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum, which tells the sorry tale of a troll who falls in love but discovers the object of his affections has turned to stone. The song’s airy, harmonised vocals and sparse, plucked-guitar accompaniment create a brilliant piece of understated music making and, when listening to the recorded version, you could easily understand why judges such as Talvin Singh and William Orbit praised the band.
However, there was a sting in the tail in the form of a large dose of irony when it came to judging the final result after all the bands had played their one song several times for the benefit of the cameras and microphones. As previously mentioned, it was difficult to see how five acts that play in five entirely different styles could be compared to each other and Hraun suffered the most from this problem. Because the final was being filmed, all the entries had to give the impression that the one song they played was part of a longer set performed for the benefit of the judges and audience. So, when Hraun strode onto stage clutching their instruments and drumsticks to play the song that got them through to the final, it was purely for show (apart from Svavar Knútur’s acoustic guitar) and there was no chance to show the musical ability that the band demonstrated so well two days previously at a warm-up gig in London’s Old Street district. The band’s keyboard player looked a bit lost as his power cable lay unattached on the floor, the drummer didn’t touch his kit at all and the rest of the band, flute player and all, just sang, albeit beautifully. It was frustrating that Hraun weren’t given the opportunity to play to the maximum of their ability but, then again, they might not have even got to the final had they submitted a different song. They’d made their bed and now they had to sleep in it.
The Kenyan entry, Yunasi, were worthy winners in that they demonstrated a combination of energy, epic percussion skills and a universal appeal thanks to their use of several languages and musical styles. Their winning song may have sounded like a world music cynic’s worst nightmare but to the open-minded they beat all other entries, bar Hraun, hands down. Perhaps if the Icelanders had entered a different song in the competition then the day would have taken a different course – they’d either have won or they’d have been sitting at home listening to the final on the radio.
What the Judges Said:
Talvin Singh – Producer, DJ, instrumentalist and Mercury Music Prize winner (1998)
“I really enjoyed it, it’s a wonderful piece of music and I’d love to hear it in a pair of headphones in a really chilled place. I found it very deceiving because visually they had all these instruments on stage so what you’re seeing doesn’t really match what you’re hearing – that’s the only thing that threw me off. Other than that, I thought that aesthetically it was a really nice piece of music with beautiful harmonies. The voice is the ultimate instrument, every instrument imitates the voice, but with so many instruments on stage it was deceiving, the drummer looked a bit redundant.
Nile Rodgers – Bassist and co-founder of seminal New York disco/funk band Chic (Le Freak etc)
“Can I see it in the charts? Maybe in a different era because in my head I think in terms of quality of music but when you ask me if it could be in the charts I have to visualise what the charts are today and it’s a very different environment. Maybe somebody can have a situation, the perfect storm, and it’s the right thing at the right time with the right band. Compositionally it absolutely could be but in today’s world I’m not sure if it could be, it’s not clear to me how one would promote that type of song. If you had it next to Rihanna’s Umbrella… But it’s a terrific composition, harmonically it’s wonderful, the only problem is that in this setting the visual didn’t sync with what I was hearing and I understand that if you’re a band then you’re used to performing the song every night and holding your instruments, you don’t put your instruments down to sing – I get that – it’s just weird if you don’t tell me that’s what you’re going to do.”
Tahita Bulmer. – New Young Pony Club lead vocalist
“I really enjoyed it. In terms of what we’re looking for, the band is very diverse and it reminds me of the band collective stuff like Broken Social Scene. I think they’d fit in really well with that kind of a scene. They could be massive on the College circuit, definitely – you need a bit of introspective music to get over the emotional times in your life! I also think it’s great when people sing in their regional languages and dialects, it’s got to open the eyes of Westerners, American and English people in particular, who are used to having everything sung in their mother tongue, so it’s great to hear. Also, in terms of how it makes you feel and how you react to songs; it is different hearing Mozart sung in German and opera sung in Italian, they have a different emotional resonance.”