From Iceland — TOO... MUCH... CULTURE!


Published September 22, 2011


Recently one of the biggest dates in Iceland’s cultural calendar loomed large on our collective conscience as Menningarnótt (Culture Night) took place. In the past, I’ve not had not much exposure to Menningarnótt as I’ve either been out of town, or busy doing other worthwhile things with my life.  When I moved to downtown Reykjavik last year, I decided to give it all a cursory glance, but found the weather too cold, and a child knocked into me with a melting ice cream cone, ruining my jacket. I gave up after an hour and went back to my flat, where I closed the curtains, sat down with a bottle of spirits and Russian doom metal on repeat loop and willed the day away.
But this year I wanted to do it properly and actually put in a full days shift as a veritable culture wonk. I set my sights on truly exploring all that downtown Reykjavik could offer in terms of music, art and free waffles. I wanted to be drenched in the musky moistness that only Icelandic culture can possibly provide.
So waking up on an incredibly sunny Saturday morning, I put together the following survival pack to help me get through the day.
Survival Kit for Menningarnótt
1 Backpack (large)
1 Camera (for evidence)
1 Jacket (if it rains)
1 Good pair of walking shoes (high heels or converse skate shoes won’t cut it)
1 Mp3 Player (can have a variety of music, but for extra effect must have Joy Divisions ‘Closer’, Manic Street Preachers ‘The Holy Bible’ and the latest album by Prurient for extra sweeping nihilism)
Money (for bribery and purchasing of assorted crap)
1 cache of alcohol for later consumption (you WILL need this)
I also decided upon the tactic of being a cross between a meerkat and a US navy seal black ops unit. I would move quickly, make no noise, bob my head up and down a bit, take in my surroundings, kill all witnesses and destroy the evidence, setting off some high explosives before moving onto the next target event.
And with everything in place, I was ready to overload my senses with CULTURE!

13:15pm – Yard Sales and Scary Choir Singers
I leave the house at Grettisgata to find not one, not two but three yard sales right outside my house. Now quite what selling your discarded tat has to do with actual culture is anyone’s guess (unless it was some art installation making some spurious comment about capitalism), but with tens of thousands of people streaming through 101 Reykjavik today, I suppose it’s the best time to get everything out and start selling.
Making a detour to Laugavegur, which was already becoming very busy, I decide to make my first port of call at the Worldwide Friends volunteers association at Hverfisgata to see a photography exhibition. While there I viewed an assortment of slice-of-life photography, grouped into subjects such as ‘buildings’, ‘love’ and ‘life’. This was made all the more enjoyable by the free homemade sushi they laid on for visitors. Rice balls with smoked salmon? Yes please!
After a short time I headed up Smiðustigur (where there seems to be music coming from 8 different directions) to Kaffibarinn, where the bar’s male choir is busy kicking back. To a man they aimed to project sophistication in their black suits and ties, slicked back hair and trimmed beards. But they also looked mildly threatening knocking back their beer, like the karaoke entourage for a retired Russian mafia don. Despite most of them wearing shades, I’m sure that if you saw into their eyes, you could see that they have pasts of dark intrigue, and evil misdeeds. Exactly what you want in a men’s choir.
I decide to move up the road to Skólavorustigur where I mange to catch female singer songwriter Elin Éy singing with a couple of friends at a stage which seems to be representing some political/ human rights organisation. The music sounded pleasant, with sweet country inflected harmonies breaking through the melodies. However the crowd was acting like a river as it stopped, formed oxbow lakes to listen for a while, and then moved on unrelentingly. I go with the flow of the crowd towards the heart of downtown.
14:00 – Grinding Glitterballs and Beer
I can hear him before I even see him. The booming bass that whooshes past Austurstræti, the Hi-NRG disco beats. Yes it’s Páll Oscar on the Radio Bylgjan ‘25th Anniversary stage’ at Ingólfstorg. The place is heaving with families eager to show their kids the apex of Icelandic culture. And boy does he not disappoint. Dressed in an hooded jumpsuit made from an exploding glitter ball, he struts, grinds, preens and beams that elfin smile of his while he blasts out the hits, the sound bouncing around the square like a pinball.
After a few songs I think it’s time to go and buy some beer at the off license. As I leave with my booze booty, I catch glimpse of Samarís playing outside of Hítt Husið. I sigh and open a can of beer. It’s definitely time for my first one of these today.

15:00 – Raw Turnip and Disembowelled Children’s TV Characters
The next hour is spent away from the main thoroughfares and in the backstreets where there are no bad blues bands and the crowds are less likely to be bovine and smeared in sticky sweet food items. Approaching Ingólfstræti, I happen upon a party, art show and concert being held in a large garden. Grabbing a waffle, I listen to the band playing, who I believe to be Baku Baku. They seem adequate enough. Choppy Indie pop, with a new wave feel to it, a bit of an Icelandic Art Brut- lite with the singer giving those squeaky yelps and rubber limbed movements so beloved of that ilk. The drummer has a boss style though.
The garden is littered with resin figurines from artist Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir that had a rather freakish amphorous, feel to them. One in particular looked like a disembowelled teletubby. It’s definitely the work of a disturbed individual.
I wander up the road towards Oðinstorg, where music from the Oddgeir Kristjánsson trio is playing. Their crooning of old time Icelandic songs is so velvet soft and so completely bereft of cynicism that I actually find myself becalmed and transfixed, along with everyone else at the singer while he gently teases genteel head nodding and appreciative claps. Standing by the sound mixer is Sindri, lead singer of surf rock band Bárujarn. Looking slightly crusted over and coughing up what can only be described as chunks of raw turnip, he tells me about a ‘weird’ gig they played at a down-at-heel bar the night before. Apparently having elderly alcoholics scream ‘WHY ARE YOU HERE??’ is the in thing for bands playing in 101 these days.  Soon afterwards Bárujarn would play a tight well-rounded at the stage.
It’s worth noting that with the schedule at Oðinstorg, the concert organisers seem to have adopted a ‘let’s book any band that comes into our heads’ approach. This led to a completely nonsensical (and therefore extremely cool) line up, where you had the likes of Moses Hightower and Ólöf Arnalds sharing metaphorical spit with metal bands such as Wistaria and Moldun. Inspired thinking… IN ICELAND NO LESS!!
Already I feel I’m planting roots by hanging around, so I venture even further up the hill to Harðartorg, a small side street by Hallgrimskirkja cathedral where the whole street is having a party. While there, I managed to see some art and eat more free waffles, all the while listening to music wafting from people’s stereo systems dotted along the street. It was also here that I met the indomitable music critic for the Frettablaðið newspaper, Trausti Julisson, who was selling off some old CD and vinyl records outside his house. There were some extremely good bargains to be had (Faithless’ greatest hits for 50 kronur no less), but 400 Kronur for the current Rökurró album? Trausti my good man, you would have to pay ME to take that album off your hands!
16:00 – Balkan Pop Paranoia
After a quick pit stop at Hjartatorg, where the sight of a new street art mural was being created to the sounds of deep ambient techno from Yagya, I head back to Ingólfstræti and the garden concert, where Útidúr are now playing. The first thing I noticed was that their Rapunzel haired singer and stealer of souls (don’t look into her eyes!) Rakel Mjöll is not there. Maybe she was somewhere else, or maybe she was replaced (a smart move in my opinion). However her replacement still saw it fit to copy her irritating vocal mannerisms, the equivalent of singing a Gilbert and Sullivan song with marbles in your mouth. Apart from that, everything else was rather exemplary, a BIG improvement since I last saw them play several months ago. Mixing and matching different styles into a sort of Balkan swing sound, it was tight and fizzing with expectation. I also awarded bonus cool points to the guitarist who was wearing a Black Flag t-shirt. Hardcore lounge pop will never die!
Why is the Kaffibarinn’s men’s choir following me? Seriously, it’s the 5th time I’ve seen them in 2 hours. I think they’re onto me for something I may have done in a previous life.

17:00 – Hair, Sun, Metal, Queues
The weather all day has been gorgeous with the sun beating down on me like an abusive partner with  my senses starting to wear and warp under the heat, omnidirectional music, heaving crowds and warm beer. After stopping for a few minutes to watch a DJ named Trouble at Kaffibarinn play a highly enjoyable set (A mix of pressured bass pulses mixed with huge sounds like cracking glacier ice. The perfect soul cleanser), I head back up Laugavegur towards my flat. However passing Dillons bar, I hear what can only be described as Wagnerian hair metal opera exploding in their beer garden. It turns out to be a band called Exizt, who released a couple of power metal albums in the 1990s. It’s a bewildering mix of hair, ‘70s rock opera theatrics and ear splitting high end vocals. It’s nigh on retrotastic! I sit down with the gents from Sólstafir, who are seriously getting into this, with singer Addi telling me with total conviction in his eyes that their guitarist Guðlaugur Falk is a legend.
At this moment, my friend Aðalsteinn arrives and we decide to go and buy some more beer at the off license before it closes. When we get there, it ends up being a revelation as due to the huge crowds, people are forced to actually queue to buy something. You can actually hear people’s brains smoke as their logic gears grind at the concept.
18:00-23:00 – Plokkfiskur makes time stand still

After getting our beers we take the long trek towards the far end of the old harbour Grandi, where will be a series of free concerts and food. If there are two things in my life that press my brain’s pleasure buttons, then surely it must be these two things.
25 minutes later, we arrive at the warehouse, whereupon we’re beguiled by free plokkfiskur, soup and, in my case, several glasses of wine. Despite the generous bounty to keep us from leaving, staying here was a fairly big risk culture-wise. It would certainly mean I’d be missing several eagerly anticipated shows at Sjopputorg, Arnahóll and Ingólfstorg. But on the other hand, leaving Grandi would mean having to deal with the heaving prole scum that would be filling every corner of downtown and would surround my every movement no matter where I went. At least at Grandi I would be in relative peace to relax and enjoy myself.
And there was plenty of music to listen to. When we arrived Mugison was already playing his acoustic blues chug, looking immaculate in his tweed jacket and trimmed beard as if he had stepped out of a DH Lawrence novel.  And this blues theme was further upgraded when Smári Tarfur appeared. Playing a detuned slide guitar on his lap he pushed out primal and guttural blues howls that was best exemplified when he played a cover of Nirvana’s ‘Heart shaped Box’, which while not containing the noise certainly retained the  rawness. Oh, and he had a beard as well. Remember kids, beards = musical pain and power!
This was the first time I saw Just Another Snake Cult play live. Bow when I listened to their first album, I wasn’t too impressed to be honest. A lot of pallid lo-fi pop that was too much a blatant pastiche of 3rd  rate ‘60s songs for my liking. But their second album was a lot better and it was this attitude that was evident in their set. Their stage demeanour was a slightly off-kilter prospect with playful ironic ‘rock’ poses and ramshackle glee. Lead singer Thor still can’t reach those high notes well, but it was enjoyable, aimless fun.
It has to be said that Reykjavik! are the most bizarre children’s entrainment act going, if the looks on the kids faces (a mixture of doe eyed wonder and absolute fear) is anything to go by. Oh, and apparently they have discounts for confirmations as well.
Tonight’s set saw the noise rockers in residence showcase some new material from their upcoming album, which consisted of a more melodic with an emphasis on ‘Harmonies’. I have to admit that the jury is still out for me on whether this new direction hits the mark. It certainly didn’t help that they didn’t really hit their stride till the 3rd song, when the composite parts clicked together and we began to see the Reykjavik! we’ve all come to love and admire. Haukur with his cheeky bonhomie, Gummi silently shredding his axe in the background, Geiri with his ‘wide rock bass!’ pose, Valdi looking like Josh Brolin escaped from Kleppur, and Bóas screaming and climbing on top of fridges. Still 63% better live than most bands today (but not as good as Kimono, but don’t tell them that!).
Alas due to some unforeseen accident to one of their kin (possibly a gang assault by a flock of seagulls or something), Sudden Weather Change didn’t perform as planned. Instead we were treated to a set from newcomers Ofvitarnir. A rough, plebeian power trio, they made music that resembled in the Ramones and Shonen Knife for its noise, power and sheer brazen simplicity. There is no subtlety with these guys. Simple as-you-were grungy, filthy breeze block noise pop that did what it said on the tin. They seemed to have this rather damaged look about them, as if they’d lived harsh childhoods on a dilapidated farm run by degenerate uncles.

Post 23:00 – Fireworks and running on empty
Despite spending most of the evening stuck at the farthest reaches of downtown Reykjavik, I committed myself to try and get back to watch some of the endgame events of the event. Events such as the 3rd ‘official’ unveiling of Harpa, where they would switch on the lights of the glass frontage in some kitschy Christmas role reversal. Making my excuses, I trudged back towards the city centre only to find that the area around Arnahóll and Harpa packed with tens of thousands of onlookers gazing with glass eyed wonder at the firework display that is already occurring. I’ve missed everything! The fireworks looked nice though..
I think it’s all getting a little too much for me, as I curse myself missing much of the final celebrations. I eventually manage to meet up with a few friends for a final drink at a bar, before I finally admit defeat and head home. I am so thoroughly battered by nearly 12 hours of culture that the lights are out before my head touches my pillow.
One week later – I’m at a farmhouse in southern Iceland reading a book, when I catch out the corner of my eye a programme on Television. It’s the RÁS 2 concert from Menningarnótt the weekend before at Arnahóll. Despite missing the first half of the programme, I catch the sets from Mugison and Bubbi Morthens. Mugison’s set was an electric set and had a rather dynamic ending where he tweaked his classic song ‘Murr Murr’ into something that resembled a Led Zeppelin classic rock blowout, all thwacking bass, pounding rhythm and sexual guitars. It was especially interesting to see how Zep-like the end of the performance was, with the band memebers reacting intuitively to each other, and Mugison and his drummer (whose style resembled a heavy handed Jon Bonhan) communicating with barely noticeable nods, winks and glances. Almost wished I had been there.
Bubbi Morthens meanwhile was showcasing some of the songs from his current ‘soul’ phase, intersped with some factory assembled white reggae. Of course not being Icelandic means I remain a little impervious and occasionally bewildered to the cult of Bubba at times. But there’s no denying he doesn’t get the crowd going. At points he even gets them to take part in Freddy Mercury style acapella sing off and mass hand claps. I did feel that his reggae songs felt a bit strained and forced in its display. Really good reggae performances should have an effortless power, being able to protrude menaces almost lying on the ground. He finished off his set with the eternal crowd pleaser ‘Fjöllin Hafa Vakað’. Job done, peace out.
And as for the light display at Harpa? Well I suppose 27 Billion krona gets you something as opposed to nothing, even if it’s just something that Jean Michel Jarre would only deem worthy as an ornament for his mantelpiece.

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