From Iceland — Taking the Concert of the Decade to Task

Taking the Concert of the Decade to Task

Taking the Concert of the Decade to Task

Published January 13, 2006

The parking lots were packed, the lines were long and security was tight. A foreigner was busy scalping tickets by the entrance queue, and by the backstage door I bore incredulous witness to a livid argument over a young man’s right to enter the concert hall. It’s true: Nothing supports a noble environmental cause quite like star billing. Some came to save the country from evil smelters, some came on a date and others came for the sheer spectacle of seeing so many of the crème de la crème of Iceland’s alternative scene perform in one night under the same roof. But the feeling that a sizable portion of the audience was only there to say they’d been there never quite left me.

To be completely fair, however, there was also a great number of people who were there to see one act. Rosy-cheeked teenagers with stars in their eyes and Naked Ape sweaters around their waists had come to see Múm and Sigur Rós; men in their late twenties with biceps the size of Brazil were evidently there to witness the return of Egó, and grim-faced, long-haired youths in ready-to-shed black t-shirts stood and waited for Ham.

I failed to identify the crowd who had come to see KK, however, until I happened to glance up to the balcony at the back and spotted the bitter, weathered faces of all the radical environmentalists old enough to have visited Kárahnjúkar more than twice. Their faces lit up with attentive eagerness as he strode onstage, but KK quickly shook off any hastily applied labelling with two finely crafted folk ballads sung with such disarming intimacy that the crowd fell completely silent, a near-inconceivable feat for an opening act, even if the act has written every other clichéd Icelandic campfire sing along in existence.

So enthralling was the honesty of KK’s openers that I was almost disappointed when he switched to more traditional blues, but he pulled it off, rocking as hard as a balding old man with an acoustic guitar ever could. His general unassuming demeanour was also refreshing, and had he paused to remove his wedding ring, he could easily have charmed his way into the most stubborn date’s pants.

Múm were as intolerably cute as ever, heralding the night’s decent into mediocrity with the sickeningly sweet musical molasses of the plinks, clicks and squeaks of their opener. They played expertly, however, knowing exactly how to squeeze the sounds they wanted from their instruments. They hit an interesting (well, interesting for Múm, anyway) note with the gothic accordion crescendos of their second song, but for the most part remained firmly sutured into their shiny, sugar-coated self-indulgent musical land, a distant realm where elves and fairies fly unicorns over rainbows and feed candy apples to pink-furred pigmy bears with no claws and vacant smiles on their faces.

My attention span wavered, and I began inspecting the various bits of environmental curiosa scattered about the venue, including huge signs bearing slogans like: ALUMINIUM SMELTING CAUSES BIRTH DEFECTS, CANCER AND BONE DEFORMATION that had been hand-painted and hung up on the western wall. Garish t-shirts bearing ironic slogans in support of the dam were to be found for sale in the front lobby, and it seemed like Icelandic protestors were at least taking a step towards getting their shit together. And say what you like about preserving nature and saving wildlife, (I’m one of those people who rather enjoy poking dead animals with sticks, but otherwise avoid fauna), I don’t think I’d want something that causes bone deformation in the same hemisphere as me.

And if the propaganda didn’t get to you, then truth is always stranger than fiction: Actual quotes from the MPs who approved the dam were among the things being projected onto the massive screens. Siv Friðleifsdóttir’s mind-blowing contradiction was particularly interesting: “Even though an area is a nature reserve, that does not mean construction cannot take place there.” Great stuff.

Meanwhile, Múm had scurried off to be replaced by Sigur Rós, or in other words, the synth stopped playing and the singing got better. Their set was, predictably enough, one ten-minute song, and I remember thinking how incredibly bored they looked, but whatever, gustibus non sit consuetendum, as they say down south.

The music had remained slow to this point, but that wasn’t stopping people from having a ball. “I’ve been drinking since noon, and I’m still bored,” said a youth I spoke with briefly. “But damn, am I excited to see Ham!” His wait was then made slightly more interesting by the appearance of Magga Stína, and for the first time in half an hour someone was moving on the stage.

The jerky post-punk played by her trademark gang of oddball musicians so perfectly reflected the event’s goals with its innocent nostalgia and sneering, yet ecstatically cheerful delivery that little else seemed necessary, but that didn’t really make it any better. At any other show, Magga Stína’s songs would have seemed so painfully pointless it wouldn’t even have come across as music, only a hopelessly decentralised mess of quirks and gimmickry, but the occasion somehow gave it just enough merit to survive. I was so caught up in the atmosphere of the evening that I didn’t even realise how bad it was until after the band had left the stage.

The guitars were out of tune, the songs half-heartedly played, and every band member looked completely oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world existed, never mind the audience. So what exactly made RASS the most convincing act of the evening? Easy: They cheated, by being awesome.

Their punk-played-by-people-who-remember-when-punk-wasn’t-a-bunch-of-whining-bitches-being-lame somehow became even more awesome when they welcomed a grade school brass section (in full dress regalia) onstage to perform a cover of one of the worst songs in British popular music history: “Congratulations, salutations,” Óttarr Proppé growled hysterically over the steadily increasing tempo, leaving the rest of us to wonder what planet we were on.

As tasteless and pretentious as RASS were wholesome and honest, Dr. Spock barely merits mention, having only played one song from their repertoire of bizarro-prog-pop-metal, but they were well-rehearsed, delivering a remarkably tight set considering their scarecrow of a lead singer was wearing the most impossibly hideous pair of tights known to man. Yes, everything was going perfectly well until Damien Rice showed up.

He performed Blower’s Daughter so incredibly true to the recording that I started looking for signs he might be lip-synching, but none were evident; I was further mystified when a young woman appeared vaporously next to him onstage, her voice just as strangely flawless. I honestly struggled with every bone in my body to find something lacking or extraordinary in Rice’s performance, but it just sat there, placid and immobile, and eventually I gave up. His second and last song of the evening had a bit more character, and the entire band seemed a lot more edgy and unrestrained. Maybe they’re just sick of playing Blower’s Daughter (I would be).

I was still pondering this when a man wearing a grey barbershop suit and a hat so ugly it was offensive stepped onstage and started yelling unintelligibly into the microphone and fiddling around with an acoustic guitar, and it took me a moment to realise who it was: Mugison had somehow charmed his way onstage, and it was at this point that I realised we need more festivals where every artist plays for about 10-15 minutes before leaving; that way, if you don’t like who’s playing, all you have to do is wait a few short moments.

The guitar playing, his sole redeeming quality, would have been a real treat to watch if he didn’t come off as such a pompous ass performing a lame bathroom mirror rehearsal, and I’m surprised he never slipped on the puddle of tears steadily accumulating by his feet as he wept at his own greatness. His frolics continued well into Hjálmar’s set; I would have thought a band could give him more credibility as a real musician, but even in the presence of relative greatness he managed to look like a total prat, leading the crowd into an incredibly half-hearted chorus of “Yeeeeeah, yeeah, yeeeah.”

The crowd, however, loved him, leading me to believe the only person at the concert with any musical taste whatsoever was the girl who vomited over the front railing during Damien Rice’s set. After Mugison stopped singing, Hjálmar sauntered into a triple helping of their effortlessly melodic reggae, no doubt thankful he had stopped making them sound like a Christian rock band. They were solid and reliable as always, but, like most of the other acts, they didn’t appear to be there to play music, just show their support, but there’s no point blaming them for that.

But if one band did manage to raise a decent-sized middle finger to the dam gang as well as put on a show worth paying money to see, that band was unquestionably Ghostigital. “I am an educated man, for I can speak Danish!!!” Einar Örn frantically screamed in his parody of our beloved prime minister while Curver and his minions were hard at work deafening as many people as they possibly could. The bass made your head hurt so bad you never even noticed your eardrum rupturing, and even if you did, you’d still have fun. There were moments when their lack of variety threatened to do them in, but someone always saved the day with a well-timed trumpet squeal or a delirium-inducing loop.

This continued for roughly a quarter of an hour before a handsome man whose face I recognised from television introduced himself as Damon and played a happy little song about the evils of corporate exploitation, with Ghostigital as backup. They performed extremely well, considering the song was about two days old, and just generally made the night all the more memorable.

But the moment so many had been waiting for had finally come, and when Ham stepped onstage, smartly dressed and neatly combed, someone suddenly remembered there were incredibly powerful floodlights behind the stage (either that or Curver found the lighting console and decided to rob us of another sense) and the party really got going. Ham were a machine, a single-minded entity with the power to smash anything they touched, a power they used in full to remind us who the true kings of Icelandic metal are. From Flosi Þorgeirsson’s satanic goatee to Björn Blöndal’s contemptuous sneer, there was nothing onstage that didn’t reek strongly of Ham.

And then they left, as abruptly as they had arrived, and with them about a third of the audience. But the ones that stayed would undoubtedly have waited hours for Egó’s set; the eruption of cheers that rang out when Bubbi Morthens bounded onstage wearing the third and fourth most tasteless articles of clothing on stage that night (his shirt and shades, respectively) made Ghostigital’s bass lines sound like a walkman at the bottom of a laundry basket. Egó energetically soared into a glorious three-song set, accompanied by slightly off-time pyrotechnics, attitude-riddled guitar solos and lots of, erm, ego. They made no pretence at giving a crap about why they or anyone else was there that night, opting instead to fill everyone with a sense of togetherness, of belonging, that if harnessed, could easily have knocked down any dam.

Because getting lots of people to do something noble isn’t about believing it should be done, it’s believing it can be done. If you can come home at the end of the day saying you fought for something, whether you can justify it or not, it doesn’t really matter what it’s for; nobody ever won a game of Stratego by believing that red is truly more virtuous than blue, they just wanted to win. It was this desire to win that held that night at Laugardalshöllin together, because when the music gets lame and the booze runs out, there’s only one thing that can keep a party going: The chance to score with a hot babe, and if you can think of a hotter babe than Icelandic nature, then I’d like to get her number.

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