From Iceland — The Melting Pot in a Cold, Cold Place

The Melting Pot in a Cold, Cold Place

Published May 5, 2006

The Melting Pot in a Cold, Cold Place

If you’ve ever wondered what the outer space colonies man will one day establish may look like, then Ísafjörður in winter might be for you. A rustic, spartan island of civilisation in a barren, desolate, snow-covered ocean of nothingness, its very existence seems implausible at best. The three-thousand or so inhabitants cower constantly in the shadows of the two mountains that lie to either side of it, and you get the impression that they are Ísafjörður’s bossy, overprotective parents, encouraging it to shun outside contact as they loom intimidatingly over any visitors it might receive.
Even the layout of the town seems to indicate that human beings were not intended to exist there: An aerial photograph I spotted in the lobby of the swimming pool clearly showed that most of the town is built upon a spit of sand in the middle of the fjord, as opposed to the mountain foothills most of the northern towns lie on.
I spent Saturday morning with the musicians who would be performing later that day and began to see how truly excited everyone was to be a part of this. It was almost as if they all felt honoured to be deemed apart from and above the common rabble of musicians who were steadily becoming the cancer of this country. Everybody was innocent again, sweetened by the invitation to partake in something fresh and unmolested by the vain, narcissistic drudgery of Reykjavík.
There were exceptions, however. I’m not going to name any names, but you could truly see the difference between those who were there to be a part of it all and experience something they normally were not privy to, and those who viewed Aldrei Fór Ég Suður as just yet another opportunity for shameless self-promotion, those determined to be the best, brightest and most original act of the festival while also getting incredibly drunk.

The festival’s sole foreign contributor was hard to place in either category, or any category at all, for that matter. I entered the venue at three in the afternoon to the tortured growls and distorted atonal guitar cracks of I’m Being Good. Their music was a weird mix of minimalism and saturation, but weirder still was the sight of this kind of atmospheric rock being played in such a sparse setting.
Edinborg, an older building that has served a variety of functions throughout its chequered past, was about as perfect a setting as you could find for Aldrei Fór Ég Suður. A ramshackle heap of exposed wooden and metal support beams barely holding up distinctly inexpensive-looking wooden planks would be a more fitting description for it than calling it a building, and it was a true joy to behold.
I remember thinking that this is the way Icelandic music should be experienced, not in some smoky, alcohol-sodden tramp house in the smelly part of town, or some neon-lit white trash cokehead brothel. It is impossible to adequately stress the fact that there is zero profit to be made as an Icelandic musician, and the venues should reflect this.
Perhaps not so helpful in setting the scene was the early afternoon crowd. Tiny kids clustered around the stage in awe of the only show in town, their well-to-do parents trying to look cultured by watching (they were done in by their tan ski-jackets and crossed arms – no one crosses their arms like that without looking like a complete philistine), impatient out-of-towners waiting for the big acts and rugged locals in fishing boots being very appreciative in their own, thoughtful, stubble-stroking way.
Another helpful hint that you may have wandered off the beaten path was the ludicrously inappropriate funk and soul bleating out of the monitors between bands, either that or Halldór Hermannsson, the doddering senior citizen who rambled onstage between the first few sets to keep the audience informed as to what was going on, although I doubt his ‘announcements’ were news to anyone but himself. Halldór Hermannsson’s presence did, however, ensure that the bands announced by him were very conscious of their punctuality. Dóri Hemm, as he is known to those who know him, was, after all, the man who unplugged Hjálmar for extending their set by about 30 seconds last year.
The local talent was also interesting. Weapons were as unabashedly cheesy as ever with their superior pop-punk, guitar hero Rúnar Þórisson delivered a skilful and impressive show with a band that had rehearsed together only once, and Lack Of Talent were an utterly mind-blowing mixture of cocky music, modest performance and fiery excellence. It wasn’t all good, though. Kristinn Níelsson was completely pointless and Hafdís Bjarna almost so, while 701 were just plain bad.
Meanwhile, the room grew steadily warmer. The odd mishmash that had populated Edinborg at the beginning of the programme had evolved into a smiling gathering of relatives, friends and soon-to-be friends, judging by the amount of beer being shared. Dóri Hemm had mysteriously vanished, and in his place were two intensely irritating women who addressed the crowd with enough sickening condescension to turn what had once been a weird music festival in a remote town into a school assembly hall. Their power to annoy cannot be put into print in any shape or form; they once introduced a band as being so talented that “all they had to do was sneeze to entertain people.” A pity the same could not be said for them.
I began to wonder how far you had run to escape stupidity as the day progressed into mediocrity. The venue filled up with alcohol-equipped youths casting judgemental stares at anyone not born in the immediate vicinity, acts and attendants alike, and the musical quality completely collapsed. I had sunk into a dejected sulk by the time Siggi Björns finished his set to be replaced by the equally uninspired Hermigervill.

The Best of Both Worlds
At that point, it had become obvious that the only thing that could possibly save us now was either someone with enough theatrical bombast that it went beyond pretence, or someone so honestly convinced of his own power and greatness that quality and substance were rendered obsolete. Amazingly enough, both and more were provided in what was without a doubt the best hour of the day.
Sweaty, disillusioned and irritable, I suddenly lost my face in awe at Prumpison, a collaboration between Ragnar Kjartansson of Trabant and Mugison himself. They had completely abandoned even the concepts of substance or originality with the brilliant Strákar Fíla Metal (Boys Dig Metal), a song for which Prumpison should receive untold volumes of awards, credit and women; a song too good even for lyrics (the title of the song is simply repeated ad nauseam).
Too bad they had to tarnish their name by letting Helgi Björns join them for the last two songs, one of which was his own utter-horror-of-a-song Mér Finnst Rigningin Góð (I Like It When It Rains [for those fortunate enough not to have heard it, let me assure that the title is the most bearable part]), but they were instantly outdone by the stunning shotgun blast of egotistical genius that came next.
Herbert Guðmundsson, the self-declared progenitor of all good Icelandic music, was spectacularly bitter as the frontman of ageing and mostly forgotten rockabilly outfit KAN, kicking off their set by saying, “I disagree. I own an ice cream store in Reykjavík and I hate the fucking rain.”
He then launched the band into three incredibly standard eighties rock songs, providing his own delayed backup vocals and singing with a burning, fiery passion that belied his formal, almost stately appearance.
“I won’t bother to introduce myself, you all know who I am,” he boldly proclaimed after reading the names of the other band members off a sheet of paper, and then performed the opening song again to roars of approval from the crowd. And yes, the roars may have been ironic, but in the corner of the room, next to the mixing desk, a young music journalist from the Reykjavík Grapevine wiped a glistening teardrop from his cheek as he realised that he would never bear witness to such a charismatic performer for the rest of his days.
I was further dismayed when I checked the programme to discover that pompous revivalists Jet Black Joe were next, but at least one of them had been delayed for whatever reason, and thus we were spoon-fed the third and final exercise in complete and spontaneous onstage awesomeness. Reykjavík! were an immense fireball, a sickeningly brilliant reconstruction of modern rock so majestic and pure that it was difficult to watch and even harder to describe.
Singer Bóas was the first thing to get one’s attention, tearing off article after article of clothing as he defied gravity with his desperate bounds and scrambles and provided the perfect visual aid to the searing madness that is Reykjavík!’s music. But it was guitarist Haukur who made my day, personally. The entire band is obviously blessed with a wholehearted love of what they do, but Haukur positively glowed with it.
Things rather died down after that, with the local accordion company providing a bizarre interlude of sorts as people applauded thunderously to an accordion solo, but it was clear that the night had already peaked. Húsið Á Sléttunni contributed further to the loss of momentum with very, very normal rock, remarkable only for the incredible vocals of Birgir Olgeirsson, who had also performed with the accordionists.
Jet Black Joe were affable in their own insipid way, but were evidently reluctant to expend too much of the energy they’d need to play their other gig in a neighbouring town later that day. Rass did their whole noisy-obnoxious-cocky-awesome-sneering thing, with guitarist Björn Blöndal coming within an inch of braining a wheelchair-bound young man with his guitar when he threw it into the audience. The guitar then started a violent squabble between the kids claiming to own it. So in other words, a fairly typical Rass show.
They, like everybody else who performed on that day, were very into their own thing, and that seemed to be the only criterion connecting the impressively diverse acts that had been gathered for the festival (said diversity was admittedly not universal: There were, for example, only technical differences between Weapons & Jan Mayen and Rass & Nine Elevens); the feeling that they had, each and every one, carved themselves a deep but narrow niche within their respective genres. It was almost like they were representatives of a sort, bringing their own distinctive fortes to a free-for-all playing field that was in some way accessible to every type of music enthusiast in the country.
Although this can hardly be viewed as a bad thing, the obvious problem with trying to appeal to everybody is that in the effort you risk pleasing nobody. I doubt very many people were pleased with everything they saw at Aldrei Fór Ég Suður, but the sheer experience of seeing such an insane melting pot congregate in such an unlikely setting was a show in and of itself, an experience comparable to concept art at its unintentional best.
The last image of the night’s concert perhaps best demonstrates this artistic conundrum. Jón Atli of Hairdoctor, inexplicably placed last on the programme, sneered the final words of the final song into the microphone, drawing mixed reactions from the partly dispersed crowd. Some hollered joyously, not necessarily because they liked or even knew the song, but were either appreciative, in a good mood or drunk off their ass. Others simply stood and stared expectantly, waiting (what for?), judging: the worst audience an artist could ever wish for.
Jón Atli himself stuttered, paralysed by the crowd’s apparent schizophrenia, not knowing what to do, where to go… and bounded headlong into them, instantly disappearing in the chaos. Like Aldrei Fór Ég Suður, he was a good effort, a pleasing example of goodwill trying not to succumb to the scornful world of ignorant judgements and unfair hype, but it would seem that they both fell over themselves (very literally so, in Jón Atli’s case) in an attempt to make everybody happy.
And so it is that, through no fault of its own, Aldrei Fór Ég Suður’s reputation somewhat overpowered the event’s actual occurrence, so that the experience of being there will never quite equal looking at the thing on paper. Ah well, perhaps next year we’ll be fortunate enough to have two or three separate nights, each with its own distinct flavour, flair and appeal. Also, that way we could get more drinking done.

Air Iceland flew the Grapevine to Ísafjörður. They fly from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður twice a day. Tel: 570 3030.

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