From Iceland — The Winner Takes It All

The Winner Takes It All

Published April 12, 2013

The Winner Takes It All

It’s that time of the year again! Since 1982, the annual Músiktilraunir (Iceland Music Experiments) competition has been waged to find the best in new, unsigned music from Iceland. The contest has had a decent pedigree with bands like Maus, Mínus, Mammút, Agent Fresco, and Of Monsters And Men bagging the top prize. This year the rewards for the winning act included 250,000 ISK from music label and event sponsor Sena, studio time at Sigur Rós’ studio, Sundlaugin, and spots in music festivals, such as Iceland Airwaves and Stage Europe Network.
So with some anticipation we decamped to the Cultural Box House of Doom (aka Harpa’s Silfurberg Hall) to check out the finalists.
The first band up was a five-piece from Akureyri featuring a mix of clanging guitars and plastic synths. Birkir noted that that there were moments in their music that resembled a diet Jimmy Eat World whereas I felt like they came across like Biffy Clyro with Granddaddy keyboard sounds. But the end result was oddly flat. The songs really didn’t connect with us, which was a shame because their singer was emoting and thrashing for all his worth, along with his high-end transatlantic vocals.
The second act was a guy on a guitar whose playing was all about “the craft.” He showed tremendous skill as his hands moved furiously up and down the frets, pinging off tricksy harmonic notes willy-nilly, but his lyrics were rather bland with lots of words to communicate vague platitudes. It also didn’t help his performance that any momentum he built was scuppered when his laptop failed on him at the beginning of his final number. But he did recover well in the end as he played his impersonation of Pétur Ben doing a Ratatat cover.
We recognised this band almost immediately from last year’s finals. Ditching their Mumford waistcoats from 2012, they were dressed in suit jackets and bow ties. They also had a new secret weapon—a harp! Their sound though was still the same, a mix of country ho-ho-ho Americana with some rocked up folk sounds. Their final song ended with a tightly arranged sound that was all the rage in folk clubs in Scotland 15 years ago. These guys would be popular on the folk festival circuit in Europe.
Just when Birkir started complaining about the lack of energy from the bands, on came the delights of Akranes, the punk band Sker›ing! Although it was obvious that they weren’t going to win the title, their rather snotty, loose, rough pop punk sound with song titles like “Downtrodden, Lonesome, Bohemian, Lo-Fi, Teenage, Existentialist Blues,” (catchy!) was a good response to the over earnest seriousness we’d experienced so far. They elicited a good response from the crowd and rightly so.
We yawned as what seemed to be another faceless krútt pop-looking band took the stage. But then the singer started singing and man she was powerful, almost reaching Florence Welch levels of foghorn, but with one difference—she could actually sing in tune! Their sound was also interesting, perhaps going for a take on the grungy acoustic sounds of Blind Melon and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians. All in all it was well put together and rather entertaining.
White Signal may not have reached the final this time, but the teeny-bop preppy quotient was there in the form of Yellow Void. It has to be said they were the youngest band in the finals, but everything about their songs and the performance really wasn’t doing it for us. It all seemed disjointed as if the 15-odd band members had been thrown together by some zealous youth centre workers. They certainly did their best though with one of the keyboardists bopping along and getting the audience into another clap-along.
“All the way down from the delta swamp and rocking it to you hard. We’re BLUESHAMMER!” Okay, Kaleo didn’t introduce themselves like that, but they may as well have. They were pure retro blues boogie daddy rock, right down to the “Hurrrr Yeahhhh!” and “I won’t work for THE MAN!” vocals. With this music, it’s a fine line getting the primacy right, and it was there in fleeting moments, especially with the guitarist thrashing around. But these guys were more Black Keys than The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The crowd was really into it though and broke out into the first unprompted clap-along of the night.
They set up to a slightly awkward silence (one of many during the night), but once they got going, their music piqued our interest. The singer/guitarist was throwing some unorthodox playing shapes allied with a very strong bouncy bass/pounding drum combo. The only downside was that the vocals weren’t up to much—they were more mumbled/breathed than sung. Their last song, with cold electronic beats that resembled The XX, sounded great until they ruined it halfway through by completely changing to a boogie funk tempo, which caused the singer to tear off his t-shirt and race through the crowd with a megaphone. Nice boxer shorts though.
A duo from Hafnarfjör›ur, these guys went further down the electronic rabbit hole of The XX and Samaris. And like Samaris, they too had an instrument with a limited range as a cornerstone of their sound (in this case the saxophone). But these guys were good. Very good. Some entrancing melodic lines and hooks with a real sense of presence, which was down to the vocals of the singer. She seems to have really picked up on the inflections of The Knife/ Fever Ray singer Karin Dreijer Andersson. We could see these guys being really popular with the moody electronics crowd.
We’ve seen these guys around a bit outside of Músiktilraunir, reviewing them at last year’s Eistnaflug festival for example. Unlike the other acts, they had a frontman that could fill time like a pro when there was a delay in setting up the drums at the start. And they looked and acted more fucked up and obnoxious (in the best possible way) than before, running and jumping around like monkeys dosed on purple drank. They even had a lovely one-man mosh pit at the end. The songs? Weeeell, they weren’t really songs to be honest. Overly flippant versions of The Dillinger Escape Plan that sounded like a trebly mess. Still, they were incredibly entertaining to watch. They will be Dr Spock v2.0 in the future.
It had been a long night, but thankfully the last band was a good listen overall. The singer’s distinctive style intrigued Birkir especially. He had an unusual breathy register that hinted at the likes of Brian Molko and Ben Gibbard. The music was the usual synth-driven pop with some tight rhythms and nu-trance moments. Like many other bands they did this weird thing of starting a song in one style before changing direction in a jarring and abrupt fashion. In this case they started a song off like Rush, before going into lounge room funk style. Competent and well put together.
As we waited for the winners to be announced, Birkir and I discussed who we thought they should be and we actually agreed on the same final three, Aragrúi, Kjurr and Vök, albeit in different positions. And shock horror, the judges went in a similar direction as well!


1: VÖK

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