From Iceland — Northern Music, Northern Lights

Northern Music, Northern Lights

Published November 1, 2013

Northern Music, Northern Lights

It’s only my second day at Airwaves and already I have some solid advice. Icelanders: do not attempt to replicate the music of the African diaspora, especially reggae and hip-hop. You will fail. Miserably and laughably. Be yourselves. That is the way to make the best music.

Úlfur Úlfur
Úlfur Úlfur is two rappers with mediocre flow and corny beats. Maybe their lyrics are clever — I don’t understand Icelandic — but they gave no indication whatsoever of being clever. They just sounded like two guys who like hip-hop but have no idea that they lack the sensibility required to do it well. There was a small but fairly enthusiastic crowd at the show — maybe this music translates locally, where some people misintepret listening to hip-hop in roughly the same way that Úlfur Úlfur misinterpret making it.

I stayed too long at this show, lasting four songs when I should have left after one, but I was transfixed by Úlfur Úlfur’s awful awfulness in the same way that one is transfixed by a car accident. It was all a clueless reenactment of things they had seen on the internet or television. Every time one of them would meaninglessly call out something like “What up, party people!” or “Yo, motherfuckers!’ as if the phrases were buttons being pushed on a sampler, I would cringe as if something sacred were being insulted and abused — like, for instance, an entire musical genre.

It’s only my second day at Airwaves and already I have some solid advice. Icelanders: do not attempt to replicate the music of the African diaspora, especially reggae and hip-hop. You will fail. Miserably and laughably. Be yourselves. That is the way to make the best music.

Prins Póló
I should reveal at the start that Prins Póló’s drummer is the manager of the cool bookstore where I was interviewed by the redoubtable Grapevine editor-in-chief and splendid host Haukur Magnússon earlier that day. The bookstore manager mentioned he was playing, and he seemed like a cool guy, so I thought I’d check it out.

What a charming band! It’s guitars, drums and synth: the drummer plays a small kit, standing up, with spare, precise, ingenious beats; the low end of the band is pretty trebly, so the sound is tight and spacious; the synth mainly plays one-finger melodies that play off the beguiling arpeggios of the guitar. It’s a subtle, kinetic sound — light but fleet, like a deer.

But the most charming part is the singer-guitarist. Being a prince, he wore a purple paper crown. And it turns out that his band is named after a cookie. His between-song remarks made the audience laugh a lot. But then the songs are clearly very poignant, and the contrast between the two feelings — the poignancy and the humor — thrusts both into deeper relief.  They would often do a similar thing with the music itself — suddenly altering or even stopping it, which would only emphasize its velocity.

The music drills home those emotions gently but firmly with motorik rhythms and repetition that recall the hypnotic,man-machine sounds of Neu as well as the trancey, elemental chug of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, a band that also combined poignancy and humor. But these are pop songs, and catchy, singalong ones at that. I really wish I knew what he was singing — I bet it’s really good.

There is, of course, an art to minimalism — less is not always more. You have to find just the right less. Prins Póló finds it on a regular basis. On one song the “solo” was a tricky little repeated rhythmic figure on guitar and drums, and it was immensely powerful.

I’m glad that Prins Póló got to play in front of so many people, but the music seems more intimate than that, and I would have liked to see them in a smaller room

The singer announced the last song, saying it was about an 18 year old boy and his 100 year old girlfriend “This,” the drummer told the crowd, “is a very sensitive band.” And he was exactly right.

I dropped in to see Muck only because a cute woman had recommended I see them. Muck are four shaggy young men who seem to have taken one Nirvana song, “Territorial Pissings,” and exploded it into an entire aesthetic. Unfortunately, minus the songwriting ability. It was loud and somewhat brutal, but so is a construction site. So I left after a few songs.

Another cute woman had recommended I see Hjaltalín, so I walked next door to see them. The band plays adult contemporary music — bland and smooth. It was very well played, but bland and smooth. When they began a cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” I knew it was time to leave. So far at Airwaves, cute women have not recommended good music to me. However, I do invite cute women to continue to recommend music to me.

After that, I made a very difficult decision: see the amazing Canadian band Metz or see the northern lights. My inner turmoil was immense: I love Metz. I love them even more now that I’ve gotten to know them personally a bit: the stark contrast between their affable personalities and the ultra-violent music they make holds a lot of valuable lessons about music, and art in general. A long time ago, I interviewed Dave Grohl and I said to him something like, “Wow, you must really get your aggressions out when you play drums with Nirvana.” And he said something like, “No, I feel really happy!” That’s what Metz is all about. It is ecstatic catharsis. I know for sure that that’s exactly what occurred at their show on Thursday night.

The northern lights filled me with a different kind of awe. And as difficult as the decision was, I’m glad I went.

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