From Iceland — Batteríið – Friday

Batteríið – Friday

Published October 17, 2009

Ragnar Egilsson

With lines stretching into a soppy horizon, would-be Reykjavík Art Museum patrons balked and stumbled to join the packed crowd at Batteríið.
The first half of the night wasn’t that great, the second half exploded into its own. The bands would fall into one of three main categories this Friday night
a) Bands I wish I could have liked but didn’t
b) bands I normally don’t like but have to admit delivered a great set last night and
c) “I wonder if the Art Museum line is getting any shorter”.
There were changes in the Friday night line-up at Batteríið. Berndsen had been moved to a different venue so the night was an hour later than scheduled.
Stereo Hypnosis are a difficult band for me, falling firmly in the “bands I wish I could have liked but didn’t” category. The band is a father and son project between Óskar Thorarensen and Pan Thorarensen of Beatmakin Troopa. I took up a place by the ridiculously sturdy metal barrier in front of the stage (seemingly the only thing standing between the ambient duo and the raging throng of maniacs set on tentacle-raping them to death) with trepidation. Beatmakin Troopa makes great electro-jazz, the whole concept of a father and son retreating to an isolated island to work on a project together is wonderful, I know they are 100% sincere about what they’re doing, and they collaborate wonderfully on stage (with Pan handling the beats and Óskar doing the ambient flushes it seems). For all those reasons, I hate having to admit that I just don’t like the outcome. It’s paint-by-numbers old-school ambient with dabs of Tosca and Amon Tobin here and there. But for me (I’m so sorry guys) the music was neither here nor there.
The Tiny are a classically trained trio from Sweden and they were basically doing Joanna Newsom. Sure you could trot out the Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush comparisons but when you get down to it it’s by way of Newsom. And they are to her what a drunk guy in a wig at a stag party is to a professional drag queen. Newsom has spawned scores of imitators even though no one ever comes close and even attempting is attempting career suicide. Some stayed behind and seemed to be enjoying The Tiny, others like me used the opportunity to go grab a smoke.
If Stereo Hypnosis were the sincere nice guys doing music they want to be making, then Sometime is the other end of the spectrum. How is it that I almost never hear about them playing except when there’s a chance someone from the foreign press might show up to help them “meik” it? The band irritates me to the bone, the kuh-raaazy costumes (Carnival in Rio this time, although it came off more like Silvía Nótt, which I would think most Icelanders would like to forget), the imported hipster attitude and just how utterly superfluous and insincere it all is. Having said that, I really can’t argue with the results. They were the band that marked the end of the quieter first half and launched the raucousness that dominated the second half. I want to hate them but they threw a good party.
James Yuill was one of the standout acts of the evening. Mixing a lo-fi indie acoustic sound with club techno and U.S. college rock ballads, he forms a one-man auxiliary wing of what headliners UMTBS embody. There is that same disregard for taste and good sense that in his case worked gloriously. The approach reminds me of Beck and Tom Vek but the music is nothing like it. I’m not kidding about the U.S. college rock infusion, I found it to be pretty prominent even, but somehow he manages to soar above how crazy it all is and actually deliver heartfelt club music (something Bloc Party tried and failed at). I heard touches of gospel, touches of italo disco, it was an extremely mixed bag but just kept on working. The crowd loved him, singing along with the songs and everything. This is the kind of music I could see hnakkar and úlpur* finally burying the hatchet to.
Vinnie Who…oh I get it, like Winnie the Pooh. Well aren’t you clever. The band didn’t quite register with me and I don’t know why, and by “register” I mean I didn’t give them the attention they deserved and by “I don’t know why” I mean was spaced out on Gajol shots (God, those things are foul). A seven-piece outfit with three back-up vocals, live drums and a singer that dresses and flails a bit like Ian Curtis.  Sound a bit like a DFA Records band but more disco than punk. The DFA sound retains a strong following in Iceland so that worked in their favour but a charming stage presence and a polished sound didn’t hurt either. The band had managed to wake me out of my Gajol-stupor by the end of it and that’s no small feat. Great set!
In Iceland the party band is king – if you can get people to shout drunkenly along with your inane warbling, you are pretty much set. If you can get the Icelanders riled up enough, you can show the foreign media a night they’re at a bacchanalia with you as the charging maenads. The problem is, that most bands will try that route during Airwaves and things tend to get a bit congested. Whereas some bands will step into the role once a year, Ultra Mega Technóbandið Stefán seem to have been chemically grown in vats for the sole purpose of making drunken Icelanders collectively lose their shit.
Now, as far as I knew, UMTBS was supposed to have retired but I guess either I heard wrong or they decided to re-band just for the Airwaves night (see: Sometime). Some clarification may be needed as the full name of UMTBS is (used to be?) Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán and in Iceland. I didn’t realize for some reason, so it was a pleasant surprise as they’ve often been called one of the strongest live acts in Iceland and yet this was the first time I manage to catch them on stage.
People have reached for all kinds of odd chimera names in trying to describe UMTBS’s style of music but to me they’re fairly simply a punk band. They use the cheesiest of Euro-techno to deliver the message but the song structures, the attitude and the performance was straight punk. The music is a noisy (as in noise music) arena techno, in a constant shout-along, never slowing down and never backing down from how patently ridiculous the music really is. The difference between UMTBS and Scooter is really a matter of inflection. But music doesn’t take place in a vacuum (except Micachu – ah, see what I did there?) and there’s plenty of punkers out there using arena-techno as a means to an end. Think Captain Ahab without the wackiness, a no frills Japanther, a less annoying Dan Deacon. Not that UMTBS aren’t annoying. They really, really are – they look like the kind of people I’d slap on general principle. But when you see singer Sigurður Ásgeir Árnason flailing from the rafters in nothing but a tie and his underoos, it’s just too much damn effort not to go with it.
*Hnakkar: think chav meets bridge and tunnel meets car salesman. Like techno, speed and violence
*Úlpur: Sigur Rós

Photo by: Ægir Freyr Birgisson


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