And so we reach the end of another year. The older I get the faster they fly by, the monotonous routine of COVID living adding to the Groundhog Day feel that is sometimes more like existing than living. Fortunately things are opening up a bit so we’ve been able to get out and enjoy some events like Seattle Kraken hockey games and meals with friends. A weekly Dungeons & Dragons game on Zoom gives us something to look forward to every week and our dog Evie won’t let us get too lazy, insisting on her morning walks and play sessions in the yard. Plus there’s the music. The music is always there, a way to be transported away for a while. There’s never enough time to listen to all the music I want to hear.
I didn’t blog much in 2021, only seven posts prior to today, and I’m not sure what the future holds for Life in the Vinyl Lane. We’ll just have to wait and see. Regardless, I listened to a ton of great music this year, and hopefully these lists may point you toward a band or artist that you will fall in love with.
Top 5 New Releases In 2021
1.Generation Loss – Steve Summers (US) 2. Mobile Home – GusGus (Iceland) 3. Ashamed – Mad Foxes (France) 4.Music Library 02 – Hvörf (Iceland) 5.Nightshade – NAOS (Iceland)
If you’ asked me at the start of December which album would top this list, I’d have said Mobile Home. But then a box of records I bought on a Bandcamp Friday from the L.I.E.S. label arrived and Steve Summers blew my mind. I’m not sure I can explain precisely why I love Generation Loss. I just know that when I put it on, I enjoy every single thing I hear, and if I play it on Spotify I also like almost everything the algorithm throws at me once the album is over. I suspect in 2022 I’ll be digging into his catalog and grabbing some of his earlier 12″ singles.
GusGus is one of my all-time favorite groups, and Mobile Home did not disappoint, the duo of Biggi and Daniél adding Vök vocalist Margrét Rán to the lineup to give an ethereal quality to the new album. This is the first time since I started doing these year-end lists that GusGus put out a new album and didn’t take the top spot on my Top 5. Don’t let that fool you – they’re hardly slipping, and GusGus remains a group I go back to time after time after time.
I first heard about Mad Foxes thanks to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, who texted me when she heard one of their songs on KEXP and said I needed to check them out. By the time she got home a few hours later I had already ordered their new album Ashamed as well as their 2018 CD Desert Island Wish. A bit punk-ish, a bit post-punkish, their sound orbits a lot of styles and bands I like. Hvörf made my Top 5 “New To Me” list in 2019, and their electro-library music is great for just chilling out. NAOS rounds out the list with his edgy, techno Nightshade cassette. This one is tough to find, and I don’t think any of his stuff is on Spotify either, but it’s worth the effort to track down.
I could have easily included three artists from my Top 5 New Releases list here, but that seemed a bit too obvious.
I first heard about Jeno Void from, of all places, Instagram, when Seattle’s Selector Records posted about some old school Jeno cassettes that had just come in. I managed to snag three of these by mail, and later a fourth at the shop, and I have to say that I could play these sets over and over and over again. it’s like having a rave in your living room. Hoodoo Fushimi also came to me via Selector with the re-release of the funky ケンカおやじ.
I can’t remember how I learned about Algebra Suicide, but I got hooked on their quirky indie/post-punk/no wave weirdness. The Ruts came to my attention thanks to Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic books – with how much he raved about the band I figured I needed to check them out, and I’m glad I did. Laserdance was a shot in the dark – a rewards program at work was shutting down and I converted those points into an Amazon gift card, so I decided to look at some box sets. One that caught my eye was Laserdance’s The Ultimate Fan Box, because who doesn’t want some 1980s Euro synth-pop? I know I do. So I did. And it’s pretty great.
Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions
1. B.Q. Wave– Vector 2. Realm of Chaos – Blot Thrower 3. Jeno Void Cassettes 4. L.I.E.S. Records 5. V 1/2 Performed Live In Seattle – Led Zeppelin
Vector’s B.Q. Wave was actually the least expensive item on this list, but it will always hold a special place in my collection as it was the 1,000th Icelandic release (across all formats) I acquired. Funny that it came to me not from Iceland, but instead from Seattle’s own Selector Records. It’s hard to believe I’ve amassed that many items from Iceland. And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t slow down with my Icelandic purchases after picking this up – the count currently stands at 1,058 releases, with more already in the mail.
Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos has been in constant rotation on Spotify since I came upon it for the first time last year. Plus as a fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction the idea of a Warhammer concept death metal album appeals to me. It also has quite an odd backstory. Games Workshop originally allowed the band to use the painting on the cover, but when the label approached GW about a later re-issue the company and it’s IP had grown much bigger and more valuable, meaning there were more lawyers, and ultimately they refused to extend the license. The band did not want the album re-released with a different cover, but the label went ahead and commissioned the same artist who did the original to do a similar-but-not-too-similar new work, which was then used on later releases, much to the disgust of Bolt Thrower who have told fans not to buy it. I’ve coveted copies with the original artwork, and I finally broke down and bought a gatefold original pressing.
Jeno Void and the L.I.E.S. label came into my orbit thanks to Sherman at Selector. Since then I’ve picked up 4-5 Jeno cassettes and at least a dozen L.I.E.S. releases, including my pick for the top album of 2021, Steve Summers’ Generation Loss. As for the live Led Zep, I love the band and have always had an interest in any of their stuff live from Seattle, so when I ran across this at a location that shall remain nameless I just had to pick it up. The sound quality isn’t the best, but it’s still a cool artifact.
Top 5 Live Shows
1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
For the second consecutive year we didn’t see a single live show. Which sucks immeasurably. On a positive note, we have been to a few larger events, most notably a handful of NHL games to cheer on our new team, the Seattle Kraken, so at least we’re starting to feel comfortable enough to go out in group settings. We’re moderately optimistic about 2022, enough so that we already have tickets for the Swedish House Mafia show here in Seattle later in the year. Fingers crossed.
Top 5 Artists on Spotify
1. GusGus 2. The Ruts 3. Beastie Boys 4. F-Rontal 5. Space 92
A lot of folks post on Facebook and Instagram when Spotify produces its year-end listening summaries to each user. And like last year, there were a few surprises fon mine. First and foremost was the sheer amount of time Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I spent streaming – 134,469 minutes, which equates to 2,241 hours or 93.4 full days. With both of us working from home and streaming individually in different rooms, this kind of makes sense – a typical work day could involve 20+ hours of streaming. But it’s still a lot of listening.
As for the artists themselves, there were a few surprises. GusGus in the top spot was to be expected, especially with them releasing a new album in 2021. The Ruts raised an eyebrow, though I went through a pretty big Ruts phase earlier in the year. The Beastie Boys are an all-time favorite and never disappoint, so that makes sense. The last two artists, well… I don’t know that I could have named them prior to seeing them on this list. It turns out that both have tracks on a playlist called Techno Bunker that we listen to A LOT, so that’s clearly how they cracked into the Top 5.
Top 5 Places to Buy Records
1. Bandcamp 2. Selector Records – Seattle 3. Lucky Records – Reykjavik 4. Easy Street Records – Seattle 5. Discogs
I tried to shop on as many Bandcamp Fridays as I could – I appreciate the platform’s commitment to artists, and knowing that the artists would receive all the proceeds from purchases on those days got me onto the site just looking for stuff. I ended up making a few decent sized purchases, most notably from the L.I.E.S. and Intellitronic Bubble. Discogs, as always, was also a great online source.
As for bricks-and-mortar, this year I “discovered” one of Seattle’s newer record ships, Selector Records. Selector specializes in electronic and DJ music and my man Sherman has curated a great inventory of labels, genres, and artists into a relatively small space. I don’t think I’ve walked out of there with less than 10 records (and a few tapes) in my bag after any of my visits this year. Easy Street continues to be a local favorite as well, though the closure of the West Seattle Bridge made it harder to get to. And while we didn’t travel to Iceland this year, I believe I had three boxes arrive from Reykjavik courtesy of my friends at Lucky Records, with another box being assembled for January shipment.
I bought a metric ton of music in 2021, and while space is stating to become an issue, I don’t expect to slow down in 2022.
Top 5 Music Books Read
1. Avant-Garde From Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin by Clemens Marschall 2. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr 3. Love In Vain – The Story Of The Ruts & Ruts D.C. by Roland Link 4. GusGus 25 Ára 5. A Pig’s Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick
Only two of these books were newly released in 2021, but no matter. Avant-Garde From Below profiled a small number of musicians and performance artists and forced me to think a bit about the question of “what is art”. And now that I think about it, so too did Once Upon a Time In Shaolin; I always saw that one-off Wu-Tang album as a bit of a stunt, but it was actually much more than that, it was an artistic statement. Honorable mention to the crowdfunded GusGus 25 Ára photo book, an exquisite piece of publishing if there ever was one.
And that’s a wrap, folks. Hope to catch you here again in 2022.
The other night I was sitting around lamenting about how little I’ve blogged in 2021. Considering how little we have traveled in the last 18 months (none) and how much time I’m spending not commuting any more (2.5 hours per day) you’d have thought COVID would have been very good for Life in the Vinyl Lane posts. But it wasn’t. C’est la vie.
However, while I was beating myself up for not maintaining my own blog I was also surfing Discogs. Having just received my copy of the tremendous crowd-funded photo book GusGus 25 Ára, I was poking around in the GusGus discography, which got me to thinking about how the band’s sound has changed over time and that it would be interesting to listen to their entire discography in chronological order and riff about it. I had all the studio albums other than their very first Icelandic release (more on that below), but decided to cast my net a bit wider as well, clicking the “Buy” button on some live DJ set releases as well as the pre-GusGus T-World single. Go big or go home.
To be clear, I don’t have any new insights about Gusgus. The band has been covered extensively, including a great in depth article in The Reykjavik Grapevinein 2020, which included contributions from the two remaining primary members, Daníel and Biggi. Between the book and the article I definitely learned a few things, some of which are included in the below. But really this isn’t a history of the band so much as a superfan doing what superfans do – nerding out.
THE PREQUEL T-World – “An – Them” 12″(1994) – Underwater Records
The collective that became GusGus originally came together to produce the short film (about 16 minutes) Nautn, which was released in 1995. To assist with the soundtrack they reached out to Birgir Þórarinsson, aka Biggi Veira, aka Biggi, who was at that time one half of the house duo T-World along with Maggi Legó (Magnús Guðmundsson). The duo put out a 12″ single the year before, two versions of the track “An – Them”, on UK label Underwater Records. It turned out to be their only release with Underwater, in large part because “the label staff had a cocaine problem.” Underwater’s loss was GusGus’ gain.
If there’s one aspect of An – Them that feels like early GusGus it’s the pairing of a house-style high end with a faster, more uptempo bass flowing underneath that gives the whole thing a mystical quality. The bongos are more reminiscent (to me) of the later work of Biggi’s GusGus electronics partner President Bongo, particularly the latter’s 2015 solo album Serengeti. The vocal samples at the conclusion of side A contribute to the overall tribal feel. The B side takes on a more spacey feel, the brisk pace of the high end and flatter percussion creating an almost post-modern version of the A side. It’s a bit more sterile, almost as if side A came from out in nature while side B originated in a hermetically sealed laboratory.
An original pressing of An – Them is only going to set you back $10 or so, as will the 2005 Underwater re-release. The copies available for sale on Discogs at the time of this writing are priced quite a bit higher, but the sales history is such that if you bide your time you’ll likely be able to snag this gem for a nice price.
THE DEBUT(S) Gus Gus (1995) – Kjól & Anderson Polydistortion (1997) – 4AD
First things first. I’d read in multiple places that Polydistortion was a re-release of the band’s original Iceland-only album from two years prior.
This is, quite simply, not the case.
Sure, if you look at the back of the CDs you could easily think to yourself, “well, these 10 songs on Polydistortion have identical or very similar titles to 10 of the 12 tracks on Gus Gus, so they must be the same songs” (“Message From Disney” and “Chocolate” being the two missing tracks, while an unlisted track alternately referred to as “Polybackwards” or “Polyreprise” appears on Polydistortion… it’s all very confusing). And while this is in fact true for a few songs, for others the Polydistorition version is totally different than the original. Given the scarcity and cost of Gus Gus (a copy will likely set you back $70+) it’s easy to see why these differences are mostly unknown outside of Iceland.
The reason, as it turns out, was a fairly simple one – sampling. The band had been a bit, shall we say, looser in their sampling on the Gus Gus CD, one that was almost exclusively sold and bought in Iceland, so far away from the armies of lawyers in Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s that it may as well have been a different planet. Gusgus’ new home 4AD, however, was a known and respected UK label, so samples either had to be cleared or cut. And allegedly all but two were dropped, the cowbell loop on “Believe” being one of the exceptions and a snipit of sound that cost the band 70% of what it made from the track.
The differences hit you right out of the gate. Polydistortion opens with the 1:17 instrumental “Oh (Edit)”, a quiet sonic introduction to the album. However, the same track on Gus Gus runs for four minutes, much of which has low, spoken vocals, and serving more as an intermission that an introduction.
While a detailed Gus Gus vs. Polydistortion might be interesting to some, I don’t have the patience for it. So instead I instead sat down and listened to the two albums back-to-back. The difference to my ears is the pure funkiness of Gus Gus, its sexy, deep beats giving it more of a soul feel. The two versions of “Polyester Day” / “Polyesterday” showcase this perfectly, the original’s porno-esque vibe making me want to turn down off the lights, light some candles, and try some smooth moves, while the later version is more dance-floor-ready. Both are solid jams, but I’ll take the richness of the original. And don’t even get me started on the funky-sexy “Chocolate”, the one track missing from Polydistortion (though 4AD did release it as a 12″ in 1996). It’s omission from Polydistortion is criminal.
I’ve been a fan of Polydistorition for a long time, but I feel like Gus Gus is the better album. Plus it comes in a logoed velour pouch, which is rad. Do I prefer it because of some kind of “the original/early work is always better”, or “this one is rarer” mindset? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so.
INTERMISSION #1–LIVE STUFF On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 cassette
As part of my deep dive I picked up a handful of live GusGus recordings, figuring they might give some insight into how the band evolved over time, transitional musical fossils captured on magnetic tape instead of sticky amber.
The first of these is a cassette-only release on 4AD featuring a live in-studio set GusGus performed on Santa Monica’s KCRW in 1997. It contains versions of “Polyesterday” and “Believe” from Polydistorition, plus the previously unreleased “Blue Mug”, which later came out on (This Is Normal two years later. There are also two interview segments with band members.
The quality of the recording is excellent. The lowest of the lows might just have a touch of distortion, but I don’t know if that’s an artifact of the cassette or the sounds actually coming from the electronics. The extended (9:20) version of “Polyesterday” is quite rich with a deep low end, more reminiscent of the Gus Gus recording than that of Polydistortion. “Blue Mug” balances spectral female vocals with super trippy and spacey electronics, and we close out with a marathon (10:00) version of the hit “Believe”. The interviews are a little awkward at times, but we do get to hear Daníel do some voices that he had been performing as part of some cartoon voice-overs, which is funny.
It looks like there are two versions of this tape, one from 4AD and one from Warner Bros. The Warner version lists the interview segments on the tracklist whereas 4AD doesn’t, but based on total run timed I feel confident these contain identical material. On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 probably only appeals to completists, but if you’re a fan of GusGus’ early material it’s a great way to get some live versions of classic tracks.
EARLY GREATNESS (This Is Normal (1999) – 4AD
One thing that will date you when talking about music is referring to “sides”, whether it be the B-side of a single or an album side. The rise of the CD almost totally killed the concept of a side of music, and the digital era put it into a coma from which it was never expected to emerge. Fortunately for some of us fogies the vinyl renaissance occurred and resurrected the concept of the album side. And I for one am grateful, because it allows me to make hyperbolic statements again. Statements like, “the A side of (This Is Normal is one of the greatest sides of music ever recorded”.
(This Is Normal got a vinyl pressing when it came out in 1999, which is perhaps a little surprising. Even more so that 4AD incurred the expense of putting it out as a double album with four sides of music. Normally an album side would have four or five tracks, but in this case the A-side of (This Is Normal only has three – “Ladyshave”, “Teenage Sensation”, and “Starlovers”. Three flawless pop songs, all the more impressive by the fact that vocal duties were split between Daníel (“Ladyshave” and “Starlovers”) and the ethereal Hafdís Huld (“Teenage Sensation”). And if we really want to get down to it, had the album’s fourth track “Superhuman” (also sung by Huld) made it onto a side with the other three, I’d probably christen it as THE best album side. Ever.
There aren’t a lot of groups fronted by vocalists of Daníel’s talent that would only have him sing on five songs, providing space for Huld (three songs) and Magnús Jónsson (two songs) to shine in their own rights. (♠︎) Jónsson’s high-pitched voice gives his tracks a disco-like quality that sets them a bit apart, but the cohesiveness of the beats and music still ground them within the framework of (This Is Normal. The overall feel is downtempo, the rich low end propelling it forward in pulsating bursts, the vocals wrapping around the music to add sensuality and warmth. It’s definitely my favorite album in the first half of the Gusgus catalog.
THE DANIÉL-LESS YEARS GusGus vs. T-World (2000) – 4AD Attention(2002) – Underwater Records Forever (2007) – Pineapple Records
So how do you follow up an album that included three brilliant vocalists? If you’re GusGus you put out a deep house groover with… no vocals.
There is a subset of GusGus fans who adore GusGus vs. T-World, and there’s a lot to love – this is a dance floor banger if there ever was one. While I suspect for many if not most Gusgus fans this album is more of a curiosity, at least one of my friends puts it in his personal list of the Top 3 Gusgus albums. Regardless, it’s a great curio in the catalog – just push “play” and walk away, because you’ll be happy to let all 50+ minutes bump.
Attention saw GusGus return to form and introduced a new vocalist, Urður Hákonardóttir aka Earth. Right from the opening track “Unnecessary” it’s clear that GusGus is back. The music pops and Earth’s vocals take on an instrumental quality of their own when she repeats “unnecessary”, something she does again on the title track with “Attention”. Earth certainly wasn’t the first woman to sing for GusGus, but she was the first that, to my ears at least, defined the sound of one of their albums.
Daniél may not have technically been part of GusGus any longer, but that didn’t stop one of his tracks from appearing on Attention. “Desire” is one of the album’s best numbers, though one more reminiscent of the (This Is Normal material.
Forever is all about Earth. It feels like the sonic landscape created by Biggi and Bongo was painted specifically with her in mind, and she moves through it effortlessly. She makes her first appearance on the second track, “You’ll Never Change,” and it’s one of the album’s high points, electro R&B that merges funk and disco and house. Earth is free from rhythmic shackles and able to sing as she pleases, sometimes following the music and other times wandering down her own path.
Forever also features some guest vocalists. Iceland’s mega-pop-star Páll Óskar joins Earth on the next two tracks, as does American house musician Aaron-Carl Ragland on “Hold You”. “Hold You” offers vocal complexity, the voices weaving in and out with Ragland’s low register soothing while Earth ranges far afield, sometimes up front and powerful, other times fading into a background supporting role. Daniél also returns for a single track, “Moss”
I always forget that one of my favorite Gusgus songs is on this album, and it’s because of the title. “If You Don’t Jump (You’re English)” does indeed include the title in the vocals, but just barely. Instead the song is defined by the repeated “I wanna be a freak” sung by President Bongo. It’s a sampler’s dream. So good.
If I’m being honest, these three are probably my least-played GusGus albums. There was a two or three year period when I played them a lot, but once Arabian Horse came out in 2011 I became obsessive about Gusgus’ new sound. I
INTERMISSION #2 – MORE LIVE STUFF Mix @ Respect (1999) – Labels Mixed Live: Sirkus, Reykjavik, Iceland (2003) – Moonshine Music
These two releases sit outside of the GusGus cannon, live performances that don’t focus on Gusgus songs per se. They’re also both pretty obscure. However, they are obtainable – I acquired them both on Discogs in the last 60 days for a combined €13 plus shipping. So if you’re interested, they’re out there to be had.
Mix @ Respect was recorded live in 1999 at Queen, a dance club in Paris. The set is deep house, lacking vocals other than some sampling The sound quality overall is quite good, but there are a few places where the bass blows out and becomes distorted. There are some passages incorporating Gusgus’ music, but most of it isn’t recognizable as Gusgus per se. Still, an enjoyable listen and one that will certainly continue to get some play at my house.
Sirkus was still around during our first trip to Iceland back in 2005, but by time we got back to Reykjavik for our first Airwaves in 2009 it was gone, so we never caught a show there. Unlike Mix @ Respect, the Sirkus set draws heavily on non-Gusgus tracks, but appears to also add some live vocals. Whereas Mix feels like being at a club, Sirkus is more like being at a party.
I know precisely when my GusGus fandom began – late in the evening of Sunday, October 18, 2009. That’s when Daniél, Biggi, and Bongo stepped onto the stage at Reykjavik’s NASA for their Iceland-Airwaves-closing set. Their newest album 24/7 was barely a month old at that point, and while Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane had bought a copy on the trip, I don’t think we’d listened to it yet. What I remember most about the set is the powerful, pulsating low end and the green lasers. I suspect that GusGus performed the entire album, but I can’t be sure.
This album clicked for me a month or two after our return from Iceland. I had it on my iPod and decided to play it during a cold, dark morning dog walk. Right from the opening notes of “Thin Ice” bouncing back and forth in my earbuds I was hooked. 24/7 is made for listening to on headphones, or if not then with the volume cranked up, otherwise you’re sure to miss many of the subtle touches as the bass and Daniél’s voice overwhelm you.
According to the previously mentioned Grapevine article and GusGus 25 Ára, the recording of 24/7 was pretty unique – the trio rented a hall and performed the entire thing all the way through four times, then edited the ablum using those four recordings. This does make some sense, though, because 24/7 in many ways feels like one continuous track, the songs like chapters in a book.
The low end carries 24/7, its richness, density, and clarity pulsating like a heartbeat. The vocals too are low and sensual, though from time to time breaking out to soar. The backing choruses are pushed off into the background like a dream intruding on your waking hours. It’s very easy to hear Daniél’s voice as an instrument blending into the electronics, almost perceiving the tracks as instrumentals. At least it is for me, though to be fair that’s often how I hear vocals. I recall sharing this album with my friend Tristen and asking him what he thought of it. “Why is this guy so angry?” he asked. I was confused, but shouldn’t have been. After all, the second song is entitled “Hateful” and begins with the lyrics, I’m feeling hateful / Because you pissed me off / I want to hurt you / I want to make you suffer. I have to admit, Tirsten had a point. I just hadn’t noticed, caught up in the beauty of the sounds.
It’s hard to pick a favorite track on 24/7. “Add This Song” seems to be the choice for most people I’ve talked to, and there have been times it was mine as well. But I’ve also had periods where I played “Thin Ice” or “Hateful” or “On the Job” over and over and over again. “Add This Song” and “Thin Ice” both got the 12″ remix treatment, so that’s probably a bit indicative of overall popularity (both 12″ records are enjoyable, but I prefer the originals to any of the remixes). The fact of the matter is there isn’t a bad, or even marginal, song on 24/7.
GusGus is a rarity, a band that continuously evolves. 24/7 was a massive departure from Forever and everything else that came before it. While one could certainly argue its deep house direction laid the groundwork for the two albums that followed, to my ears 24/7 stands alone in the GusGus catalog, a black monolith of bass and style. I don’t think it’s their best album, nor is it my favorite. But it is the most powerful.
Earth returned to the Gusgus lineup, and if that wasn’t exciting enough the group added a new member – Högni Egilsson. Högni was best known as a guitarist and singer for the ensemble Hjaltalín (⨁), the haunting quality his beautiful and seemingly deep voice (he’s probably actually a tenor) making him a perfect partner for Daniél. The trio of vocalists complemented one another so well that they could bring tears to your eyes.
Which brings us to 2011’s Arabian Horse, as close to a perfect album as exists IMO, and one that I put in my personal “All Time Top 5 Desert Island Albums” cannon. It’s not even so much that I love every single song on the record as that when taken as a whole everything just fits together.
While it’s true that I have a ton of vinyl (over 3,000 records and counting), often I end up listening to things on Spotify because, well, it’s just easier. But for this listening session I went to the Icelandic section of my shelves (yes, the Icelandic artists have their own section…) and pulled out the record. And while I’m not a “vinyl is so much better” guy, I have to say this pressing sounds fantastic, bringing a richness and warmth that I don’t quite get from digital. It also feels like the mix brings some of the subtleties closer to the forefront, such as Daniél’s opening vocals in “Be With Me Now”.
Where to start with Arabian Horse? I’m tempted to reach deep into my bag of hyperbole and spout off all kinds of pithy platitudes, but it seems kind of pointless – it’s hard to put my perception of this album into words. The sonic palette is dense with incredible richness in the low end – the bass doesn’t so much pump out of the speakers than it pulses, taken to the absolute limits of clarity. And maybe that’s the one word I’m looking for here – “clarity”. Every sound, every tiny nuance, just feels right, as if even the smallest change would disrupt a track’s balance.
That feeling extends to the vocals as well. Högni makes his first appearance on the album’s third track, and when he sings the words deep inside / deep inside, holding onto each word, stretching it, loving it, well, if you don’t feel something, you might already be dead. And what can you say about Daniél and Earth’s interactions on “Over”? It’s as if they were born to sing together.
Four tracks got formal remixes, though only “Over” made it to a vinyl release. I have listened to these, but I have to confess that unlike the enjoyable 24/7 remixes, these leave me a bit underwhelmed. The Arabian Horse songs are more complex than their predecessors, which makes them lose too much of their original character when re-done.
In 2013 Biggi produced John Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, and you can hear elements of that album in Arabian Horse – the ways Biggi doubles and echos vocals, the richness of the beats, the intentionality and the density. In many ways that John Grant album is the part of the evolution that started with 24/7 and reached its apex on our next entry, 2014’s Mexico.
Somehow I managed to never acquire a physical copy of Mexico. We purchased it digitally the day it came out, but for whatever reason I never grabbed a copy on CD or vinyl, an oversight I rectified this on the same day I wrote this paragraph, ordering the 2xLP on Discogs.
Gusgus continue with three vocalists on Mexico, though both Högni and Earth take appear on fewer songs. However, when they do make their presences felt, it’s with great effect. The opening track “Obnoxiously Sexual”, featuring Högni’s vocals, is one of the best on the album, and Earth is brilliant on the second song, “Another Life”. From there Mexico takes a sensual turn as Daniél’s voice simmers on the surface of Biggi’s rich and pulsing beats. The trio of “Sustain”, “Crossfade”, and “Airwaves” is unassailable.
Mexico ranks alongside 24/7 as the most stylistically consistent albums in the Gusgus catalog. It’s not quite like listening to one long track, but there is a sonic flow and no unexpected changes in direction, making it an ideal listen when you’re in a certain kind of mood. It’s like a warm blanket or a soothing voice, the sonic density swaddling you in its embrace.
In a completely and utterly non-scientific survey of four of my fellow Iceland Airwaves and Gusgus devotees, I asked each for their three favorite Gusgus albums. Everyone, myself included, had Arabian Horse on their list, and everyone other than me also chose Mexico (my other choices were 24/7 and (This Is Normal ). And I have to confess that after listening to Mexico again, I’m starting to second guess my own list because it’s so damn great. So at least among me and my friends, this period represents peak Gusgus.
So what do you do after creating a pair of brilliant albums with a three vocalist lineup? You strip it all back down to its roots, of course (and, you know, have the incomparable John Grant join as a backing vocalist on one track). Tear it down to build it up again as something new. And so for Lies Are More Flexible we find ourselves back to just a two-person core of Biggi and Daniél.
Lies feels like two separate albums. All four A side tracks feature Daniél’s vocals, but the entire B side is instrumental outside of some very minor non-singing vocalizations. This makes it a bit challenging to grab onto as an “album” – it’s almost like two EPs brought together. Two excellent EPs, to be sure, but it still draws a bold line separating the two sides. “Featherlight” can hold its own against any other song in the Gusgus catalog, while the title track and “Fuel” are among the group’s best instrumental numbers.
Biggi and Daniél kept us waiting another three years before putting out the 11th Gusgus album earlier this year, but it was well worth the wait. I tried my best to not listen to the singles released before the album came out, wanting to experience the album as a unified whole, but once I learned that the guys had teamed up with Vök’s Margrét Rán, well, then I had to listen to the singles.
We first became familiar with Margrét and Vök at a show they did at Reykjavik’s Faktorý back in April 2013. The group had won Iceland’s national “Battle of the Bands” and they were the opening act for an anti-bullying charity show featuring Prins Póló and FM Belfast. Margrét was so shy on stage, but her voice had tremendous depth. Over the years we’ve picked up all the Vök releases and seen them live multiple times, and she’s become a more powerful singer and performer with each show. Her voice is perfect for Gusgus.
To my ears Mobile Home is all about the vocals. That’s not to imply that the music isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s that the music serves the vocals, and not the other way around. During the non-singing interludes Biggi explores and expands the space, but when Daniél and Margrét step forward, Biggi pulls back and provides a more subtle sonic platform to allow their voices to come forward and shine. The more I listen to Mobile Home, the more I find myself falling in love with it. Who knows, it may end up in my my personal Gusgus Top 3 soon enough.
So that’s all there is, kids. Despite having written almost 4,500 words, this post feels inadequately short. My hope is that you come away interested in checking out a Gusgus album you’ve never heard before. If you do, drop me a note and let me know.!
(♠︎) OK, so until I sat down to write this blog I did not realize that Magnús Jónsson, who sings on Polydistortion and (This Is Normal is also Blake of BB&Blake fame, and I’m completely blown away by this information. They were one of our favorite acts from our first Iceland Airwaves back in 2009, and I’d simply never put this together previously. It’s kind of blowing my mind.
(⨁ ) I feel like if your group has a full-time bassoon player, you automatically become an ensemble.
I turned 50 today (OK, technically I will turn 50 just before midnight… but whatever). Somehow that seems like it should be in some way meaningful, but really it feels more like any other Thursday, other than that I took the day off and had drinks during lunch.
I have been alive for 18,263 days. Which, when you consider how fast the days (and weeks, and months) seem to fly by as you get older, is both a lot, and not a lot at all. It seems impossible to believe that 2021 is half over already. When you’re young, being a week away from something exciting like Christmas or a vacation feels like an eternity, every minute of the day a battle against the glacial pace of the clock’s second hand. By time you’re in your 40s, it just means you have one more week of work to put up with, a week that will be so full of responsibilities and deadlines that you barely have time to eat lunch, your battle against the clock one of fighting against how fast it moves instead of how slow.
The first time I bought a Led Zeppelin album, a cassette copy of Led Zeppelin I, was in 1986. At that point the mighty Zep had been disbanded for six years, and it had been seven since their last studio album. At the ripe old age of 15 they seemed like old hippies who were part of the ancient past. Rock ‘n’ roll as a genre was, at that point, 35 years old if you consider “Rocket 88” to be the first rock song. By way of comparison, as of today Kurt Cobain has been dead for 27 years and, well, rock ‘n’ roll is exactly twice as old, heading into its seventh decade. Someone who is in their mid-20s today was born after Nirvana put out their last studio album.
When you’re young you don’t understand why your parent’s friends, who you don’t remember ever meeting before, tell you, “I knew you when you were a baby.” You swear you will never say stupid shit like that. And inevitably you do. Because it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that, frankly, you don’t feel that different today than you think you felt back then, while the child grew from a baby to a teen (or older). It’s almost hard to fathom. You have a connection to them through their parents, and therefore feel like there’s a sort of relationship there. But to them you’re just another old person who doesn’t have a clue. It’s impossible to understand aging until you have aged yourself. This is the truism of aging.
Anyway… I thought a bit about what I might write today. Some of it was deeply personal, and ultimately I talked myself out of that because really it would have probably been self-indulgent crap. So instead I landed on 50 albums that are in some way “important” to me. I’m intentionally not defining important. It is what it is. The one concession I made is that I won’t have any artist listed more than once. Of course, this is arguably every bit as self-indulgent as my earlier ideas. But whatever. Maybe one of these will pique your interest and you’ll go check it out. Maybe you won’t. But putting together the list was kind of fun for me, and it’s my birthday, so if you don’t like it, too bad.
So here they are, in no particular order, 50 albums for 50 years.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
Metallica – Master of Puppets
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
Gusgus – 24/7
Ratt – Out of the Cellar
Pink Floyd – The Wall
Van Halen – 1984
The 3 Tenors – The 3 Tenors in Concert
Agent Fresco – A Long Time Listening
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Baby 81
The Kills – Ash & Ice
Tad – Salt Lick/God’s Balls
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Sammy Davis, Jr. – I’ve Gotta Be Me: The Best Of Sammy Davis Jr. On Reprise
Bob Marley – Legend
FM Belfast – How to Make Friends
The Devil Makes Three – The Devil Makes Three
Legend – Fearless
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Warsaw – Warsaw
Mötley Crüe – Shout at the Devil
Def Leppard – Hysteria
Sir Mix-A-Lot – Swass
Run-DMC – Raising Hell
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – So Far
The Doors – The Best of the Doors
Kiasmos – Kiasmos
Ghostigital – Division of Culture and Tourism
Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power
Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
TZMP – Anthology: Simply the Best
Kuldaboli – Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016
Hatari – Neysluvara
Robert Plant – Now and Zen
Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System – Tackhead Tape Time
No Stayer – Rogue
AC/DC – Back in Black
Quiet Riot – Metal Health
Duran Duran – Seven and the Ragged Tiger
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
MC 900 Ft Jesus with DJ Zero – Hell with the Lid Off
I knew nothing about Hoodoo Fushimi when I grabbed this on an impulse the other day over at Seattle’s Selector Records, and despite repeated enjoyable listens, I still don’t know anything about the man. And I think I kind of like it that way.
Stylistically this reminds me a bit of the 1980s On-U sound, a blend of hip hop, electronica, disco, and funk, with some electric guitar thrown in for good measure. Honestly I have no idea what section I’m going to put this in, but I better remember where it is, because it’s going to be getting a lot more plays (though it does look to be on Spotify, along with Fushimi’s 1992 album Kusaya).
Originally put out in 1987, ケンカおやじ got the re-release treatment earlier this year, and we should all thank the vinyl gods for that because original pressings sell for hundreds of dollars. I paid about $30 for my copy, and it’s worth every cent.