I was very happy with my record haul from our recent trip to Iceland, but no album had me more excited than the five song EP Hold by Icelandic metal masters HAM. It had taken on a sort of mythical quality, much like bigfoot or gin that actually tastes good. When I’d ask about it in Reykjavik record stores people basically laughed at me. Of course we don’t have that, you idiot. And if we did we sure as hell wouldn’t sell it to you! But that changed due to a fateful email exchange with musician and music historian Dr. Gunni, and it was literally the first record I saw when I walked into his office. His price was more than fair (as was confirmed by some of my other record collecting friends in Reykjavik), and I couldn’t wait to get this bad boy home to spin on my turntable.
I first encountered HAM at Iceland Airwaves in 2011 when we saw them live at, of all places, the Reykjavik Art Museum. That same year they released their most recent album Svik, harmur og dauði (Fraud, Mourning and Death), which I reviewed previously, and it seemed like HAM mania was sweeping Iceland. We caught a few songs of their set in 2012 at Harpa (again ironically, they were playing at the national opera house…) as well, and I also managed to snag a copy of their 1989 album Buffalo Virgin on eBay for a very reasonable price. That means this review of Hold makes HAM the most reviewed band on my blog to date. We are HAM!
When I talked to Dr. Gunni about HAM, he confirmed the basic story told of the band, that they really weren’t that popular in Iceland when they were putting out albums between 1989-95, and it wasn’t until much later that they gained their sort of mythic, cult status in their homeland. Gunni also mentioned that he played one gig with the band before quitting because he wanted to go in his own musical direction. “I guess I should have stuck with them. I’d be a music icon today.” Today they’re considered quite influential, sort of one of those bands that didn’t have many fans when they were active, but every one of those fans went on to form their own bands.
So what’s the deal with Hold? Released in 1988, the EP has five songs and a run time of somewhere around 18 minutes. The jacket is more like thick poster paper than the normal cardboard type material, and the cover image of a sword wielding priest in sunglasses and a blindfolded shirtless guy is pretty disturbing… but I guarantee you not as disturbing as the photo on the fold out paper insert that shows the same priest holding this guy, who is quite naked, by the hair and about to come down on him with the sword… all for some reason right in front of a motorcycle. This definitely qualifies as extreme, all the more so because it’s so simple and basic. This isn’t some crazy demon or skulls or other stuff that metal bands normally have on their covers. Oh no. That’s not enough for the boys from HAM. They have to give you something that looks like it came out of the movie 8mm, like you’ve got some front row seat at the filming of a snuff movie.
What of the music, you ask? Well, I’ve always gotten the feeling that the guys in HAM don’t take themselves too seriously. They sing a dark, brooding, gothic style of metal and cover all the usually themes of death and carnage, but you get the sense that there’s just a touch of tongue-in-cheek in their presentation. But I don’t feel that way about Hold. It’s low-fi and raw. It sounds like it was recorded in some concrete basement somewhere. Someplace that doesn’t get any natural light and hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. And it’s quite possible that if you showed up unannounced at the wrong time, there just might be a guy dressed as a priest holding a sword over a naked guy. Or maybe the basement in the final scene of The Blair Witch Project. Sure it’s a bit over the top, but it feels a lot more real and a lot less produced than their other albums. Óttarr Proppé (also known for his work with Dr. Spock) sounds like a rabid dog straining at the end of a chain, while Sigurjón Kjartansson’s vocals come at you like a cold howling wind on a moonless night. In other words, it’s awesome!
We actually ran into Óttarr and Sigurjón at the bar of the Hotel Grand Marina last year, and they seemed like nice guys. If you ever get a chance to see HAM live, especially in Iceland, I recommend it highly. And if not, go out and get yourself a copy of Svik, harmur og dauði and join the cult of HAM. We are HAM!