Book Review – “Waking Up In Iceland: Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot” by Paul Sullivan

I like to read about music and musicians.  A lot.  Probably more than I should, since arguably I’d learn more about music by listening to more of it, not reading about it.  But I enjoy reading, so there you go.  And, frankly, books on music have opened my eyes (and ears) to bands and genres I might not have explored otherwise.  Some of those new “discoveries” in 2013 included The KLF, Shonen Knife, Flower Travellin’ Band, and The Sonics.  When I read I take mental notes which serve me well when digging through used vinyl and CDs.

Last month I wrote a review of Dr. Gunni’s English language history of Icelandic pop music, Blue Eyed Pop.  In many ways this was the book I’d been looking for since I started getting into Icelandic music five years ago – something that gave a sometimes broad, sometimes detailed history of the scene and mentions lots of different bands, making it a perfect resource for someone like me looking to go back in time.  But Gunni’s book wasn’t the first one to tackle this topic in English.  While I’d be hesitant to make a definitive proclamation about the truly first one on the subject, my best guess is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland:  Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot which was released back in 2003 in the days when Airwaves was still relatively new and you (assuming you’re not from Iceland) probably needed no more than one hand to count off all the Icelandic musicians you could name – and that would be if I let you count Björk and the Sugarcubes separately.

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Sullivan’s book is very loosely centered around Airwaves, but only in that he was in Reykjavik for the festival and stayed for a while afterwards doing further research.  Part travelogue and part cultural history, most of Waking Up In Iceland focuses in some way on music, or at the very least the Icelandic poetry style of rimur, a sort of poetic chanting that has existed there, more or less in the same form and using the exact same language, for somewhere approaching a thousand years.  Rimur is such an important part of the culture that a performance of it was even included on the seminal Icelandic punk compilation, Rokk Í Reykjavík.  So even the parts of the book that don’t deal directly with “popular” music are still relevant to the discussion of the nation’s musical culture.

The book is wide ranging, with chapters devoted to rimur, rock ‘n’ roll, the punk movement, pop, and even sveitaball, which are dances held in many of the smaller towns that feature live bands who play primarily covers for the hammered locals.  There’s even an entire chapter that is more or less devoted to folk rocker and social critic Megas.  Sullivan interviews artists, musicians, record store owners, label owners, and just regular people.  Sure, Sigur Rós and Björk are here; but so is Sigríður Níelsdóttir, aka the Casio Lady, who started her musical career in her early 70s with just a Casio keyboard, a microphone, and a dual tape deck, making lo-fi pop and gospel tapes in her kitchen.  She put out almost 60 albums in the last years of her life, all straight to cassette and later copied to CD, all without a label to produce and distribute them.  You’ve got the whole gamut here.

Waking Up In Iceland is the perfect companion to Blue Eyed Pop.  It’s written from the perspective of a curious outsider, so it doesn’t take for granted that you know anything at all about Iceland or its music.  Sullivan provides depth where it is needed, not only so you can learn about some of the seminal artists, but also what it means to be a musician in Iceland with both the benefits and challenges that entails.  While it’s out of print, I had no trouble finding a used copy online, and it’s also available as a Kindle ebook, which is how I first read it (before later buying a print copy).  If you really want to know more about Icelandic music, I suggest starting with Waking Up In Iceland and then following it up with Blue Eyed Pop, which will fill in a lot of the blanks.

Dúkkulísur – “Dúkkulísur”

I love me some 80s music.  Pop, rock, new wave, hair metal, hip hop… I like almost all of it.  And the 80s also seemed like the heyday of the “girl group” – we have tons of female artists topping the charts today, but not many all-female bands.  Of course, we never had many… but the 80s brought groups like Girlschool, the Bangles, and the Go-Go’s, plus some ladies who played straight forward rock ‘n’ roll like Joan Jett and Lita Ford (who together probably spearheaded this mini movement with their late 1970s band The Runaways).  Iceland had a few all female bands of its own during this era, most notably punk rockers/new wavers Grýlurnar, then a little later in the 80s with Dúkkulísur (“Paper Dolls”).

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Dúkkulísur was, surprise surprise, another of my purchases from Lucky Records at this year’s Iceland Airwaves.  The band won the Icelandic “battle of the bands” competition in 1983, which springboarded them to their first record deal with Skífan and resulted in their 1984 debut, a six song / 21 minute EP.  They had a hit at home with the single “Pamela” about a teenager who gets knocked up, then followed up Dúkkulísur with a full LP before disbanding in 1986 (only to reform from time to time).

Musically Dúkkulísur is sort of Scandal meets Girlschool, with doses of both new wave and rock in equal doses.  Erla Ragnarsdóttir is a hell of a singer, and Gréta Sigrujónsdóttir’s guitar work is solid, most noticeably in her brief solos and the surf stylings on “Skítt Með Það.”  The songs are tight and brisk paced, giving Ragnarsdóttir a lot of room to show her range as she works over the top of the music.  The only song in English is the opening track, “Silent Love,” which certainly sounds like it could have earned a spot on MTV had the band caught a break (I’m envisioning a rainy city at night and lots of leather and makeup in the video), though “Skítt Með Það” is probably my favorite.  All in all a really enjoyable record if you’re into 80s rock/new wave and worth checking out.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Live From KCRW”

nickcavelivefromkcrwThis was an impulse buy on Record Store Day.  There weren’t any titles that I was dying for, so I didn’t head out early to hit up any of my favorite stores, but yet I still somehow ended up at Silver Platters in Bellevue later that afternoon, like a gambling addict who somehow just sort of ends up at the track.  A look through the RSD titles didn’t turn up much of interest, and I flipped right past Live From KCRW the first time through before coming back to it about 15 minutes later.  I think I was just jonesin’ to buy something, and this seemed promising – Cave is pretty cool, and this was recorded at a live radio station event in front of only 180 people, so it looked like it could be a promising, intimate performance.  And that’s exactly what it is.

I know very little about Nick Cave.  We have a few CDs floating around the house somewhere and I’ve probably heard each of them a few times, but there was nothing there that made me sit up and take notice.  But Live From KCRW does that right from the opening track, the odd and mildly unsettling “Higgs Boson Blues,” a song that lyrically seems to wander all over the place, almost like multiple stories that were cut apart and told in parallel to one another or like the mysterious Higgs boson itself as it plays it’s quantum “no you see me, now you don’t” game.

While side A is enjoyable, it’s the second side of this double album is where the magic really starts for me. The songs have a lot of depth, showcasing Cave’s emotional voice with slow, deep music, almost like something you’d hear in a church.  Side C mixes it up a bit with the nearly flawless “People Ain’t No Good,” a timeless song that could have been just at home in the 1950s and 1970s as it is today.  And “God Is In the House”?  I’m not normally one for religious songs, but Cave nails this one and even gets the crowd to join in.  The album closes out with a frenetic pace in “Jack the Ripper,” an insistent, pounding, desperate song that is a departure from the rest of the album, but serves as an exceptional exclamation point, a reminder that Cave is in charge and he’ll take this thing where ever he wants it to go, even if that means burning the whole thing to the ground.

I never appreciated Cave’s tremendous talents as a singer before.  His voice is deep and rich, carrying weight and emotion in equal parts.  This live set is sort of that classic moment in time, when the artist, crowd, and venue all come together for that perfect hour where it all clicks.  The mood is right.  The sound is right.  It’s just right.  I can’t tell you if Live From KCRW is a good starting point for someone looking to explore Nick Cave’s sound since I don’t know his body of work, but I can tell you that if you like your music a bit on the heavy emotional side, you’ll come away satisfied.

Stilluppsteypa + Curver – “Inside AM” / “Make Star Shine” 7″

In my life there have been some types of technology I embraced early on.  I was using an old IBM 386 computer and modem to direct dial other computers to participate in chat boards back in the late 1980s in the days before we had the internet we know today  (when you could actually get a busy signal!), and I bought my first CD player in the days when you could walk into your local Musicland at the mall and go through their entire section of CDs in probably five minutes.  But I was also probably the last person you know who isn’t collecting social security to finally break down and get an ATM card.  And recently I succumbed and opened a PayPal account.  I know, I know.  Welcome to the modern age, you stubborn luddite.

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So I needed to break in my PayPal account with a cheap purchase to make sure it was working, so to the interwebs I went and purchased this odd Icelandic noise 7″ from 1994.  As you can see, the purchase went off without a hitch.  So what was it about the Stilluppsteypa + Curver 45 that interested me?  Well, Curver (aka Birgir Örn Thoroddsen) to be blunt.  You may know him as the electronics part of Ghostigital (seen here at their infamous KEX Hostel show at Iceland Airwaves 2012), the best industrial monstrosity putting on shows today.  If Curver is involved, I know it will be interesting.

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This is a pretty trippy little 7″.  The beat on “Inside AM” almost sounds like morse code to me… or more like one morse code letter looped over and over and over again.  “Make Star Shine” is a bit more mainstream industrial, though really these might be more experimental electronic since they don’t have that sheer abrasiveness that often defines industrial.  It’s interesting, and I can see some of the elements that later became part of the Ghostigital sound, especially the use of disjointed musical horns – we’ve seen them perform with live horn players at least a couple of times.  So for me this is a cool sort of historical artifact, an early piece by a guy I respect a lot.  While I’d certainly recommend Curver’s more recent projects, this one probably appeals best to the nerds (like me) and serious fans.

Kiasmos – “Thrown” EP

kiasmosthrownI’m not sure how I missed Kiasmos.  OK, it’s not like they’ve been super prolific, only putting out a split 12″ prior to 2013’s Thrown, but given that the group is comprised of Janus Rasmussen from Bloodgroup and Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, they seem like the kind of group I should know about.  I mean, these are both performers I’ve actually met!  Ironically both encounters took place in Seattle, not Iceland where they are based.  We got to spend some time with Janus and Bloodgroup before their show here at the High Dive a while back and I met Arnalds earlier this year when he did his live in-studio at KEXP.  Both were great guys.  Man I hope we didn’t miss them performing together live at Airwaves this year…

So now that I had “discovered” Kiasmos, I went online to look for a copy of their four song EP Thrown.  I could only find copies for sale in Europe (i.e. high shipping costs), so despite my preference for vinyl I relented and purchased it on iTunes instead, where it is a true bargain at $3.97.  I’ll still keep my eyes open for the record, though; maybe I’ll get lucky and find a copy in Reykjavik at Airwaves 2014.

Thrown is an entirely electronic album – no vocals here at all.  There are two original tracks, “Thrown” and “Wrecked,” along with remixes of each – FaltyDL doing the honors on “Thrown” and 65daysofstatic on “Wrecked.”  The soundscapes on the two standard tracks are certainly influenced by both performers’ other projects – there are elements of Bloodgroup beats here, particularly in “Wrecked,” while Arnalds’ presence is felt in the quieter and slower undercurrents.  That’s not to say that Kaismos is just some kind of blend, because it certainly isn’t; if I’d heard this “cold” without knowing who the members were I doubt I would be able to connect Thrown to either, at least not in any obvious way.  Both songs are quite good, though I’m personally partial to the more up tempo sound of “Wrecked.”  The 65daysofstatic remix of it is killer as well, a shorter more danceable version that really kicks into gear just before the 3:30 mark with some deep electronic beats.

With over 24 minutes of music you’re getting your money’s worth here, and then some.  Don’t let the fact that two of the four tracks are remixes make you hesitate – the remix versions are departures from the originals and more resemble unique tracks of their own than just mixes.  Kiasmos also contribute a track to a new limited edition box set (5 X 7″) called Erased Tapes Collection V (as does Arnalds as a solo artist) that is also available by digital download or vinyl at the Erased Tapes Records website.  I will definitely be following these guys on Facebook to stay up to date on future releases.  And I’ll keep looking for that vinyl.