“Rokk í Reykjavík” Documentary DVD

I’ve written before about the amazing double album Rokk í Reykjavík, which is actually the soundtrack to the 1982 music documentary of the same name.  Originally aired on Icelandic television, the film is now available on DVD in an all-regions format with English subtitles, something I’d been waiting on, not so patiently, for quite a while.  It’s incredibly fortunate that director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson decided to take an in depth look into the country’s growing punk and new wave scenes way back in the day, as his documentary has to be the cornerstone of any attempt to understand the development of the popular music scene in Iceland.

rokkireykjavikdvd

The film actually opens with footage of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson performing rímur, the traditional Icelandic style of chanted poetry and a form of singing that many punks cited as an influence, being that it is so ingrained into the country’s social fabric.  From there, though, it’s moves straight into the contemporary scene with live concert footage of Vonbrigði performing their classic hit, “Ó Reykjavík,” the opening salvo in a barrage of punk, rock, and new wave performances.  The roster of bands featured is a veritable who’s who of Icelandic music – Purrkur Pillnikk, Q4UTappi TíkarrassEgóÞeyr… the list is long, with most bands having at least one complete song filmed live at various venues, studios, and basements.  If there is a downside, it’s that sometimes you can’t figure out which band is playing unless they happened to have been interviewed immediately prior to their song footage (which isn’t always the case) or you’re already well versed in the history of Icelandic music.

Bubbi Morthens gets a lot of screen time, both singing and being interviewed.  His renowned contrarian streak is on full display as he criticizes the government and society as a whole and advises, “I think people should use as much dope [as] they possibly can.”  Perhaps even more powerful than the Morthens footage, however, are the interview clips featuring Bjarni Þórir Þórðarson, the then 15-year-old singer of the band Sjálfsfróun (“Masturbation”) who talks about the difficulties in coming of age in what he sees as an overly structured, rules based, and boring society.  He smokes as he talks about sniffing glue and how when that’s not available he resorts to paint thinner or gasoline, even if he has to steal it from a car.  He is totally matter-of-fact, clearly aware of the dangers huffing poses as he describes the permanent damage it has done to people he knows, and you can’t help but be struck by the hopelessness he sees in his situation (Þórðarson died in a car accident in 2005 at the age of 39).  Sjálfsfróun’s three live songs are sloppy but packed full of raw energy and anger, culminating in Þórðarson completely demolishing his bass on stage with a hatchet.

A handful of the performances stick out, and my favorites include Vonbrigði’s high energy, live rendition of “Ó Reykjavík” and Egó’s basement recording of “Sieg Heil.”  Some of the footage veers off the rails, however, most notably a famous live “show” by Bruno BB that involved killing birds using what looked like a large table sized paper cutter, an incident that actually resulted in the police showing up to shut them down, all of which was captured and included in the film.  They also wrapped someone up in shrikwrap and lit him on fire before putting him out with a fire extinguisher.

Þeyr have a distinctive and important place in the film primarily due to their performance of Rúdólf, a song about the Nazi Rudolph Hess.  What’s unique here isn’t so much the subject matter, which is typical punk fare, but that the band is actually shown in a full-blown music video, one that mixes both footage of them performing in a basement and scenes they shot outside dressed in Nazi regalia doing a sort of storyline about an arrest and execution.  They also incorporate a couple of quick clips of two dancers in the footage of their other song, “Killer Boogie,” placing themselves outside the norm by more fully exploiting the visual aspects the filming opened up to them.

The most famous “image” is undoubtedly that of a 16 or 17 year old Björk dressed like a little girl and performing with the band Tappi Tíkarrass, a still of which appears on the front cover of the DVD and the soundtrack CD booklet in order to capitalize on Iceland’s most internationally famous citizen.  It’s an iconic image of the young and seemingly innocent singer, but one that clearly belies her immensely powerful voice and punk rock attitude.

If you’re even remotely interested in the rise of the Icelandic punk and new wave scenes, Rokk í Reykjavík is a much see.  It’s gritty and edgy, offering no narration other than the interviews of the people who are part of the scene.  Even if you’re not specifically interested in Icelandic music it’s still an intriguing look into a very young, rapidly changing local music scene, one in which a lot of different bands and performers are trying to find their place and ways to express their own individual ideas.  The entire thing is posted on YouTube, though without the English subtitles, and many of the individual songs are broken out into their own vides.  Well worth the look.

Sólstafir – “Svartir sandar” (“Season of Mist”)

I bought Svartir Sandar on vinyl last year at Reykjavik’s Smekkleysa store, a.k.a. Bad Taste Records, the label/record store formed by members of the Sugarcubes way back when as a means of putting out the stuff they liked.  It’s a small shop but has a decent selection, and when I saw the record there I figured it was worth a shot.  I’d heard a bit about Sólstafir over the years but never caught them live, and they tend to have very passionate fans – I probably see more people in Reykjavik wearing the band’s shirts and hoodies than those of every other group combined.  Add to that the fact my friend Bowen is a fan, and I knew at some point I was going to have to see what the fuss was about.  I played the record once upon our return, didn’t know what to make of it, and admittedly never went back to it again.

Fast forward about six months to Iceland Airwaves 2013, and we caught Sólstafir on the festival’s second day at Harpa.  They were decent, but I felt like I was missing something.  They’re one of those bands that makes me think, “I feel like I should like these guys a lot, but I’m just not sure.”  I described them in a post about that show as “a bit droning, sort of Icelandic cowboys (based on how they were dressed) singing like old Alice in Chains,” which is neither complimentary nor insulting, but simply my perceptions.  Well you know what?  This is one of those mornings where Icelandic cowboy rockers singing like Alice in Chains seems appropriate – here in Seattle it’s cold, foggy, and dark outside.  It might snow in the next day or too.  After all, the English translation of the title of their 2011 release is Season of Mist.  It’s Sólstafir weather.  So why not get a cup of coffee and give ’em a spin?

Sólstafir’s sound is difficult to categorize.  The most common label thrown at them is “metal,” usually preceded by some type of subgenre identifier – post-metal, progressive metal, new wave metal… take your pick, not that it really matters.  The truth is that Sólstafir’s music is hard to pin down and relate to more familiar bands.  And that, my friends, is never (OK… almost never…) a bad thing.  And about two minutes after dropping the needle I found myself starting to get it.

solstafirseasonofmist

Svartir Sandar opens brilliantly with “Ljós í Stormi,” an 11:35 masterpiece of incessant power.  This isn’t fast metal.  It’s heavy metal.  It has weight and density to it, much like that fog outside my living room window.  Addi Tryggvason’s vocals cry out, reaching from the melancholy depths of the music, trying to break out into freedom.  You feel like the music is a dark, foreboding forest and he’s desperately trying to escape, but everywhere he turns there are more trees, more shadows, and more fog.  The other track on side A of the two record vinyl set (over 75 minutes of music!) is “Fjara,” a song along a similar vein though with music that reaches out of the depths of the opener “Ljós í Stormi” and strives to move to a more epic sounding place, though still played at a pace that begs to move faster… but the band keeps it steady, giving the song the pent up power of a compressed spring waiting to release.  The backing choral vocals in the chorus allow the song to make it’s desperate reaches to glory, coming together beautifully, and if I didn’t know better I’d have thought that Tryggvason was actually singing a Bloodgroup song at a couple of points, which just shows he has a great voice.  “Fjara” was an unlikely candidate to have made it to the top of the Icelandic singles chart, but then again there’s nothing normal about the Icelandic music scene.  At all.

Svartir Sandar maintains a fairly consistent sound throughout, with “Kukl” perhaps reaching the deepest depths of desperation.  By time I got about half way through side C I found myself itching for Sólstafir to break loose, even if for just one song, and just get fast.  They get pretty close on the closing song of the side, “Stormfari,” which kicks up the pace and tempo, but it’s also one of the shortest tracks on the album and all it did was left me wanting more.  I wanted these guys to really shred just once, but that is the power of their sound.

I’m glad I came back to Svartir Sandar and gave it another chance.  It’s a solid album and I think Sólstafir brings something pretty unique to the table.  They recently recorded a split 7″ with another of my Icelandic favorites, Legend, on which each band covers a song by the other, and I’m looking forward to hearing their version of “Runaway Train” as well.

Dead Man’s Shadow – “The 4 P’s”

The meteoric rise and fall of the initial wave of punk rock in the late 1970s spawned a broad range of genres and subgenres, from faster music like Oi! and hardcore to more mainstream new wave.  On the punk side of the spectrum many held true to the anti-establishment origins but weren’t as purely nihilistic as many early bands had been, and one of the first entrants into the positive hardcore (posicore) realm was West London’s Dead Man’s Shadow.  All members were under the age of 18 when the band was founded, making their positive outlook even more impressive.

deadmansshadow4ps

The 4 P’s in the album title are Pride, Pacifism, Passion, and Perseverance, a pretty deep message for some young punks in 1983, and it’s clearly reflected in some of their song titles such as “Will Power,” “We Can Do It Together,” and “Perfect World.”  Their sound is early hardcore – the songs are fast and tight, with Matt Dagnut’s vocals brisk, snappy, and clear, sounding more than a little like a fast Joe Strummer.  They are a bit like a few other European punk bands I like, notably Filth from Holland and the Finnish powerhouse Lama.

I’m a big fan of the song “Needles” with its alternating fast and slow paced parts, as well as the deep bass and slower pace of the track “Insecure.”  But don’t think that means Dead Man’s Shadow doesn’t play well when they do it fast, because in fact they do.  Dagnut’s bass drives the band’s sound (just listen to “Danger UXB”), though at times he drops out completely and lets drummer Ian Fisher take over and move the song forward.  They’re an unselfish band that meshes well together, everyone getting opportunities to push their songs to new places.

Hardcore isn’t exactly my thing, though I do like it in small doses.  The 4 P’s, however, is a record I can see myself coming back to.  Dead Man’s Shadow is about more than just playing it fast; they also do play it well and make an effort to ensure you can hear their vocals and therefore their message.  Definitely a keeper.

Sham 69 – “That’s Life”

sham60thatslifeWe’re headed back to the roots of UK punk, back to 1978 when the scene was on the verge of both exploding into massive popularity and imploding under the weight of it’s own nihilism and growing mainstream appeal.  One of the bands making a name for itself during this period was Sham 69, a more working class type of punk band that came from the soccer terraces and unfortunately attracted a more violent type of fan, most notably white supremacists of the National Front.  This gave them the reputation of being a racist band, but that wasn’t apparently true given their participation in the Rock Against Racism events, though unlike some of their peers they refused to make efforts to keep these types of fans out of their shows.  During the brief, chaotic, hyper-evolution of the early punk scene things changed fast and bands found themselves facing challenges they never expected… and which they were often woefully unprepared to deal with, so by holding true to their belief in an open, inclusive community, Sham 69 sometimes found themselves lumped in with the subgroup of their fans comprised of National Fronters.

The most defining feature of That’s Life isn’t actually the music, nor is it the vocals.  It’s the use of non-musical interludes to set the scene.  The album opens with a family arguing as the mother tries to roust the son from his sleep to get him off to work, and the resultant complaining all the way around about unpaid bills and too much time being spent at the pub, which leads directly into the opening track “Leave Me Alone.”  The same technique is used as a lead-in to “Win Or Lose,” “Hurry Up Harry,” and many others.  It’s an interesting way to prelude the songs, portraying the environment in which they were written and Sham 69 lived.  Unfortunately it’s so prevalent on That’s Life that it starts to become pretty annoying by time you’ve flipped over to the B side.

Musically Sham 69 is closer to standard, stripped down rock ‘n’ roll, getting much if not most of it’s punkness from Jim Pursey’s sneering style of singing.  The band’s football influences can be found on songs like “Hurry Up Harry,” with it’s chanting backing vocals that sound like they came right from the pitch, a precursor to the troubled Oi! subgenre that is actually a lot of fun but unfortunately will likely forever be tied to the white power movement that seemed particularly fond of the sound, much to the dismay of many bands.  In fact when I first picked this up the other day at Hi-Voltage Records the first thing that went through my mind was, “I can’t remember… were these guys a white power band?” because I’m certainly not interested in anything to do with that.

That’s Life is an OK album, despite the overuse of vignettes to open the songs, but there isn’t too much exciting here.  It’s valuable as a historical artifact of the early punk movement, but that’s about it, at least for me.

“Northwest Metalfest” Compilation

Sometimes you have that itch that only heavy metal can scratch.

I woke up with such an itch this morning (at least lets hope it was heavy metal withdrawal that was causing it…), and fortunately the cure was sitting on my record shelf – the vinyl copy of Northwest Metalfest that I bought at Hi-Voltage Records in Tacoma yesterday.  I “came of age” musically right around when this album came out in 1984 and spent hours sitting in my room, listening to my hand-me-down stereo (record player, cassette, and 8-track all in one!), reading Hit Parader, and watching MTV.  And I loved metal.  Primarily the subgenre now referred to as hair metal, glam metal, or, most derisively, butt rock.  Ratt, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, Whitesnake… Insult it all you want.  I don’t care.  I just want flying-V guitars, leather, and long hair.

My family moved to the Seattle area for good in 1984, and I can remember there being a big metal scene on the Eastside (across Lake Washington from Seattle), with a lot of activity in Bellevue where I went to school.  Alas, I never got to catch any of these shows – I lived in the sticks and was just a bit too young.  But I still rocked out to a lot of metal in my room, at least until a thing called grunge started to come along and caught my attention.

nwmetalfestfront

But I digress.  In doing just a little research about this record I actually came across a pretty good blog post HERE that talks about it, including a a blow-by-blow of the tracks.  Metal Church is by far the best known band on the album, but in all honesty they don’t even come close to having the best song (IMO).  In fact I was pleasantly surprised by just how damn good these bands sound.  Yes, most of it is very dated.  But the production and musicianship is solid, and while you can hear influences in the sounds of many of the bands (Koda Khan = Judas Priest, Lipstick = Mötley Crüe, etc.), there is still plenty of variety here, at least to the ears of a metal fan (I’m sure to a non metal fan it “all sounds the same”… which is fine if by “same” you mean “awesome”).

A few observations:

  • Lipstick’s “Daily Grind” opens Northwest Metalfest, and it’s probably my favorite song as well, pulling together all the classic elements of glam metal, right down to the enormous hair.
  • Koda Khan’s “Fantasy & Science Fiction” has an obviously lame name, but they have the rawest, most stripped-down sound and I think that gives them an edge over a lot of their competitors.
  • Mike Winston of Rottweiller is definitely the 80s guitar god champion on the comp, channeling his inner Yngwie Malmsteen on the aptly named “Intense As Hell,” a song that starts super slow before erupting liquid heavy metal.
  • Of all the bands, Bondage Boys probably show the biggest disconnect between their look and sound, with their glamish appearance but heavy, deep vocals that include some near growling.

nwmetalfestback

As far as I can tell all these bands with the exception of Metal Church quickly faded into heavy metal obscurity, though a few individuals went on to greater glory.  The late Mike Starr took his bass from SATO and hooked up with a group called Alice in Chains, and Taime Downe (credited as “Vaun Hammer”) graduated from singing with the Bondage Boys to form Faster Pussycat.  Metal Church, of course, ranks right up there with Queensrÿche in terms of famous Seattle metal bands, and they’re still going strong with the release of Generation Nothing just last year.  I’m glad that Northwest Metalfest exists to capture a moment in time in Seattle’s mid 1980s metal scene, because there was certainly a lot of talent in the area, and while the city soon became known for a completely different genre, it could have just as easily been the next heavy metal Mecca.