Spilverk Þjóðanna – “Sturla”

eBay comes through once again with a reasonably priced 1970s Icelandic nugget, this time Spilverk Þjóðanna’s Sturla from 1977.  The cover is certainly worse for wear, but most of the ugliness is on the reverse, and generally that’s not the kind of thing that worries me a ton unless it’s super bad.  Plus it includes the insert, which is cool.  But the vinyl inside is in nice shape, and that’s the important part.

Now, I write quite a bit about Icelandic music.  Hell, I write about it a lot.  But to be clear, I’m far from being an expert on it.  For one thing, I’m not from Iceland.  And I don’t speak (or read) Icelandic.  But I do have well over 200 Icelandic albums (if you include CDs and cassettes) going all the way back to Nútímabörn in 1969, so I certainly have listened to my fair share of it.  Then again, I’ve never sat down and listened to a Sigur Rós album from start to finish… so keep that all in mind.  All that being said, an observation:

Musically, the 1970s in Iceland seem to have been all about folk and prog rock, at least as far as the home-grown bands were concerned.

Overgeneralization?  Absolutely!  But man… I pretty much know what I’m going to get when I drop the needle on one of these.

However… Sturla is actually pretty damn good.  And hey, that’s not just me sayin’ that.  The 2009 book 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar put it at #10 on the list of the all-time best Icelandic albums, and a survey Dr. Gunni did in 2001 and re-published as part of his 2013 book Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland put it at #11.  So that’s not just me talking.  Real, live Icelanders say so too!

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Dr. Gunni indicates that some of the songs on Sturla “came from a teen play Grænjaxlar (“Rookies“) that the band wrote music for, but others were composed especially for the album.” (p. 73)  What I find compelling about the record is the different styles that appear throughout.  I mean, the opening track “Sirkus Geira Smart” sounds a bit like Credence Clearwater Revival, “Arinbjarnsson” features accordion with an Italian vibe (you swear it will break into “That’s Amore” at any moment), “Eftir Predikun” is a choral arrangement, and “Hæ Hó” is straight-up folk rock.  And that’s just half the songs on Side A.  I was particularly struck by “Bob Hope” on the flip side, a track that started out with crowd noises and then had marching military boots underlying the music… I suspect this is a bit of a political number based on what I could glean from Google Translate, but I can’t be entirely sure.

The changing styles on Sturla kept it fresh for me, though for the most part this type of music is hard for me to enjoy when separated from its message, so my lack of Icelandic once again is a detriment.  Maybe one of these days Rosetta Stone will offer a course in the language.  Until then, though, I’ll just have to keep listening and wondering…

Black Sabbath – “Born Again”

I think I qualify as being more than just a casual Black Sabbath fan.  Not a super-fan, but still.  At least for the Ozzy era. I know I’ve owned the first three albums at various points in the past, along with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and I was excited by underwhelmed by Headless Cross when it first came out in 1989.  But I can probably sing you every song on Side A of Paranoid, which is one of the top five all-time sides of music of any rock record ever in my opinion.

Which brings me to 1983s Born Again.  Why, pray tell, did I buy the demon baby record?

Well, because of the opening track.  “Trashed.”

I thought “Trashed” was amazing as hell the first time I heard it on the 1984 compilation Masters of Metal, and I recently bought a Y&T record for the same exact reason.  At this point I need to stop and reconsider whether I’m just better off buying that comp online so I can exorcise my hair metal demons, otherwise I’ll end up piecing the whole thing together myself buying copies of each of the albums that originally featured the tracks that made up that comp.  Though in a way that would be kind of cool.

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But back to Born Again.  This was the only album featuring Ian Gillan, formerly of Deep Purple, on the mic.  And frankly it’s been pretty widely panned for a host of reasons – the creepy-ass cover, the songs that are a bit more rock and less metal than standard Sabbath fare, and the poor recording quality.  The last of these is legit – this thing is recorded low and flat.  I doesn’t sound all that great, like it was made inside an oil drum.  And that instrumental “Stonehenge,” well, the less said about that the better.

But there’s some cool stuff on here.  I of course dig the car racing song “Trashed,” and “Zero the Hero” is a pretty solid rocker that at times gets Black Sabbath heavy.  Gillan’s vocal styles are a departure for the band, nothing at all like the possessed Ozzy nor the operatic Ronnie James Dio.  Gillan sings hard rock songs.  That’s how he rolls.  “Digital Bitch” might be the most Deep Purpl-ish tune on Born Again, one that seems to fit Gillan like a glove and has a pretty sweet guitar riff.  “Hot Line” is another good driving number.

I’d agree Born Again is a bit uneven, and yes, the recording quality isn’t great.  But if you stripped the Black Sabbath name off of this and went into it cold, you’d think it was a decent early 80s hard rock/metal record, and you’d be right.

DJ Flugvél Og Geimskip – “Glamúr Í Geimnum”

Invariably there are surprises at Iceland Airwaves.  You go to a venue because a couple of bands you want to see are scheduled to play, and you end up seeing some acts you’d never heard of before.  That’s how we came upon DJ Flugvél Og Geimskip on the festival’s first day last year.  We wanted to see the first two and last two bands at Húrra that night, so figured we’d just camp out there.  And right in the middle was DJ Flugvél, aka Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir.

DJ Flugvél’s set was, simply put, captivating.

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Her music came with a story, a journey through space and time, that she walked us through as her set progressed.  I don’t remember the details, but cats and snakes were involved.  And magical things.  And cats.

She was so earnest, and having so much fun with the story and music, that you couldn’t help but get caught up in the whole experience with her.  So I made sure to buy a copy of her 2013 CD Glamúr Í Geimnum (“Glam Space” according to Google Translate) the next day.

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The one challenge with the album is that it’s all sung in Icelandic… so without Harðardóttir walking you through the story in English, it doesn’t have quite the same impact.  But here’s the thing.  It’s still interesting as hell.  Musically it’s quirky – there are definitely elements of J-POP and Persian sounds throughout the album, much of it spacey and sort of psychedelic.  There are 70s horror movie sounds mixed with 60s space movie sounds.  Vocally she’s a trippy blend of Estonian singer Iiris and a young Björk, sometimes singing, sometimes talking.  Sometimes she sounds like an adult, other times like a child.  But there’s always a passion in her voice, and often a playfulness that makes it compelling.

Now, let’s be clear here just in case the above didn’t fully convey my impressions of Glamúr Í Geimnum – this is an unusual album.  And that’s a good thing, because the last thing any of us needs is another generic rock record.  And DJ Flugvél is not generic.  Did I mention the cats?  Because they’re on “Ráðabrugg Villikattanna.”  At 25 minutes it’s relatively brief, but that’s OK because Harðardóttir packs a lot onto the disc.  If I could recommend just one track for you to listen to it would be “Trommuþrællinn,” with its heavily modulated vocals and catchy cadence.

Thank god there are people out there like DJ Flugvél.  They make the world a more interesting place.

Ghostigital – “In Cod We Trust”

I haven’t been posting a lot over the last few months, and that’s been causing me a little angst.  I really enjoy Life in the Vinyl Lane and interacting with the people who read it, and I feel I haven’t been doing my part.  There’s actually a reason for this – I’ve been doing my writing somewhere else.  No, I haven’t been secretly writing music stuff for some other blog somewhere.  I’ve been wrapping up a book, which I’m pleased to say as of this weekend is more or less finished and ready to go to the publisher.  Alas, it’s not a music book… but maybe next time.  I’d still like to do something on Icelandic music someday… (publishers, feel free to contact me!)

Anyway… I was browsing Facebook this morning when I saw that one of my friends just picked up a vinyl copy of the first Ghostigital album, Einar Örn.  Or is it actually an Einar Örn album titled Ghostigital?  I’ve never been 100% sure, and Discogs doesn’t include it as part of the Ghostigital discography.  Regardless, it’s the same dudes, Einar and Curver, and includes a healthy does of Sensational, just like the subsequent Ghostigital releases… so whatever.  To me it’s all part of the same thing.

Seeing that post put me into the way back machine to the first time we ever saw Ghostigital, at Ia small club called Batteríið during Iceland Airwaves 2009.  Holly sort of had a clue who they were, but I don’t think any of us were quite ready for what happened. This was quite possibly the first time I’d ever had my mind completely blown by a musical performance.  I mean completely and totally.  Sure, I’d been pleasantly surprised by bands before.  But never had I experienced such an unexpected and incomprehensible musical assault on my brain.  I was like a pinball machine that had been jostled too much, with “TILT” flashing in my eyes. It was one of those deals where when it was over, you didn’t even know what to say.  I’d never seen or heard anything like it before.

Here’s a photo I took of that show.  Einar sounded alternately desperate (“It’s dark in here… it’s so dark… I can’t see anything…”) and aggressive, like a coiled spring.  I felt like he might dive into the crowd at any moment.

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Now, I’m not going to lie to you.  I didn’t come out of that show a convert (though “Good morning… good morning to you…” did become our catchphrase for the rest of the trip!).  That didn’t start to happen until a few months later when I decided to give In Cod We Trust (2006) a shot.  Holly had picked up the CD on the trip, and after the first play I still wasn’t sold.  Then I played it again.  And everything changed.

In Cod We Trust is a album that requires multiple listens to digest.  It’s not easy.  There’s a lot going on here.  It’s kind of electronic, kind of industrial, more than a little hip hop, but, you know, with trumpets.  It features a song about the Cod Wars between Iceland and the UK, which I hadn’t realized were an actual thing until I looked them up.

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Where do you start with an album like this?  Well, at the beginning.  The first track, “Good Morning,” is the best song on the disc, and probably one of my top three all-time Ghostigital tunes (right up there with “Don’t Push Me” off of Division of Culture & Tourism).  Killer, slow, heavy beat, catchy vocals, and the hip hop stylings of Sensational giving a completely different vibe than Einar’s singing.  Sensational makes another appearance on “Northern Lights” – he’s been on every Ghostigital album, and I’m always drawn to the songs he performs on.  But he’s not the only guest vocalist here.  In fact pretty much every song has at least one guest singer, perhaps most notably Mark E. Smith of The Fall appearing on “Not Clean,” the song that has the chorus “In cod we trust…” that gives the album its name.

There is a certain amount of humor in Ghosigital’s lyrics.  I mean, this is the same group that recently gave us a trippy electro version of “Green Eggs and Ham” on their 2013 album The Antimatter Boutique.  And a song about a pair of pants on the floor (“Trousers”).  And hover skates (“Hovering Hoover Skates”).  And, you know, cod.  But while some Ghostigital lyrics will make me crack a smile, this isn’t comedy.  It’s more like cracking into someone’s skull and reaching down into the deepest depths of the unconscious.  The place where your fears dwell.  The emotional sea where confusion and fear and anger dwell.  Curver takes that roiling mess and turns it into sound.  And Einar spits it all out into the microphone, a stream of consciousness, a complete and total exposing of the most primal parts of the mind.  To watch him perform is to see a man possessed, eyes wide, moving around spasmodically, looking right through you like you aren’t even there.

Ghostigital isn’t for everyone.  And I don’t mean that in a “if you don’t get this you’re an idiot” way.  It’s disjointed.  It’s powerful.  It breaks you down.  But if you give it a shot a few times, you may start to make sense of it, to feel it.  Then again, you may not.  But personally I think it’s worth the effort.

Dead Skeletons – “Dead Mantra” 10″

Dead Skeletons is an intriguing band to me, both due to its sound and the intersection between musical and physical art.  We visited artist and Dead Skeletons member Jón Sæmundur Auðarson’s DEAD Gallery in Reykjavik last year and were captivated by his art – and not just his screen-printed 12″ and 7″ records.  While there we picked up the two-song 12″ Dead Comet, a one-sided record that features a screened image on the B side.  Since then I’ve kept my eyes open for other Dead Skeletons records, so I was interested when I came across this 10″ single for “Dead Mantra” on eBay.  I won’t lie – the price was a bit high, but after a couple of glasses of wine it wasn’t too hard to convince myself to click the “Buy It Now” button.

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Like the Dead Comet 12″, this record is also one-sided, though in this case with an engraved B side.  I have a few other records with engraved/etched B sides as well, most notably Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Smoking Acid and Devo’s Now It Can Be Told, but in those cases the etching feels more like an after thought, like they didn’t have enough music to fill up the other side, while on Dead Skeletons record it seems very intentional.  To me the Dead Skeletons experience moves beyond just the music, and it includes the physical details that Auðarson incorporates onto the record and jacket as well.

Musically “Dead Mantra” is as advertised – it’s very much a mantra.  It has a droning quality, especially to the vocals, which are deep and have a very pronounced cadence.  The music has a repetitive rawness about it that fits in with the overall vibe.  It’s powerful, it’s driving, it’s coming at you like an unending desert caravan.  Even when the vocals switch from male to female, the effect remains the same.  According to the interwebs the vocal mantra translates to “He who fears death cannot enjoy life,” which I certainly can agree with.

It’s powerful music that comes from a very elemental place.  Probably not for “casual” listening, but if you’re in the right zone it packs a punch.