Við erum HAM! (♠)
So far 2017 has been a banner year for new releases by bands I really like – Fufanu, Singapore Sling, Depeche Mode, Vök, and DIMMA all put out new albums, and none of them disappointed. But maybe only a couple of times a year does one of your true favorites give you a new record. You know the ones. The bands that are go-tos on your iPod, the ones you can jam to over and over and over again and recommend to people even though you know they’ll never even make the effort to listen to them. I’m looking forward to at least two such treats in the second half of the year, with both Legend and Gusgus announcing forthcoming material. But before I get my hands and ears on those I just got a CD copy of the brand-spanking-new release by one of my all-time heavy metal loves. I speak, of course, of HAM.
We are HAM!
How do I feel about HAM? Well, I’ve covered their entire discography on Life in the Vinyl Lane, and I mean that quite literally. I own all their albums and singles and comps, and I’ve seen them live four times. I have a DVD documentary about them and even bought (and watched) the 1992 movie Sódóma Reykjavík (♣) because of it’s association with HAM. I am HAM.
I’m always a bit leery of Google Translate. It will generally get you in the right area, at least with respect to providing a literal translation; but often the nuances and true meaning are lost, especially when you’re talking about a language like Icelandic. That being said, Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna is something along the lines of Songs About The Hell of Man, fitting HAM’s typical modus operandi when it comes to album and song titles that tend to skew towards darkness with just a hint of intentional absurdity. Song titles encompass topics such as fire and lying and murder and shadows and West Berlin. This is music about the darker side of life.
While Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna is HAM’s first output in six years, it’s not as if the band just recently wrote a bunch of new material. Three of the new album’s ten songs were part of the band’s live set at KEX Hostel in November 2014 – “Brekka”, “Þú lýgur”, and “Morðingjar”. I expected their only B side, “Tveir Dalir”, to make an appearance as well, but it didn’t, meaning the vinyl 7″ is still the only place to find that song on a physical release. True to form HAM keeps their tracks tight, especially for a metal band – only one runs over four minutes, and that one (“Þú Lýgur”) is still under five. There’s no self-indulgence here. HAM just get in, punch you in the face and body a bunch of times, and get out.
Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna opens with “Eldur” and a pretty straight forward guitar riff, at least it seems straight forward until Óttarr Proppé’s vocals kick in; I’m pretty sure he’s screaming at me from the depths of Hell and telling me to get off his lawn or something, because he sounds pissed. That’s followed by “Þú Lýgur”, which gets us back to the sheer sonic relentlessness that has defined HAM’s sound on and off since their earliest days, characterized by driving music and the contrast of Sigurjón Kjartansson’s low gothic vocals and the high-pitched rasp of Óttarr Proppé (♥). Songs like “Gamli Maðurinn Og Asninn” and “Þú Fórst Hvurt” harken back to the band’s less doomy Buffalo Virgin / Dauður Hestur material, but do so in a way that feels less like HAM searching for a more mainstream sound and more like a more mature band simply doing what they feel like doing. HAM save the best for last, though, closing out with “Brekka”, a near-perfect idealized version of their sound.
There’s an interesting story about the initial distribution of Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna. As it was related to me, a small quantity of CDs were shipped to Reykjavik in advance of the actual release date so that the band would have them available to sell when they opened for Rammstein in May. However, these CDs had the title of the album misspelled – “Mannanna” was spelled “Mannana”, and as a result the covers had to be scrapped and reprinted. However… the copies with the incorrectly spelled cover shipped in for the show were sold, creating a variation. It remains to be seen how the collector market will value this rarer version, and while I’m sure there are some who will be pissed at me for sharing this info, I’m all about getting information to people. So if you find one of the copies with the “Mannana” cover priced like the regular CD, I’d snap it up. As far as I know, there were no vinyl versions with the misspelled covers that made it into the wild.
I feel like HAM is a bit of an acquired taste. Quite a few of my Icelando-musicphile friends freely admit to never having listened to them or not finding them particularly notable. But then again, I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to a Sigur Rós album from start to finish, so who the hell am I to judge? But if you like metal, you should definitely at the very least give Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna a listen. It’ll definitely be in heavy rotation on my iPod.
(♠) We are HAM!
(♣) Sódóma Reykjavík is widely considered the best comedy to ever come out of Iceland. That being said, it’s also full of lots of local references and jokes that get lost on non-Icelanders… so let’s just say that through American eyes it was pretty weird.
(♥) It bears mentioning that Óttarr Proppé is a member of Iceland’s national parliament, being elected either in spite of or in part because of his involvement with HAM and Dr. Spock, the former having put out a song named “Dauð Hóra” (“Dead Whore”) and the latter one called “SuckmycockSpockyoufuck”.