We were still fighting off colds, so that forced us into a more chill mindset going into the last day of Airwaves. I made a trip down to Lucky Records around lunchtime to grab all the stuff they were holding for me and spent an hour or so back at hour place removing price stickers and getting all my purchases boxed and arranged for the trip home the following day. Man, this is a lot of stuff! But more on that in the next post.
We were back at Lucky later in the afternoon to see hip hop artist Cell7. This was our third time seeing her, and by far the best. She gave off a relaxed vibe and had some fun with the crowd, who had fun in return. If you haven’t checked out her 2019 releaseIs Anybody Listening? you need to track it down and give it a go. Her soul-infused style is exactly what we needed on a cold afternoon. In talking about the show later my buddy Ingvar, who has seen her perform way more times than me, he also noted it was the best he’d heard her.
There were some last-minute additions announced to the schedule at the Iceland Airwaves Center and one looked intriguing. PPBB describe themselves as “electro-funk”, and their debut track was titled “Shitballs”. Seemingly in contrast, however, their full name is the Post Performance Blues Band. So what to expect? Who knows, so I’m in!
And… I certainly didn’t expect this. It’s hard to explain the PPBB set. It was a blend of electro beats and performance art and avant garde and lyrics about the sensation of drinking and screaming about loving sorbet and a gold lame outfit and a member zipping herself up in a black bodysuit which included a full face mask then crawling on the floor through the crowd… So in other words, epic. I have no idea how the music comes across without the performance, but they have a few tracks on Spotify and you can be damn sure I will be checking them out.
After a quite home-cooked dinner in our rental apartment, we mustered enough energy for one more foray, walking down to Sirkus to see our friends from Revenge of Calculon play an off-off-venue set. Strolling into the joint it was looking very, very dead, with the band and their friend DJ Sue comprising about half the people in the room. But a few more folks made it down by showtime, including a pair of very well-dressed and very drunk 60+ year old local ladies who seemed to take a particular shine to bassist JC9000, and the guys played as if it was a packed house.
After a delicious breakfast of ham and cheese on some amazing rolls from Brauð & Co it was time to hit the mean streets of Reykjavik to do my part in contributing to the local economy by buying as much music as possible. I spent a good 90 minutes flipping through Icelandic titles at Lucky Records, coming away with a substantial stack to be put aside so I can true-up with them at the end of the festival. From there I popped over to Reykjavik Record Shop, where my man Reynir was holding an Icelandic pressing of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy for me, and I also grabbed some electronic weirdness by Pang, the vinyl version of Egill S’ Tonk of the Lawn, and a late 70s rocker by H.L.H. Flokkurinn that I bought exclusively for the motorcycle greaser cover.
My last stop of the afternoon was Pan Thorarensen’s label/store/venue Space Odyssey. Pan is best known for his electronic work as Stereo Hypnosis and as part of Beatmakin Troopa. With Space Odyssey he gives his fellow travellers in the realm of electro-weirdness a place to perform, and also records their live in-stores for super limited edition cassette releases. I picked up the first six in the series last year and since then he’s added another 20 or so titles. I grabbed another seven on this visit, as well as three new 7” lathe cut records and three Stereo Hypnosis CDs. Any time I can support the small label and independent artist, I’m in!
Our first show of the night was the dub reggae set of Omnipus over at Lucky Records. I have a copy of their new record in my stack of stuff to buy over there and I’m looking forward to giving it a listen when we get back home. Per one of the band members they only pressed 200 copies of this, so get it while you can.
Next up was the mighty Revenge of Calculon, the luchadors of electro-sleeze-funk, and I came prepared with my luchador mask and my custom lucha libre track jacket courtesy of Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane (see below, with me to the left giving Ingvar a fist bump while the band plays).
I also made my filmmaking debut, as lead luchador Rob asked me to shoot random footage of the show using his fisheye lens GoPro for use in a future music video. I’m confident there will be a Grammy in my future for this! As for the show, it was off the hook as one would expect.
After enjoying a well-earned pizza we headed out into the night, catching russian.girls over at Hurra. The last time we saw a russian.girls performance it was a solo gig at the Mengi art space, restrained and experimental. This time around it was a three-piece with more beats than you can shake a drum machine at. A top-notch show in front of a packed crowd.
The next two artists we saw shall, well, remain nameless. At a festival like Airwaves you often find yourself going into shows blind, and more often than not you see something cool. This time… not so much. So I’m not going to talk crap about performances I didn’t enjoy, because these folks clearly have talent (the were selected to play) and just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad.
We had a few bands we wanted to see late in the evening, but unfortunately both of us have been hobbled by colds and we simply ran out of steam around 11PM and called it an early night, returning to our apartment to eat the last of the pizza and hang out for a bit. We gotta be rested up for the festival’s final day tomorrow!
Has it really been three years since our last trip to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves? COVID turned everything into a blur, the last 2.5 years seeming both impossibly long and short at the same time, the weeks, then the seasons, then the years moving along like a smear across the table of life. After returning home from Airwaves in November 2019 I didn’t step on an airplane again for over two years, which is certainly the longest flying drought I’ve had as an adult. So stepping aboard the Icelandair flight from Seattle to Reykjavik the other day was a little strange, but also incredibly comforting, as if a little bit of my life was coming back to me. As an added bonus we get a beautiful display of the northern lights as we passed over Canada, setting the mood and getting us into the right frame of mind.
After checking into our apartment we hit the streets, grabbing coffee and pastries at Reykjavik Roasters as we watched the light of day begin to touch the highest parts of the city, the sun sneaking its way up over the horizon. It was as if we’d never been gone. I was thinking about this the other day – excluding cities I’ve actually lived in, I’m confident I’ve spent more nights in Reykjavik than any other city in the world except Los Angeles, and that’s only because I used to travel to LA so much for business (one year I made 24 separate trips from Seattle to LA).
We caught up with our friend Rob of Revenge of Calculon fame and grabbed lunch, along with a handful of the band’s new 7” Battle-Atomic Disco-Wow! / L.S.P., then opened our festival at my favorite record store in the world, Lucky Records. There we caught up with our friends Oscar and Sarah and were treated to a bump-bump-bumping techno set by Andartak. So good! While there we got the hot tip that our friend and KEXP DJ Kevin Colewas spinning at set over at Smekkleysa, aka Bad Taste Records, serving at the opening for a surprise, intimate show by Apparat Organ Quartet in celebration of their 20-year-old self-titled debut receiving its first ever vinyl release.
We hustled across town to secure our spots. The show was set up in a relatively small room, and as we got closer to AOQ’s set it became clear that this was going to be another of those classic Airwaves Deathtrap™ scenarios – a tiny room packed to the gills, people filling both stairwells completely to the point where the one door that led outside could barely be opened due to the crush. But we’ve seen this movie before and the crowd was well behaved… and besides, we probably couldn’t have gotten out of there without actually climbing onto the table where all the keyboards were set up and using it as a platform from which to leap and grab the landing railing to climb our way to freedom. Which seemed a bit excessive, so I grabbed a can of beer from the table and rode with it. Regardless, the show was a blast.
Originally we planned on hitting our favorite pizza joint for dinner, but the AOQ show threw a wrench into our plans so we grabbed a street hot dog and high-tailed it over to Gaukurinn for a couple of shows. The opener was the Icelandic band Sameheads (below), who brought a youthful energy to a strong set of post-punk indie-rockers. Man I have missed seeing and hearing live shows in small venues! These guys were a lot of fun. Next up was the man we’d specifically come to Gaukurinn tonight to see, Janus Rasmussen. Probably best known for his work with Bloodgroup and, more recently, the ambient house duo Kiasmos, I was excited to see what the Faroe Islander had in store for us.
I knew we wanted to get to the Art Museum in time to see Amyl and the Sniffers, so I fully planned on leaving Janus’ set a little early. That is until it started. And I saw God.
For 40 minutes Janus, accompanied by a violin player, poured warm beats upon the crowd. Synaptic connections in my brain that had shrivelled away from disuse during the COVID malaise sparked with interest. The crowd moved. Heads and bodies bobbed as Janus held us in the palm of his hand like a caring and knowing father, leading us out of the darkness and into the light. I felt a connection to the entire crowd, our experience at the same time anonymous and shared, and gave up on any thoughts of leaving early. I’d stay in this room forever. Call my work, tell them I quit, and have my last paycheck sent to Gaukurinn. I’ll still be here dancing with my people.
Despite the near-religious experience of Janus’ show, there was no time to stop and reflect. We had more shows to catch! We popped across the street and were surprised to see no line at the Art Museum, so in we went. We caught the last half of Júníus Meyvant’s set and moved forward into the spaces left behind by his fans during the set change. Amyl did not disappoint, the Aussie punks blowing up the joint with their fast-paced blend of punk and garage rock. Amy Taylor dominated the stage, prancing, stomping, and strutting as if challenging anyone, and I do mean anyone, to try to come up there and just try to take that mic from her. No one dared take her up on it.
We had potential plans to see a few more bands to close out the evening, but with only two hours of sleep over the last 30+ hours, we decided to call it a night so we could be up-and-at-‘em for Day 2.
The other night I was sitting around lamenting about how little I’ve blogged in 2021. Considering how little we have traveled in the last 18 months (none) and how much time I’m spending not commuting any more (2.5 hours per day) you’d have thought COVID would have been very good for Life in the Vinyl Lane posts. But it wasn’t. C’est la vie.
However, while I was beating myself up for not maintaining my own blog I was also surfing Discogs. Having just received my copy of the tremendous crowd-funded photo book GusGus 25 Ára, I was poking around in the GusGus discography, which got me to thinking about how the band’s sound has changed over time and that it would be interesting to listen to their entire discography in chronological order and riff about it. I had all the studio albums other than their very first Icelandic release (more on that below), but decided to cast my net a bit wider as well, clicking the “Buy” button on some live DJ set releases as well as the pre-GusGus T-World single. Go big or go home.
To be clear, I don’t have any new insights about Gusgus. The band has been covered extensively, including a great in depth article in The Reykjavik Grapevinein 2020, which included contributions from the two remaining primary members, Daníel and Biggi. Between the book and the article I definitely learned a few things, some of which are included in the below. But really this isn’t a history of the band so much as a superfan doing what superfans do – nerding out.
THE PREQUEL T-World – “An – Them” 12″(1994) – Underwater Records
The collective that became GusGus originally came together to produce the short film (about 16 minutes) Nautn, which was released in 1995. To assist with the soundtrack they reached out to Birgir Þórarinsson, aka Biggi Veira, aka Biggi, who was at that time one half of the house duo T-World along with Maggi Legó (Magnús Guðmundsson). The duo put out a 12″ single the year before, two versions of the track “An – Them”, on UK label Underwater Records. It turned out to be their only release with Underwater, in large part because “the label staff had a cocaine problem.” Underwater’s loss was GusGus’ gain.
If there’s one aspect of An – Them that feels like early GusGus it’s the pairing of a house-style high end with a faster, more uptempo bass flowing underneath that gives the whole thing a mystical quality. The bongos are more reminiscent (to me) of the later work of Biggi’s GusGus electronics partner President Bongo, particularly the latter’s 2015 solo album Serengeti. The vocal samples at the conclusion of side A contribute to the overall tribal feel. The B side takes on a more spacey feel, the brisk pace of the high end and flatter percussion creating an almost post-modern version of the A side. It’s a bit more sterile, almost as if side A came from out in nature while side B originated in a hermetically sealed laboratory.
An original pressing of An – Them is only going to set you back $10 or so, as will the 2005 Underwater re-release. The copies available for sale on Discogs at the time of this writing are priced quite a bit higher, but the sales history is such that if you bide your time you’ll likely be able to snag this gem for a nice price.
THE DEBUT(S) Gus Gus (1995) – Kjól & Anderson Polydistortion (1997) – 4AD
First things first. I’d read in multiple places that Polydistortion was a re-release of the band’s original Iceland-only album from two years prior.
This is, quite simply, not the case.
Sure, if you look at the back of the CDs you could easily think to yourself, “well, these 10 songs on Polydistortion have identical or very similar titles to 10 of the 12 tracks on Gus Gus, so they must be the same songs” (“Message From Disney” and “Chocolate” being the two missing tracks, while an unlisted track alternately referred to as “Polybackwards” or “Polyreprise” appears on Polydistortion… it’s all very confusing). And while this is in fact true for a few songs, for others the Polydistorition version is totally different than the original. Given the scarcity and cost of Gus Gus (a copy will likely set you back $70+) it’s easy to see why these differences are mostly unknown outside of Iceland.
The reason, as it turns out, was a fairly simple one – sampling. The band had been a bit, shall we say, looser in their sampling on the Gus Gus CD, one that was almost exclusively sold and bought in Iceland, so far away from the armies of lawyers in Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s that it may as well have been a different planet. Gusgus’ new home 4AD, however, was a known and respected UK label, so samples either had to be cleared or cut. And allegedly all but two were dropped, the cowbell loop on “Believe” being one of the exceptions and a snipit of sound that cost the band 70% of what it made from the track.
The differences hit you right out of the gate. Polydistortion opens with the 1:17 instrumental “Oh (Edit)”, a quiet sonic introduction to the album. However, the same track on Gus Gus runs for four minutes, much of which has low, spoken vocals, and serving more as an intermission that an introduction.
While a detailed Gus Gus vs. Polydistortion might be interesting to some, I don’t have the patience for it. So instead I instead sat down and listened to the two albums back-to-back. The difference to my ears is the pure funkiness of Gus Gus, its sexy, deep beats giving it more of a soul feel. The two versions of “Polyester Day” / “Polyesterday” showcase this perfectly, the original’s porno-esque vibe making me want to turn down off the lights, light some candles, and try some smooth moves, while the later version is more dance-floor-ready. Both are solid jams, but I’ll take the richness of the original. And don’t even get me started on the funky-sexy “Chocolate”, the one track missing from Polydistortion (though 4AD did release it as a 12″ in 1996). It’s omission from Polydistortion is criminal.
I’ve been a fan of Polydistorition for a long time, but I feel like Gus Gus is the better album. Plus it comes in a logoed velour pouch, which is rad. Do I prefer it because of some kind of “the original/early work is always better”, or “this one is rarer” mindset? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so.
INTERMISSION #1–LIVE STUFF On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 cassette
As part of my deep dive I picked up a handful of live GusGus recordings, figuring they might give some insight into how the band evolved over time, transitional musical fossils captured on magnetic tape instead of sticky amber.
The first of these is a cassette-only release on 4AD featuring a live in-studio set GusGus performed on Santa Monica’s KCRW in 1997. It contains versions of “Polyesterday” and “Believe” from Polydistorition, plus the previously unreleased “Blue Mug”, which later came out on (This Is Normal two years later. There are also two interview segments with band members.
The quality of the recording is excellent. The lowest of the lows might just have a touch of distortion, but I don’t know if that’s an artifact of the cassette or the sounds actually coming from the electronics. The extended (9:20) version of “Polyesterday” is quite rich with a deep low end, more reminiscent of the Gus Gus recording than that of Polydistortion. “Blue Mug” balances spectral female vocals with super trippy and spacey electronics, and we close out with a marathon (10:00) version of the hit “Believe”. The interviews are a little awkward at times, but we do get to hear Daníel do some voices that he had been performing as part of some cartoon voice-overs, which is funny.
It looks like there are two versions of this tape, one from 4AD and one from Warner Bros. The Warner version lists the interview segments on the tracklist whereas 4AD doesn’t, but based on total run timed I feel confident these contain identical material. On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 probably only appeals to completists, but if you’re a fan of GusGus’ early material it’s a great way to get some live versions of classic tracks.
EARLY GREATNESS (This Is Normal (1999) – 4AD
One thing that will date you when talking about music is referring to “sides”, whether it be the B-side of a single or an album side. The rise of the CD almost totally killed the concept of a side of music, and the digital era put it into a coma from which it was never expected to emerge. Fortunately for some of us fogies the vinyl renaissance occurred and resurrected the concept of the album side. And I for one am grateful, because it allows me to make hyperbolic statements again. Statements like, “the A side of (This Is Normal is one of the greatest sides of music ever recorded”.
(This Is Normal got a vinyl pressing when it came out in 1999, which is perhaps a little surprising. Even more so that 4AD incurred the expense of putting it out as a double album with four sides of music. Normally an album side would have four or five tracks, but in this case the A-side of (This Is Normal only has three – “Ladyshave”, “Teenage Sensation”, and “Starlovers”. Three flawless pop songs, all the more impressive by the fact that vocal duties were split between Daníel (“Ladyshave” and “Starlovers”) and the ethereal Hafdís Huld (“Teenage Sensation”). And if we really want to get down to it, had the album’s fourth track “Superhuman” (also sung by Huld) made it onto a side with the other three, I’d probably christen it as THE best album side. Ever.
There aren’t a lot of groups fronted by vocalists of Daníel’s talent that would only have him sing on five songs, providing space for Huld (three songs) and Magnús Jónsson (two songs) to shine in their own rights. (♠︎) Jónsson’s high-pitched voice gives his tracks a disco-like quality that sets them a bit apart, but the cohesiveness of the beats and music still ground them within the framework of (This Is Normal. The overall feel is downtempo, the rich low end propelling it forward in pulsating bursts, the vocals wrapping around the music to add sensuality and warmth. It’s definitely my favorite album in the first half of the Gusgus catalog.
THE DANIÉL-LESS YEARS GusGus vs. T-World (2000) – 4AD Attention(2002) – Underwater Records Forever (2007) – Pineapple Records
So how do you follow up an album that included three brilliant vocalists? If you’re GusGus you put out a deep house groover with… no vocals.
There is a subset of GusGus fans who adore GusGus vs. T-World, and there’s a lot to love – this is a dance floor banger if there ever was one. While I suspect for many if not most Gusgus fans this album is more of a curiosity, at least one of my friends puts it in his personal list of the Top 3 Gusgus albums. Regardless, it’s a great curio in the catalog – just push “play” and walk away, because you’ll be happy to let all 50+ minutes bump.
Attention saw GusGus return to form and introduced a new vocalist, Urður Hákonardóttir aka Earth. Right from the opening track “Unnecessary” it’s clear that GusGus is back. The music pops and Earth’s vocals take on an instrumental quality of their own when she repeats “unnecessary”, something she does again on the title track with “Attention”. Earth certainly wasn’t the first woman to sing for GusGus, but she was the first that, to my ears at least, defined the sound of one of their albums.
Daniél may not have technically been part of GusGus any longer, but that didn’t stop one of his tracks from appearing on Attention. “Desire” is one of the album’s best numbers, though one more reminiscent of the (This Is Normal material.
Forever is all about Earth. It feels like the sonic landscape created by Biggi and Bongo was painted specifically with her in mind, and she moves through it effortlessly. She makes her first appearance on the second track, “You’ll Never Change,” and it’s one of the album’s high points, electro R&B that merges funk and disco and house. Earth is free from rhythmic shackles and able to sing as she pleases, sometimes following the music and other times wandering down her own path.
Forever also features some guest vocalists. Iceland’s mega-pop-star Páll Óskar joins Earth on the next two tracks, as does American house musician Aaron-Carl Ragland on “Hold You”. “Hold You” offers vocal complexity, the voices weaving in and out with Ragland’s low register soothing while Earth ranges far afield, sometimes up front and powerful, other times fading into a background supporting role. Daniél also returns for a single track, “Moss”
I always forget that one of my favorite Gusgus songs is on this album, and it’s because of the title. “If You Don’t Jump (You’re English)” does indeed include the title in the vocals, but just barely. Instead the song is defined by the repeated “I wanna be a freak” sung by President Bongo. It’s a sampler’s dream. So good.
If I’m being honest, these three are probably my least-played GusGus albums. There was a two or three year period when I played them a lot, but once Arabian Horse came out in 2011 I became obsessive about Gusgus’ new sound. I
INTERMISSION #2 – MORE LIVE STUFF Mix @ Respect (1999) – Labels Mixed Live: Sirkus, Reykjavik, Iceland (2003) – Moonshine Music
These two releases sit outside of the GusGus cannon, live performances that don’t focus on Gusgus songs per se. They’re also both pretty obscure. However, they are obtainable – I acquired them both on Discogs in the last 60 days for a combined €13 plus shipping. So if you’re interested, they’re out there to be had.
Mix @ Respect was recorded live in 1999 at Queen, a dance club in Paris. The set is deep house, lacking vocals other than some sampling The sound quality overall is quite good, but there are a few places where the bass blows out and becomes distorted. There are some passages incorporating Gusgus’ music, but most of it isn’t recognizable as Gusgus per se. Still, an enjoyable listen and one that will certainly continue to get some play at my house.
Sirkus was still around during our first trip to Iceland back in 2005, but by time we got back to Reykjavik for our first Airwaves in 2009 it was gone, so we never caught a show there. Unlike Mix @ Respect, the Sirkus set draws heavily on non-Gusgus tracks, but appears to also add some live vocals. Whereas Mix feels like being at a club, Sirkus is more like being at a party.
I know precisely when my GusGus fandom began – late in the evening of Sunday, October 18, 2009. That’s when Daniél, Biggi, and Bongo stepped onto the stage at Reykjavik’s NASA for their Iceland-Airwaves-closing set. Their newest album 24/7 was barely a month old at that point, and while Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane had bought a copy on the trip, I don’t think we’d listened to it yet. What I remember most about the set is the powerful, pulsating low end and the green lasers. I suspect that GusGus performed the entire album, but I can’t be sure.
This album clicked for me a month or two after our return from Iceland. I had it on my iPod and decided to play it during a cold, dark morning dog walk. Right from the opening notes of “Thin Ice” bouncing back and forth in my earbuds I was hooked. 24/7 is made for listening to on headphones, or if not then with the volume cranked up, otherwise you’re sure to miss many of the subtle touches as the bass and Daniél’s voice overwhelm you.
According to the previously mentioned Grapevine article and GusGus 25 Ára, the recording of 24/7 was pretty unique – the trio rented a hall and performed the entire thing all the way through four times, then edited the ablum using those four recordings. This does make some sense, though, because 24/7 in many ways feels like one continuous track, the songs like chapters in a book.
The low end carries 24/7, its richness, density, and clarity pulsating like a heartbeat. The vocals too are low and sensual, though from time to time breaking out to soar. The backing choruses are pushed off into the background like a dream intruding on your waking hours. It’s very easy to hear Daniél’s voice as an instrument blending into the electronics, almost perceiving the tracks as instrumentals. At least it is for me, though to be fair that’s often how I hear vocals. I recall sharing this album with my friend Tristen and asking him what he thought of it. “Why is this guy so angry?” he asked. I was confused, but shouldn’t have been. After all, the second song is entitled “Hateful” and begins with the lyrics, I’m feeling hateful / Because you pissed me off / I want to hurt you / I want to make you suffer. I have to admit, Tirsten had a point. I just hadn’t noticed, caught up in the beauty of the sounds.
It’s hard to pick a favorite track on 24/7. “Add This Song” seems to be the choice for most people I’ve talked to, and there have been times it was mine as well. But I’ve also had periods where I played “Thin Ice” or “Hateful” or “On the Job” over and over and over again. “Add This Song” and “Thin Ice” both got the 12″ remix treatment, so that’s probably a bit indicative of overall popularity (both 12″ records are enjoyable, but I prefer the originals to any of the remixes). The fact of the matter is there isn’t a bad, or even marginal, song on 24/7.
GusGus is a rarity, a band that continuously evolves. 24/7 was a massive departure from Forever and everything else that came before it. While one could certainly argue its deep house direction laid the groundwork for the two albums that followed, to my ears 24/7 stands alone in the GusGus catalog, a black monolith of bass and style. I don’t think it’s their best album, nor is it my favorite. But it is the most powerful.
Earth returned to the Gusgus lineup, and if that wasn’t exciting enough the group added a new member – Högni Egilsson. Högni was best known as a guitarist and singer for the ensemble Hjaltalín (⨁), the haunting quality his beautiful and seemingly deep voice (he’s probably actually a tenor) making him a perfect partner for Daniél. The trio of vocalists complemented one another so well that they could bring tears to your eyes.
Which brings us to 2011’s Arabian Horse, as close to a perfect album as exists IMO, and one that I put in my personal “All Time Top 5 Desert Island Albums” cannon. It’s not even so much that I love every single song on the record as that when taken as a whole everything just fits together.
While it’s true that I have a ton of vinyl (over 3,000 records and counting), often I end up listening to things on Spotify because, well, it’s just easier. But for this listening session I went to the Icelandic section of my shelves (yes, the Icelandic artists have their own section…) and pulled out the record. And while I’m not a “vinyl is so much better” guy, I have to say this pressing sounds fantastic, bringing a richness and warmth that I don’t quite get from digital. It also feels like the mix brings some of the subtleties closer to the forefront, such as Daniél’s opening vocals in “Be With Me Now”.
Where to start with Arabian Horse? I’m tempted to reach deep into my bag of hyperbole and spout off all kinds of pithy platitudes, but it seems kind of pointless – it’s hard to put my perception of this album into words. The sonic palette is dense with incredible richness in the low end – the bass doesn’t so much pump out of the speakers than it pulses, taken to the absolute limits of clarity. And maybe that’s the one word I’m looking for here – “clarity”. Every sound, every tiny nuance, just feels right, as if even the smallest change would disrupt a track’s balance.
That feeling extends to the vocals as well. Högni makes his first appearance on the album’s third track, and when he sings the words deep inside / deep inside, holding onto each word, stretching it, loving it, well, if you don’t feel something, you might already be dead. And what can you say about Daniél and Earth’s interactions on “Over”? It’s as if they were born to sing together.
Four tracks got formal remixes, though only “Over” made it to a vinyl release. I have listened to these, but I have to confess that unlike the enjoyable 24/7 remixes, these leave me a bit underwhelmed. The Arabian Horse songs are more complex than their predecessors, which makes them lose too much of their original character when re-done.
In 2013 Biggi produced John Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, and you can hear elements of that album in Arabian Horse – the ways Biggi doubles and echos vocals, the richness of the beats, the intentionality and the density. In many ways that John Grant album is the part of the evolution that started with 24/7 and reached its apex on our next entry, 2014’s Mexico.
Somehow I managed to never acquire a physical copy of Mexico. We purchased it digitally the day it came out, but for whatever reason I never grabbed a copy on CD or vinyl, an oversight I rectified this on the same day I wrote this paragraph, ordering the 2xLP on Discogs.
Gusgus continue with three vocalists on Mexico, though both Högni and Earth take appear on fewer songs. However, when they do make their presences felt, it’s with great effect. The opening track “Obnoxiously Sexual”, featuring Högni’s vocals, is one of the best on the album, and Earth is brilliant on the second song, “Another Life”. From there Mexico takes a sensual turn as Daniél’s voice simmers on the surface of Biggi’s rich and pulsing beats. The trio of “Sustain”, “Crossfade”, and “Airwaves” is unassailable.
Mexico ranks alongside 24/7 as the most stylistically consistent albums in the Gusgus catalog. It’s not quite like listening to one long track, but there is a sonic flow and no unexpected changes in direction, making it an ideal listen when you’re in a certain kind of mood. It’s like a warm blanket or a soothing voice, the sonic density swaddling you in its embrace.
In a completely and utterly non-scientific survey of four of my fellow Iceland Airwaves and Gusgus devotees, I asked each for their three favorite Gusgus albums. Everyone, myself included, had Arabian Horse on their list, and everyone other than me also chose Mexico (my other choices were 24/7 and (This Is Normal ). And I have to confess that after listening to Mexico again, I’m starting to second guess my own list because it’s so damn great. So at least among me and my friends, this period represents peak Gusgus.
So what do you do after creating a pair of brilliant albums with a three vocalist lineup? You strip it all back down to its roots, of course (and, you know, have the incomparable John Grant join as a backing vocalist on one track). Tear it down to build it up again as something new. And so for Lies Are More Flexible we find ourselves back to just a two-person core of Biggi and Daniél.
Lies feels like two separate albums. All four A side tracks feature Daniél’s vocals, but the entire B side is instrumental outside of some very minor non-singing vocalizations. This makes it a bit challenging to grab onto as an “album” – it’s almost like two EPs brought together. Two excellent EPs, to be sure, but it still draws a bold line separating the two sides. “Featherlight” can hold its own against any other song in the Gusgus catalog, while the title track and “Fuel” are among the group’s best instrumental numbers.
Biggi and Daniél kept us waiting another three years before putting out the 11th Gusgus album earlier this year, but it was well worth the wait. I tried my best to not listen to the singles released before the album came out, wanting to experience the album as a unified whole, but once I learned that the guys had teamed up with Vök’s Margrét Rán, well, then I had to listen to the singles.
We first became familiar with Margrét and Vök at a show they did at Reykjavik’s Faktorý back in April 2013. The group had won Iceland’s national “Battle of the Bands” and they were the opening act for an anti-bullying charity show featuring Prins Póló and FM Belfast. Margrét was so shy on stage, but her voice had tremendous depth. Over the years we’ve picked up all the Vök releases and seen them live multiple times, and she’s become a more powerful singer and performer with each show. Her voice is perfect for Gusgus.
To my ears Mobile Home is all about the vocals. That’s not to imply that the music isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s that the music serves the vocals, and not the other way around. During the non-singing interludes Biggi explores and expands the space, but when Daniél and Margrét step forward, Biggi pulls back and provides a more subtle sonic platform to allow their voices to come forward and shine. The more I listen to Mobile Home, the more I find myself falling in love with it. Who knows, it may end up in my my personal Gusgus Top 3 soon enough.
So that’s all there is, kids. Despite having written almost 4,500 words, this post feels inadequately short. My hope is that you come away interested in checking out a Gusgus album you’ve never heard before. If you do, drop me a note and let me know.!
(♠︎) OK, so until I sat down to write this blog I did not realize that Magnús Jónsson, who sings on Polydistortion and (This Is Normal is also Blake of BB&Blake fame, and I’m completely blown away by this information. They were one of our favorite acts from our first Iceland Airwaves back in 2009, and I’d simply never put this together previously. It’s kind of blowing my mind.
(⨁ ) I feel like if your group has a full-time bassoon player, you automatically become an ensemble.
It’s hard to believe that Life in the Vinyl Lane will have its ninth birthday in September. Despite a few close calls that almost caused it to shut down with a total loss of all content, content that I never bothered to back up because I figured there was no chance of me sticking with blogging for more than a few months, it’s still hanging in there.
Of course, one could argue that with only two posts in 2021, and a meagre eight posts over the last eight months, that LITVL is on life support. Which is fair. Honestly, with the COVID debacle I figured I’d increase my output, but for a variety of reasons that didn’t happen. In an odd way I feel both guilty and disappointed about this. The guilt part is, frankly, pretty stupid. One shouldn’t feel bad about not pursuing a hobby when you simply don’t feel like doing it. The disappointment is more due to the fact that now I don’t have an easy reference source to remind myself what I thought of a given release. For most of the LITVL run I’d guess 98% of all the records that came into our house made an appearance on the blog. So if I pull something from the shelf that I don’t remember, I can easily look it up and get my impressions from months or years prior, which is both handy and pretty cool. And trust me, the paucity of posts this year isn’t because I haven’t been buying and listening to music – a ton of stuff was added to the shelves this year, and since we’re both working from home we’re streaming constantly throughout the day. But whereas in the past I’d have a way to differentiate all the cassettes I picked up from the new Negativ Notion label, today I can’t. Which one was the ambient one? The more industrial one? The one the dog really, really hated? I can’t remember, and I don’t have the blog to help me out.
So what got me out of semi-retirement for this post? Well, I use Discogs to inventory most of my stuff and I have the releases by Icelandic artists and on Icelandic labels kept in separate folders. Why? Because I’m weird like that. In fact there are three separate Icelandic folders – one for vinyl, one for cassettes, and one for CDs. A few weeks ago as I was adding some new items I realized that I was really, really close to having 1,000 Icelandic releases. I have to admit, this surprised me. I only recently added the CDs, and while I figured I had a hundred or so, the number was in fact just north of 300. When I added up the three folders I discovered I had 993 Icelandic releases. What??? How was this even possible? A quick look at the list of items I had on order made it clear that #1,000 was likely already bought and paid for, just not yet delivered. So which one would it be? And just as importantly to my neurotic mind, what would I do if I was at say 999 and a package arrived with three items? Which one would be #1,000???
Two packages in quick succession from Negativ Notion quickly got me to 999. There were still a few items on my list of expected deliveries, but they were all pre-orders, so no telling when they might arrive. And I certainly wouldn’t expect to pick up something locally. Or…
I was planning a visit to Seattle’s best electronica store, Selector Seattle, last weekend, so I checked their Discogs store for anything I might want to grab. On a whim I searched for “Iceland”. And… there it was. A 12″ techno record from 1998 by Vector called B. Q. Wave. The rest of the week was delivery-free, so when we walked into Selector and I gave my man Sherman the list of Discogs items I wanted, I must confess I was a little anxious to see if he still had the Vector record. And he did. I even made a point of taking a pic with us and the record to celebrate #1,000.
So how the hell did it get to this point?
I feel I can safely say, without fear of contradiction, that if in 2009 I was asked to name musical artists from Iceland I would have come up with no more than:
and maybe (but probably not) Sigur Rós
Yet here I sit, not quite a dozen years later, with exactly 1,000 Icelandic releases. I’m not a math major, but that has required a pace of just over 83 releases purchased per year. PHYSICAL RELEASES! Of Icelandic artists and labels. How is this even remotely possible?? (As I look back over might right shoulder and see the six Ikea Kallax cubes and one Flipbin filled with 12″ vinyl, which does not include 7″ and 10″, it seems a bit more possible…)
I feel fairly confident in saying it started with the purchase of Retrön’ Swordplay & Guitarslay at the NASA merch table the opening night of Iceland Airwaves 2009.(1) We hung out at NASA all night and they were my favorite of the six bands, a card that included Me the Slumbering Napoleon (seriously, that was their name), Morðingjarnir, Reykjavík!, Juvelen, and Kimono (we didn’t stick around for Sudden Weather Change… sorry guys). That being said, I can’t 100% recall if I bought the disc at the venue or the next day. Truth be told, that might have been the only CD I bought on that trip – at that point Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane was buying most of the music.
I know for a fact we didn’t buy a record for the first time until 2011… which means I’m averaging about 55 Icelandic records per year. Wha…? Holly was doing a travel blog at the time, and amazingly enough we have a photo of the first batch of eight records I bought from Lucky Records, back when they were at their old location. I’ve told that story many times, but the important thing to know is that we’re still friends with Ingvar and Gestur (and Bob, and Jóhannes, and Þórir…) all these years later. Looking at those first records it’s clear the emphasis was on punk, and I know the top one on the below list was the first I put aside for purchase.
Purrkur Pillnikk – EhgjI En:
Grýlurnar – Mávastellið
Jonee Jonee – Svonatorrek
Big Nós Band – Tvöfalt Siðgæði
Egó – Egó
Utangarðsmenn – Í Upphafi Skyldi Endinn Skoða
Okkar Á Milli Í Hita Og Þunga Dagsins Compilation
SATT 3 Compilation
That’s a pretty good haul, if I do say so myself. How did I learn about these records, you ask? Well, there was almost nothing about early Icelandic punk and new wave on the internet back in 2011, so I looked at eBay listings. And it turned out that all those eBay listings were, unbeknownst to me at the time, by Lucky Records. Go figure.
If we simply round up and assume I’ve been at this Icelandic thing for 12 years now, I’ve been averaging better than one new purchase every five days. Which is absurd. I know I’ve come home from Airwaves with over 50 titles in my bag before, but that means I’d still be buying another 30 or so elsewhere over the course of the year! I could probably do some rough calculations on the cost of all this music, or the weight of these shelves, but I’d rather not.
There are, of course, some titles that I include in my Icelandic category that others may disagree with. Does Dream Wife qualify? Their lead singer is from Iceland but the other three members are not. Farmacia is from Argentina, but their Suero album was put out by Reykjavik’s Lady Boy Records, so I count that one too. You could certainly slice and dice it differently if you chose, but I count it if either the artist or label is from Iceland.
Will the next 12 years bring another 1,000 Icelandic items? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised, not one bit. In case you’re curious about the breakdown:
Vinyl – 549
CD – 307
Cassettes – 144
The labels FALK (25), Lady Boy (22), and Vánagandr (16), make up an impressive chunk of the collection. And let’s not forget another 10 from Lucky Records, 11 each from BÓNUS PLÖTUR and Paradísarborgarplötur and 12 Tónar, and 15 from Reykjavik Record. But none of them compare to the 53 titles on the mighty Smekkleysa. It’s cray.
I could probably write another few thousand words about this, but at the end of the day it’s the music that is important, not the stuff. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pour a cocktail and listen to the new one from Ægir. Takk vinir!
(1) I was going to link this to the review I wrote about the album. Except… I NEVER WROTE ABOUT THIS ALBUM! How is this possible???