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 Grapevine in 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.
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.
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.
(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.
Both of these releases are “push play and enjoy”.
THE DARK TURN
24/7 (2009) – Kompakt
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.
Lies Are More Flexible (2018) – Oroom
Mobile Home (2021) – Oroom
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.