Hatari – “Neyslutrans” (2020)

Man, less than three weeks into the year and I’m already writing about a 2020 release for the first time, and from one of my favorite bands no less.  With new releases by HAM and Gusgus on the horizon, 2020 is already shaping up to be pretty awesome.

Before we get into Neyslutrans I wanted to do some musing on Hatari and people’s perceptions of the band.  They’ve got 23K+ followers on Facebook and over 80K on Instagram, they’ve won some awards, and they were selected to represent Iceland in Eurovision last year.  Sounds great, right?  Well, they’ve also pissed some people off.

The pissed-off-ness seems to mostly follow two paths.  The most obvious is their vocal support of Palestine in the weeks and months leading up to the Eurovision finals, which certainly didn’t go over well with most people in the host country of Israel, though it was supported from plenty of other directions.  This culminated with Hatari recording a song and doing a video with Palestinian artist Bashar Murad (“Klefi”, which is included on Neyslutrans) and holding up small Palestine banners following their finals performance, resulting in much pontificating and rhetoric and petty retribution, such as employees of El Al separating the band members on their flight out of Israel and putting all three in middle seats in the middle row.  Which is kind of petty and stupid, but at the end of the day is only annoying and inconvenient.  Now, I’m not taking sides here – this isn’t a political blog, and I’m just summarizing what happened.  Some people thought Hatari’s support for Palestinian independence was a good thing.  Others did not.  And others still took third path of pointing out that political statements aren’t supposed to be part of the contest, so just play your music and shut up already.  At the end of the day, I enjoyed their performance, and I’ll leave it at that.

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There are also criticisms leveled at Hatari for what is perceived as their appropriation of various subcultures and for not practicing what they preach in terms of being anti-establishment and anti-consumerism.  Maybe these are really two separate issues, but I tend to hear them lumped together, so that’s how I’ve been thinking about them.  Hatari describe themselves in various ways – anti-capitalists, performance artists, an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  Their holding company is called Relentless Scam Incorporated.  Their merch is sold under the heading Consumer Products.  And yes, this anti-capitalist anarcho-syndicalist commune sells merch, both recorded music and clothing.  The media had used all kinds of words to describe their style – industrial, goth, dance, and my personal favorite the completely misguided “steampunk”.  So what are Hatari?

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Well, the appropriation criticisms are evident in both the visual and sonic aspects of their aesthetic.  Clearly their stage outfits draw from BDSM and some aspects of LGBTQ culture, blending it with fascist chic, cyberpunk, and small doses of pure absurdity – the first time we saw them live the two dancers on stage, dressed in black spiked outfits, were wearing straight-up tourist-style fanny packs from which they produced lollypops that they threw into the crowd.  The entire thing is brought together into a very intentional and choreographed stage show – Hatari put a lot of effort into establishing personas and an artistic image that they want to impose onto the audience.  Sonically they certainly draw from what were the extreme fringes of 80s and 90s industrial and electronic music, bands like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly, adding some modern polish and taking something that was at one time frightening and intimidating and turning it into something, well… a Consumer Product, in a way.  Now, musicians have been doing this since, well, since at least Elvis.  Does this excuse it?  I mean, I don’t know if it needs an excuse or not.  More than a few things that are now quasi mainstream started as fringe subcultures.  I can understand why it rubs people the wrong way, especially if and when people who aren’t actually part of the subculture co-opt elements of it for their own benefit, which can certainly feel exploitive.  Especially when entertainment is created from it, entertainment that is marketed to the masses.

In the song “Ódýr” off the EP Neysluvara the singer asks, “Why did I sell myself so cheap?” (♠)  It’s a valid question.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think they shouldn’t make more money for what they do, though in this context “cheap” doesn’t just mean money – it means everything.  This… this is what I work for, what I give my limited time and energy for?  Just this?  This society that is teetering on the edge?  This life?  All this… stuff?  It’s a feeling I think most people can relate to at one time or another in their lives.  Some societies have attempted to form in ways that value the work of the individual, though people being people there’s always someone or some cabal that goes and ruins it for everyone.  Someone always craves more.  More stuff.  More power.  More, more, more.  And then, usually after some bloodshed, another path is chosen.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  What’s the answer?  Is it railing against capitalism?  Is this the crux of Hatari’s message, this expression of modern day anomie?

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I have no idea what truth, if any, drives Hatari.  I don’t know these guys, and from what I’ve seen and read they stay more or less “in character” during interviews.  Are they truly anti-system and anti-capitalist and just selling merch as a way to fund their message, as they claim?  Or are they simply performance artists, characters in a play of their own creation, one that evolves over time?  And if so, what is their ultimate message?  Remember, their company is Relentless Scam Incorporated.  My perception is that there’s nothing nefarious in their motives, nothing calculatedly exploitive, but that could just be because I like their music and shows so much and I don’t want to think about the other stuff.  Maybe I don’t care either way.  Maybe I’ve sold myself to cheap.

I will freely admit that I am a big fan of Hatari’s music and I’ve enjoyed both the live shows I’ve seen.  Neysluvara was the #1 pick on my Top 5 Albums list in 2017, and I stand by that.  And when I learned just two days ago that a new album was coming out, I immediately hit up their website and bought two copies, one on vinyl and one on CD, and since I didn’t want to wait for those to arrive next month before hearing it, I bought the download too.  So much for anti-capitalism.  Long live Consumer Products.

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Neyslutrans (which translates to Consumption Trance) is a 13-song journey, one featuring a supporting cast that includes the previously mentioned Bashar Murad as well as CYBER, GDRN, Svarti Laxness, and even violinist Pétur Björnsson.  While opening tracks “Engin Miskunn” and “Spillingardans” can be heard as continuations of the band’s debut EP Neysluvara, Neyslutrans also sees Hatari break new ground.  Klemens’ higher-ranged vocals get more space, taking an edge off the harshness of Matthías’ raspy, accusatory pronouncements, and their collaborations offer an opportunity to blend styles.  “Klefi / Samed” balances Hatari’s harshness with the Murad’s more pop approach, incorporating his clean and dreamy vocals in sharp contrast to the ragged edge of Matthías’ delivery, while the female hip hop trio CYBER team up with the guys to create the dance-floor-ready “Hlauptu”.  The most jarring track is actually the quietist, the classical, violin-only interlude that is “Spectavisti Me Mori, Op. 8” that acts almost as an intermission, or at the very least an aperitif to cleanse your palette before you embark on the album’s final five songs, blending seamless into the harshness that is “14 Ár”.

The conciseness of the four-song Neysluvara ensured it was a gut punch from start to finish, like being stabbed to death with a razor sharp exclamation point by a bondage-gear-clad version of The Joker.  Neyslutrans doesn’t offer that same type of consistent, defining experience.  If Neysluvara is the star that went supernova, Neyslutrans is the gas cloud that formed around it, a cloud that still surrounds that impossibly dense and dark core while reflecting light and creating an impressive, varied, and expansive display.  Which is a good thing, because if Hatari had simply given us another 13 songs in the vein of their debut the result would have been an album hard to get through in one sitting – it would have just been too much.

Neyslutrans is an enjoyable listen, start to finish, and I suspect it’s going to be on heavy rotation in the Life in the Vinyl Lane household for months to come.  The download is available in all the normal places, as well as on Bandcamp HERE, while CD and vinyl can be purchased from Consumer Products HERE with a scheduled ship date of February 4.  I don’t know how limited these will be – they should be more accessible than the physical copies of their debut.

 

(♠)  There’s a great page HERE that breaks down and translates the lyrics of this song (and others), and in particular this line.  The more literal translation would be something to the effect of “Why didn’t I sell myself for more”, which does have a bit of a different connotation.  Whereas “so cheap” implies that I basically gave away my time and myself as a choice, accepting little in return with a shrug of my shoulders, the more literal reading is about knowing I’m selling myself because I don’t have a choice… and since I don’t have a choice, I may as well get as much as I can in return.  

Cell 7 – “Is Anybody Listening?” (2019)

Ragna Kjartansdóttir has been part of the Icelandic hip hop scene since its earliest days.  In 1996 she joined the Subterranean crew and rapid-fired rhymes on their seminal Central Magnetizm the following year, one of the first hip hop albums to come out of island enclave.  It’s an album that has held up remarkably well – classic beats, MCs jumping in and out with precision, and Kjartansdóttir’s female vocals offering a not only a reprieve from the testosterone but showing that she can more than hold her own.  Give a listen to “My Style Is Phreaky” and ” It’s tha Subta” and just try to call me a liar.  I dare you.  And that’s how the world got its first taste of Cell 7.

Another 16 years would pass before Ragna released her first solo album as Cell 7, 2013s CellF.  We caught her that same year at Iceland Airwaves, performing an impressive live set at Lucky Records, and we’ve kept tabs on her ever since.  The following year she was a guest MC at an awesome show by the reggae/hip hop RVK Soundsystem (below), owning the stage and making it clear she still had game.  Needless to say, when I heard she had a new album coming out in 2019, and even better she was crowdfunding a vinyl release, I signed up immediately.  And I’m glad I did, because not only is the record and packaging awesome, so too is the music.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane

RVK On Stage just published an in depth interview with Cell 7 HERE.  You should definitely check it out if you have any interest at all in the early hip hop scene in Iceland.  As for the review, I thought about writing something new about Is Anybody Listening? for the blog, but when I went back and re-read what I wrote for RVK On Stage I liked what I saw… so that review follows below.

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I’m independent / I don’t have a crew, Cell7 tells us on “Don’t Care”.  And she clearly doesn’t need a crew these days, two decades on from her hip hop debut as part of the group Subterranean.  She was young then.  Today she’s a woman with adult responsibilities and children.  And she won’t put up with any nonsense.  Don’t be fuckin’ with my income / I don’t play / I don’t care.

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Is Anybody Listening? is Ragna Kjartansdóttir’s second solo album as Cell7, a blend of R&B drenched beats and grooves overlaid with in-your-face lyrics.  Ragna’s delivery is perfectly suited to the music, less youthful braggadocio and more mature confidence, with even her disses spit with a matter-of-factness that brokers no disagreement.  I got powermoves / You don’t get to tell me what I’m supposed to do.  She means it, too.  Sometimes bellicose, sometimes smooth as silk, but always poised and bold, Cell7 has been in the rap game since before many of the up-and-comers were even born, and she’s not going to let them forget that fact.

The album opens with an aggressive stance, the first four tracks establishing Cell 7’s bona fides, making it very clear that she’s not to be messed with and culminating with the super-fast and intricate rhymes of “City Lights”.  The next four songs slow things down a bit, embracing the R&B elements and giving Ragna the opportunity to show some vocal diversity, her velvet-like half-rapped-half-sung lyrics perfect for late evening chilling, the slowed down time when the main party is winding down and just a few friends are left hanging out in small, intimate groups.  Most notable is the female anthem “Peachy”, an empowering celebration of self-confidence (I’m feelin’ myself / Bullshit free / A hundred percent / Organically me).  The album closes with “Powermoves”, a track that blends her earlier vocal conviction with the later viscous beats, a perfect way to bring everything full circle.

Released digitally in February 2019, Ragna took to the web to crowdfund a two-color, limited edition vinyl pressing of Is Anybody Listening?  If you’re a vinyl junkie like me, this one will be a must-have with its beautiful cover art and the included poster.  But you don’t need fancy packaging and formats to enjoy Is Anybody Listening?, just get yourself a download or stream it, put your earbuds in, and groove.

Tuð – “Þegiðu!” (2015)

tudThis is the last of the records we brought back from Iceland Airwaves this year.  It kind of got buried behind some other stuff in the “To Listen To” pile and I lost track of it until now.

I don’t know much (let’s be honest, anything) about Tuð.  They were doing a crowdfunding campaign for Þegiðu!, and it looks like they succeed.  My buddy Gestur over at Lucky Records put this aside for me as something that I might like, and as is true with about 95% of his recommendations, he was on point.  Þegiðu! is some in-your-face punk rock.

The lyrics are in Icelandic, but I know from a Reddit post that at least one of the tracks is a protest song about government taxation.  Musically there’s an old-school vibe, overlaid with vocals that are bit more aggro – not quite hardcore, but more growled than spat.  I’m particularly fond of the A side closer “Atvinnufrjáls”.  Tuð translates to “nagging” or “rambling”, while the album’s title means, quite simply, “shut up”.  So it definitely has that punk attitude.

You can listen to the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as buy a digital copy.  Unfortunately there’s no info there about the vinyl, so I can’t give you any tips as to how to get a copy.  Maybe email the band directly.  My guess is the pressing was very, very small, so I wish you luck!

Kontinuum – “No Need to Reason” (2018)

I’m not sure how many times we’ve seen Kontinuum perform live.  Four?  Five?  We saw them at Airwaves a month or so ago and they sounded great, as always.  It’s weird though – I can’t remember ever going out with the specific intent of seeing Kontinuum… it’s more that they happened to be playing on the same card as other bands we wanted to see.  Inevitably we’d see them on the bill as well and say, “oh, and Kontinuum is playing there too, nice”.  And they’re certainly more than good enough to keep us around to wait for them as well.

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The quintet put out three albums, most recently No Need to Reason in 2018, an effort that was also their first on vinyl.  I picked it up during Airwaves because hey, Kontinuum are solid.  And that enjoyment I have for them live carries over onto the recording, albeit it in a somewhat different way.  The tracks on No Need to Reason are more polished than the band’s live sound, lacking a bit of their on-stage punch and taking on a smoother patina (“Warm Blood” probably comes closest to reflecting Kontinuum in concert).  But lest you think that’s a criticism, it’s not.  The sound is just a bit different, that’s all.  The three guitar attack is still here, though, creating a dense curtain of sound serving as the backdrop for what is often melancholy vocals, perhaps nowhere coming together as well as on the title track.

You can check out No Need to Reason on Bandcamp HERE.  On vinyl it’s available in three different colors – black (edition of 350), blue (300), and violet (100).  If my math’s right, that means the vinyl is limited to only 750 copies across all colors, so it’s fairly limited.

Grísalappalísa – “Týnda Rásin” (2019)

After nearly a decade together Grísalappalísa are calling it quits, and they’re going out in style with one final album, Týnda Rásin, the vinyl pressing including a 20-page full-sized color booklet of photos and lyrics.  But despite the prettiness of the packaging, the album itself came from a dark place.  Per the band:

This album is about a frequency that no one tunes into, a channel virtually hidden from our perception and whose broadcasts reach only a deep, dark void. It is an echo chamber, a path you find yourself in in the darker times of life and swallows you, ironically, by your own doing. For us, this channel represents depression, anxiety and isolation, to be at a crossroads with yourself and on the margins of society. It’s about experiencing yourself as a failure, an exposure of yourself and the sudden realisation that you won’t be the rockstar that the 16-year-old you wanted to be.

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I can’t speak to Týnda Rásin’s lyrical message since the vocals are in Icelandic, but the music and the vocal tone support this view.  It’s an album of varying styles, not in that there is a country song followed by something hip hop, but more within the general indie rock space that Grísalappalísa exists in (♠).   Týnda Rásin lacks a sonic cohesiveness.  But that’s not intended as an insult, simply an observation.  You’ve got the punkish “Kvæðaþjófurinn” (my favorite track) followed by a more spoken-word-styled number in “Keyri Heim Á Þorláksmessu”, all of it tied together by and underlying angst, a sense of anomie.  And they do stretch the limits, especially on the experimental, free-jazz-like “Taugaáfall Í Bónus” with its vocal anxiety mirrored by the emotional and unstructured piano.

You can give it a listen for yourself HERE.  I don’t see the vinyl listed on Bandcamp right now, but this came out on the Reykjavik Record Shop imprint, so I’m sure you can contact the shop directly if you want to get your hands on a physical copy.

(♠) OK, with the possible exception of the very country “Undir Sterku Flúorljósi” that is…