“Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017” Compilation (2017)

Normally things on Life in the Vinyl Lane take a hard turn to all things Icelandic in early November, generally running through the end of the year.  The reason, of course, is because that’s when we head to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves and return home with a bag full of amazing new (and not so new) albums to share with you.  But this year my record pusher dealer enabler collecting friend Ingvar came to Seattle for a visit and brought with him a big box of stuff that Reykjavik’s Lucky Records had on hold for me.  That means that my “To Listen To” shelf is full of Icelandic records (and a smattering of tapes), so we’ll be getting an early start on Airwaves this year.  Don’t fret though, because Ingvar and I did a fair amount of record shopping here in Seattle during his visit too, picking up a lot of interesting non-Icelandic stuff and meaning I have so much “To Listen To” stuff right now that it’s actually causing me anxiety.

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So without further ado, I’m dropping the needle on the beautiful 2XLP Icelandic label comp Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017.  I was lucky enough to get the red vinyl version, which is limited to 100 copies and comes in simple and elegant gatefold

The Record Records roster is deep – Of Monsters and Men, Retro Stefson, Agent Fresco, Mammút, Vök… it’s an Icelandophile’s dream.  Of the 15 bands on the album there’s only one that I haven’t heard of – Ensími; and I’ve managed to see about 2/3 of them live over the years.  You don’t really need me to tell you much about a label comp that’s this deep – these are great bands, and while I may personally have made a few different song selections, they definitely go this one right. (♠)  Most of the tracks are from the second half of the label’s lifetime, including some new 2017 tunes like Mammút’s “The Moon Will Never Turn On Me” and Moses Hightower’s “Mjóddin”, giving the whole thing a more contemporary feel.

Is Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017 a good Icelandic music primer?  Yes… but with caveats.  Record Records has a certain style, so while there’s rock, reggae, and singer-songwriter stuff, you won’t hear any punk or metal or electronica.  What you will get though is a broader sample of the type of stuff that you may catch of whiff of on the radio, and there are some beautiful performances here such as Vök’s “BTO” and “Jolly Good” by Ojba Rasta.  I know one thing for sure though, and that’s that this record is getting me hyped for Iceland Airwaves 2017!

(♠) OK… I definitely would have included a song by Bloodgroup… but given that they’re no longer active, I can understand their exclusion.

Emmsjé Gauti – “Vagg & Velta” (2016)

We first encountered Emmsjé Gauti on the main stage during the closing night of Iceland Airwaves 2015.  The thing I remember most about his set was being surprised that he had 3/4 of Agent Fresco as his backing band – it was unusual to see a hip hop artist with an actual band behind him.

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Fast forward to 2016 and Gauti has a new double album out, Vagg & Velta.  His style is more on the R&B side of hip hop – the songs are very musical and not as beat-driven as the less poppy forms of the genre, and Gauti’s delivery doesn’t give you the impression that he’d like to cave your face in.  In fact I’d go so far as to say that Vagg & Velta is more music for the bedroom than for the street; his swagger is more of a player than that of a tough guy.  The hardest song on the album is “15.000,” and perhaps tellingly it features his fellow hip hop countrymen Úlfur Úlfur spitting rhymes.

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Lest you think I’m dissing this record, let me be clear – I’m not.  Gauti might not be in uncharted waters as far as the Icelandic scene goes… but he’s probably pretty far from shore with his style.  There’s still plenty of F bombs on Vagg & Velta (pretty much the only English words I can hear in his Icelandic rhymes), but he still keeps it sounding pretty sweet most of the time.

 

 

Definitely the kind of record to put on when you’re just chillin’ with that special someone.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 – Day 5

This will probably be a bit briefer than I’d like it to be, but today we leave Reykjavik and head back home, so that means last minute packing and goodbyes with not enough time and not enough sleep.

The Sunday schedule is pretty limited with only a handful of off-venues going during the day.  We saw two acts at Lucky Records, singer-songwriter Man in Between and the punk/noise duo Döpur, a project by Krummi of Legend, Esja, and Minus fame.  I missed Döpur last year so I was glad to be able to catch them this time around, and they had Lucky almost complete full for their noise/drone set.

We headed over to Vodafone Hall for the main on-venue program, arriving probably 30 minutes after the first performer was scheduled to start only to find a long and growing line outside.  We were afraid this was going to be a repeat of Saturday’s attempt to see Beach House, since the capacity of Vodafone is quite a bit lower than the number of festival passes sold.  After about 15 minutes a staff member came out and let everyone know there were some delays and that they’d be opening the doors soon.  <phew>  At least it wasn’t raining.

The line-up at Vodaphone was strong, though the first four or five performers all shortened their sets a bit to try to get things back on schedule.  Vök opened, the second time we’d seen them on the trip, and they put together another great set.  I made a point of picking up their CD at Lucky earlier in the day.  Next was an interesting run of three performances, all of which saw the instrument playing band members of Agent Fresco performing.  First they backed hip hop artist Emmsjé Gauti, then they did their own five song set as Agent Fresco which featured my favorite song of theirs, “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher” off of A Long Time Listening, and concluding as the backing band for the hip hop duo Úlfur Úlfur, who I really enjoy.  Next up was the UK hip hop duo Sleaford Mods, with their more cadenced storytelling delivery who were interesting to listen to but not terribly compelling to actually watch.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2015

That all led up to the two main performances, beginning with a roughly hour long set by the electronics group Hot Chip, who put on a great show both musically and visually and seemed to surprise the crowd with an electro cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”  The crew at Vodafone turned the stage surprisingly quickly following that set and the world’s greatest party band, FM Belfast, hit the stage and took it home.  I’m convinced that every Airwaves should end with an FM Belfast set – it’s simply the perfect way to conclude your festival on a high energy high note.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2015

It’s hard to believe it’s all over… sad, but we’re all so tired that bringing some sense of normalcy back to our lives will probably be a bit of a relief too.  Takk to all our friends we got to see this year, old and new, and we hope you’ll all be coming to Iceland again next year for Iceland Airwaves 2016 from November 2-6.  Early bird tickets go on sale November 16…!

Iceland Airwaves 2015 – Day 3

How did we get to Day 3 already?

We’ve been away from home for a little over a week now, and I have to say that other than missing our dog, I have not missed the day-to-day of being there one little bit.  This isn’t some boo-hoo complaint about my life – far from it.  I have a pretty outstanding life full of amazing people, and I get to do things like travel to Iceland to go to music festivals. But a week or so of not going to or thinking about work, paying bills, cleaning clogged gutters, and trying to figure out if the milk in the fridge is safe enough for one more bowl of cereal, well… travel has its benefits.

The weather has turned from mostly dry to mostly hit-and-miss, but that won’t keep us inside.  We wandered town a bit before I caught up with Life in the Vinyl Lane reader and someone I email with regularly, Arni, who was down the street at Reykjavik Record Store.  We hung out with shop owner Reynir for a bit and talked about music and records and their mutual disbelief that I still don’t own any Sigur Rós records.  It was great to finally meet him in person.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2015

From there Norberto and I headed down to KEX Hostel to see one of my favorite all-time Icelandic bands (and frankly just bands period) Agent Fresco (above).  I reviewed their new album Destrier a few months ago and have been loving it.  We got there about 45 minutes before show time, which was good enough to secure spots in the second “row” of standing fans – which if you’ve never been to KEX means we were maybe six feet front the band.  Being close to the action is important at KEX since there is no stage and the performers are at floor level, and I wanted to make sure I could get a few pictures, so an early arrival was a must.  As expected, they killed it with their emotional, high-energy six-song set, which I’m almost certain was all drawn from the new album.  After 25 minutes they were all soaked in sweat and the crowd was hoarse from cheering.  While Holly opted not to join us (the room at KEX can get packed to the point where it’s a bit uncomfortable at times), she followed along online because Seattle’s KEXP radio station broadcast the entire thing live.  The video of the performance will likely be out in the next month or two, so keep your eyes open for it on YouTube!.

We headed back to the apartment, picked up Holly, and then it was a dash two blocks down the street to the Geysir clothing store to see another of our Icelandic favorites, Berndsen, who performed a happy, smiling set of electro-pop.  The store was already packed when we arrived, but eventually we managed to wiggle our way inside so we could get a bit closer and hear the sound better.  Most of Berndsen’s act was drawn from his most recent album Planet Earth, but he also reached back to his debut Lover in the Dark to play my favorite of his songs, “Supertime.”  And, as always, by the end he ended up shirtless and touching people’s faces in the crowd.  “It’s ten Euro to touch my body… or you can buy one of our CDs instead,” he told us at the end of the show.  Love that guy. But I think I’ll stick with the CD.  Thanks.

Our last off-venue show of the day involved a trip back to KEX to see the Japanese acid punk band Bo Ningen (I believe this is pronounced “bo-nin-yin”).  I was intrigued by the clips of their music I heard prior to the trip, and when we’d been at KEX earlier in the day our friend Jim from KEXP told us they were expecting a big turnout for the show.  And Jim was right – we were about four or five people deep in the crowd when we arrived 30 minutes before show time.

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And (un)holy hell, what a show!  This was one of those moments you live for as a music fan, when you go into a show with minimal expectations and something incredible happens.  Because Bo Ningen brings it in a way I’ve never seen anyone bring it before, and when they kicked into gear it’s like they had battery acid burning through their veins and were flailing about trying to get it out.  Taigen (above) was like a possessed cult leader on bass and vocals, summoning demonic spirits to come up to KEX and fry our minds with a sheer wall of noise.  Taigen played the bass behind the back… over the head… upside down… holding it out like a gun… and almost decapitated the camera man not once but twice, and when the guitarist started windmilling his guitar (not his arm in the act of playing it… swinging the entire guitar in circles) in that confined space I was fairly certain someone was going to end up with a concussion.  But it held together until the end, and the cheering that erupted from the crowd at the conclusion of the set was the loudest I’ve ever, ever heard at KEX.  Bo Ningen.  I’ll be buying some of your music as soon as I get home.

For the evening on-venue program we visited Harpa and caught the folk band Árstíðir, the sort of adult contemporary-ish Hjaltalín, and finally Seattle’s own Perfume Genius.  After nearly three long days of festival going we were all a bit tired, though, and the quiet music played by these three performers didn’t do much to help our flagging energy levels, so we walked up the street, got a few slices of pizza, and called it a night.

We’re past the half way point of Iceland Airwaves 2015 now, and it seems like we just got here.  With the normally sparse off-venue on Sunday, and the big blow-out already planned for Sunday night, that leaves us with just one more day to truly pick and choose.  I hope we choose wisely…

Agent Fresco – “Destrier” (2015)

That moment.

If you’re a music fan, you know the one I’m talking about.  That moment when you’re ready to hear the new album by one of your favorite bands.  You’ve waited a long time for this.  God, I hope it doesn’t suck.  What if it sucks?  That would be terrible!  But it won’t suck, because the band is awesome.  But that lingering doubt… what if I don’t like it?  Will I feel disappointed, or like I somehow betrayed them with my dislike?  Am I the only one who goes through this?  I think not.  But maybe I am.  What if I don’t like it???

It’s been about five years since Agent Fresco released their debut LP, the mammoth 17-song A Long Time Listening, an album built around five tracks from their first ever release, the six-song 2008 EP Lightbulb Universe.  Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, who is quite often way ahead of the music curve than yours truly, brought that CD home from our Iceland Airwaves experience in 2009, but I didn’t get on the Agent Fresco train until we saw them live for the first time a year later at Reykjavik’s ultimate music venue, NASA.  And they crushed it.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2011

I’ve seen Agent Fresco live five more times since then.  I’ve seen them play in bars, in clubs, and an acoustic show in a museum.  I even saw them twice in the same day just so I could make sure to get my hands on a vinyl copy of A Long Time Listening after the second show, having bought their live CD Live at Gamla Bíó at the first.  I was once referred to unironically as an “Agent Fresco superfan.”  So I can’t promise you an unbiased review of Destrier.  But is that really what you want?  I mean, really?  Or do you want to an honest review by a fan who loves Agent Fresco’s work?  One who desperately wants their new album to be epic, but is secretly afraid that it won’t be able to plum the emotional depths of its predecessor.  Well, that’s up to you.  But today I got access to a pre-release copy of Destrier (oh, don’t worry, I already have my vinyl copy on pre-order…).  And I can’t wait to listen to it.

I’ve done my best to not listen to any of the material from Destrier until now.  I’ve avoided the videos and singles.  I wanted to hear it all, straight through, for the first time as a complete work (though, to be 100% accurate, I believe I heard a few of these songs live in 2013).  So here it goes.

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To me the element that truly defines Agent Fresco’s sound on A Long Time Listening is Arnór Dan Arnarson’s voice and the emotional power it carries.  And certainly Arnór’s voice is incredible on Destrier.  But more on that a bit later.  If I had to squeeze and condense my thoughts on Destrier into just one word, that word would be dense.  The sheer musical density of the soundscapes the band creates and Arnór accompanies is, frankly, difficult to comprehend.  And that’s saying something, because Agent Fresco has always been a challenging band, with their seemingly jazz-influenced timing structures and changes that can leave the listener off-balance while also conveying a tremendous amount of feeling.

I went back and listened to A Long Time Listening again, as well as the song “Tape End,” the only track on Lightbulb Universe that didn’t make it onto their debut LP.  I wanted to get a sense of how Agent Fresco’s sound has developed over time.  There are certainly some changes, but the more I listen to Destrier the more I can hear the similarities as well, just nuanced in different ways.  Þórarinn Guðnason has shown impressive development on the keyboards/piano – even the first time hearing the opening moments of the album’s second song “Dark Water” shows that, and he only gets better as you work your way through the track list.  In many instances it is the keyboard that sets the initial mood of Desetrier‘s songs.

But the real gem of Destrier is the incredible percussion work of Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson.  Keli doesn’t just keep the beat.  He provides flourishes and fills and attacks the skins with so much abandon that at times the drums make the songs feel like a stormy sea that’s just battering your senses.  His drumming has a personality.  But he’s not just an uncontrollable monster on the skins, like Animal on The Muppets (though with that amazingly huge red hair of his, there are some similarities beyond their shared love of drumming); he knows when to use that power, and he knows when to be subtle, like in the quieter parts of “Pyre.”  Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane actually remarked the other night as we were listening to Destrier that Kelli gave the best live percussion performance she’d ever seen in her life when we saw Agent Fresco perform at Reykjavik’s Nordic House in 2012… an acoustic set at which he did the entire show using just his hands and a wood box.  No drums.  A wood box.  And his hands.  And it was brilliant.  He’s versitle as hell, and his influence is all over Destrier.

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Copyright Birta Ra’n Photography, 2015

The challenge in describing Destrier is that I hear something different in it every time I listen.  Whether it’s on the stereo, on the computer, or on headphones, every listening both reveals something new and destroys some preconception I’d built up about it.  Right now I’m all about the quieter songs on the album, many of which are grouped in the second half of its 14 tracks.  There’s just something about Arnór’s that makes it ideally suited for singing alongside the keyboards as he does on songs like “Let the Curtain Fall,” “Bemoan,” “Death Rattle,” and “Mono No Aware.”  His voice is clean, even in the higher register where he seems to keep it throughout much of Destrier.  Arnór is certainly known for his high notes, but he seems to be taking them to the next level on this album, both with power and frequency, spending more time signing high than he did on A Long Time Listening.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to shred his throat to pieces when the song calls for it, so I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear him let loose on “Angst,” reminiscent of some of Agent Fresco’s earlier, more metal-like work.

It’s difficult to pick a high point on Destrier.  The album offers a range of styles, and really it kind of depends on what mood I’m in.  “Dark Water” has a near-perfect Icelandic opening and maintains an atmospheric and natural vibe throughout; “Wait For Me” with it’s vocal effects on Arnór’s voice (a rarity in the world of Agent Fresco) just begs for radio airplay; “Autumn Red” and “Angst” are great rockers; and “Death Rattle” and “Let Fall the Curtain” are soothing trips across the smooth lake water on a still morning.  Whatever mood you’re in, Agent Fresco has something to fill your soul on Destrier.