Bless – “Melting” (1989)

For the first time in quite a while I don’t have any records sitting on the “stuff I bought and haven’t listened to yet” shelf.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate – there are currently three records there.  Two of them need to get cleaned before I’ll play them… but I’m too lazy to go through all the time and trouble without a few more records to clean at the same time.  The other is a 12″ that I’ve had for a while and have been waiting to write about in a joint post with another person, and we just haven’t been able to connect to get it done.  This lack of records staring at me and begging to be played is both a relief, since I don’t feel the weird OCD pressure of having things I “need to listen to,” but also a bit of a downer because it means I don’t have anything new and exciting lined up.

Fortunately I have hundreds (rapidly approaching a thousand) records on the shelves, and it took me all of a minute to put my grubby paws on something I haven’t listened to in a while and never wrote about, the Melting EP by the Icelandic band Bless.  I have written about Bless before – they were fronted by none other than the esteemed Icelandic musical historian and all around good guy Dr. Gunni, a guy who I’ve bought a number of records from over the last few years.  Gunni’s projects tend to be interesting in a garage-psych-weirdness kind of way, which is just what the doctor ordered for a Saturday morning.

We were watching a 2005 documentary about Icelandic music last night called Screaming Masterpiece, and while it was a hit-or-miss affair, there was an interesting moment when the filmmakers asked a musician (whose name I didn’t catch) what makes the Icelandic music scene so unique.  His response was very simple – basically no one expects to sell many records because the country is so small, so people just make what they want.  There’s no pressure to write hits or follow the mainstream.  In my experience there’s a lot of truth to that simple sentiment.  And Dr. Gunni is one of those musicians who just makes the music he wants to make.

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Melting‘s seven songs only run a little more than 16 minutes total.  Stylistically it’s difficult to describe – it’s a bit indie, some psych, more than a little post-punkish, a cacophony of sound capped off with Gunni’s often high pitched signing voice.  Who can I compare Bless too?  I mentioned Half Japanese in a previous post about their LP Bless, and that still seems legit.  Maybe some elements of Southern Death Cult, some Iggy Pop, and even a touch of Smashing Pumpkins?  The good news is that it’s hard to compare Bless to other bands, meaning it’s got unique qualities.  Gunni and the boys keep it extremely raw and edgy, giving the songs a nearly out-of-control quality that separates them from the pack.

“Nothing Ever Happens In My Head” is the most approachable, prototypically rock song on Melting, though it’s still got plenty of that Dr. Gunni style to it.  “Akkerið Mitt / My Anchor” is a bit on the heavy side, a bit more structured and driving with the drums and bass while the guitar conducts an acid-psych attack on your brain.  All in all it’s a super cool record, and though relatively hard to find will certainly be a welcome addition to your collection.

“Lady Boy Records 009” Compilation (2015)

Those guys from Reykjavik’s Lady Boy Records are at it again, putting out their third limited edition comp tape in the last couple of years (I’ve also written about the 001 and 004 comps).  I continue to be intrigued by the artists they support – sometimes performers who are on the very outskirts of more traditional genres, but more often the more out there experimental and, for lack of a better word, avant garde musicians.

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And the latter is the best description of the dozen tracks on Lady Boy Records 009.  The bulk of the music can be broadly defined as “electronic,” but don’t confuse this with anything you’d hear in a club – you’re not going to be dancing to tracks like “Voodoo Drug Lord Snake Spirit Through Cemetery Trees” by Dental Work, which actually sounds more like actual dental work than it does anything resembling EDM.  Which is, of course, the point, because this is exactly the kind of music that interests the label – stuff that won’t ever find a mainstream niche.  We saw a lot of evidence of this last year at Iceland Airwaves, with at least one showcase event devoted to electro-noise.  I was only in that venue for a few minutes, but I can tell you it was intense.

My three favorite tracks are grouped together at the front of the cassette.  Weekend Eagle’s “Twin Blade Bay Blade” is like a Warsaw song with grating electronic noise added to it, the bass line and vocals giving it a familiar feel while the electro portion adds a layer of mildly grating discomfort.  Jóhann Eiríksson’s “Inject” opens with a killer slow beat before slowly adding somewhat industrial layers, from lightly clanging metal to buzzing electrical current.  It holds a steady pace throughout its four minutes, utilizing nothing but the four or five sound elements interspersed at different times to move it forward, with the beat holding it together as the one consistent element.  My selection for my favorite track may be sort of a cop out on my part in a way, since it’s probably also the closest thing to being something you could conceivably hear on a more mainstream radio station.  Dr. Gunni revisits his psych phase in a big way with “Læðist læðist,” a trippy-ass song with a cool bass line and some super modulated vocals.

Lady Boy Records 009 isn’t for the faint of heart, but I encourage you to check it out, because it’s good to get out of your musical comfort zone sometimes.  It looks like the cassette version is sold out, but you can listen to the whole thing for free HERE, and it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to check it out.

Dr. Gunni – “Fuzz & Sway” and “Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk” 7″ers (1993)

Iceland’s Dr. Gunni has made a number of appearances on Life in the Vinyl Lane.  I’ve written about some of the bands he was in like Bless and S.H. Draumur, his books like Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland, and about buying records from his personal collection.  He played his first live gig at the age of 14 with his band Spiders in 1980, and he seemingly knows just about everything about everyone who was in the scene from that point forward.  Of course, this is Iceland, and it seems like everyone knows everything about everyone else there…

Gunni been part of the music scene there since punk hit, and he’s an excellent musician in his own right.  I have a few records and CDs from his various projects over the years, and I found a few more the other day on Discogs, a pair of 7″ records (each with five songs, so it doesn’t seem right to call them “singles”) from the early 1990s called Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk (1991) and Fuzz & Sway (1993).  Mix my Discogs login with my Paypal account and stir it up in the three or so glasses of wine I’d had before screwing around online (always a dangerous combination), and less than a week later those records were in my hot little hands, waiting to be played.  Ah, the power of the internet to connect people… and facilitate alcohol-aided impulse purchases.

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There was a mix-up at the printing plant when Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk was pressed, the result of which was the labels getting put on the wrong sides of the record.  Have no fear, though, because in punk rock DIY fashion they just added a small paper insert in with the record letting you know this.  Musically this came as a surprise right out of the gate, not sounding at all like what I was used to hearing from the good doctor.  The opening track “Eddi Hnifur” is some straight-up electro noise, bordering a bit on industrial, and it totally caught me of guard.  The other four songs were a little bit less experimental, but definitely with very fuzzy lo-fi dirty sounding vocals and a mix of instruments and styles.  For my money “Nonni Stubbur” is the winner on this record, reminding me a little of a lo-fi version of Big Black.  Coming in a close second is “Kalli Klessa,” which has a cool guitar riff and opening vocals that may have later influenced the guys from the band Reykjavik!.  While not at all what I was expecting, it grew on me pretty fast (and it had to, since the whole thing only clocks in at about nine minutes) and it’ll be in the queue for some future playings.

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So now that Gunni had my attention it was time to give Fuzz & Sway a spin.  This orange translucent vinyl gem is more noise, and maybe even noisier than Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk.  Like it’s predecessor this record also includes five songs, and while it doesn’t provide run times it’s pretty comparable in lasting a bit less than 10 minutes.  There isn’t anything quite as weird as “Eddi Hnifur,” or at least I don’t think there is, but that could just be me getting more used to this version of Dr. Gunni (and liking it).  I enjoyed “Simbi Skítur” the most – it actually has a bit of a black metal vibe to it in a way, so maybe it just feels more familiar to me.  Fuzz & Sway seemed a bit more internally consistent than Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk, with a heavy dose of fuzzy and often screamed vocals and a more standard, if aggressive, guitar attack.

I emailed Doc Gunni to ask him about these records, and he told me this was a “solo” project, but one that was supposed to be Dr. Gunni and Dr. Rhythm, the name for his drum machine, “but nobody gave the drum machine any credit” and as a result we have just Dr. Gunni, the name that has stuck with him.  I’d also like to note he described this project as “a cartoon version of Big Black”… a connection I also noted above before I emailed him!

Definitely sort of fetish noise items, but I still liked Fins Og Fólk Er Flesk and Fuzz & Sway.  If you’re into noise and/or industrial, they’re worth a listen.

Bless – “Gums”

I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about this record before.  I’ve had it for a while – I think it was part of the first batch of records I ever bought from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, back when they were crammed into their tiny original store.  My guess is I listened to it once and never got back to it.  I’m not sure what prompted me to put it on today, other than that I’d just been playing some Tappi Tíkarrass and so happened to be perusing my Icelandic vinyl shelf.  And much to my surprise, who’s voice did I hear coming out of my speakers on the very first song?  Björk’s.  Which was a surprise, because Bless was not one of her bands.

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In fact the front man of Bless is none other than Dr. Gunni, he of S.H. Draumur and a man who I’ve met and actually bought records from, and a number of his friends appear on Gums.  In addition to Björk contributing vocals to “Worlds Collapse” and “Yonder,” her Sugarcubes bandmate and current Ghostigital frontman Einar Örn playse some trumpet on “You Are My Radiator” and none other than Óttarr Proppé of HAM and Dr. Spock fame appears on “Spidergod” (as the Spidergod himself).  It’s a veritable collection of Icelandic all-stars from the period when it was released (1990).  The lyrical content is all over the place, and certainly a bit odd – song titles include “The Shovel Of Love,” (burying a girl in a sandbox…) “Night Of Cheese,” (eating cheese and a bad relationship) and “The Killfuckman,” (murder, and possibly cannibalism) so you know it’s going to be different.

Musically Gums is an interesting record that’s hard to genre-fy.  It’s rock… but it doesn’t neatly fit into any of the normal subgenres.  Maybe I should just describe it as “indie” and leave it at that.  If there’s one band that Gums reminds me of, it would be Half Japanese, but Bless are much more talented musicians and Gunni, even with his unique delivery, is a better singer than Jad Fair.  But there are some similarities, including the often bizarre lyrics.

I need to give this one a few more spins.  There’s a lot here to like.  Just watch out for the killfuckman, or he’ll get ya.

Book Review – “Blue Eyed Pop: The History of Popular Music in Iceland” by Dr. Gunni

Dr. Gunni, aka Gunnar Larus Hjalmarsson, is pretty much the de facto guru of Icelandic popular music history.  He’s been an “insider” in the scene for decades both as a fan and a musician, having played in his first ever concert in 1980 with the band Dordinglar at the ripe old age of 14, opening for established punk rockers Utangarðsmenn and Fræbbblarnir.  He’s been in a number of bands including Bless, Unun, and one of my favorites S. H. Draumur, almost became a member of HAM, and has been involved in projects with Björk.  Most recently he put out a children’s album called Alheiminn.  To say he knows the Icelandic music scene would be an understatement.

In 2012 Gunni released Stuð vors lands, a beautiful, massive coffee table book about the history of popular music in Iceland.  It’s a big hardback in a sturdy slipcover, 442 pages full of high quality photos that trace the development of the scene from about 1900 forward.  Stuð vors lands was released during Iceland Airwaves last year and Holly and I attended the book launch party at a Reykjavik book store, which included a who’s who of 1980s Icelandic music and featured live performances from a number of former greats.  Despite the price (this is a high quality, low print run product…) and the fact that it’s written entirely in Icelandic (which I don’t speak), I picked up a copy because if for no other reason the photos made it worth it.  Plus if I get really ambitious I can always type some text into Google Translate and see if I can make sense of what it gives me (not always easy).  I looked at it as a sort of “must have” for someone interested in Icelandic music.

When we were back in Reykjavik this April I heard Gunni was working on an English language version of Stuð vors lands so I sent him an email and offered to help if there was anything he needed.  He got back to me right away and while he didn’t need help with the project I ended up over at his place and bought a few items from his record collection that he was just about to start selling off.  Timing is everything!  It was also at that meeting that I found out the new project would be called Blue Eyed Pop and would hopefully be available for Airwaves 2013.  I was excited, to say the least.

Sure enough, the somewhat smaller (but still oversized) softback Blue Eyed Pop was all over Reykjavik at Airwaves this year and I made sure to pick up a copy.  As near as I can tell it’s more or less a condensed version of Stuð vors lands, about half the length at 220 pages but still covering the entirety of the country’s popular music history.  It’s heavily illustrated (most if not all the photos also appeared in Stuð vors lands) and provides a history that is both wide-ranging and concise.  The period of most interest to me, from the start of the punk movement circa 1980 to the present day, is roughly 60% of the book, so there are ample photos, anecdotes, and band histories to keep me both informed and entertained.  There are some cool added features as well, such as a music history map of Reykjavik and a number of various lists of the top rated and top selling Icelandic albums of all time, useful for someone looking to dip their toes into earlier material.

In reading Blue Eyed Pop a few common threads in Icelandic music seem to weave in and out.  Up until around the late 1970s bands tended to rely fairly heavily on covers, something I’ve noticed on the handful of older records I’ve tracked down over the years.  This makes some sense when you think about living in a very isolated place in the pre-internet days, when much if not most of the new music coming to the island came from American armed forces radio and Icelanders who traveled overseas and brought music home with them.  Their exposure was to the hits, which makes it harder to develop a broader scene.  The second part is the drive to leave Iceland and find wider international success, which often resulted in bands touring the smallest clubs in the UK or the US, playing in front of sparse crowds and surviving on near starvation diets.  Fortunately today it is simple both for Icelanders to access music from the rest of the world, and to share their amazing bands as well.

As to why there is so much incredible music coming out of Iceland these days, Gunni has some ideas about that:

It’s an isolated island on the top of the world.  We get everything, we hear
all the music we want (thanks to the internet), and maybe there isn’t so
much else to do than meet your friends and make some music (or at least
when you’ve gotten bored with the internet).

Musician Mugison thinks the island’s isolation also contributes to the uniqueness that each band seems to bring to the table.

Say somebody is copying me and they release a song.  I think the chances
are that, within one week of them releasing the song, they’ll run into me in
Reykjavik, or at some place, some venue, some street, and they’ll feel
awkward, because they know everybody, who’s saying, “Hey, you’ve got
the same sound as him; you’re just copying him.”  And that’s kind of nice,
because then you’re forced to at least try to make your own voice.

Blue Eyed Pop is the perfect resource for the English speaker who wants to learn more about the history of music in Iceland.  Gunni maintains a brisk pace, so even if you’re not interested in the band you’re reading about at the moment, give it a couple of pages and you’ll be learning about something new.  The only other English language book length treatment of the subject I know if is Paul Sullivan’s Waking Up In Iceland:  Sights and Sounds from Europe’s Coolest Hotspot (2003), though that takes a somewhat different approach (though I do recommend it as well) and is really a compliment to Blue Eyed Pop.  The one criticism I have of the book is the lack of an index (Stuð vors lands has one, as does Sullivan’s book), which would make it easier to find info on specific bands and albums as a given band might well appear in multiple chapters.  That being said, I highly recommend it for both the casual and serious fan.  Takk, Dr. Gunni!