Rass – “Andstaða” (2005)

rassBy 2005 it had been a solid 10 years since the metal band HAM had put out a studio album, the last of which was (at that time) 1995s Dauður Hestur.  A pair of live CDs hit the market in 2001, but for all intents and purposes it seemed clear that HAM was a thing of the past by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. (♠)  So what are a bunch of rockers to do when their rock band is no more?  Well, make another rock band, of course.  Or, if you’re so inclined, an old-school punk band.  And that’s exactly what HAM veterans Arnar Geir Ómarsson, Flosi Þorgeirsson, and Óttarr Proppé did in 2005 – form a band called Rass (“Ass”), put out an album called Andstaða (“Opposition”), take pot-shots at the old families that rule the nation’s fishing industry with an iron fist, play a few shows, then disband.  Which is all pretty punk rock.

I only learned of Rass’ existence recently while doing some research for a blog on the new Dr. Spock album. Andstaða is quite difficult to find, even in Iceland, typically selling online in the $50+ range.  Fortunately for me I was putting together an order with my friends over at Lucky Records and they had a copy, so a few weeks ago it arrived at my door.  And I’ve been playing the hell out of it ever since.

There’s a certain something, a sonic undercurrent, that to my ears defines the early Icelandic punk sound.  I can’t put it into words, but much like Potter Stewart once famously said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it” (♣), or in this case hear it.  What’s interesting to me about Andstaða, however, is that it lacks this element.  In fact, Andstaða is about the closest thing to first generation UK punk that I’ve ever heard come out of Iceland, especially “Lífsflótti”.  Of course, there are still clearly HAM influences here, not to mention a dose of Dr. Spock on “Pönk Familie”, which makes sense given that vocalist Óttarr Proppé is in all three bands.

At 12 songs and 20 minutes, Rass get in and out quick.  And it’s just the right amount for me.  Allegedly there were only 500 copies pressed of Andstaða, so if you see one you better grab it – you might not get the chance again.

(♠)  And remained that way until their phenomenal come-back album Svik, Harmur Og Dauði in 2011.

(♣)  Potter was a justice on the United States Supreme Court when he wrote that infamous phrase in a concurring opinion for the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964.  The suit arose from a movie theatre being fined for showing the French film The Lovers, which local authorities deemed pornographic.  Potter’s full quote was “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description {of hardcore pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Dr. Spock – “Leður” (2018)

There are two famous Spocks in the world today, one real, the other two fictional.

The real one was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst who became a household name due to his seminal books on child rearing and behavior that influenced multiple generations of parents (and, subsequently, their kids).  He also won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics as a rower for the Yale 8-man boat that represented the United States, which is pretty cool.  Dr. Spock lived a full life and passed away in 2008 at the age of 94.

Depending on your age and where you live, though, the fictional Spock may very well be the more familiar of the two.  The Vulcan served as the first officer on the USS Enterprise as it boldly went where no man had gone before.  A brilliant scientist and cold logician, Spock sacrificed himself to save the crew of the Enterprise during their battle with the genetically-altered super-villain Khan… but then of course came back to life… and ended up in a time warp that later resulted int here being two Spocks, one old and one young, living simultaneously… and a whole bunch of other convoluted storylines that I can’t be bother to try to keep track of any more.  He’s pretty bad-ass, though, and has some musical cred as well, receiving various musical shout-outs (most notably by the Beastie Boys on “Intergalactic” and D.O.A.’s “Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones”) and even putting out his own album of sorts, Leonard Nimoy Presents Dr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space (1967).

But there’s another Spock out there.  Like the first a doctor; like the second capable of taking you down with a neck pinch.  This Dr. Spock resides on a volcanic rock in the North Atlantic, a place where people used to think the entrance to Hell could be found, in a city aptly named “Smokey Bay” by its founders but better known today as Reykjavik.  And this Dr. Spock is not here to fuck around, let me tell you, launching songs at you like shells from a howitzer to pulverize your brain into oblivion and leave behind a tear in your consciousness that will cause you to never look at the world the same way again.  A band that in 2009 rolled through the streets of Reykjavik in an open-sided cargo trailer, swilling Jack Daniels and spewing forth their brand of punk-funk to the enraptured masses in something that resembled a bizarre religious ritual.  Their live shows are characterized by high energy, swirling mosh pits and beer and yellow rubber dishwashing gloves.  They are one of my favorite bands to see in concert.

This is the Dr. Spock I’m writing about today.  The howitzer guys.

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It’s been a long time since we were last graced with a new album by the good Doktor.  They followed up their 2005 debut Dr. Phil with the brilliant Falcon Christ in 2008, and then radio silence for almost a decade.  They unleashed a new single into the world in “Namenakutsame” in 2016, a tease for what many of us hoped was a forthcoming album, but then it got quiet again.  Until a few months back, that is, when we learned that the Dr. Spock’s long-awaited third album was coming soon.  And that is how, my friends, we arrived at their latest release, the rubber-glove-fisted Leður (Leather).

And it was worth the wait.

To prepare myself for this review I went back and took a journey through Hell through Dr. Spock’s back catalog, as it’s been a while since I listened to their first two albums.  And man, I forgot how great they are.  Whether it’s the funky rhythms, the crazy organs, or the bizarro covers of “Strawberry Fields” and “Private Dancer” (♠), you never know what’s around the corner on a Dr. Spock album.

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Leður opens with the track Dr. Spock opened their sets with the last two times I saw them live, an instrumental entitled “Intro” that sets the stage of what is to come by simply building tension, a somewhat repetitive musical passage that picks up velocity as it accelerates towards the rocket launch that will be the rest of the album.

It’s hard to slap a clean genre label onto Dr. Spock.  Maybe a filth encrusted one would work better… but I digress.  Part punk attitude, part metal speed, a heavy dose of funk in the rhythm section, and an organ that sounds like it’s being played by the creepy clown from Stephen King’s It in some kind of demented circus, everything that Dr. Spock does is intended to keep you off kilter and out of synch.  Perhaps the closest that we get to something mainstream is the metal-esque “Gamli Maður”, but that’s immediately followed by the completely whacked-out “Elefanto Be”, which opens with Finni doing some kind of crazy lo-fi urban yodeling as an intro for Óttarr Proppé’s barking-frog-like vocal delivery that makes you begin to question your own sanity.  And when that transitions to Óttarr’s creepy-as-hell grunted laugh at the start of “Sexsexsex”, well, hide the women and children, my friends, because something dark has come to town.

While Finni and Óttarr tend to get the most attention for their roles at the front of the stage with Dr. Spock, the musicians behind them are an incredibly talented group.  Driven forward like runaway train by the rhythm section, the band effortlessly pivot on a dime to go from punk to metal to funk to something crazy like a quiet piano interlude.  They cover a wide range of styles and speeds, making it all seem easy.

My favorite track after a dozen or so Leður listens is “Pabbatagl”, a song featuring lo-fi vocals from Finni (My head is gone / Your head is on / My head is on / Your head is gone), some samples, and the occasional familiar-sounding metal guitar riff.  It drives forward while maintaining a healthy amount of that Dr. Spock weirdness.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been enjoying the digital download of Leður, which is available on iTunes and a bunch of other places.  It’s my understanding there was a plain black sleeve super limited edition vinyl (20 or 30 copies) sold at the album launch show a few weeks back, and I was certainly bummed to have missed out on that.  BUT… the boys have put out another super limited run of vinyl (not sure how many copies…) with an actual printed jacket and fortunately for me a friend of mine in Reykjavik got his paws on one for me.  As far as I know, THIS is the only place to get one, so grab one while you can.

(♠)  Hearing massive Dr. Spock frontman Finni sing that he wants to be your private dancer, dancing for money is an unsettling experience, especially when it’s live.

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 2

Day 2 didn’t know if it wanted to be rainy or sunny in Reykjavik, so instead it decided to be both at the same time.

But a little rain couldn’t stop us and after sleeping in we hit the streets just after Noon.  Our first stop was the retail space/office of FM Belfast‘s Lóa, who posted on Facebook yesterday that she’d have some pre-release copies of the band’s new album Island Broadcast available.  The vinyl copies were still in transit, but I picked up a signed copy of the CD as well as a signed print drawing she did of the entire band (Lóa is an accomplished artist across multiple mediums).  After that it was off to Bíó Paradís to catch the electronica set by one of our favorite Lady Boy Records alumni, Andi, who as usual did not disappoint with a fun mid-tempo set.  From there we popped over to Íslenski Barinn for some lunch, and while there heard one of the most unusual live performances we’ve ever experienced at Airwaves.

When people ask me “what kind of music do they play at Airwaves” my canned response is “everything but country and jazz”.  Well, the opening song by this female duo in matching dresses who go by Bergmál seemed to effectively cross country off the list with a somewhat comical song about how not remembering someone’s name is about the meanest thing you can do.  But then things took a turn for the surreally weird with a song literally about women farting.  And then came the pièce de résistance, a song called “Your Anus Is Not of Uranus”, which helps clarify the fact that the planet is not the same thing as, well, you know… your anus.  A song that includes the lyrically incredible Biology… and astronomy bitches… the four of us were laughing so hard that we were all in tears.  That was followed by songs about necrophilia and menstruation, because of course it was.  Just check out their video.  You’re welcome.

Later in the afternoon we headed over to KEX Hostel to catch the Russian new wave/punk band ГШ/Glintshake (below/left), a show that was being broadcast live back to Seattle (and across airwaves17Day21the planet via the black magic of the internet).  And man did they hit it out of the park.  With a funky rhythm section and sometimes jangly, sometimes disjointed guitars, they maintained a old-school punk rock edge with a pop aesthetic.  We scored a spot right in the front and as always at the KEX shows the sound and lighting was perfect.  As soon as the show ended I get a text from my buddy Travis in Seattle telling me he’d just heard this band live on KEXP and that I had to check them out… and it was the show we literally just saw.  I’ll definitely be trying to track down some of their albums.

After a couple of beers at the KEX bar it was out to the beautiful theater Gamla Bíó for some metal and industrial.  Godchilla opened up the on-venue evening and delivered a heavy sludge metal set that was thick and driving.  Next up was Une Misère (right), a airwaves17day22relatively new Icelandic hardcore band that provided an unexpected shot in the arm that hit me like a dose of meth. (♣)  With three guitars this six-man outfit came out in straight aggro style, got in our faces, yelled at us, and drove nails into our skills with the sheer wall of power they produced.  Une Misère came, saw, and conquered all before them and left us all impressed.

And then shit got weird.

Like, really, really weird.

The band I was most interested in seeing tonight was Hatari (below), (♠) who have built a reputation not only for their music but for the extremeness of their visual performance.  Some folks who saw their show at KEX earlier in the festival were uncertain about the whole thing but the high stage and dark room of Gamla Bíó was the perfect setting for their brand of harsh IDM.  The place was packed and the mood just right when the guys came out dressed in their best bondage gear and proceeded to tear our faces off.  The sheer performance was impressive, with all three members staying within their on-stage personaes throughout flanked by a pair of female dancers who looked like they walked off the set of one of the Road Warrior movies… at least until they opened up their black fanny packs (yes, fanny packs) and started throwing suckers into the crowd.  It was pure, controlled insanity and the crowd lapped up every last drop of it.  Their new album just dropped and you know damn well I picked it up.  While the CD will lack the stunning visuals of the live performance, the music in and of itself was outstanding and I have a feeling it’s going to be in regular rotation upon our return.  We ran into the guys later in the evening, and they couldn’t have been nicer and more reserved.  Holly and I agree that this was definitely one of the Top 5 shows (out of 300 or so…) we’ve ever seen at Airwaves… and might just be #1.

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Following that we bounced out to Gaukurinn where we saw an interesting trio of performances.  First up we caught the tail end of the set by CeaseTone, a sort of modern new wavy group.  Next was the enjoyable singer-songwriter tunes of Soffía Björg who held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout her 30+ minute performance.  Then it was Hong Kong’s A New World If You Can Take It (ANWIYCTI), a band featuring three bass players and a drummer.  Their low beats were intriguing, though might have benefitted from higher pitched vocals to offset the chest-pounding low end.

That brought us to our last stop of the night as we popped next door to Húrra.  There we caught the tail-end of dj. flugvél og geimskip who absolutely packed the house and had requested in advance of the show that people vape during the performance, all the better for all her crazy lighting.  But we were there because we had an appointment with the good doctor.  And by good I mean bad.  And by doctor I mean the yellow rubber-glove-wearing Dr. Spock (below).  It didn’t take long from the start of the set for a fairly substantial mosh pit to break out in the small confines of the Húrra performance space, and the crowd and band fed off of each other’s energy throughout the blistering punk/metal set.  The “Sons of Ecuador” killed it, as did their insane Beach Boys cover and interlude featuring Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”.  Horns and raised fists all around.

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After a late-night hot dog, interrupted by three dudes not wearing any shirts screeching around in a BMW convertible with the top down at 1:00AM, it was time to call it a night.

Two days down, three to go!

(♣) Disclaimer:  I’ve never done meth.  I enjoy having my teeth too much for that.

(♠) Not to be confused with the 1962 John Wayne movie about big-game hunting called Hatari!, because that would have been even weirder.

The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible.  Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland.  We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands.  It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

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Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list.  I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah.  Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice.  I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin.  So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic.  The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals.  So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved.  I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding.  We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

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All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways.  I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk.  They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention.  This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough.  If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen.  But really I could say the same about all five of these selections.  Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little.  But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

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I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years.  That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year.  U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City.  Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences.  The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD.  While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

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When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss.  And it was great.  Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below.  I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him.  But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake.  An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold.  The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves.  I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills.  When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”.  But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks.  By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song.  We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them.  Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves.  Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

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I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come.  Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly.  But such is life in the vinyl lane.  Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space.  Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there.  And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything.  Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016.  Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees.  A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around.  And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong.  Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street.  It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate.  While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore.  And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs.  It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it).  It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores.  Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore:  Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio:  The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

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I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader.  I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week.  Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year).  However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles:  The Autobiography.  I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different.  You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad.  What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed.  Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…”  But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence.  An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual.  Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page.  X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file.  A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged.  All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap.  It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more.  Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Reflections

We’re back home from Iceland Airwaves.  The laundry is done, the records have been cleaned and put into sleeves, and I’m a couple of days into Kókómjólk withdrawal.  It was a bit more of a chill festival for us this year – after eight years of going to Reykjavik to gorge on music we don’t feel as obsessed with going out all day every day and seeing as many bands as possible, instead taking a bit more time to enjoy being with our friends in the city.  I think the final tally this year for me was around 30 shows attended, compared to 41 last year.

The quality of the performances continues to improve year after year, which is great but can also make it hard to choose who to go see.  However, a number of the more established Icelandic bands didn’t play this year (I’m looking at you, Gusgus… Legend… Skálmöld…), and some of those who did seemed to have limited schedules.  If anything Airwaves ’16 seemed to be set up more for the little guy, which in many ways is a good thing.  The off venue schedule has now reached the point where it’s almost impossible to grasp who is playing where and at what time, and with the rise of KEX Hostel as a legitimately good space it seems to me that you could very easily come to Airwaves in 2017 without a festival pass and still see tons and tons of amazing music all day and all night.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious if you follow the blog that I’m kind of a music nut, so it’s probably not surprising that I came home with an overflowing record bag.  Including the stuff I picked up in Stockholm in the days leading up to Airwaves I came home with something like 40 records, a dozen or so CDs, and another dozen cassettes (I upped my cassette game this year!).  Most of my purchases came from Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, plus some cool stuff I picked up over at Stockholm’s Trash Palace.  Going back to those haunts is like going back home, and while I didn’t bring back any super rarities (I almost pulled the trigger on a copy of Sororicide’s The Entity, but I just couldn’t do it) I’m pretty pleased with the stack of vinyl  and plastic on my “To Listen To” shelf right now.  I have enough material to carry the blog well into next year.

Without further ado, here’s my “Best of Airwaves” 2016 edition.

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Best Venue:  Last year I gushed about the return of NASA, but this year I somehow managed to not step foot in its doors for the entire festival.  The same was true for Gaukurinn and Gamla Bíó.  In fact the bulk of our on venue shows were at Harpa and Húrra, with only one quick check-in at Iðnó.  So knowing that you’d probably think that one of those two would win Best Venue.  But you’d be wrong – it was actually KEX Hostel.  KEXP radio hosts shows there throughout the festival and since they’re broadcasting live you know they’re going to take the time to make sure the sound is great.  Plus as an added bonus this year they built a small riser for the bands to play on – so instead of being at floor level like the have been in the past, now they’re raised maybe a foot or so which makes a huge difference for the folks watching from the back of the room.  We saw four shows and a couple of DJ sets here and all of them sounded great.  Plus the pulled pork sandwich is delicious.

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Best New-To-Me Band:  This one just keeps getting tougher every single year, but ultimately I was able to narrow it down to two bands fairly quickly.  The runner up is Hórmónar who played a blistering set at Húrra on Thursday night, rocking out and bringing a ton of energy to the room.  But my favorite was Dream Wife who despite playing one of the larger rooms at Harpa made the experience feel like you were seeing them in a small club. I referred to them as pop-punk in a previous post, but don’t let fool you into thinking that Dream Wife aren’t real punk, because they absolutely are.  They were the only band I saw this year that made me immediately think to myself, “I have to go find one of their albums tomorrow”.

Best Show:  This one wasn’t too tough for me, because the band I was most looking forward to seeing at Airwaves delivered.  I speak, of course, of the good doktor, the sonic surgeon who will destroy your mind and leave your ears bleeding, Dr. Spock (below).  Húrra is a small club – I’m guessing the main floor excluding the bar area might hold 150 people, if that, and it was slam packed.  The mosh pit was intense but well-mannered and Dr. Spock delivered exactly what the fans wanted.  I’m not sure how their other shows went, but this will probably go down as the most intense show we’ve ever seen at Airwaves.  They closed it with “Sons of Ecuador” and tore the place down.

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Coolest Music Purchases:  In years past this has been “Best Record Shopping Experience,” but at this point I may as well retire that as Lucky gets it every year.  As mentioned previously, I came home with a ton of music, but there are two items that particularly stick out.  The first is a copy of the Dead SkeletonsOm Mani Peme Hung 7″, which is pretty tough to find especially here in the US.  The other are the two cassettes put out by the Icelandic Punk Museum, one of which is a “Best Of” of early Icelandic punk while the other includes previously unreleased and live material.  These were 3.000 ISK each or the pair for 5.000 ISK (about $45 US) and they come with download cards.  I’m really excited to check these out, so look for them soon on the blog.

Biggest Regret:  My biggest musical regret was not catching Agent Fresco on the festival’s last night.  I caught a cold on Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon I was pretty much dead on my feet.  I made it through the first two bands on the on venue schedule, but didn’t have the energy to last long enough to catch Fresco.  We’ve seen them plenty of times in the past, though, so it only stings a little.

We had a great time at Iceland Airwaves ’16, catching up with old friends and making some new ones along the way.  It’s amazing to look back over the past eight years and see how what was once a pretty small festival has blossomed (some might argue ballooned) into a serious international event.  Tons of bands come to town solely to play off venue gigs and there’s music playing just about everywhere you go.  Do I kind of miss the old days?  Sure.  Things seemed a bit simpler to wrap your arms around back in 2009 when there were no “headliners” and you didn’t have a massive music palace like Harpa.  But the quality of bands has improved dramatically, and you never know when you’re going to discover something truly great that blows you away.  And that’s what it’s all about.

Someday I suppose we’ll stop going to Airwaves.  But that someday won’t be in 2017.  Just 51 more weeks to go, and Icelandair packages go on sale before the end of the month…

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