Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 3

Well, it’s the “hump day” of Iceland Airwaves – Friday.  Day 3.  The tipping point.

We finally stumbled out of bed and got ourselves organized sometime around Noon after a  late one last night and hustled down to KEX Hostel to see Mikko Joensuu.  A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to get to spend a bit of time with KEXP DJ/Program Director Kevin Cole and he was absolutely gushing about Joensuu, so I knew I wanted to check him out at Airwaves.  And Kevin hit the nail on the head with this recommendation. Mikko performed with a fairly large ensemble – somewhere around 9-10 musicians including a string section.  The rich textures of his voice reminded me immediately of my dad’s favorite, Neil Diamond.  But don’t be fooled, because this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) music.  Joensuu brings a spiritual vibe to his lyrics and musically offers a contemporary take on folk and indie rock.  I got a bit reflective during this show, reminding me as it did of Diamond and given my dad’s passing earlier this year; I think dad would have enjoyed Mikko’s music.  One of the things that strikes me about artists, and musicians in particular, is how much they expose themselves in their work, something that is not easy for most people to do and in fact is something we’re encouraged, either directly or indirectly, to suppress.  The words of “Drop Me Down” are so spiritually heavy, and Joensuu’s delivery so authentic, that it was almost painful to listen to, but I’m glad that he was willing to share this experience with us.

airwaves17day31

Later in the afternoon we were back at Lucky Records for a pair of performances.  First was the electronica set by the previously reviewed Kuldaboli, who put out one of the best albums of 2016 in Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016.  After that we got a solid 40 minutes from Epic Rain, mostly material off the recently released Dream Sequences but also with a track from 2014s Somber Air.  They’re always a favorite, and this was their only show at Airwaves in 2017 as they prep for an upcoming French tour.  Good stuff.

The on-venue evening started weakly, and since I don’t like to talk crap about musicians on Life in the Vinyl Lane I’m not going to tell you who we saw.  But we were definitely the oldest people in the room with the exception of some of the performers’ parents, and I wasn’t interested in hearing a bunch of very young dudes telling me how “money comes and money goes” and how they’re “rollin’ kilos” in the mean streets of Reykjavik 101.  I wanted to tell everyone in the room to get off my lawn.  But after that things improved considerably with the sort of soul/hip hop performance by CRYPTOCHROME (below) in front of a small but enthusiastic group and we felt like things were moving in the right direction.

airwaves17day32

From there it was off to Gaukurinn where we saw American performer VAGABON in a stylistically diverse indie set.  That brought us to the band we came to see, the one I had circled on the schedule weeks in advance – Tappi Tíkarrass. (♠) Before Björk became a mega-famous international star, she was in a band called The Sugarcubes.  And before she was in The Sugarcubes, she was in Kukl.  And before she was in Kukl, back when she was still a teenager, she was in Tappi Tíkarrass.  They only left behind an album and an EP in the early 1980s and disbanded in 1983.  As near as I can tell, they reunited once for a show in 1987 and that was the last anyone heard from them until 2017 when the band reunited, sans Björk, and played a show at the Hard Rock in Reykjavik.  Which brings you up to date to last night when we saw them rock the house at a not-quite-packed Gaukurinn (below).  It was a fun, old school punk show, and even without Björk (who we secretly hoped might make an appearance) I’m glad to have checked this off my music bucket list.

airwaves17day33

Holly and I called it a night after that, making a quick pit stop at the Waffle Wagon on the way back to our apartment.  Our friends Norberto and J headed over to the Art Museum to catch FM Belfast and partied late into the night with a thousand of their newest best friends, because watching FM Belfast is a family experience.

We’ve passed the half-way point of Iceland Airwaves 2017, which is always a bit of a surprise when it happens… even though you know it’s coming.  Just two more days to go…

(♠) Which roughly translates to “Cork the Bitch’s Ass”.  Really.

Epic Rain – “Dream Sequences” (2017)

2017 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for new releases from Iceland.  We’ve already seen and heard new albums from established veterans of the scene DIMMA, HAM,  Singapore Sling, and Sólstafir; young up-and-comers like Fufanu, Úlfur Úlfur, and Vök; and debuts from the likes of Madonna + Child and Milkywhale.  Plus we’ve been told to expect stuff from Legend and Gusgus before the end of the year.  And that’s just scratching the surface – the DIY scene is bubbling under with so many cassette releases that I stopped even trying to keep up.  But even with this wealth of sonic riches vying for my attention I was caught by surprise to see an announcement last month for another forthcoming record, this one by our friends Epic Rain.

It’s been three years since we’ve heard new music from Epic Rain, back when Lucky Records put out their excellent Somber Air in 2014.  And it’s been a time of transition for the group, which is the brainchild and vision of vocalist Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason.  More emphasis has been placed on the musicians, giving them space to shine, and the departure of male co-vocalist Bragi coupled with the growing role of chanteuse Ingunn Eria moves things in a more haunting direction on Dream Sequences, and that’s saying something given Epic Rain’s penchant for describing the darker aspects of life.

epicraindreamsequences

I first listened to Dream Sequences on my very long, early morning commute into work a few weeks ago and was immediately swallowed whole by the dreamy and eerie opener “Dream Sequence 1”, so much so that it wasn’t until a few songs later that I snapped out of it and thought, “wait a minute, did this album open with an instrumental track?”  I actually had to go back and check, and sure enough it does.  Now this may not seem like a big deal, but considering that the most distinguishing characteristic of Epic Rain’s sound is Jóhannes’ voice and cadence, opening with a full-length instrumental is an important statement – Dream Sequences is not simply a collection of songs, or even a group of songs loosely tied together around a common theme.  This is a cohesive and immersive experience, one meant to be heard all the way through.  There’s a definite plan here.

Musically we’re treated to a combination of electronic and instrumental performances, often blended together so well that it’s hard to hear the line separating the two.  The defining musical element of the album, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic jazz-style drumming of Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (aka Maggi), who is probably best know for his work with the Icelandic jazz quartet ADHD.  When I mentioned this observation to Jóhannes via email he completely agreed, noting that Maggi’s drumming gives the percussion on Dream Sequences a completely different sound than that of previous Epic Rain efforts.  And here’s the thing – this isn’t super-intricate drumming; it’s at times snappy, other times brushed, keeping time and creating structure while also contributing to the mood.  The way the album is mixed gives the drums more prominence than they had on Somber Air, where they were flatter and spent more time in lower registers.  Maggi’s percussion is sometimes even at odds with the rest of the music, existing on a higher plane and providing a counter to the ethereality of the rest of the performers.  “Disguisement” is a prime example of this, the snare popping like low calibre gunshots behind Jóhannes’ staccato vocals.  While the album is best considered as a whole, listeners are sure to still have favorite songs and this is mine, due in no small part to Maggi’s drums.

Dream Sequences creates an emotional environment similar to the effect of those 1960s era horror and vampire movies, films that didn’t rely on the pure shock value of excessive gore and violence but instead on the more subtle approach of slowly and methodically building your disquiet.  When Jóhannes rasps I document your dreams behind the picture on the wall / I sense that you’re running, trying to reach the door / You’re bound by my chain and I’m bound by this psychosis / Now wake up my darling / It’s time to smell the roses on “A Night Like This” the song doesn’t crescendo, it’s almost banal – you’re slowly descending into madness, I’ve been watching you, and now it’s time to smell the roses.  There’s no other way.  Come on, let’s go.  Don’t make a fuss and accept the inevitability of what is to come.  Taking on the voice of a killer in “’62 Mustang” he describes his murder kit and weapons in the same unemotional way a mechanic would describe his tools, each with a specific purpose, no one more important than the others.  Coupled with the sad tones of some far away surf guitar it’s not maudlin but instead matter-of-fact in its dreariness.  This is who I am, this is what I do, and these are the things I do it with.

Across the first five songs Pálmason and Ingunn Eria circle each other, usually existing in distinctly separate spaces but in a way that strongly if indirectly implies a relationship like that of perpetrator and victim, all the while infusing the entire thing with a sense of inevitability – he knows her so well, and she’s both aware of his presence and the inescapability of what is to come.  The first and last songs are instrumental “Dream Sequences” which bookend the story expressed in the middle three tracks.  The same format is used for the second batch of five songs (Eria, however, makes a brief vocal appearance on “Dream Sequence 4” so it’s not technically an instrumental), though this time the story has shifted to a confused tale of drug abuse and memory blackouts that imply a violence that can’t be remembered.  The subtlety of the first story is put aside in favor of a blunt tale of the descent into madness, which is already well on its way by time we’re introduced to the scene, and this time it’s Eria that feels like the voice calling the soon-to-be victim to his grave.  The strength of Dream Sequences is that these two vignettes fit together sonically and thematically like a pair of cautionary tales, completely devoid of morality and instead simply warnings of what is to come.

Dream Sequences is the next step in the continuing evolution of Epic Rain, taking their sound in musically richer and lyrically darker directions.  You can get a sneak preview on YouTube with the opening track, the instrumental “Dream Sequence 1”.  I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Dream Sequences at Airwaves this fall.

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 0

It’s finally here – Iceland Airwaves ’16!  Holly, Norberto and I spent a few days in Stockholm, Sweden before heading to Reykjavik on Tuesday to get ready for the official opening of Airwaves on Wednesday.  Despite the best efforts of everyone involved we did in fact eventually make it to our rental apartment by dinnertime.  We were hoping to pick up our festival wristbands today, but a late flight departure followed by the always-occurring-never-entertaining cluster that is the experience of taking the bus from the airport in Keflavik into the city ensured that we didn’t arrive until right at the same time that the media center closed for the day.  I’m not sure how this happens every single trip, but the staff at the bus terminal always looks completely surprised and baffled by the number of arriving buses and exiting passengers who are looking for the shuttles to the their hotels.  I mean, you sold these people the tickets.  You should know they’re coming well before they end their 40 minute trip to the station.  Fortunately we were still able to meet up with our friends Tristen and Andy who arrived earlier in the morning (and who also reported a complete debacle at the bus station…) and had time for some pizza at one of our favorite haunts, Eldsmiðjan, before heading out to catch a couple of shows.

dscf3435-1

Only a handful of venues were doing shows tonight, so we decided to stroll down to one of our favorite haunts, Lucky Records, to catch up with our friend Ingvar and see a couple of bands.  First up was Epic Rain (above), who we’ve enjoyed a few times before, but this set was a bit different, featuring a broader range of instruments including a harp and glockenspiel, and a whole lot of talented backing musicians.  Lead vocalist Johannes was paired with a new singing partner this time around, and adding a female voice to the mix changed the complexion of the songs, creating a more natural sounding contrast.  They also added some film projections to the show giving it a more multi-media vibe.  The other performer we saw tonight was Teitur Magnússon, who in addition to his solo work is known for being the frontman of the reggae band Ojba Rasta.  His solo project included close to a dozen fellow musicians and delivered a cross of folk and reggae.  Teitur was joined on stage by none other than FM Belfast’s Árni Vilhjálmsson for the final number, and it was interesting to see Árni in a more straight-forward singing role and not in full-on performance mode.

That was it for our first night in Reykjavik.  We’ve got a seriously full plate for tomorrow, and it includes some pretty cool stuff.  But I’m going to leave you in suspense for now, because I really need some sleep…

Iceland Airwaves 2014 – Days 4 and 5

I was totally wiped out at the conclusion of Day 4… so I didn’t write a post.  Instead I figured I’d combine the last two days of the festival into one entry.

We actually didn’t see a ton of music on Saturday.  We opened strong, though, with the hip hop group Úlfur Úlfur off venue at Íslenski Barinn, a cool little pub that also may be home to Reykjavik’s best burger.  The guys played a cool stripped down set that didn’t try to do too much and they gave us a really good time.  I may need to pick up one of their albums before we leave – they were that good.  Do yourself a favor and go to YouTube and check out their video for “Tarantúlur,” which is pretty much all burnouts and dudes eating hot dogs.  You can thank me later.  Honestly I’m not sure when the hip hop scene here got so killer, but every single performance we’ve seen this trip has been rock solid, whether rapped in English or Icelandic.

Later in the afternoon we were back at Lucky Records for an in-store by the hip hop group Epic Rain.  This was a new style of live show for the group, as they were accompanied by a five piece band instead of relying exclusively on electronics for the music.  A standup bass, a violin, guitar, keyboard, and even the former drummer of the Sugarcubes pounding the skins!  The guys were great and the band played impressively well together in front of a relatively packed house at Lucky.

DSCF1300

From there we posted up for the rest of the night at Gamla Bíó.  The evening program there opened with the intriguing Lily the Kid, a new group featuring a couple of members of Bloodgroup including female vocalist Lilja K. Jónsdóttir.  They play a somewhat dark, ethereal style of pop, and last night’s show was only their second live performance (we caught the last song of their first show the night before).  I expect that we’ll be hearing more from them.  Next up was Low Roar, a talented performer with a great backing band, but one who plays a very low key, “quiet” style of music.  Prins Póló kicked it up a notch with his nice guitar work and talented drummer, but our energy was starting to fade fast.  We got through about half of How to Dress Well‘s electro-pop set and called it a night.

Sunday started with a relaxing morning at Blue Lagoon Spa, followed by an early afternoon techno set from Futuregrapher, who did a mix of music and reading from a book (in Icelandic).  He played one track off of his upcoming album, due to drop later this month, and it was a much more upbeat danceable number – should be one to be on the lookout for.

We closed out the festival at the “headliner” event featuring the Flaming Lips.  This is the first time at Airwaves that we’ve gotten tickets to an event that wasn’t covered by the general festival pass.  Most years the only way to get tickets to these special events is to wait in long lines, but this year they also offered the opportunity to purchase a limited number of tickets in advance, so we took advantage of that to guarantee ourselves a spot.  The opener was The War on Drugs, who played a solid one hour set, the last of their current tour.  Then it was onto the Flaming Lips, which can best be described as an experience – psychedelic patterns, big inflatable things, LED lights, balloons, costumes, and just general shenanigans.  While at times it was perhaps a bit overly theatrical it was still a really enjoyable time, with the band playing for a solid 90 minutes before taking a brief break and then doing an encore.

P1020067

And that, dear reader, is how our sixth Iceland Airwaves ended – with a pretty decent bang.  Our band count was “down” in 2014 (I only saw 33 shows…), but we had a great time and didn’t feel like we ran ourselves ragged trying to see everything possible.  Plus I’m coming home with a huge bag of vinyl, CDs, and tapes (more on those to follow), so I have that to last me through at least the end of the calendar year.

Only 51 more weeks ’til Iceland Airwaves 2015…

Epic Rain – “Somber Air”

Epic Rain came recommended to me back in 2012 by my friend Ingvar at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, so we made a point of checking them out at Iceland Airwaves that year at a little club, and caught them again in 2013 at an in-store off-venue performance at Lucky.  So it makes sense that when Ingvar started his own label, also named Lucky Records, that Epic Rain would be the first band he put out, releasing their sophomore album Somber Air last month.  And he did it first class, with a gatefold vinyl release that includes a copy of the album on CD inside – which is even better than a mp3 download card.

epicrainsomberair

The driving force behind Epic Rain is Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason, the lyricist and primary vocalist.  While the band lists their genre as “alternative” on their Facebook page, the style of Pálmason is more spoken than sung, and I see them as more of a hip hop group.  Though hip hop is an insufficient description for Epic Rain – this isn’t your standard bass-driven, smack-talking hip hop.  Not at all.  The music that provides the base on which Pálmason and sometimes co-vocalist Bragi Eiríkur Jóhannsson perform is drawn from all kinds of different genres, from country (“Shadow Of A Rose”) to military marches (“Dancing With Daggers”) to surf (“Nowhere Street”).  One of the things that differentiates Somber Air from Epic Rain’s 2012 full-length debut, Elegy, is that this musical layers are much broader in range and influence, and that’s also one of the things that makes it special.

It’s the vocals that truly define Epic Rain’s sound.  Pálmason’s delivery is a slightly raspy, almost forced whispered spoken word that creates a darker, sometimes desperate emotionally wrenching emotional state over the top of the music that fits his lyrics perfectly.

I turn my back on the city I’m committed to the road,
The boat is leaking and the water is freezing cold,

This world is made of stone and broken chains,
I’m digging for gold hoping for a change.

— “Shadow Of A Rose”

When Jóhannsson joins in the effect is even more jarring with his delivery that sounds remarkably like Louis Armstrong – all the more so when you see that the sound is coming from a relatively young man from Iceland.  The two of them together both contrast and compliment one another and give Epic Rain a sound that seems old and familiar… yet is really something new and different, particularly on the tracks “Somber Air” and “King of Beggars.”  Pálmason bought in some female vocalists for some of Somber Air‘s tracks as well, offering even more counters to his unique vocal style.  The singing of the co-vocalists, combined with the cadence of Pálmason’s unique delivery, often deliver startling contrasts.

The campfire needs a story about thieves and ghosts,
A lonely soul needs a fisherman’s rope,
The knife needs the touch of a filthy hand,
And the prison cell needs a guilty man.
— “Somber Air”

When trying to describe Epic Rain’s debut to others I generally did so as “they’re what hip hop would have sounded like if it had been invented in a jazz club or cabaret in the 1930s.”  With Somber Air Epic Rain broadens that scope by introducing a wider range of musical influences, while still retaining that old-time feel – something new out of something old.  It’s dusty and dark, a world inhabited by desperate lovers and petty criminals, the futureless young and the old-before-their-years losers.  It’s music that should be listened to in the dark with a cigarette and some straight whiskey.

It might be tough to track down a copy of Somber Air in the US, but fear not friends, because you purchase CD, vinyl, or digital download on the band’s Bandcamp page HERE.  If you’re tired of the same old same old, check out Epic Rain – they’ve got something new and interesting going on.