FM Belfast – “Island Broadcast” (2017)

It may seem weird to blog followers that I haven’t posted about FM Belfast’s most recent album yet.  The reason for this is that I wrote a review of it for the magazine Reykjavik On Stage, and the latest issue finally came out so now I feel OK about posting this on the blog.  If you haven’t checked out Reykjavik On Stage yet, you owe it to yourself to do so HERE – it’s the first English-only magazine devoted to the Icelandic music scene.  So without further ado…

 

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We stopped FM Belfast’s Reykjavik office in November to pick up a copy of the band’s newest album, Island Broadcast. Welcoming us was artist and band member Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir, and during the course of our visit we asked what she thought about all the construction cranes visible outside her window and the changes to the downtown cityscape. She compared it to living in the movie Dark City, where every morning you wake up to find that things have been somehow changed overnight and noted, with a sigh, that she missed some of the buildings the same way she would an old friend. That underlying mood can be found throughout Island Broadcast, its beats and chords seemingly slowed down just a bit giving the whole thing a certain languid quality, like being lost in a dream. It would be easy for an album like this to become morose. But that’s not who FM Belfast are. In fact, if there’s one word I would use to describe Island Broadcast, that word is “hope”.

The message of hope is found throughout the lyrics of the album’s 11 songs. Right from the opening track “All My Power” we’re asked to help one another escape the lethargy we feel, “Would you mind / Helping me up / Helping me up / I’ve been in bed all day…”, setting the tone for what’s in store. And if that was too ambiguous for you, the second song “Follow Me” makes it crystal clear: “Don’t give them what they want / They’ll always ask for more / They can’t have you happy / They need your desperation.” But don’t worry my friends, because there is hope, right in the very next verse: “You’re no longer blind / You can follow me / I can open your eyes / You don’t have to be in the dark.”

The lyrics are only one part of the equation, though. You don’t become the world’s best party band without great music, and sonically Island Broadcast provides a level of diversity that is often lacking in electronic-based albums. Certainly the beats are great, but it’s the flourishes that give the songs individual character. Whether that’s the piano on “Up All Night”, the sampling on “Fearless Youth”, or the tropical vibe of the steel drums on “You’re So Pretty”, FM Belfast always find a way to make each song unique. When performed live they pick up the tempo, feeding off the energy of the crowd and transforming the songs from messages of hope to celebrations of it, creating that positive party atmosphere that is like a shot of pure dopamine to the brain.

FM Belfast has given us a gem in Island Broadcast, an album with an important and positive message that’s also a lot of fun to listen to. And what more can you really ask for from your music?

Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 4

We didn’t do any off venue stuff on Saturday, instead using it as a chance to do some things around town.  Plus we had tickets for Björk’s show at Harpa which started at 5PM, so by time we rolled out of bed and got done having “breakfast” with our friend Leana it was already almost Noon… and only about 3.5 hours until our pre-show dinner.

So about that Björk show…

This was our first time seeing Iceland’s most famous export perform, and going into it I knew she was going to be accompanied by strings from the Icelandic Philharmonic Orchestra and would be playing material from her 2015 release Vulnicura, an album that explored the collapse and dissolution of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney.  I’d intentionally avoided the album in advance of the show as I wanted to go into this show with as fresh a perspective as possible.

Based on reviews of the album I expected Björk to bring her pain to the stage, but I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of her emotional exposure.  The string arrangements were intentionally disjointed and jarring, upping the unease that already flowed from her lyrics as she described the trauma of the dying relationship.  It was like she cut out her heart, put it on a table in front of us, and then poured salt on it and tore at her own wounds.  If the purpose of art is to make us feel, then Björk accomplished that with her first 45 minute set, making us feel her pain, making us squirm in our seats at the sheer discomfort of listening to her completely expose herself to us.  I’m glad I got to experience it.  And I hope to never experience anything like it again.

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I was a bit concerned we were going to get more of the same following the intermission, as frankly it would have been almost been too much to bear.  But fortunately the strings came to life harmonically and beautifully as we entered a more upbeat second half of the show.  Björk’s voice soared throughout the hall designed for orchestras and operas, the sound perfect and the crowd quiet and attentive enough that you could hear a pin drop.

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We headed back to our apartment for a post-Björk break, but then it was right back down to Harpa for another full night of shows.  The on-venue schedule opened for us with Gunnar Jónsson Collider (left) and his brand of experimental rock accompanied by what were definitely the trippiest and coolest visuals we saw at the festival.  At times it bordered on prog, but the electronic elements kept things fresh and interesting.

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Tonik Ensemble was next, though truth be told Holly and I were chilling out for most of their set, so much so that I literally forgot to shoot photos.  I feel a little bad about that because I enjoyed 2015s Snapshot as well as the entire set they played at Harpa.  From there it was onto a more up tempo performance by Hermigervill (right), who we first experienced as the musical backing for Berndsen, then later seeing some of his solo performances.  He had some witty and funny banter with the crowd and you could tell he was genuinely excited to be up on stage playing his music, which always makes the entire experience more enjoyable.  As an added bonus, the big redhead Berndsen came out and did a couple of his dream-pop songs with his old partner in crime, which was a lot of fun.

The teenage duo Let’s Eat Grandma was next in what was a bit of a challenging set that sometimes seemed like it tried to hard to be avant garde.  These ladies have some very obvious talent and there were moments within the set where things came together nicely.  I respect them from getting outside of the box, but would have enjoyed it more if they played a bit more to their strengths.  That being said, I’m certainly aware of the possibility that this could indeed be Advanced work that is simply beyond my comprehension.  SG Lewis followed them and showed us a thing or two about how to be both interesting and different, the multi-instrumentalist wearing many hats throughout his set, one of the interesting features of which were some songs that had all the vocals pre-recorded and not being sung by anyone on stage.

That brought us to the finish line and Iceland’s best party band, FM Belfast.  As always the gang from FM Belfast packed them in and the crowd density nearly reached critical mass.  Holly and I stayed for about half the set before attempting to make it from the far back corner of the room to the exit doors on the other wall (♠), which took us nearly an entire song to accomplish.  Eventually we rode the coattails of a bunch of dudes making a single-file path through the crowd while others filed in behind us, but it was a bit touch-and-go for a bit.  So if I stepped on your foot during this, my apologies; if you stepped on mine, no worries.

Four days down… one to go!

(♠)  I have yet to fully comprehend how the decisions are made as to which doors are opened and closed, and when, at those upstairs rooms in Harpa.  It’s a tough floor to be on – the main walkway the two rooms share is pretty narrow in parts and it can make for some super densely packed crowds that can barely move.  I get wanting to control traffic flow… but having exit doors that can’t be used at times just makes it harder to get people out of the rooms.  And here’s another idea -stagger the start and end times a bit!  I get that having shows in both rooms starting and ending at the same time makes some sense in terms of people being able to catch entire sets, but it’s a foot traffic disaster when you have 1,500 people trying to leave two rooms at the exact same time and spilling out into the same small space.

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 2014 – Day 3

Airwaves started in an usual way today, with us attending a pair of interpretive dance performances at Lucky Records.  I don’t know anything whatsoever about dance, but knew enough to realize something “interpretive” would be well outside of what I’m used to.  And it was.  I’ll tell you what, though – I give those two guys a lot of credit, because you’re really putting yourself out there doing something like that in front of an audience, all by yourself, no music… I couldn’t do it.

But then it was on to music.  We kicked it off with some off-venue, starting with Fufanu at the clothing store JÖR, complete with a free bar serving vodka shots – nice!  We’d seen the techno duo Captain Fufanu at a prior Airwaves, but this is a newer incarnation, a more traditional rock setup with a sort of moody style.  I like what they’re doing, though the sound in at the store made it difficult to hear the singing, which was unfortunate.

After an amazing Pakistani dinner it was off to the bar Slippbarinn where we caught Young Karin and Sykur.  Young Karin played as a three piece, with Kelli (of Agent Fresco) on drums, Logi Pedro Stefánsson (of Retro Stefson) on guitar and electronics, and fronted by singer Karin Sveinsdóttir.  They combined for a nice performance of electro-pop numbers, and given how much music talent is in the group, I suspect we’ll be hearing more from them.  Sykur is a band we saw about five years ago and haven’t seen since… and frankly I think they’ve matured tremendously.  The music was outstanding, but singer Agnes Björt Andradóttir truly stole the show with her powerful voice, unique look, and positive energy.  It was an infectious show, one you simply couldn’t help but enjoy, and that concluded with Andradóttir performing the last song out among the crowd.

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Agnes Björt Andradóttir of Sykur

From there a buddy and I headed to KEX Hostel to see the godfathers of Icelandic heavy metal, HAM, who were being broadcast live back to Seattle and New York thanks to KEXP radio.  Their appearance at Airwaves was kind of a fluke this year – tonight’s off-venue was their only show of the festival (!) and it came about because KEXP had a spot to fill and sort of thought to ask them.  And they said “sure”.  There is a lesson here, friends.  Sometimes you just need to ask the question.

HAM has always been a bit tongue-and-cheek in their performances, with sometimes crazy lyrics and soaring vocals within the framework of their doom metal music.  We got there an hour early and still knew there was a zero percent chance we’d find a spot that would allow us to actually see the band perform – the space used by the bands at KEX is at floor level, so if you’re not in the first few rows of the audience the best you can expect is a glance here and there.  We were far enough back that realistically we didn’t even get that.  The band actually played a little two song set as their sound check, which included my favorite of their songs “Dauð hóra,” then came back half an hour later for their 30 minute live broadcast set.

The place, frankly, went nuts over HAM.  There are seldom encores at Airwaves, and given that KEXP was still broadcasting stuff live from KEX it didn’t seem likely that the band would be coming back out.  But the crowd insisted.  They chanted “HAM! HAM! HAM!”; they clapped; the did a sort of thing that sounded like holding a musical note, “HAAAAAAAAAAAAAA…”  So HAM came back out and put the icing on the heavy metal cake with two more songs and shredded the joint.  I was a bit bummed by my inability to get an decent photos due to our spot in the back of the room… that is until KEXP DJ Kevin Cole saw my dejected state, waived me over to their broadcast position, and let me stand on a chair next to him to shoot a few quick shots, which was insanely cool of him.  And I managed a couple of decent ones, including the one below.  We are HAM!

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Next it was off to Iceland’s national opera house, Harpa.  There we caught the second half of rocker Anna Calyi‘s set, followed by the techno beats of The Mansisters.  That took us to the pinnacle of the evening, the closing set of one FM Belfast.  There are better bands than FM Belfast, sure.  But you will never, and I do mean never, have as much fun as you will at an FM Belfast show in Reykjavik.  Their style of catchy electro-pop creates an infectious environment that sucks in the crowd.  You simply can’t watch them without smiling, and before you know it you’ll find yourself dancing and throwing your hands up in the air.  This was, I believe, our fourth (or maybe fifth) FM Belfast show, and they never, ever disappoint.

It’s hard to believe Airwaves is more than half over now – three of the five days are in the books, and frankly there isn’t a ton scheduled on Sunday, so really tomorrow is the last full day.  To know that it’s almost over makes me a little sad, but it’s been a great ride so far, and I’m looking forward to getting back at it again tomorrow.  And since the dates for Iceland Airwaves 2015 have already been announced, it probably won’t be long before we start planning our next trip to Reykjavik to do it all over again.

FM Belfast – “Brighter Days”

I can’t explain how excited I was to hear the new FM Belfast was coming out.  The list of Icelandic bands releasing new albums this year is impressive – FM Belfast, Agent Fresco, Gusgus, Epic Rain… it’s the perfect storm!  In fact it was Brighter Days that prompted me to get in touch with my buddy Ingvar of Reykjavik’s Lucky Records to put in a vinyl order – there were a few other titles I’d been coveting, but FM Belfast put me over the top enough that I decided to pull the trigger and have some vinyl shipped across the Atlantic.

We’ve seen FM Belfast’s synth-pop goodness live at least four times…. maybe more.  They always impress with a high energy set, and the crowds in Iceland love them.  There’s just something about their relatively simple, catchy, poppy sound, so that even when they’re covering Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” and sweetly singing, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” (their version is called “Lotus” and appears on How To Make Friends) you find yourself humming along as the profanity becomes funny instead of shocking.

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If there’s one thing that seems to define Brighter Days to me is the deliberateness of the songs, both musically and vocally.  The beats are very distinctive sounding and clear with individual bass sounds that don’t blend together, while songs like “DeLorean” bring in a straight up chiptune influence – you’d swear some of the sounds were coming straight from your old Nintendo Super Mario Brothers cartridge, picking up lots of coins and mushrooms on the way (“Ariel” is another… including a Chipmunks-like voice at one point).

There are other influences here too.  You’d be forgiven if you mistook “Holiday” for a slightly slowed down Pet Shop Boys number, right down to the harmonizing, while “Non Believer” brings in a bit more of that chiptuney element alongside a very 1980s long-note style keyboard playing, something that reminds me a touch of Berlin’s “The Metro.”

All that being said, I don’t want you to come away thinking Brighter Days is a bunch of copy-cat, derivative pop, because that’s not it at all.  FM Belfast stays true to their core sound, with catchy hooks, funny and smart lyrics, and a general overall feeling of fun.  “We Are Faster Than You” is a perfect example, the iconic FM Belfast style song – it’s kind of silly, but I promise you’ll find yourself humming it without even knowing you’re doing it.  Like the hits “Underwear” and “American” off the band’s previous two albums, “We Are Faster Than You” is destined to be a crowd favorite.

FM Belfast is just plain fun music.  And isn’t music supposed to be fun?

Brighter Days is available on vinyl, CD, and iTunes, so you don’t have an excuse.  Give it a listen.