“Skytturnar” Soundtrack (featuring Bubbi Morthens and The Sugarcubes) (1987)

I think it’s safe to say that Icelandic films are completely unknown in the United States, and probably most of the rest of the world as well.  Don’t confuse being “unknown” with being “bad” though – I’ve seen a few Icelandic movies over the year, and they’re generally decent.  But if there’s one thing that most Americans hate, it’s subtitles, and given the breadth of English language films being pumped out of Hollywood, there’s never a shortage of non-subtitled movies to watch.  When we’re feeling exotic, we’ll watch something from the UK (and at times wish their were subtitles to help us with accents when they’re particularly thick).


The movie Skytturnar came out in 1987, and it’s about a couple of whale fisherman who come to Reykjavik, run into some trouble, and end up having some problems with the cops.  I haven’t seen the movie, but that didn’t stop me from buying the four song soundtrack that I found on eBay a few weeks ago, which had actually been on my want list for some time. (♠)   Why, pray tell, was the soundtrack for a 1987 Icelandic movie about a couple of pissed off whalers that I’ve never seen before be on my want list, you might ask?  Well, because of who performs on it – Bubbi Morthens (with his band MX-21) and a little band that were just getting started named Sykurmolarnir.  A band you might know better as The Sugarcubes.

Bobbi formed the short-lived MX-21 in 1986, and they only released three songs together – the one on Skytturnar and a two-song 12″ called Skapar Fegurðin Hamingju? (a copy of which I finally tracked down and bought, and should have in my mailbox any day now), both of which came out in 1987.  It was a powerhouse of a band though, including not only Bubbi but also former members of Þeyr and Tappi Tíkarrass.  The song on the soundtrack, also titled “Skytturnar,” is classic Bubbi from this period, sort of lite-rock bordering on adult contemporary.  Musically it’s clearly rock, probably with a bit of a blues influence, and it sounds like there are strings in some parts as well.  It’s decent, but nothing to get overly excited about other than for some decent guitar work.

The B side is given over to three songs by The Sugarcubes.  This is early stuff, the band having only released a few singles in Iceland up to that point.  I believe the soundtrack came out a little before The Sugarcubes’ breakthrough single “Birthday” on the UK’s One Little Indian label, so they pretty much weren’t known outside of their homeland.  The three songs are, for all intents and purposes, instrumentals – there are some vocal sounds, but not any kind of actual singing.  The first, “Drekinn,” has some elements that might remind one a little of the band’s later material, but the other two are more like traditional movie scores than songs.

All in all Skytturnar is an interesting record, though one that probably only appeals to the Bubbi Morthens and/or The Sugarcubes completist, or the Icelandophile like me.


(♠)  I always assumed, based on the small and low quality pictures of this record cover I’d seen prior to owning it, that the dude on the front was playing a violin or something.  Turns out he’s aiming a shotgun.  Not even close.

The Sugarcubes – “Stick Around for Joy” (1991)

I have 170 records by Icelandic artists.  And that’s just on vinyl… it doesn’t even include tapes and CDs I’ve picked up.  And I’ve only been at it for maybe four years.  And yet, until last week, I had never purchased anything by The Sugarcubes.

How is this possible?  People joke that Björk is Iceland’s biggest export, yet there’s an element of truth to that, certainly from an American perspective.  Outside the Bobby Fischer / Boris Spassky match-up for the 1972 World Chess Championship and the 1986 Reagan / Gorbachev summit, which both took place in Reykjavik, most Americans were (and mostly still are) basically ignorant of Iceland.  And then The Sugarcubes happened.  And Björk happened. And now there are so many tourists going to Iceland that there are legitimate fears that all those people are actually damaging a surprisingly fragile ecosystem, one that Icelanders feel very connected to.

I like to think we fell in love with Iceland before there was a bandwagon.  It was more like a little shuttle bus with bald tires at that point.  But any time I mentioned the country, Björk and/or The Sugarcubes were invariably brought into the conversation.  So how did I manage to go this long without sitting down to listen to The Sugarcubes?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s an unconscious rebellion… sort of feeling like I couldn’t “discover” music that was already so well known?  After all, I’ve never listened to Sigur Rós either (no joke), and they’re probably the most popular Icelandic group among American music fans.  Hell, I haven’t even listened to either of Björk’s last two albums.

I suspect there is some truth to this.  I’m not intentionally ignoring these bands or albums, I just haven’t made even the remotest effort to listen to them.  And it’s not like we don’t have their music in the house, since Holly has had CDs by all of them for some time.  Simon Reynolds touches on these topics a bit in his fun book Retromania, and while it’s uncomfortable to feel like some type of ridiculous unconscious weaknesses and/or needs shapes my choices of what music to listen to, I have to be man enough to admit that it could be true.

sugarcubesstickaroundAnyway… I found this nice copy of The Sugarcubes’ last LP, 1991s Stick Around for Joy, the other day stuck in the 12″ singles section at a local store.  Given the price, my guess is someone mistook it for a 12″, and to be fair it kind of looks like one, including the jacket opening at the top instead of the right side.  And you know what?  It’s good.  It’s really good.  The musical sound is like an evolved version of new wave, sort of a  “free” new wave, much like free jazz, a poppy new wave sound that wanders around in a very loosely structured way.  Of course, we add to that Björk, with her oh so recognizable voice and vocal style that flows like water and won’t allow itself to be constrained by the music.  Thrown in a dash of Einar Örn weirdness, and you have a pop band that still sounds fresh today.  The only band I can compare them to is the B-52s, and I do hear a some similarities especially on “Vitamin.”

I’m glad I picked up Stick Around for Joy.  There’s some enjoyable, fun pop music here, and I can’t believe I wanted this long to check it out.  And since there’s still a little bit more space on my Icelandic vinyl shelf…

“World Domination or Death, Vol. 1” Compilation

I’m back on the compilation train!

I ran across this at the flea market in Reykjavik last month, and it’s a cool mix put out by Icelandic label Bad Taste Records. Einar Örn of Purrkur Pillnikk, Ghostigital, and The Sugarcubes fame was one of the driving forces in founding the label in 1986, and his reputation in the local music community ensured they’d be able to sign the cream of the Icelandic crop.  And that’s evident by the bands who appear on World Domination or Death, Vol. 1 (1990), which is made up of two songs each by Reptile, Bless, HAM, and Bootlegs, and singles for The Sugarcubes and Oxtor.

We do not know what Bad Taste is.
Therefore we present to you
another taste in Icelandic Music.
World Domination or Death.
Know what I mean gringo.
— From back album jacket

This is an interesting combination of bands.  On side A you’ve got Reptile, a band I haven’t reviewed here on the blog previously but will likely get to in short order since I have a couple of their records on my shelves, and who sound almost like a crazy Japanese pop band from the 1980s. Next up is Bless, one of the projects of the infamous Dr. Gunni, a prolific musician and top notch music historian who I was lucky enough to meet in person on the same trip that got me this record, who play a sort of early Cult style of rock.  Then we get to HAM.  We are HAM!  The masters of Icelandic doom metal… who on this album cover Abba’s “Voulez Vous”.  Nuf said.  The Bootlegs then kick in and take the metal to the next level, playing a solid thrash style that speaks to fans of early Metallica like me.  And finally The Sugarcubes who, let’s be honest, don’t require an introduction.  The reverse side has the same five bands with the exception of The Sugarcubes, who are replaced by Oxtar and a sort of rockabilly tune called “Kontinental”.

The vinyl also contains some super-secret messages engraved into the runout grooves:

“We’re in charge.  If that’s OK with you.” – Side A
“We will rule.  Give or take an inch.” – Side B

World Domination or Death, Vol. 1 is one of the better Icelandic comps out there – while there are only six bands here, all of them are good and many were pretty important parts of the scene.  Too bad there were no other volumes put out, as near as I can tell, but this one is definitely worth picking up on vinyl or CD.