Þeyr – “Þagað Í Hel” (1980)

I spent a few decades actively involved in the sports memorabilia world, both as a collector and a seller.  In fact my dad owned and operated a baseball card shop in the 1990s back when that was actually something you could earn a living at.  I’ve attended shows and conventions in at least a half dozen states plus Canada.  I’m not active in it any more – I sold off most of my stuff over the years, and at least some of that money ended up going to records.

But that’s not why I’m bringing up my hobby history.  It’s because the sports memorabilia world was the first place I heard people refer to “The Holy Grail”, or often simply “Grail”, in a context that didn’t involve blood and wine.  Back in the day auction catalogs constantly tried to outdo each other in hyperbole, and one of the ways they’d do that was to refer to a rare or valuable item as “The Holy Grail of [fill in the blank]”, with [fill in the blank] replaced by “Tobacco Cards” or “Babe Ruth Cards” or “Hall of Fame Autographs” or “Greg Jeffries Donruss Rookie Cards”. (♠)  Generally the term was used to describe the best of something.

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In the record collecting world the term Grail is used in a similar way, but one that is more personal.  It’s not unusual for a collector to as another “what’s your Grail”, meaning the record that you desperately desire but don’t have either due to cost or scarcity, the record that always seems to have been found by someone else 15 minutes before you got to the shop or show, your elusive vinyl nemesis.  I don’t think I’ve had a Grail per se since getting back into vinyl, but the closest album is probably Þeyr 1980 debut Þagað Í Hel.  It’s the one album that I’ve actually told people, “if you ever get a copy of this for sale, put it aside because I’ll 100% buy it”.  It’s the only album I ever marked as a “Want” on Discogs.  And I haven’t seen one for sale anywhere since I started looking a few years back.  Sure, an acquaintance on Facebook had a line on one for a while, but that fell through, and apparently I was a few weeks too late to Reykjavik Record Shop a few years ago and a collector from Japan walked out with their copy.  I wouldn’t say I’ve been actively looking for it, but I’d also say I put more effort into trying to find a copy than I have for any other record.

And about two weeks ago I got an automated email from Discogs letting me know that a seller just posted a copy of Þagað Í Hel that day.  Within five minutes of getting that email I ordered it, then endured a painful 10 day wait for it to make it here from Sweden.  On Thursday I snuck out during my lunch break and picked it up at the post office, and today I’ve been sitting here just sort of looking at it, almost afraid to play it.  The collecting drive is often more about the chase than the actual having of the object, a perversely masochistic mindset.  But I can’t put it off any longer.  It’s been cleaned on the Okki Nokki and is ready to hit the turntable.

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Þeyr got their first record deal on the strength of a couple of pop songs they’d written, but when they went into the studio to cut Þagað Í Hel their style changed to something more new wave-ish, so much so that it almost didn’t get released.  Reportedly somewhere between 300 and 500 copies were pressed, and according to legend the masters were destroyed in a fire, which likely explains in part why none of these eight songs ever made it onto CD.

The opening track “En…” is reminiscent of early Talking Heads, followed immediately by the rockabilly-inspired “…Nema Jói”, so clearly there are no rules being followed here.  Which leads us to “Hringt”, adding a sort of disco thing to the mix and starting to give me the sense that Þeyr was still exploring at this point in their trajectory together, not yet having established the more post-punk sound that came to define their handful of later releases (they last performed in 1982 and put out their lasts release, a 7″, in 1983).  By the second half of “Heilarokk” we start to get some glimpse into the direction they eventually went, breaking free of traditional song structures into something unique to Þeyr.  Of course the ABBA-like “Eftir Vígið”, replete with it’s female vocals and harmonies, is like an unexpected bucket of ice cold water on your head.

Þagað Í Hel certainly wasn’t the record I expected, but it does provide some insight into the band’s early influences and is an intriguing starting line when you consider how they sounded on Mjötviður Mær (which was the very first record I ever wrote about on Life in the Vinyl Lane) just a year later.  It remains impossibly hard to find, but fortunately some intrepid souls have recorded these eight tracks and posted them on YouTube!, so if you want to give them a listen just go search there using the album name.

(♠)  No one has ever said this about the 1988 Donruss Greg Jeffries rookie card, at least not with any level of sincerity.  Jeffries was projected by many to be “the new hot rookie”, and that year my dad bought an insane amount of 1988 Donruss baseball cards.  I spent uncountable hours sitting at the small table in his shop going through box after box of these cards, sorting them numerically and putting aside the Jeffries cards.  He went on to be a solid player for a dozen or so seasons, but never became a star and those boxes of Jeffries cards became little more than recycling fodder.  But hey, dad was paying me by the hour, so I was happy to sort, sort, sort…

Emmsjé Gauti – “Þeyr” (2013)

I was a bit late to the Emmsjé Gauti party.  As a student of Advancement, I of course blame myself for this.  My first experiences with him were live shows, and given that I can’t speak a lick of Icelandic I was left with only the remaining two elements from which to form an opinion – the sound and the show.  And Gauti just isn’t as flashy as some of his peers in the Icelandic hip hop scene, so to my detriment I probably dismissed him a bit.  My bad, because his sophomore album Þeyr is a pure flow machine.

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Am I the only one who gets just the slightest hint of Kid Rock’s beats in “Nýju Fötin Keisarans”?  That perfect small dose of otherness infused into the otherwise smooth electro-beats give it the perfect whiff of something special, something to differentiate Gauti from the pack.  Throughout Þeyr the beats and flows have their roots in R&B.  A prime example is “Hvolpaást” with it’s pure sweet smoothness like a layer of impossibly rich whipped cream, a bit sticky but oh so delicious.  But don’t think that means Emmsjé can’t get the party started, because he can and does on jams like “Verum Heimsk”, bringing faster cadence and ever-building beats and snare snaps.  This is the kind of track you want to spin when you’re deep into the night, maybe the peak already happened but you’ve still got that energy and you want to groove, baby.

You can give Guati a listen for free, including all of Þeyr, on Soundcloud HERE.   If you’re looking for something new in hip hop, the sound of the Icelandic language alone will make this worth your time.

The Sugarcubes Family Tree – A Punk Rock (His and Her)-story

harmonyencyclopediaBack when I was in high school, when things were simpler and we were all more afraid of dying in a nuclear war than from slowly destroying the planet through sheer negligence and indifference, I bought a book called The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, which might be the least rock book title of all time.  Published in 1986, the year that opened with the Miami Vice Soundtrack topping the Billboard charts and also saw the last album by an experimental weirdo-fest called KUKL (<– this will be relevant later!), this large format book is full of color photos and some surprisingly good band bios and discographies.  I read and re-read it constantly, and in that pre-internet era it pointed me towards quite a few artists and albums that I would have never been aware of otherwise.  One of the cool things inside is a series of band “family trees” by artist Pete Frame that trace the development of, and often intertwined relationships between, various bands.  I found these endlessly interesting, whether they traced the complex inter-minglings of CSNY / The Byrds / The Eagles / Flying Burrito Brothers or Roxy Music / King Crimson.  I could follow the threads for hours.  Surprisingly I still have the book, thought it seems almost quaint now when I can look up just about anything I’d ever want to know on my phone.

On a seemingly unrelated note, if you read Life in the Vinyl Lane with any frequency you’ll known I’m a fan of the Iceland music scene.  What’s strange about that, though, is that I was never into the Sugarcubes or Björk’s solo stuff (or the ultra-popular Sigur Rós for that matter).  I doubt I’ve heard all the Sugarcube albums all the way through (though I am listening to Stick Around For Joy as I write this), and I’ve probably only heard three Björk solo records, including the one she did when she was something like 11 years old.  So I came to Icelandic music from a weird direction.  But I am a big fan of some of Björk’s early work with bands like KUKL and Tappi Tíkarrass, as well as most of the rest of the early Icelandic punk scene.  And one thing I found over time is that like those bands in Frame’s family trees, there was a lot of overlap within that scene, much of it eventually converging with the Sugarcubes.  So much so that one day I decided I’d try to do a Sugarcubes family tree just to see what it would look like.

Turns out it was a lot of work.  And pretty interesting as well, pointing me to some bands like Exem that I’d never heard of before.  I probably got some stuff on here wrong too.  Sorry about that.  I did the best I could with what I had available to me.  So if you see something missing or incorrect, hit me up and I’ll try to fix it.  Or maybe I won’t.  I don’t know. (♣)

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We start with five bands at the top level, including what are arguably “The Big 3 Bands In Icelandic Punk” – Purrkur Pillnikk, Tappi Tíkarrass, and Þeyr.  The little-known (outside of Iceland, at least) Fan Houtens Kókó also play an important part.  The fifth is a bit of an outlier.  No one from Spilafífl actually played in the Sugarcubes, but member Birgir Mogensen was in the pre-Sugarcubes outfit KUKL, plus he played bass on the track “Emotional Swing” from the one and only album released by Með Nöktum, a band that included Magnús Guðmundsson, formerly of Þeyr, as one of its core members.

Confused yet?  I am a little.  Leaving aside all the ancillary bands, let’s just hone in on KUKL, the bands that more or less morphed into the Sugarcubes.  Members originally connected as part of a radio broadcast, which led to a 7″ single called Söngull in 1983, right around the same time that Iceland’s first generation of punk bands ended their runs.  All five of the bands on the top of the tree contributed at least one member to KUKL:

  • Birgir Mogensen from Spilafífl
  • Einar Melax from Fan Houtens Kókó
  • Einar Örn from Purrkur Pillnikk
  • Björk from Tappi Tíkarrass
  • Siggi Baldursson from Þeyr
  • Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson (credited variously on KUKL releases… including God Krist, Gud Krist, and Guð Krist) from Þeyr

Óttarsson later performed as part of a duo with Björk called Elgar Sisters.  Other members of KUKL participated on some of the Elgar Sister recordings, as did other local musicians.  The Elgar Sisters recorded 11 tracks, one of which called “Patré” appeared on the label comp tape New Icelandic Music in 1987, while a few others snuck onto various solo releases over the years.

(Taking a breath and switching over to listen to KUKL’s The Eye as I continue to go cross-eyed trying to keep all these pieces together in my mind.  It’s disjointedness is fitting for this topic.)

So the last KUKL album, Holidays In Europe (The Naughty Nought), comes out in 1986, and then no more KUKL.  But have no fear, my friends, because now we have the Sugarcubes, who blew up with the song “Birthday”.  For the band’s first album, in were former KUKL members Siggi, Einar, and Björk, joined by Þór Eldon, previously of Fan Houtens Kókó (yup, there’s Fan Houtens Kókó again…) and Bragi Ólafsson, who had been part of Íkarus alongside Kormákur Geirharðsson who was best known for being part of the  early-1980s punk band Taugadeildin.  Out were the other three, though they later re-connected as Exem in the mid-1990s.  Keyboard player Margrét Örnólfsdóttir rounded out the Sugarcubes after that first album and remained with them until the end.

So there you have it.  The story of the Sugarcubes as the story of five early 1980s punk bands.  And that doesn’t even touch on some of the other combos that emerged from that scene.  It was all pretty intertwined, really, but given the small size of the musical community at the time, it makes sense.

I know this might have been overly brief, since I didn’t give you a bunch of band histories and such.  However, I’ve written about most of them before, so follow the links on this post to get to more info about those bands and dive deeper into the history.

(♣)  OK, so when Einar Örn Facebook messages you and tells you that you got something wrong, you fix it!  Thanks Einar for clarifying the various iterations of the “God Krist” credit on the KUKL releases.

(♠) Oh, and in case you were wondering, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock doesn’t include a single artist or band from Iceland.  The closest it gets is showing a picture from the Echo & The Bunnymen photo shoot at Gullfoss, the shoot that resulted in the cover of their 1983 album Porcupine.

Þeyr – “Life Transmission”

I went a little overboard with my record shopping at Iceland Airwaves this year.  And frankly, maybe a bit more than “a little.”

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But I came home with a ton of great stuff, so it was worth the red spots on my shoulder from burst blood vessels caused by the hefty weight of my vinyl-filled carry-on bag.  One of the items toward the top of my want list was Þeyr’s Life Transmission 7″, so I emailed around a bit before the trip and discovered that the newly opened Reykjavik Record Shop not only had a copy, but had one in the original custom plastic bag that featured the band’s name.  It was the first thing I saw on the wall when I visited the shop and I made sure not to leave without it.  That leaves the nearly impossible to find and super expensive Þagað Í Hel as the one missing piece of Þeyr vinyl on my shelves.

Þeyr is, to me, the most “Icelandic” band of them all.  Yes, they incorporated elements of the punk/new wave scene swirling around in Europe during the late 70s/early 80s, but they added their own flourishes, their own sound elements, and their own sort of spiritual zen to the their music.  It’s recognizable as fitting into a certain time and genre, but it stands apart from the crowd due to its uniquely Icelandic character.  I love this band.

Unfortunately this copy didn’t come with the explanatory insert… but fortunately that info has been translated and is on Discogs.  Life Transmission was dedicated to Ian Curtis of Warsaw/Joy Division, a band that obviously had a major influence on the band (and who had a song of their own called “Transmission”).  They also made it clear that they resisted any categorization of the band and its music – they wanted to be accepted on their own terms for who they were.  Noble, though probably a bit unrealistic.

While I know they said they didn’t want to be categorized or labeled, I’m going to do just that anyway.  “Life Transmission” has a bit of an Oingo Boingo meets early Joy Division sound to it, a bit funky and bass-y, but with guitar strumming that takes it into a more new wave-y experimental place.  The flip side gives us “Heima Er Bezt,” a track more weighted towards the music side of the spectrum, with the strange keyboard-sounding guitar sounds that appear in so much of Þeyr’s music.

I probably over romanticize Þeyr’s place in the Icelandic music pantheon – I mean, I’m not from there, and certainly wasn’t part of the scene when punk and new wave first broke on the mean streets of Reykjavik, so what do I know?  Then again, Kimono just covered Þeyr on their newly released 7″ (review forthcoming), and they’re not the first band to cover the grandfathers of the scene.  Regardless, it’s music that has held up over time and still has a unique feel to it, and that’s worth noting for a 33 year old record.

Þeyr – “Lunaire”

I’ve written about Þeyr before, and I’d pretty much put them up against anyone other than maybe Purrkur Pillnikk as being the most important band in Icelandic music.  Yeah, yeah, I l know… The Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós… yada yada yada.  All great.  And Björk’s pre-Sugarcubes band Tappi Tíkarrass would get strong consideration and probably be part of my “Icelandic Holy Trinity.”  Because these are the bands that helped that scene turn the corner to become the amazing community that it is today.  And they deserve to be celebrated.  Because they still sound awesome 30+ years later.

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Lunaire was Þeyr’s swan song, their last release, a three song 7″ that came out in 1983.  I’ve been coveting this for a while and finally found a nice copy for a good price on Discogs, and I couldn’t be happier.  “The Walk” has that indescribable but instantly recognizable weird Þeyr sound/timing in the music, a borderline experimental piece but one that fits in well with much of their catalog.  “Positive Affirmation” more fully embraces the core post-punk sound, with the moody Joy Division-esque vocals and hauntingly relentless beat.  It doesn’t let up, just keeps chipping away at you with it’s creepy consistency and deep echoey singing, with just the occasional burst of guitar to give you any sense of breaking free.  Then you flip it over and find that the band played a dirty trick on you – the two songs on one side play at 33 1/3, while the other side is at 45 rpm.  Bastards!  But that song, “Lunaire,” is possibly the greatest departure the band made from its “sound,” a raw, raspy, underproduced bundle of pure energy and insanity and emotion and angst.  Whereas “Positive Affirmation” was methodically relentless, “Lunaire” makes you anxious with it’s drive, getting the heart rate up and and making you uncomfortable in sitting still.

It’s a bummer that Þeyr’s production was so limited – they’re entire output was less than 40 songs between 1980-83.  I guess that’s a decent number, but man I would like for there to be one more album worth of stuff.  It just wasn’t meant to be though, and I’m grateful for what we have.