Harpa’s Kaldalón is a seated theatre, below ground level, that plays host tonight to a mixed bag of young Icelandic bands and esteemed visitors, including a solo set by Björk’s percussionist Manu Delago, and headlined by rising Estonian art-music collective Kreatiivmootor.
The opening set comes from Jón Jónsson, who has a certain squeaky clean look that instantly sets alarm bells ringing. His entire slick demeanour has a box-fresh quality about it, down to his too-white trainers, the kind of white that kool kids muck them up a bit to avoid. He plays horrific jazz-pop-lite from the Jamie Cullum / Jack Johnston school of vapid blandness – songs like “Always Gonna Be There” sound like they could have been culled from a selection of songs so light and breezy as to be rejected from the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack. It’s technically proficient, but as artistically bereft as anything I’ve ever heard – so much so that this reviewer is forced to beat a wincing retreat to the bar to regroup with a stiff drink.
Nóra display a much more wholesome kind of wholesomeness. They make shambolic indie-rock, comparable perhaps to Yo La Tengo’s more poppy moments, and bringing a similar kind of awkwardness to the stage. “This song is an anagram of ‘brain aneurysm’.” says the singer, hunched self-consciously over the mic, “but we changed it because we thought it wasn’t politically correct”. So far, so punk-rock. Nóra aren’t smashing through their own over-politeness never mind having a go at musical boundaries, but they have promising moments and would benefit from worrying less and spreading their songwriting wings a little.
Pascal Pinon are a young female quartet that seem to be constantly on the edge of breaking into a collective blush. They play with a quiet subtlety and soothing, breathy vocals, each song like a secret being whispered into your ear. In fact, they’re so quiet that the photographers’ camera shutters are audible from half way back in the auditorium. The songs contain a wispy fragility, like they might blink out of existence at any second were the audience to look away. It’s charming stuff, the lyrics full of youthful sadness and preternatural wisdom. This is fragile and precious music, to be handled gently.
The biggest crowd of the night comes for Manu Delago, who played last night as Björk’s percussionist, and here expands on his use of unfamiliar instruments and unconventional drumming techniques here as part of a jazz trio. He breaks down rhythm into counter-intuitive segments, zig-zagging unpredictably to create odd passages as he explores the possibilities of the kit. For all it’s wilful experimentalism his music meanders and stutters, and doesn’t seem to amount to an awful lot by the end, but the capacity crowd clearly hears something that I don’t, giving Delago a standing ovation.
Helgi Jónsson takes the stage with an expansive ballad comparing true love to cosmic inevitability, which sets the tone for his romantic, starry-eyed take on indie-rock. There are plenty of nice touches amongst his set – one of the drummer’s cymbals has metal beads attached that makes the sound rattle and shimmer, and the lead guitarist is full of inventiveness, using the tremolo, volume and tone to add depth. Jónsson seems like a nice, warm-hearted dude and a more than capable musician, the beautiful closing number especially touching on a Sigur Rós-like sense of wonder – but perhaps he has some further exploration ahead to find his authentic voice as a solo artist.
The best is saved till last. From Tallinn, Estonia, Kreatiivmootor are a band like no other. Their shrieking, babbling shaman of a frontman Roomet Jakapi (also a professor of philosophy) utterly smashes speech and language through his pedal array, uttering a crazed lexicon of sounds and syllables in a hyper-communicative language all of his own. The five-piece band smash music around him accordingly, breaking it down into beeping, drilling, oscillating sonic non-sequitors that grapple and flail in a compulsively weird whirlwind before congealing into a pounding, danceable racket. Half the audience giggle in stunned confusion, the other half rapt, rolling in the shards of sound, sweating and grinning at these joyful, brilliant lunatics who’ve taken over the asylum. This kind of brazen invention is a far cry from the woefully insipid opening act – Kreatiivmootor are the stuff legendary Airwaves performances are made of.