Strange as it may sound, big band Balkan music has been a constant presence on the Icelandic scene for well over a decade now. It started late last century among a group of music students who wanted to test their skills against the complex rhythms of traditional Balkan folksongs. Usually these were short lived groups. The first breakout act was Stórsveit Nix Noltes, who even toured with Animal Collective.
Orphic Oxtra is the current flagship band of this scene. Individually the members of the band are very skilled, and they fit together like cogs in clockwork. It is a shame that they are playing a slot that does not suit their strengths. Orphic Oxtra is a dance band, but not even a thousand pills of the purest ecstasy could get an Iceland Airwaves crowd moving at eight o’clock on a Wednesday. The best you can expect is a few tapping feet and the occasional nodding head. It would have been great to see them play at a more dance-friendly hour. Personally I would have loved to flail about in a sweaty mess of writhing bodies, but that was not on offer, so I merely tapped my feet and nodded my head. Sadly they will not be playing a late show this year, not even off-venue. Still, Orphic Oxtra are worth checking out, not only for the weirdness of seeing a bunch of Icelandic kids playing traditional Balkan folksongs, but because they are a damn good band.
Just like an offensive joke has to be extra funny not to make the teller sound like an idiot, naming yourself after a recent bloodbath is fraught with danger. To name a band that took raw tragedy and turned it into a memorable and strangely poignant name, there is no better example than Brian Jonestown Massacre. Anton Newcombe solved this tough riddle by collaging together two events that have little to do with each other, one of rock’s earliest martyrdoms and the ultimate in cult atrocities. It sounds like a line in a surrealist haiku. Lockerbie, however, is an awful name for a band. It is flat and offensive and comes across like a cheap attempt to borrow the cultural resonance of the murder of 270 human beings, in an effort to make it easy to remember. Frankly, the band should feel ashamed of themselves.
I say this not merely to denounce the members of the band, but also to explain that when the show started, I was not feeling very generous towards them. But after about two songs, my anger began to subside a little bit and I could start listening to their music. As it almost pains me to admit, they are a pretty decent band with a good ear for catchy hooks. Their style would have been called “big music” in the ’80s. Think Echo and the Bunnymen, though they are halfway between Ian McCulloch’s crew and Coldplay. They brought their all to the show too, playing with joyful energy. To add to the sense of occasion, they were accompanied by both a brass and a string section, which filled out the soundscape created by the core quartet of guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.
That they are a good band makes the awfulness of their name even harder to take. It is the equivalent of someone going to the trouble of baking you a tasty cake and then decorating it with their shit.
I am always excited to see Mammút live. Their album Karkari has been in regular rotation on my stereo for the last three years. I have never been disappointed when I have seen them on stage and there was no change tonight. Their music has both the heaviness of their namesake animal as well as lightness of melody. These two things play off each other to great effect. When they hit their stride they feel like a force of nature, washing over their audience like crashing waves of sound. Katrína Mogensen’s voice floats on the music like an arctic tern in a storm.
The audience at Nasa responded enthusiastically, applauding and hooting loudly. Mammút are a proper rock band and they put on a proper rock show. There was nothing missing. I would not have minded hearing my favorite songs off Karkari, but I have heard them before and the new songs are just as good, if not better. If you did not see them Wednesday, I recommend checking them out on Sunday at midnight in Gaukur á Stöng. It should be a great way to end the festival.
Sykur played to a rough crowd. Where I was standing people kept chattering throughout their set. Which is a shame, because at heart Sykur are a good times band that like to make the crowd dance. People should move their feet, not raise their voices. Of course, the perennial problem with Airwaves audiences is that they do not start moving their feet until they are legless from drink. Nevertheless, a few heroes danced during Sykur’s show. I danced a bit too, but it is dispiriting when you are surrounded by people seemingly competing in who most resembles a lamppost.
Luckily, Sykur are a fun band to watch. They are obviously very into the music they make, literally dancing to their own beat. It is hard not to get swept along with their enthusiasm. They play simple, infectious electropop. Sykur’s new singer was very versatile in her performance, doing everything from diva-style vocal runs to ’80s-white-people-rap, sometimes even in the same song. It is a credit to her skills that it never felt jarring. The regular vocalists joined in and added depth to the mix, even busting out a bit of French at one point, which was lovely to hear.
The set ended with yet another singer being brought on stage, Árni Vilhjálmsson of FM Belfast, for current radio hit Shed Those Tears. It bumped the already quite energetic show up a gear. It was a fun end to a fun show.
Agent Fresco is one of those bands that have never caught my fancy. There is not anything wrong with them, per se, they do what they do very well, but what they do has never excited me. The crowd at Nasa did not share my problem. They welcomed the band onstage with a loud whoop and sang and clapped along with the songs. And credit should go where credit is due, musically the band is very accomplished. There is absolutely no question that they did exactly what they came to do. Their songs alternate between melodic rock and harsher, punkier, almost heavy metal sections. For me they never quite cohere.
There is nothing about them that is off-putting, but they still leave me cold. I have tried to like them, but their songs do not click with me. As a friend of mine often says: “No one likes everything.” From the audience reaction, however, it is clear that a lot of other people like them quite a lot. I want to make it clear that I do not dislike them, they just fail to move my spirit. But hey, this is the internet, go on YouTube and listen to their songs. They might be your new favourite band. Just not mine.
OF MONSTERS AND MEN
The first thing that strikes you about Of Monsters and Men is that they sound quite a lot like other bands. The band they get most often compared to is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, as the former’s Little Talks resembles the latter’s Home. While that is true I do not think that is a terribly valid criticism. Most art is an assemblage of older art. As a popular series of web videos puts it, “everything is a remix.” Superficial similarities are something which you notice immediately, but fade away with repeated listenings. So the second thing that strikes you about Of Monsters and Men is that they are quite a good pop band. They can put together a catchy song. Personally I rarely hear one of their songs without finding myself humming it absent-mindedly a little bit later.
Of Monsters and Men are unashamedly indie, which is good if you like that sort of thing, which I do. They decorate the stage with Christmas lights, project century old film clips, and at one point their accordion player puts on a wolf mask. Yes, they have an accordion player. This is in-your-face indie. “Twee as fuck,” to quote a phrase. Of Monsters and Men are a band that is quite easy to mock, but most musicians that wear their hearts on their sleeves are. When I was a sixteen-year-old indie kid, I would have killed to have a band like them in Reykjavík. Sure, I do love me some avant-garde, loud, dissonant, screechy noise, but it is a lot of fun to sing along with the twee kids in the indie band. A lot of people satisfied that urge tonight.
Indie originated in the ’80s, it is played today by people who were not alive when the form was born. It has always been a fairly constrained genre. It is not surprising that individual songs resemble each other, much like a lot of folk songs. Indie has propagated using the newest technology available. In the beginning tapes, often exchanged across great distances, between continents even, were the main medium for indie. In the ’90s a lot of songs spread through mix-CDs. I got to know quite a few bands that way, some that I only knew through one song for many years, before the next technological transformation hit. Now indie lives on mp3 blogs and video sites. If you go on YouTube and look up Of Monsters and Men you will soon find that a whole lot of kids here and there in the world have recorded themselves covering songs by the band. Which is not bad for an Icelandic indie group that is barely a year old. write and perform hipster folk music. I mean that as a compliment.