Wielding a couple of guitars, a double-bass, a banjo and boasting a one-man horn section, things looked promising when Contalgen Funeral stepped on stage to treat us to the evening’s first performance but even before the Sauðárkrókur six-piece broke out their spoon playing capabilities their show had taken an irreversible turn into the unbearable. Described as “Blues scented (bum-)rock with a hint of country” there is just too much going on in all the wrong places – an undeniable ’60s swing rhythm driving dissonant elements of funk, soul, reggae, country and pop. They sing about crack cocaine, coke, being broke and drinking whiskey without an air of satire or wit, any insightful experiences that may inform these songs lost in irritatingly trite lyrics. The crowd seem to be into it but they have none of the authenticity or weight of the classic deep south blues and country singers I can only assume they’re inspired by. And whilst these guys really seem to be able to play their instruments, as their set drags on, I can’t help but feel like maybe they just shouldn’t.
Cheek Mountain Thief, the next band up, however, are a completely different experience – mastering their influences and forging them into perfectly twisted prog-folk. The brainchild of Tunng co-founder Mike Lindsay this six-piece know how to put on a show. The hushed whispers of the audience soon vanish into an utterly captivated silence as the acoustic guitar strings really begin to make their mark. Having written most of these songs about falling in love with Iceland there is a sincerity behind Lindsay’s voice that you just couldn’t fake if you tried. A quiet, rumbling drama and subtle warmth inhabit their complex arrangements, the playful beer-sipping Kaffibarinn choir adding an intense, gloomy hold to songs like ‘Attack‘. This is the kind of heartbreaking music that relies on the listeners introspection to fill the gaps, and it is so much more triumphant and enveloping for it.
They leave the stage all too soon to be replaced with Reykjavík natives Árstíðir. Famed for their vocal harmonies, the six-piece’s (tonight performing as a seven piece) acoustic chamber pop bears all the marks of something beautiful – their tinkering keys, swelling romantic vocals and stirring strings should in theory produce an utterly arresting cacophony, but somehow it falls short. Perhaps it is the fact that the incredible drama created through the stings of two violins, one cello, three guitars and a grand piano on songs like ‘Days & Nights’ just cannot be matched by their pitch perfect vocals. They’re too smooth, too slick, too polished, too twee and their faux-earnest facial expressions are more than I can take.
“So, our guitarist, he forgets things sometimes,” apologise Catapillarmen, a man down as their set is supposed to begin. “This time, his guitar.” When he eventually turns up, his instrument thankfully in tow, the local foursome more than make up for lost time with a drunken joy ride of a performance, speeding noisily through songs from their upcoming album with the windows down and volume up, spilling absinthe all over the leather upholstery. Their thrilling mix of dissonant keys, screeching guitars and barked vocals comes across like a Fugazi tribute to the music of Devo and there’s even a flicker of humour in the lyrics department (“My baby left me,” one track laments, “she took my bong”). It’s evidently not for everyone (the room half empties as their set progresses) but love them or hate them, it’s impossible to deny that even if their guitarist is a tad amnesiac, Caterpillarmen are unforgettable.
More tame are Montreal’s Passwords, whose danceable indie lacks the spark of the homeland heroes who they take so many cues from, Broken Social Scene. There’s a Gayngs-ish groove to their sound, with frontman Thomas L’Alliers’ smooth vocal echoing amid infectious synth melodies, ’80s rock throwback guitars and stompy percussion. The band cut animated figures onstage, delivering their finely-tuned songs with accomplishment, but for all their gloss and showmanship, there’s nothing to write home about here.
Doldrums‘ Airick Woodhead arrives on stage to close the night in an oversized shirt that looks a little like a straight jacket – a nod, maybe, to the insanity of his Boards Of Canada-gone-glitch nocturnes. One of the Montreal musician’s first ever European dates, tonight he proves precisely why he’s considered one of electronic music’s most exciting prospects, expertly issuing an expectant Iðnó crowd with his menacing, reverb-stained minimalist dance gems. Swinging his vocal mic around in the air violently, he clearly has the same regard for health and safety as he does for songwriting convention (i.e. the man doesn’t give a fuck and he wants you to know it), his musical concoctions boasting a fierce experimental edge. A delirious, haunting pleasure.