Before I hear Monotown for the first time tonight, someone describes them to me as sounding “like an ABBA B-side”. While that’s not an entirely accurate summary, it does at least place them in a ballpark where they’d be somewhat comfortable: it’s a place where Pink Floyd never released Dark Side of the Moon, where the Travelling Wilburys never quite got it together and where Laurel Canyon ended with Jackson Browne.
If those things has simply never happened then Monotown would be the biggest band in the universe right now, no doubt selling a billion record and worth more than the whole of, erm Monaco.
These all did happen though and instead the Icelandic band decided to do the next best thing: take all the good bits of those artists and records and guitar licks and make something as nourishing and as beautiful as possible with it.
And while their combination of folk-infused psych-lite can sometimes come off like Midlake covering The Moody Blues, they are epic in scale and a superior set of voices lifts them above the level of simple imitation. Anyway, it all sounds rather lovely in the environs of Harpa’s Norðurljós; they couldn’t have a venue more sympathetic to such a big sound.
French trio Cercueil deal in a flavour of the same jarring, sketchy electro that we all got plugged into via the Austras, Glassers and Zola Js of last year. At their more experimental they verge on textural soundscapes which find
enough space to breathe in Norðurljós – accompanied by some evocative but predictable projections.
It’s the more demented, Reznoresque songs that really shine through though – they’re sexy, inventive and a sign of what they could achieve outside of the obvious mannerisms that plague their contemporaries. Still, they fail to wow in any meaningful way. Such disparity amongst their set choices keeps the crowd entertained but rarely hooked. A closing track that begins strongly gives way to repetition and a more recognisable melodic that just dissolves into anti-climax – all a bit disappointing.
I last saw Ólafur Arnalds play a show around two weeks back, at a turn-of-the-century East London music hall. He was then, as is his tonight, his usual affable self: sensitive, funny and poignant.
Arguably, a show like his has become as much about personality as music. So it is often the way these days with many exponents of this form we’ve taken to calling ‘modern classical’. A fan of Arnalds is more than likely a fan of more traditional, popular musics than other classical music and so they appreciate (and need) those moments between songs where context and personality give structure to the narrative of the set. Finding a critical response to such things is difficult to those of us who are trying to apply the same rationale that we would to a show by a guitar band.Or is it?
Ólafur took his first musical steps as the member of a hardcore punk band and tonight he even references the differences between then and now. The sounds he makes aren’t really that different when reduced to concepts: dramatic, deliberate and drenched in tears, regrets, happiness. It’s concentrated, sober and reflective to the core.
Tonight’s set is generously arranged to pay tribute to the talents of each performer (Ólafur and two incredible musicians on cello and violin respectively) and also the patience of the audience. There’s a distracting amount of camera noise during the quieter moments of ‘Poland’ and when Ólafur gently scalds the photographers, it’s for the benefit of everyone in the room, not just the trio onstage.
The rest of the performance is as magical as one would expect, drawing us in from the moment Ólafur Arnalds samples our collective voices as the backdrop for his opening piece. Kudos must also go to Viktor Orri Árnason’s incredible violin work, which is given a unique mid-set chance to shine.
The performance is ultimately a stunning reminder of the magic that exists in Iceland that such a unique and beautiful music can come into being; Ólafur Arnalds should be a fixture at every Airwaves.
By Paul Bridgewater
If post rock is dead, buried in the heap of Explosions In The Sky copyists that came, saw and spluttered out in the mid noughties, apparently no one thought to tell For A Minor Reflection. Tonight’s show in a bustling Harpa’s Norðurljós marks their last show for some time while guitarist Kjartan Holm joins fellow Reykjavíkers Sigur Rós on tour, but the send-off is underwhelming. Heavily indebted to their hometown forebears, the quartet are spirited on stage, thrashing their instruments passionately as drummer Andri Freyr attacks his kit with the brute force of a caged animal, but are about as by-the-numbers as a Sesame Street counting tutorial. Their brass band accompaniment give their songs warmth while their local audience whoop enthusiastically, but there’s no substitute for invention, something the foursome are sadly starved of. Post rock is alive and well, as the returning Godspeed You! Black Emperor last month proved, but you wouldn’t know it watching For A Minor Reflection.
Exitmusic are another matter altogether, their slow burning goth-stained indie as sumptuous a sound as you’re likely to find this year. The husband and wife duo first bonded over a mutual love for Radiohead, hence the OK Computer-referencing band name, a love that shows in the adventuring broodiness of their songs – singer Aleksa Palladino slurs huskily over a wash of noise fashioned from chiming guitars and big, enveloping keyboards, while echoes of fellow New York gloomsters Interpol also ring out. They’re in inspired form tonight, Palladino commanding the stage and wailing in a way that well, if it doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should probably contact a doctor as clearly you’ve recently suffered a mild head trauma. Dark, dirty and involving, tonight Exitmusic are something special.
Texan rustic types Shearwater arrived at their most recent album Animal Joy earlier this year at something of a crossroads – revered by their peers, named as an influence by everyone from Ellie Goulding to Bon Iver, but overlooked by critics, the wider success they deserve always just beyond their reach. The injustice of this is hammered home by a rousing set to close the night, snaking through songs from their 11 year history. They might not be the most compelling band in the world, their excellence all in the detail like fellow Texans Midlake, but there’s a warm charm to their fares that can’t be denied. There’s no fireworks, no spectacle, no movement (the band, like their audience, remain rooted to the spot on stage) but it still manages to feel visceral. A endearing, if not enthralling, end to the evening.
By Al Horner