My introduction to Iceland was very much like weather here: cold and harsh (losing your baggage is one those things that you pray never happens to you, but when it does, it’s like a punch to the gut.*) Thankfully, despite spending most of my time so far holed up in a hotel room working (I have a site to run guys, don’t judge me), Reykjavík is definitely one of the most beautiful and welcoming places I’ve been to in quite some time. Which is saying a lot considering I’ve seen roughly 0.09% of it.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s focus on the bands I saw last night.
Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about the bands that were playing prior to seeing them live. Some of their names sounded familiar to me, but other than that, nothing. That’s partly why I wanted to cover this stage (another being that Hjaltalín were set to finish relatively early, which is perfect for a boring person such as myself.)
First up were Grísalappalísa, who formed last year and, according to the press biography, “deliver a stream of edgy Icelandic lyrics over a tight punk rock foundation.” I can’t really give you any confirmation on the lyrics, but the rest seems pretty spot on (I jotted down ‘Groove Punk’ on my phone, which I kind of prefer). The press biog also warns of the dreaded “saxophone”. This isn’t a misprint ladies and gentlemen, the instrument at the heart of so many musical atrocities (I’m looking at you, ska music) was indeed present here tonight. In this instance it serves the band pretty well, and I’ll explain why.
The band is fronted by two singers: one relatively serious looking guy, and one guy in a suit that prances around the stage like Morrissey on prozac, but with a devilish glaze in his eyes. In that respect you could see the band split equally between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, a theme which seems to run throughout their set. A good example of this was the first song. The majority of it was pretty nice, with the saxophonist drawing you in with even more niceness. However, the second you start to feel comfortable with the situation, the track explodes into this overpowering monster. Like visiting hell and thinking, ‘this ain’t that bad, look, there’s a dude over there playing ‘Baker Street’, and everyone likes that song’, before Kim Il Sung takes you to a private room to stick the aforementioned instrument into places not found in books like ‘How to Play the Sax in 3 weeks’.
Not sure how it would translate on record, but a pretty solid start to my evening nonetheless.
Taking to the stage next were Agent Fresco, who play an odd blend of early-noughties, second-wave emo and ‘alternative rock’ (scary stuff). Sort of like Hundred Reasons mixed with A (a touch of mid-level Idlewild too). To be honest, it wasn’t my thing back when it first came around, so I really struggled to connect with the majority of their set. It’s not all bad though – I’m clued up enough to understand that what they do is done well (you only had to look at the crowd they brought in for clarification of that); they’re tight and the vocals are pretty cool too, especially the backing vocals (courtesy of the drummer). Interestingly enough, they happen to sound 75% better when they throw keys into the mix.
Not for me, but definitely not bad.
Considering they’re playing our stage tomorrow night (20:50: Harpa Silfurberg), it’s pretty damn lucky I liked Valdimar. Fronted by Action Bronson’s twin brother, the band features a million musicians (I was never very good at maths) – the highlight of which is the lively brass section. It’s all very atmospheric and moody (think The xx-inspired guitars), but it never feels overplayed, which is testament to the construction of the songs and just how great the lead singer’s voice is. Unlike the feeling I got with Grísalappalísa, I’m sure they’d sound even better on record than in a live environment. I want to hear every little detail they pour into their music.
So here we go. The band everyone is waiting for, and my final stop before heading back to the hotel room to write this up (I won’t get any sleep unless I do it right away): Hjaltalín. I hate to use the word ‘nice’ – especially as I’ve already used it in this review – but that’s the feeling I got for the majority of their set. The reasons I didn’t leave early (outside of my obligations to Grapevine, of course) was down to the fact that they managed to stay rhythmically interesting throughout, and that they provided a few moments of absolute beauty – a good example being the stunning piano-led opener.
Basically, I want to hear Högni and Sigga sing at each other for an hour. I’d pay good money for that.
*I got my bag back the very next day. Fresh pants: check.