Technology and nature are starkly juxtaposed in Iceland — behold the sight of the Harpa with the hulking snow-capped mountains in the distance. In the 21st century, to thrive in a beautiful but challenging environment such as this requires things like electricity, petrochemical products, and digital technology. You can hear all of this in múm’s music. It has a strong sense of what the French call “terroir”: a sense of the land from which it comes.
múm sings of the wind and the moon and rivers, and although they use acoustic instruments like drums, cello, piano, and horns, there’s almost always a synthesizer in the mix. The sound is pastoral but modern, which is a unique feat — usually, bands that want to evoke the forest don’t get anywhere near digital technology. But nature and technology are bound together; that is reality now.
Tonight’s show was in the Fríkirkjan, a 110-year-old church that was established as an alternative; for so many reasons, it’s a very fitting venue for a band like múm. This is spiritual music in a spiritual space. Somehow, external realities — cold weather, economic calamities — are set aside in here. And on a practical level, the wooden building and high, reverberant ceiling are much better for múm’s music than a neutral black cube.
The band members walk in one by one to prerecorded backing track. There is utter silence in the packed house, lots of people sitting with their legs dangling off the mezzanine. Gyða Valtýsdóttir and Sigurlaug Gísladóttir begin singing breathily, then drummer Samuli Kosminen begins playing an incredible syncopated pattern, inscrutable but grooving hard. As everyone joins in, it’s apparent that this is less a song and more like a spell. It lasts for the entire evening.
Kosminen is a truly great drummer: he does not hit the drums, he plays them, and he plays them like no one else does. The drums play a key role in múm: they can be organic and primordial, they can resemble the clanking, steam-driven machinery of the Industrial Age, and they can recall the Digital Age, with busy, precise and intricate patterns that suggest some sort of synthesis of man and machine, the kind we all know is coming, sooner or later. Yeah, his drumming is that profound.
They play “Slow Down” — “Slow down so I can catch you” — but for all the breathy, extended notes, the rhythm is busy, it cannot be caught. Then Gyða introduces a song that she claims is múm trying to sound like the Pixies. The connection isn’t readily apparent, but it’s the most brisk song they’ll play all night, with a brawny bass line and bustling drums that recall jungle techno. As musical forms mature they move away from being dance music — jazz and classical are the usual examples. You could say that the furthest edges of rock are like that too, and with their gentle chamber music, múm would appear to perpetuate that time-honored paradigm, but you can actually dance to some of their music, and Valtýsdóttir often did.
They dedicate an exquisite “Blow Your Nose” to Lou Reed — whom they thought was “the only person who can sing this song.” “Ghosts sing behind your ear/ For the one you loved, who’s never coming back,” they sing in harmony. Later, “The next song is about ghosts,” said Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason. “Seems to be a bit of a theme tonight.” And they played an elegiac “The Ghosts You Draw on My Back.”
There were plenty of other exquisite songs, often played with that same combination of leisurely dreaminess and automated animation: “A River Don’t Stop to Breathe,” “Toothwheels,” “Now There’s That Fear Again,” “Eternity Is the Wait Between Breaths.” When the set ended on a big crescendo, it felt like an exhalation after watching something awesome for a very long time.
Nature was ever-present this evening. During one song, the whole band began whistling like birds. And then they got the audience to do it too. It was an amazing sound. And there was a synthesizer playing too. It’s ridiculous to think that we can simply go back to nature. Nature and technology must coexist. múm is hinting at the way.