I’ve never been to Gamla Bíó before. Apparently it was originally built as an opera house, and this you can see immediately. On the ground level there is seating for roughly 200 – these seats areclearly quite old, lacking the springiness of modern theatre seats, which has its charm. Then there’s a balcony where there is standing room and additional seating. As the night wore on, as if in nod to fabled opera houses of old, patrons took advantage of the balconies to have their own loud conversations to compete with the performers. Some things turn full circle.
There is one thing I must preface this review with. Last year Anna Von Hausswolff‘s Ceremony got my attention when it was picked by Iceland-based music web startup Gogoyoko as their album of the year. You know one thing that people don’t say? “Oh no, another epic church pipeorgan band.” That’s because I can’t think of a single other one. That’s what impressed me most with with Ceremony. It’s got such a fresh approach. While I assume I can see why many of the other bands were put on the same bill, unfortunately “bands you can sit down to” is not a unifying genre, nor did the bands have a common allure. So when I went to the venue where Anna Von Hausswolff was playing, it’s because I wanted to hear something something totally sweet (as in awesome, not tender). So while the other bands were all great at what they do, unfortunately not all of them spoke my language, so to speak. The first half of the night was nice, but entirely uninteresting to me. The bands completely lacked the edge I seek in music.
1860 are a feel-good, easy-listening folk rock group replete with whoa-whoa choruses and clap-along breakdowns.
Opening a night at 7:10pm can be a tough prospect. People are eating. People are saving themselves for a long night. People are still at off-venue shows. I arrived in the middle of their first song (because I’d mixed up Gamla Bíó with Tjarnabíó, d’oh!), but to this band’s credit by the time I got there most of the seats were already full. That’s an impressive feat.
I don’t have many points of reference for this kind of music. They’re not in the vein of the Pogues, not in the vein of The Violent Femmes. The difference here is that their music is not a vehicle for attitude.
The band consisted of a mix of electric and acoustic instruments, including mandolin. Their sound was really polished. They had the audience so wired that the cheesy between-song banter had them reeling in their seats. There was even hugging on stage between band-members. To sum up the general vibe, 1860 is like a doctor telling you he’s going to feel your testicles – there’s a sort of nonchalant smoothness, there’s experienced confidence, and it’s intimate but with a degree of awkwardness.
Next up was Biggi Hilmars. The sound was unfortunate on a couple accounts. The tom tom beat and bass fused into an obnoxiously loud yet indistinct low frequency resonant rumble. The cello was a reedy thin bow sound. The band was nonetheless tight and polished. The female harmonies were pretty. The arrangements dynamic. The songs were even catchy. But it was all so terribly, terribly safe. Their performance was restrained, as if they were recording an album. There was nothing that felt alive about it. The songs were glossy, but were they interesting? I’m not so sure about it.
From the moment Biggi and band stepped off the stage until anything else happened was inexplicably long considering that Árstíðir are an acoustic band. Piano, two acoustic guitars, some sort of larger acoustic guitar that sounded like a bass, and a string section consisting of violin and cello (again the cello had an exaggerated bow-y sound to it, which I guess was according to the taste of the soundman.)
Árstíðir are also a folk group, but in more European, choir-boy way. Three of the singers switched off between songs taking the lead part, while others came in on harmonies. Each had their own unique character. The piano player had a boyish high range, while one of the guitar players delivered with a bit of attitude.
Apparently these guys have a YouTube hit video of them singing a cappella in a train station, which they performed with their silky smooth, impossibly tight six-part harmony, all to standing ovation. As a sign of the times, this medieval piece was decorated by an orchestra of beeps, electronic shutter sounds and ringtones from the audience. Looking around I saw that much of the audience now has their own private cellphone video of this performance to take home with them.
The songs were virtuoso-played and dynamically arranged. There were some interesting moments with Philip Glass-style meter changes. Actually, those almost sounded lifted. But otherwise it did all start to sound the same, the same acoustic, choirboy texture; and all minor key. At this point I don’t think I could sit through another super safe, easy-listening band.
Up next, Tempel, and I have no idea what to expect, since I’ve never heard of them before. They are from Sweden. They kick off with some synth bass and drum machine backing track with delay-laden guitar arpeggios over it over and over again, while the other half of the band stands still in wait for what seems like minutes. I can’t really tell if the drummer is playing some keyboard or drum machine back there or if he’s just triggering backing tracks, but suddenly he switches to drums and the real bassist and other guitarist kick in as well.
From there Tempel start to unfold their epic guitar-based instrumentals. Within a few songs they’ve exposed their formula of drum machine intro, followed by arpeggiated guitar rhythms and wailing e-bow guitar leads, with repetitive movements building tension giving way to epic chord changes, with moments of drone in between… really, actually I’d describe it as an instrumental, guitar-based Anna Von Hausswolff doppelganger. The delay is laid on thick, reminiscent of ’90s post-rock. Only their nonchalant use of backing tracks to augment their sound gives them away as contemporary.
They barely said a word, just one “thank you,” and at the apparently premature end, “ok, they want us to stop,” and then they were gone.
Every year at Airwaves there are some bands on the bill, where I catch myself thinking, “yeah, this is cool, and they play well and all that, but this is maybe not terribly special. This is a good band, but what’s the real reason why they’re here?” And usually with minimal digging around you can see, “oh it’s because they’re represented by the same booking agency as a hypey band that’s playing the festival,” and it’s pretty clear there are some industry politics at play. So I actually wasn’t terribly surprised to see later in the evening that half of this band is also Anna Von Hausswolff’s backing band. The compositions and arrangements were much the same style as Hausswolff’s, except filtered through guitars and delay pedals instead of organ.
Next up are Samaris. Doddi the DJ starts letting off some bleeps and bloops that morph through syncopated delay lines. The night is getting really good really fast. He’s joined on stage by a clarinetist and vocalist Jófríður. From there they start building up their sound. The groove kicks in with some interesting beats and deep pads. The clarinet’s ambient lines fade in and out of a wash of delay. On top of it all floats Jófríður’s breathy voice, which serves to guide the organic flow of the compositions. Her calm and confident presence guides the energy of the performance. These three elements counter-point and compliment each other fantastically. At times some of the sounds are a little reminiscent of The Knife, or perhaps more so Björk’s more electronic moments – say Vespertine – all without being derivative. Samaris are easily among the most awesome groups coming out of Reykjavík right now.
Anna Von Hausswolff
Anna Von Hausswolff and her band open with a drone, which clears the palette, setting a new tone and mood. Hausswolff’s powerful voice calls out drenched in reverb, accenting the otherwise formless song. It’s almost a shame this show wasn’t held at Fríkirkjan or some church venue, but nevermind, this works splenedly as well. Suddenly her pipe organ arpeggios transport us sonically to a cathedral, with each repeat building more and more tension, round and round until it breaks from the pressure, and the song lets out a different way. The electric guitar crashes with nods to Toto’s soundtrack to David Lynch’s Dune. We’re riding the sandworms for Arrakis! As a testament to the powerful atmosphere developing, somebody who from where I’m sitting looks like Alison (of the band kimono and former CEO of Gogoyoko) is so moved that she’s thrown herself up on stage where she is lying and bathing in unbridled epicness (and promptly escorted out of the building by security).
Hausswolff’s voice is reminiscent of Kate Bush’s, and she calls out as if from an abyss. The drones, organ arpeggios, and wailing guitar leads continue on for 25 minutes before we get to the first proper pop song, “Mountains Crave.” The audience loses their shit. As the set continues Hausswolff and her band prove themselves masters of texture, which ranges from ominous, to somber, and finally hopeful. They’re not in a hurry to get there though. They know a journey is in the traveling, not the destination. I have chills.