The Manitoban Musical Atlas of Popular Music is a sporadically-published guide to the export-friendly pop music of the world outside England and North America.
Iceland’s musical society is more closely knit than its sweaters. Few countries have a musical style as recognizable and as consistent as Iceland’s. Perhaps this is because Iceland, as of 2008, had a population of only about 317,414. Such a small population leaves little room for stylisic diversity. Or perhaps it’s due to the widespread collaboration between artists and groups; many Icelandic musicians are involved in more than one project. In Music from the Moon, a documentary about music in Iceland and Greenland, Italian-Icelandic songstress Emiliana Torrini wonders aloud whether Iceland’s musical groups actually outnumber its musicians.
Even Björk, Iceland’s biggest star by far, first achieved mainstream success with the Sugarcubes. The Sugarcubes, possibly best known as Björk’s launchpad to stardom, are notable in their own right. Their 1988 debut Life’s Too Good, especially the single “Birthday,” became indie hits in the U.S. and U.K. — and deservedly so.
Sigur Rós and múm are representative of Icelandic music as a whole in that they demonstrate the tendency of Icelandic musicians to participate in multiple projects. Sigur Rós’s vocalist, “Jónsi” Birgisson, has a solo career and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson collaborates with other acts and even composes film scores. He is also married to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, a member of another prominent Icelandic group called Amiina. Ólöf Arnalds of múm also has a successful solo career; watch one of her live performances of “Innundir Skinni” on Youtube to have your face charmed off.
Sparse, sweeping and dramatic — Iceland’s terrain is reflected in its music. Its typical sound is epitomized by the post-rock/electronic groups múm (pronounced “moom ”) and Sigur Rós (best not pronounced). Other artists might employ fewer layers of production than Sigur Rós or may be less minimalist than múm, but much of Iceland’s popular music shares their sweeping, cold beauty. Put romantically, much of Icelandic music sounds like the northern lights. Check out Sigur Rós’s latest album, the utterly unpronounceable með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008) and múm’s latest, Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know (2009, Morr Music).
If Sigur Rós and múm are sweeping tundra and colourful skies, Björk is fjords and faerie rings. Her surreal voice and alternately beautiful and disturbing compositions evoke the arcane.
Björk remains Iceland’s best known export — except, perhaps, volcanic ash — if not for her music, then for her intolerance of photographers. Despite her undoubted talent, Björk is far from the most immediately listenable Icelander and some of her songs are positively grating, which makes her prominence among Iceland’s international pop musicians odd. In North America, much of her fame is due to her eccentricity.
The most pervasive force in Icelandic music — Iceland’s musical prime minister and another example of the degree to which its musicians cooperate — is Jóhann Jóhannson. Besides being part of the Apparat Organ Quartet and electronic “supergroup” Evil Madness, he is a solo artist and founding member of Kitchen Motors, an Icelandic organization which facilitates collaboration between musicians and artists. Jóhannson has released five solo albums, the latest of which is And In the Endless Pause There Came a Sound of Bees, the score to an animated film called Varmints.
Iceland’s musicians do not all subscribe to the school of cold ambient music production. Folky indie-pop group Seabear sounds much like an average Anglo-American/Canadian lo-fi group, all strums and whispers. This is not to say they don’t deserve a listen. Sentimental bibliophiles (hypothetically, not that we know any) will enjoy “Libraries” which includes the typically whimsical, yet evocative line “the next time I wake up, I want it to be / in a library to the sound of you (making coffee).” Seabear began as the solo project of Sindri Már Sigfússon and is now a septet. Their latest album is We Built A Fire.
Mugison, a former fisherman from remote Isafjordur, makes music that is often similarly international-sounding. Perhaps this is because he began recording while in London. He toured in 2009, but according to label 12 Tónar has not released an album since 2005’s soundtrack to a film called A Little Trip to Heaven.
Even Iceland’s most successful artists are sometimes hard to keep track of, as many of them do not release their music through large labels and tend to make their own confusing, artsy websites. The website of Icelandic record shop and record label 12 Tónar (12tonar.c.is) is a good place to start looking at Icelandic musicians and to learn a bit about them. If you have some spare time and an interest in experimental music, Jóhann Jóhannson’s website (www.johannjohannson.com) is a terrific, if imposing resource. Many Icelandic artists make downloads available on their websites, so it’s easy to get an idea of their sound.
Next time, the Manitoban’s Musical Atlas ventures outside the Nordic world.