Five years can be a long time between albums in music. If you’re lucky, then you can be a band like Portishead or even HAM, where the absence only serves to increase the expectations of your fans. Of you could go the way of the likes of The Stone Roses and Guns N’ Roses, whose long absence and delays in making and releasing their music only seemed to rob them of any energy and impetus, the end result being music that was boring and stodgy, making you wonder why they bothered in the first place.
With this in mind, it’s still hard to get my head round the fact that this is the same amount of time that has passed since the release of ‘Karkari,’ the second album from Icelandic indie rockers, MAMMÚT. What have they been doing with time? Well instead of living in plush country mansions, nurturing heroin addictions and battling with world music and gout, they’re still in plain public view. playing gigs and festivals, getting art degrees, having fun and generally becoming elder statespeople (While still being young and fresh-faced) of the Icelandic indie music scene.
But after the procrastination, the long wait is over and Mammút have now finally released their third album, ‘Komdu Til Mín, Svarta Systir,’ (or ‘Come To Me My Black Sister,’ in English). The album itself seems to have been a fairly long and slightly painful germination process, with work starting on it back in 2010, but with the band, according to interviews, starting and restarting it from scratch several times over. The band have also been quoted as saying that at one point they thought the album would never be finished. But somehow they’ve managed to break through this impasse and in doing so have given us an album that is rather different to what’s come before. Whereas ‘Mammut’ and ‘Karkari’ were rough, murky, yet energetic albums of indie powerpop, with KTMSS we see these wee cherubs breaking from their enclosed spaces and is running around the hills bright-eyed and crystal clear.
You can tell easily tell that a lot of time and effort has been spent on this album, with the production work coming from longtime collaborator Flex Arnarson, and Magnús Árni Öder (Who did some rather sterling work with Lay Low on ‘Brostin Strengur’). It feels like in trying to get an album that they were satisfied with, Mammút have taken their entire sound and recording process, stripped it down to their constituent parts and given them a through working over before slotting everything back together. Now their music sounds like a well oiled machine, with every instrument and sound overdub linking effortlessly with everything else
From the first track “Ströndin,” with its intro of woodblock style percussion and icy trumpet synths, the real delight in listening to KTMSS is how everything just seems to have stepped up a gear. For example, the drums of Andri Bjartur are no longer a case of your standard “My first indie drumkit.” Instead they rumble and tumble all over the place with some real potency, with the smashing intro and rolling rhythms he does on “Bloðberg,” a clear example. Meanwhile, the guitars of Alexandra and Arnar throughout the album are clean and pure, only garnished with some reverb, sustain and delay. Songs such as “Til Mín,” and “Ró” display that sort of rural expanse that you often hear in the early music of Explosions In The Sky and Band Of Horses.
But it’s the vocals of Kata that define the real emotional core of KTMSS. Yes, like most other people who first came to Iceland, when I heard her sing “Svefnsýkt” all those many years ago, I made the mistake of thinking that this was some obscure Björk song from the 1990s. But despite the odd vocal infection that seems inherent in women who sing in Icelandic, she has a timbre and register that’s hers alone. On this album she really pushes her range and expression, with one minute it”s nothing but soft, delicate, almost “Krútt” high registering notes, then it descends into full throated wails and screams. A song such as “Ró,” where it is just her and a single guitar, she is the one that give the song that sense of sadness and portent.
With its widescreen sound, grandeur of execution, and feelings of using your ears for eyes, Mammút seem to have moved into that territory of making “Big” music, of not being a rock act that uses standard rock tropes such as riffs or power chords. Instead they use the studio as an extra instrument to fill up the music with vocal overdubs, atmospheric vapours and keyboard glints, that takes their music beyond the confines of 101 and into the big bad world outside. This kind of approach is not new of course. You can trace a lineage of bands making “Big” music from the ’80s, with the likes of U2, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Simple Minds, through to ’90s indie acts such as James, all the way to modern artists such as Sigur Rós and even Coldplay (ahem). Bands that started off intense, twitchy and claustrophobic, but who grew into making music that traded with elemental imagery that invoked feelings of natural wonder. You know, glaciers, canyons, prairies, and other landscape based gubbins.
But before you start thinking that they’re on the road to making shitty, bombastic stadium rock, it worth noting that Mammút have also managed to make a very economical record that uses the decidedly post-punk idea of taking out anything that would be deemed superfluous or needlessly extravagant. Everything that is in that album is there for a purpose. There are no such things as solos, repeating of choruses in different keys, or long drawn out track closings. In fact many of the songs end abruptly, such as in the case of “Þau Svæfa,” where the song actually breaks down as it was skipping on your CD player. Add to this the fact that the album has only 9 tracks that total 35 minutes, then you have an album that is tight, and very much focused in what it wants to get across to the listener.
While ‘Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir,” is an album that couldn’t be described as “mental,” (As one friend of mine said it was), it’s most definitely an album that shows Mammút to at least be stretching themselves both in their sounds and themes. As an exercise in production, atmosphere and texture, I’ve gotta say that it certainly smacks a lot of its contemporaries out of the park.
EPILOGUE: Naturally, of course, with anything to do with Icelandic art and culture, there always has to be some kind of drama, and with Mammút there is no exception. In this case the album title ‘Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir’ (Taken from a poem by acclaimed Icelandic poet Davíð Stefánsson, though like most non-Icelanders I’ve never heard of him), has seen Kata recently displaying a literal, artistic interpretation of the phrase in her stage presence, with her donning black facepaint, and looking like she’s spent a day in the mines, or playing a chimney sweep extra in ‘Mary Poppins’ (You can see this when they appeared on Studio A last week) This has led to a fair bit of hand-wringing and slightly breathless commentary on some Icelandic FB music groups about the reasoning and nature in using the “Blackface.” (Even I got involved for a cpl of posts!) is it offensive? Is it derogatory? Is it art? Is it political correctness gone maZZzzzzz…..
Here’s the thing. Unlike the previous artistic generations, musicians and artists like Mammút are not idiots and they will at least have a passing awareness of the outside world and what goes on with regards to race, culture, and the history of appropriation. Context, as with everything, is the key here. Unlike the usual cases in the past of blackface (Where white people are impersonating actual black people and their perceived mannerisms), Kata isn’t really impersonating an actual black person, but simply taking on the elemental aspect of the nature of the use of the word “Black” in the album title and the poem. It doesn’t help that many foreign fans of the band will be unaware of the the origins of the title and where it comes from, so hence they go “What’s with the blackface?” But I don’t think we need to get all riled with indignation about this. The intent is not what a lot of people will think it is.
Of course you can still argue though on whether or doing such an entry-level gesture of artistic expression (“The album title talks of a black sister, so therefore I will put on black make up and will be her!”) is one that has any merit or not. Personally, I wished that she had gone the way of whatshername Die Antwoord and done a whole body paint get up. that way she would have looked like an evil smurf!