Tag Archives: Album Reviews
A few albums reviews were posted in The Grapevine online this week after being published in the paper. though i’d put them up on here for your reading pleasure….
‘My Brain,’ the crowdsourced debut EP from singer/songwriter Adda (AKA Arnþrúður Ingólfsdóttir), is a wonderfully austere, haunting body of folk songs. Playing fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Adda sings a lot about her turbulent mind (referring to her brain as a third person entity), as if she were in a passionate relationship with a partner. With all the highs and lows it entails, the intensity and emotional gravity of such feelings reverberate in Adda’s voice (with accompaniment from her sister Sunna). The rising, sustained two-note harmonies on “Taking Off,” for example, set your arm hairs on edge.
Adda has in the past referred to Joni Mitchell as a big influence and Jewel songs such as “Pieces Of You” and “Little Sister” could sit perfectly well alongside this EP. But while those artists have a shiny Americana gloss to them, ‘My Brain’ has a much stronger, rustic folk dynamic, as if it’s been opened up to the changeable elements of Northern European climes. “Waking Up,” with the reedy flute accompaniment of Georgia Browne, is a dew-laden, pastoral sunrise of a song while “I Will Not Forget,” a survivor’s letter of thanks to family and friends, is definitely the best track on the EP. The undulating meter of the guitar accompanied by waves of long drawn cello drones that drift in and out of focus have a mesmeric spectral quality, all windswept cliffs and remote peninsulas.
If there’s one duff moment in ‘My Brain,’ then it’s “Queer Sweetheart” with its finger-clicking jazz-blues melody, which alas does not do anything for me. But even here, decidedly acidic witty lines such as “You might even catch me with a queer porn flick/But don’t tell my country about it though/Cos there I’m a radical feminist oh-oh/And they don’t watch any kind of porn,” made me spit my morning tea out, going “Damn! You went there!”
‘My Brain’ is an accomplished debut EP that’s highly intimate, even confessional, but never comes across as self-obsessed. There is a quiet determination that resides at the centre of the music. The production also shows that when it comes to creating an impact with her song writing, she definitely gets what folk is all about.
It should be noted that when you first play ‘Höfuðsynd,’ the debut album from new band Atónal Blús, you quickly realise that despite the cool name, that they’re not really Arnold Schoenberg does John Lee Hooker. But that’s not to dispute that there’s some avant-garde tinkering at play here. The opening track, “Atónal Blús,” is a murky, buzzing, discoloured breakdown of a song that comes closest to the atonal aesthetic implied of the band’s name.
From there it settles down into a spot-welded blend of heaving psych-inflected rock and interesting rhythmic patterns that could be seen as a little bit (whisper it) “proggy.” The rhythm workings shouldn’t come as a surprise. The band’s main instigator, Gestur Guðnason, was a member of Icelandic Balkan beats band Stórsveit Nix Noltes, and a track like “Balkan Boogie” is pretty much a fuzzed up variation on the SNN template, although it’s definitely more subtly employed on tracks such as “Oxygen Kills.” The rock components themselves are manfully done although fairly standard in their structure and occasionally border on cliché (freight train sounds made with the harmonica and acoustic jams with bongos).
All in all, ‘Höfuðsynd’ is a rather enjoyable listen. The drums/bass partnership have been brought right to the front of the mix, giving what could have been an average rock song like “Sexy Slave” some overloading, thumping menace (Jesus, those floor toms!). There are also several moments, such as when the vocals, harmonica and lead guitar combine on “Lítið ljón,” where there’s a looseness that borders on the unstable, giving it a definite edge in comparison to the stiff, crushing orthodoxy of much of Iceland’s lauded “real rock” music. Definitely worth a spin for rock heads looking for a little more danger in their music.
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!
So I did a review of the self titled EP from Icelandic female 4-piece Grúska Babúska a few months ago, and it was finally printed in the current issue of the Grapevine. you can go here to check it out. It also seems again that there’s been an attack of the Ghost Sub-editors – Where are all the commas in the first paragraph? Also the beginning of the final paragraph should have read that the album could work as a children’s album, not couldn’t. But these alas are no concerns of mine. What’s done is done, etc.
Anyway, it’s fair to say that I didn’t like the EP that much. Many of the songs are like the following. It´s just too coy, sickly and overpowering in it’s affected innocence to actually enjoy it. …
It wasn’t all bad though. Interestingly, there was one good song on the album, called “Burg” (Which alas in the review is called “Bur” – Dammit!), that actually has a different feel to the rest of the album.
The track hints at some of the more playful aspects of old ’70s soundtrack/library scores.
The thing though is that these are intro songs to rather Grisly ’70s Italian giallo/horror movies (‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ respectively). The power of the tracks comes from the juxtaposition of music that is soft, sweet, almost childlike, with gory, vicious nastiness. It gives the music that sense of power, that it’s actually leading you into a false sense of security before the film pulls the rug from under your feet.
Then there’s other films from that time that portray the world of a growing child as a surrealist fairytale (I understand that film is rather popular with many members of the arts scene here in Iceland)
Even though it’s put forward as a fairytale, there’s a lot more going on with “Valerie / Her Week Of Wonders” that at first glance. Despite the surreal and dreamlike imagery, there’s a heavy sexual/Oedipal undercurrent to the plot. It’s an allegory that chronicles the world through the eyes of a child who is undergoing the first stages of puberty, as she grows from a girl into a woman, with all the fear and uncertainties that come with it. It echoes many of the old fairy tales/folk songs that actually had a very adult/blasphemous take on the world around them, before Victorian & Edwardian morals sought to excise the more suspect/dirtier elements from them.
And then you have the modern quirky takes on fairy tale folk and the soundtrack/library music from that era, examples of which are coming out from offshoot labels of Finder Keepers records (Disposable Music, and Pre-Cert Home Entertainment).
Listening to that, the music seems to be looking to synthesize and channel that hauntological sense of the uncanny, almost supernatural forces that runs through much of our lives unnoticed, unless we care to look deeper. Lots of musique concrete sounds (Bangs, shoes shuffling and clomping on the ground, creaks, clinks of chains, scratches) and slightly discordant melody lines that add a kind of untamed, sinister ambiance to what is music for kids stories.
And this is the fundamental flaw with Grúska Babúska. Even though they try to attain a sense of a fairy tale sound that harks at something weird and unusual, there is no depth or details to their world. Apart from “Burg,” It fails to invoke any sense of the unusual, that there is more going on to their music and imagery that provides a for sense of the uncanny or fantastical. It´s all “Aren’t we so nice and lovely and sweet?”
Am off to see a friend play in a Gig soon, so i’ll be quick and to the point.
So there’s been a few album reviews loaded onto da interwubs. First off is the latest EP from SIN FANG. it was actually something i liked a lot. T’was very bright and breezy for what has been a bit of a balmy summer.
Next up is the second album from MUGSEFJUN. Twiddly “progressive” pop nonsense. Apparently has good lyrics and obviously thinks its being a very arch and clever music. But it does have it’s moments here and there.
Last up is the début album from ARNAR ÁSTRÁÐSSON. He writes songs to try to win Iceland’s song for Eurovision. That’s all you need to know really.
Now get reading…
Yeah, so i did a review of the juggernaut that is “My Head Is An Animal” by Of Monsters And Men for the latest issue of the Grapevine. Go over and read it here.
Interesting side note. Spoke a while back with an Icelandic musician who used to do music with Universal, the label who signed Of Monsters And Men. He told me that he met the label rep from Universal at last years’ Airwaves and he was rather happy with himself, while also being slightly under the influence a few beers.
Telling my friend that he had some great news, he proceeded to tell him that they had just signed the Of Monsters And Men. Friend replied “Why? They’re so boring! They’re just like all the other other boring bland bands out there!”
Record label rep then goes “Oh no. They’re going to be huge! Just as big as Arcade fire! If not bigger! And we’re gonna make them huge!”
Oh well. You can always ignore them if you want. Just avoid the radio. And the TV. And the newspapers. And mainstream music websites. And mobile phone adverts. Basically any standard cultural media. No biggie….