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Passing Judgement: Icelandic Music Yodeling dept: Grísalappalísa, “Alí”

In the sprawling sci-fi film sequel, “The Matrix: Reloaded,” there’s a critical scene where Neo (Keanu Reeves) meets the avatar known as The Architect, who is responsible for creating the virtual world of the matrix. During the encounter, Neo is informed that far from being the chosen one, a hero who will lead the people of Zion to rise up and fight for freedom against the machines, he and Zion are in fact a designed “glitch” that has been built with each redesign of the Matrix. The purpose of this glitch is to provide an extra level of control over humanity, giving the malcontents and heretics the sense of hope and that they can free themselves and the rest of humanity. In fact, Neo finds out that he is actually the 6th incarnation that has existed in the history of the matrix.

It’s this scenario that readily comes to mind when thinking about the nature of the “The Icelandic Music Scene.” It seems that in order to keep things ticking along happily, every few years or so “The Scene” requires a new champion with which “The Scene”‘s disciples can pin its hopes to keep us from getting that little bit jaded. However despite being heralded as the act who would usher in a new age of creative freedom and energy, the champion is merely the latest installment of a cycle that been repeating itself for years now.

Gríslappalísa have been declared the new rising champions of “The Scene,” Containing many of the bright lights from past champions such as Sudden Weather Change and Jakobinarina, as well as current acts such as Oyama and The Heavy Experience. Building a strong rep as an energetic and focused live unit (I caught them playing at Harpa during Menningarnótt where they played to only 25 people and a bunch of kids in Silfurberg. They still gave it a good un’ style performance. By the end of the second song, vocalist Gunnar Ragnarsson was completely out of breath. He should probably take up boot camp or something), the release of their debut album, ‘Ali’ has been given across the board praise from those who’ve spoken about it. ‘Alí’ sees Grísalappalísa channeling the music and spirit of classic angry/awkward rock and post punk of the likes of local Icelandic legends Purrkur Pillnikk, Þeyr, and Megas to other luminaries such as Gang Of Four, PiL and the Stranglers. In many ways. the rise of Grísalappalísa seems to mirror that of UK act Savages, another post punk group who look to similar influences and aesthetics with which to inform their sound and politics, albeit a lot darker and self serious. Grísalappalísa, for example, have yet to be photographed looking sullen in a disused car park.

But there are a few similarities. Like Savages, Gríslappslísa come across as a bit angry. Why do we know this? Mostly because everyone says that they’re angry. And from the delivery of co-vocalist Baldur Baldursson certainly bears this out. On “Kraut Í G,” you’be got him standing upright, jabbing his finger into your chest in time with every fleck of invective he spits out. “ENDABLAUSAR BLOKKIR! ENDALAUSIR BILAR! ENDALAUS! LOKUÐ HLIÐ! HVERNIG! HVERNIG!” As the song carries on. he only seems to get more agitated and demented to the point where you can hear his nodules squeak on the final line, “ÉG ER FRJALS!” Remember the strained howls that came from Kurt Cobain at the end of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? We’re looking at that kind of level here. Such is the force on display from Baldursson, that in comparison when Gunnar Ragnarsson starts crooning on the following track “Má Allt (Allt Út),” he comes across as a mewing, petulant child. Although this does seem to confirm his role as a trickster foil, a Tigger to the brooding bear that is Baldursson. 

But what is the source of this anger? They’re white, well to do guys from Iceland! What the hell have they got to be angry about? Well it seems quite a bit actually. As ‘Alí’ is a concept album of sorts, you’ve got Baldursson and Ragnarsson taking the mantle of characters telling stories about the staidness of Icelandic life and culture, as well as describing their infatuation with “Lísa,” a woman/muse who’s causing them all sorts of chaos in their lives. Whenever she’s mentioned there seems to be a bit of a Madonna/Whore complex at play as many of the lines screamed out by the song’s characters tend to be along the lines of “I want her so much/why won’t that bitch notice me?” It might be seen as existential male angst, but with the characters veering between grand displays of bravado and morbid self-pity as they trudge along with tales of abusive hedonism and despicable treatment of women, such as on “Brost’ Ekki Of Bjart,” it seems that Grísalappalísa are displaying a fair amount of disdain and anger towards the “djamm” mentality of Iceland that seems to spawn such vile thoughts and attitudes. I certainly hope this is the case. If they sincerely feel/act the way the song’s lyrics describe, I think someone really needs to sit down and have a serious chat with them. (*)

In line with many classic Icelandic lyricists, Grísalappalísa also employ numerous instances of twisting and subverting classic Icelandic songs, poems and other cultural norms. For instance, It´s already been mentioned that “Kraut Í G” is a play on Stuðmenn’s “Popplag Í G,” Then there’s the song “Lóan Er Komin,” that twists the narrative of a classic spring church hymn of the same name. Meanwhile the intro to “Má Allt (Allt Út),” has Baldursson mouthing the title of the classic Icelandic pop song “Tunglið Tunglið Taktu Mig (The Moon, the moon you take me)” before proceeding to scatologically scream at the top of of his voice “…. IN THE ASS!”

Besides the band’s obsession with Lísa and fucking up old song titles, they also delve into themes about religion and the nihilistic shaking of perceived truths and social norms. Jesus, Judas and the church are referenced, but it’s the song “Má Allt (Allt Út),” that’s particularly intriguing. Translated as “Everything Is Allowed (Allowed To Be Erased),” this seems to be a bastardisation of the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” . From Islamic mystics and medieval christian cults, to Nietzsche in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ It’s a phrase that’s been at the heart of subversive and heretical thinking though the 20th century, providing Gnostic, intellectual ammo to the likes of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, avant-garde movements such as surrealism, dadism, and situationalism all the way to punk itself. Grísalappalísa may sing “Elvis died before he could be a punk,” but Elivs’ own actions were subversive enough at the time, providing an explosive mix of fatalism and desire that punks like The Sex Pistols would pick up when their time came. 

So does Grísalappalísa’s attempts at nihilistic subversion going to burn away the conventions currently held by Iceland’s cultural scene? Alas almost certainly not. The thing is that for all the good wordplay, admittedly great tunes and the feeling of “newness” on display in ‘Alí,’ Grísalappalísa are merely refurbishing a set of ideas themes and influences that have used and abused by Icelandic musicians and artists many times over. This isn’t really their fault as such, just the nature of the environs they exist in today. The subversive nature that raged along the Rókk Í Reykjaivk/KUKL/Smekkleysa plane has now pretty much been absorbed and subsumed fully into the cultural fabric of Iceland. As a result it may provide a hazy, vicarious buzz of danger, but it’s a danger that’s now pretty much expected by everyone to be on display with music and art such as this. It´s clever if done right, but not that shocking any more. You sense Grísalappalísa themselves realise this quandary, yet they don’t seem to care that much as they sing “Thoroughly thought out, much practiced, stolen from here or there, don’t expect that I take responsibility or remember where from” on “Lóan er Komin.”

So OK, beneath the thrusting newness there is a lack of true subversive energy that would surely be needed to storm “the scene”/break the matrix as is needed. But compared to Savages, and many Icelandic acts that look to completely replicate a sound to the point of full-on pastiche, you get a feeling with Grísalappalísa that their nostalgia mode is a little more impressionistic. Only “Kraut Í G” and “Skrítin Birta” have that definite sonic feel of sounding as if they’ve come from Kópavogur in 1982. Many of the other tracks seem to take their cue from many cultural nodes, from ’90s indie rock all the way back to grooving psych jams of the late ’60s, via hazy krautrock references (That are mostly defined through the post-punk bands mentioned above). Maybe refurbishment is not the right word to describe it – Fine tuning would be better, making it more nuanced more suited to today’s ears.

The reality is that ‘Alí’ is still one of the more vital albums to be released in Iceland this year. Perhaps, in a slightly subconscious way, the reason why people have clamoured for these guys so much is a reaction to what has been passed off as the creme de la creme of Icelandic music scene right now. Perhaps with Grísalappalísa showing a decent sense of self-awareness of their own position in the scheme of things, perhaps they can grasp a truly subversive edge that can lead themselves, or others, to be the one that can truly crack open “The Scene”….

(*) – Just to note that I’m invoking the “Utlendinga Clause” on this review, like I do with most Icelandic albums. It’s often a major Achilles heel for the likes of me when disseminating lyrics like the ones on ‘Alí’ that not only does it take a shitload of time to translate them properly, you’ve also got to try to read between the lines to workout the themes/story/what, if at all, they’re talking about. And especially after getting a nice passive aggressive letter from the singer of this band after apparently getting the theme of their album wrong in my review (Apparently I concentrated on the word “idiot” instead of the word “image” in the album title), I’m all for having people tell me that I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick with ‘Alí.’ subjective opinion and all that…


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Iceland, music


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