Scandinavia: A Giant of Heavy Music – Iceland
In a slight deviation to what I promised in my introduction, I want to start my more in-depth analysis of the musical strength of the Scandinavian countries with a country that I didn’t initially mention and that, strictly-speaking, is not part of Scandinavia.
Let me explain…
It may not be part of Scandinavia as such, but the country’s history is closely interwoven with their Scandinavian cousins, having been inhabited by the Norsemen well over 1000 years ago. As such, is referred to as one of the ‘Nordic countries’ and therefore, I’m including it in my series. I am, of course, referring to Iceland.
This decision has been brought about thanks to a couple of trips to this magnificent and intriguing country, the last of which was just a few weeks ago. What struck me during both visits, apart from the rugged beauty, the isolation and the tranquillity, was the influence of music on this country. And whilst my focus is naturally music of a heavier bent, Iceland has also produced some non-metal music that I hold dear to my heart.
With a population of less than 400,000, it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Nevertheless, here is a country that well and truly punches above its weight on the world music stage.
To begin with, there were the factoids on the aeroplane TV screens during my flight to the country. They talked of glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs…and the fact that 10 rock bands are formed every year and look to take on the world. Ten. Supposing that each of those bands has four members, that’s 40 Icelanders every year that try to find their way onto the rock/metal world stage. It may only be approximately 0.01%, but it’s 0.01% of the entire population. Madness when you think about it. It is even more bonkers to think that this is one of the facts that Iceland is so proud of. I love it and it smacks of a country obsessed with music and proud of their contribution internationally.
Then there’s the film, about heavy metal, for which actress Ϸorbjörg Helga Dýrfjörð won the Best Actress award at the Eddas (the Icelandic Film and Television awards). Entitled ‘Málmhaus’ (‘Metalhead’), it was directed by Ragnar Bragason and tells the story of a girl in her twenties who retreats to heavy metal music to cope with the loss of her elder brother in a tragic accident. I have yet to see this film but that is something that I would hope to rectify very soon.
Speaking of metalheads, having arrived in Iceland, I bump into a group of them within seconds of leaving the hotel for the first time, all adorned in the black uniform that’s so instantly recognisable. I spy a Bloodbath beanie amongst the logos and there’s a knowing look that passes as my Dimmu Borgir hat is noticed. Wherever in the world you are, the language of metal is the same.
A few moments later, the sound of rock comes blasting out of a bar as I walk along the central Rejkjavik streets. I feel very at home here all of a sudden.
The following day, whilst on a walk along the main high street of Rejkjavik, I hit the mother load – an old-fashioned record shop. You know the kind I’m referring to – where you go in and can actually speak to the people who work there, where you can ask their opinion and where they’ll put an album on the stereo for you to listen to before purchasing. The name of this great shop is Smekkleysa, the Bad Taste Record Store and is run by Kristjàn, a great guy who knows his music and is proud to promote local acts, spending time to talk, advise and enlighten fellow music lovers. I could have spent a long time in the store given half the chance.
And what of the local acts? Who are they exactly?
First of all, there’s the international superstar that is Björk. Everyone, whether or not you enjoy her eclectic musical output, has heard of Björk. Personally, I’m not a big fan and so I shall move on swiftly to some music I know more about.
Sigur Rós is another internationally-recognised name, a post-rock band that have made it big from very humble beginnings. They are a band that hold a very special place in my heart. My parents and I first visited Iceland in 2009, on the first anniversary of the passing of my brother. He was always fascinated by nature and had a particular fondness for mountains and isolation. He never went to Iceland, but had always wanted to. The decision was made to travel there and scatter some of his ashes in the beautiful country.
Nick was also a big Sigur Rós fan, more so than I to be perfectly honest. Prior to travelling, I sent a few emails and was kindly invited to the Sigur Ros studio just outside Rejkjavik. There, we met Kjartan Sveinsson (the then keyboardist) and studio engineer Birgir Jón ‘Biggi’ Birgisson. It was a very special experience and one that I treasure to this day. The humble attitude of the chaps and the understated feel of the surroundings really hit home to me how down to earth Icelanders really are, regardless of international fame and fortune. Truly, there are no VIPs in Iceland.
Oh, and the beautiful simple and atmospheric compositions of Sigur Rós make for a fittingly epic soundtrack whilst watching the Aurora Borealia, the Northern Lights. That’s an experience I shall also never forget.
Turning my attention to more metallic acts, there are approximately 50 active Icelandic bands at the current time, a quite unbelievable number. However, there are three who I believe are worthy of particular mention: Dimma, Skalmold and Sólstafir.
Dimma are a rock/metal band in the more traditional mould that really caught my ear whilst in the aforementioned record store. Big riffs, nice melodies and strong vocals all add up to a rather positive listening experience for fans of classic hard rock and metal with an ever-so-slightly melancholic feel. Maybe this blog will be the catalyst for that extra bit of recognition that they deserve? I certainly hope so.
Skálmöld, on the other hand, have already found themselves on the Napalm Records roster and is a name that is more familiar with the worldwide metal fraternity, having released two studio albums to date during their five-year existence. Skálmöld occupy the folk/Viking metal genre but their style harks back to older bands rather than being ultra modern. There’s a great blend of heaviness and melody to their compositions and the latest album, ‘Börn Loka’, in particular is worth having a listen to.
The most well-known of the three though, is Sólstafir. The band have come a long way from their crust and punk-infused black metal beginnings and now offer a very unique and fabulous post rock/metal aural experience. The music on their most recent recordings is epic in the truest sense of the word and evokes those barren and bleak mental images that are completely in keeping with their homeland. They’re a fabulous band and if you’ve yet to check them out, I suggest you rectify that oversight immediately.
And with that, my whistle-stop tour of Iceland and it’s musical footprint comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.