After listening to far too many wonderful sets while staring at walls or other people’s backs, I determined to stake out a venue for the evening. I would have to pass on some of the shows I really wanted to see, but was certain to discover a couple of new things in return. And besides, it was physically difficult to walk outside in winds so fierce that (foreign) people were starting to whisper the word “hurricane” doubtfully to each other.
I settled on Harpa, the exquisite glass sculpture of a building on the waterfront that houses at least three different performance spaces, and hosted the greatest number of acts I wanted to catch on Thursday night.
First up: The Heavy Experience. These guys were not originally on my list, but I’m so glad we bumped into each other. Mesmerizing stoner without the rock; doom without the metal; as promised by their name, an adulterated heavy experience. Such pure heaviness could easily have become gimmicky and unoriginal. Replacing vocals with saxophone was an effective choice that made this heavy experience (see what I did there?) unique.
Next on the lineup was Skálmöld. Strictly speaking, I was not in love with their music. Their first album was an enjoyable listen, but the primary interest for me was their approach to the concept of folk-metal. Where other bands use folksy melodies or assorted traditional instruments to evoke tradition, Skálmöld actually follows tradition. They produce concept albums according to the traditional rules of Icelandic poetry, resulting in new sagas set to heavy music. Falling short of Korpiklaani’s costumery, they’re not afraid to show their Viking pride, and work that angle pretty heavily in the music and performance. Like The Heavy Experience, it’s an idea that could go pretty badly in the wrong hands, but Skálmöld was made for the job.
Shamelessly strutting their power-metal stage moves, Skálmöld brought the famously reserved Icelandic crowd to a fever pitch of Viking solidarity with only the tiniest wink to reassure us that it’s all just in good fun. I came in curious, and came out convinced. Skálmöld put on one of the most fun shows I’ve ever seen.
Sólstafir, Of Monsters and Men, and Sigur Rós; these three bands are the reason I’m here. But when the time came for Sólstafir’s show, I was a little concerned that their slower pace and more mental compositions wouldn’t hold up after the drinking horn-waving Viking fraternity party of Skálmöld.
They did. Sólstafir sauntered onstage like a band of Spaghetti Western outlaws. Aðalbjörn Tryggvason (Addi) addressed the crowd with a gravel-throated growl that had people raising their hands in the air and dropping their wallets on the ground, but he sang with an anguished cry that transformed the bandido into an anti-hero worthy of The Man With No Name. Live music really doesn’t get any better than this.
HAM! The Icelandic version of Swans, HAM is the old guard of abrasive, experimental music. Unless you’re from Iceland, you probably haven’t heard of them, but every single band from Iceland today, regardless of musical style, is copying HAM in some way. Especially since Swans had to cancel (thanks Sandy), I was looking forward to HAM, and they didn’t disappoint. Watching them was like a music history lesson, as I began to see where Addi got his showmanship, where Kontinuumgot a lot of things, and where the Icelandic tradition of mixing musical metaphors got its start. Unfortunately, after Skálmöld and Sólstafir, I was all emotioned out, and couldn’t really get into HAM as much as the performance deserved. I might have been alone in that though, as all around me teenage boys sang along and an amateur mosh-pit broke out behind me. Clearly these guys are the granddaddies of Icelandic rock.
I was wiped out. My camera battery was dead, my cell phone battery was dead, and so were my backup batteries. There was an hour to kill before Of Monsters and Men, and I almost just called it a night. But I knew that after a good night’s sleep I would forget how tired I had been, and spend the rest of my life kicking myself for going all the way to Iceland and skipping OMAM. So I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did.
OMAM have come a long way since I saw them in Seattle a week before their full-length debut album came out. In all honesty, the Seattle show was better, and not just because I was so tired that night in Reykjavík. I think that they were tired too. After more than six months of nonstop touring, both Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and co-singer/guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson sounded on the verge of losing their voices. There was less energy on the stage than when I saw them at the outset of their first world tour, but the audience was more than willing to make up the difference. When the first big musical swell was joined by an explosion of lights and glitter, the cheer that went up from every throat was involuntary. No matter how commercially palatable OMAM’s songs are, they are still emotionally powerful, and I found myself near tears several times during the set.
Thursday night was going to be hard to beat.