WTF Iceland? So much great music from such a strange, tiny country

January 8, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

I thought I was being sort of clever, placing the expertly talented Icelandic composer/producer duo Kiasmos high on my list of the Top 10 records of 2014.

I assumed, since so few had heard of them, I’d be one of the first to introduce a simply marvelous – if not exactly groundbreaking – electronica act I’d only recently discovered to myriad grateful readers who would, in turn, thank me profusely and offer me gifts and wine and leather goods and puppies.

I was not entirely incorrect; nearly no one knew (knows?) about Kiasmos – renowned composer Ólafur Arnalds and producer Janus Rasmussen– whose eponymous debut record really is a perfectly produced chill/dance/ambient record of deep moods and rich atmosphere, and I recommend it highly.

Iceland's most badass export? That's easy: Solstafir.

Iceland’s most badass export? That’s easy: Solstafir.

What I failed to recognize, of course, was that Kiasmos was just the tip of the Icelandic iceberg; that they might, in fact, not even be the best band to come out of Iceland this year; that there are more – many, many more – Icelandic bands ready right now to blow your musical mind, so many that, should you be so inclined, you will soon not quite believe this much talent can possibly pour forth from such a tiny, remote country known for its harsh landscape, its fire and ice, and geysers, and Northern Lights, and Vikings, and zero crime and gay-friendliness and extraordinarily expensive cocktails, and elves.

Samaris, like Bjork’s three lost siblings from an entirely different decade

Don’t take my word for it; go sample for yourself. Jim Beckmann of Seattle’s beloved KEXP annually cobbles an Iceland-only “Best-of” list – not to mention a dedicated YouTube channel – because Iceland’s bands are just that good, every single year.

OMG I love this band, Samaris, even if they are a little heavy on the silly elf hair and '80s eyeliner

OMG I love this band, Samaris, even if they are a little heavy on the silly elf hair and ’80s eyeliner

My jaw kept dropping, over and over again, as I whipped through Jim’s list: Samaris (new personal fave), and then Rökkurró, then Low Roar, then ADHD (the subtle jazz/chill band, not the condition), and then Solstafir and Oyama and Óbó… on and on it went, upwards of 20 bands in all, with nary a serious disappointment in the bunch. Even Jim said he ran out of time to include all the bands he potentially could have.

Thus, the question: How is this possible? All this talent from a tiny, famously dreamlike country whose entire population (320K) amounts to just over a third of San Francisco’s? Hell, greater LA’s population hovers around 13 million, and I’d be hard-pressed to name 20 quality bands from that glittery wasteland in the last decade.

An exaggeration? Only a little.

Bjork, and Sigur Rós: Those are the two acts that normally come to mind when the average music fan thinks of Iceland. The former, of course, is everyone’s favorite ultra-reclusive, stranger-than-thou performance artist who hasn’t ventured anywhere near the Billboard charts in more than 10 years. The latter is the ethereal, symphonic post-rock band fronted by falsetto god Jonsí, a vocalist so dreamy and wraith-like he doesn’t even sing in Icelandic, preferring an even more indecipherable kind of glossolalia.

To be sure, a few of the acts on Jim’s list have echoes of both (Solstafir has long been known as “the Sigur Rós of metal,” the singers for both Samaris and Rokkurro have notes of Bjork’s bird-like tonality, and so on).

But what of Geislar’s sexy, jazzy musical theater? Or ADHD’s casual fusion of languid jazz and fireside ambiance? Or Ben Frost’s propulsive industrial badassery?

I do not pretend to have an answer. I can only imagine the uncanny set of ingredients that fuels such wide creative output, offer devout thanks for such astounding musical bounty (every year!) and save my deeper query for when I finally visit Reykjavik in the near future, ears wide open and Huldufólk willing.

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Mark Morford

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