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The Icelandic Revolution

How Björk and Sigur Rós spawned the booming post-rock movement

January 3rd, 2007 · Written by · 3 Comments

Something supernatural on the east coast of England birthed the Beatles in the 60s. Fans in the United States fainted at their mere presence. During the 70s and 80s, the Sex Pistols and the Clash demanded a revolution and American street kids gave them one. During the 90s, the likes of Carl Cox and Paul Oakenfold held the torch as electronica swept across the ocean and over the dance floors of the United States. Simultaneously, bands like Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay and the Muse grabbed a hold of America’s musical landscape and have yet to let go. This post-rock movement continues to boom as we blaze into the twenty-first century

And America has fallen in love again. But this time, not with England.

The post-rock movement embraced the traditions of instrumentalism and all things avant-garde throughout the 90s. Hailing from Louisville and Chicago, acts like Slint, Tortoise and others were met with moderate domestic success.

Then, having laid the groundwork, Björk happened.

Marking the first time a folk singer dabbled in electronica, Björk’s first studio album, Debut, was met with glowing reviews in ‘93. Herself already in and out of numerous bands and projects since the 70s, Björk’s Debut featured haunting vocal melodies and odd instrumentation that exhibited a kaleidoscope of influences, — a sort of musical schizophrenia. But perhaps even more fascinating to the American public than her innovative music was that she burst onto the scene from the tiny Nordic island of Iceland.

Thirteen years later, Björk has sold 15 million records worldwide. Although her success may have been somewhat predictable, her impact on the post-rock scene was not. As Björk became a worldwide household name, American music executives started taking a vested interest in the sound coming out of Iceland. About this time in the mid-90s, when the post-rock genre teetered on mainstream acceptance, four boys known as Sigur Rós signed with Bad Taste records (owned by the Björk’s band, the Sugarcubes). FatCat Records in Britain took notice and quickly signed them after their second release, 99’s Ágætis Byrjun (An Alright Start). With distribution outside of Iceland, Ágætis Byrjun was met with rave reviews, fueling a bidding war between American majors.

saeglopur
Sigur Ros’ “Saeglopur” two disc EP/DVD

Settling on the Interscope imprint, Geffen records, Sigur Rós’s ethereal sound became a favorite of both actors and producers alike. But true to their growing reputation as reclusive and uncooperative with the media, Sigur Rós set marketing boundaries for themselves.

“We often say no,” guitarist/keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson confessed in a 2005 interview with Sirkus Magazine. “It’s a good thing. We get all sorts of movie, TV, and advertising requests. Some of these offers don’t go very far. Offers like The Life Aquatic [with Steve Zissou] will reach us, but not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example.”

That they also want to see the scenes before letting their music being used in them has created a roadblock for Hollywood.

“Very few people there want to send out clips from unreleased movies in case they leak out,” Sveinsson said. “But if people send us the movie, we will look into it.”

“We are not saying anything important – there’s no message in our music at all – and that’s great, because people can take the songs and attach them to themselves.”

This sort of control seems to contrast Sigur Rós’s intricate, free flowing soundscapes. Perhaps the lack of public spotlight is what keeps the fragile shell of the band together. Tension between band and public greatly shaped 2002’s ( ) release. Built on simulated sounds of the Icelandic language, the brackets album remains one of the most beautiful, yet hauntingly depressing albums of any generation. It even came complete with blank liner notes urging the casual listener to take down their own interpretations of the songs.

This blatant plea for listener-to-band interaction strikes at the heart of what makes Sigur Rós tick. “We have turned down millions,” said Sveinsson in The Sunday Times feature. “But for us, the really important thing is how precious music is to people, especially when you are younger, when a song might connect to a special emotion.”

“We are not saying anything important – there’s no message in our music at all – and that’s great, because people can take the songs and attach them to themselves.”

This open-ended philosophy has transcended pop-culture and spawned a score of Icelandic bands in its wake. The female quartet Amiina and the ever-evolving lineup of the electronic tinged music of Múm have garnered the attention of American record execs. And the Iceland keeps birthing bands, each as diverse as the last.

Currently, the Iceland Airwaves Festival is preparing for its 8th anniversary next October. The annual four-day festival is hosted by the capitol city, Reykjavik. Once the rural, northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik is now a booming metropolis that houses some of the world’s greatest artists. So, what makes this volcanic island, smaller than the great state of Kentucky, a thriving mecca for post-rock and experimental music? What does Iceland have that the rest of the world doesn’t?

Something slightly askew is on the musical horizon. Something strikingly unfamiliar, yet beautiful and all encompassing, with limitless possibilities and tested staying power. Something as beautiful as the geyser-studded land itself. The beauty that spews forth from a Sigur Rós track encompasses the Icelandic ideal of intimate and active participation. This past year saw a new release and decidedly happier days for the band. Despite a rocky relationship with the press, their honesty about new fame that has allowed them and spirit of the Icelandic scene to live on.

“It’s like Bardi Jóhansson (of Bang Gang) said in the movie Screaming Masterpiece,” explained Sveinsson, “In Iceland, no one gives a shit and that’s why people just do what they want to do. No one in Iceland will start a band to ‘make it.’”

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