Benni Hemm Hemm is an Icelandic band named after its founder, Benedik H. Hermannson. ‘Benni Hemm Hemm’ is his nickname. Dark-haired and in his mid-‘20s, Hermannson won an Icelandic Music Award in 2005 for Benni Hemm Hemm, his first, self-nicknamed album. Since then he has toured overseas and built up a small following.
This new album was recorded over four days in the grey concrete box of Sigur Rós’s Reykjavik studio. Hermannson’s band uses trombones and glockenspiels and guitars, and the music it makes rises to peaks which topple into troughs. The first track on the disc is more of an overture than an independent song. It starts softly with a gleam of guitar and then the horns come in at a low purr that rises in volume, first gradually, then with a sudden burst of noise, until the whole band is romping together. The music lifts to a crescendo and falls away, leaving us hanging. The next sound we hear is the low, simple grunt of a trombone.
This technique of steep descents from noise into quiet was noticeable on Hermannson’s first album, and it’s noticeable again here: it seems to have cemented itself into his repertoire. “Sorgartár” is an aural rollercoaster, belting up and down, pausing occasionally for a few tinging notes from a glockenspiel or words from Hermannson in his role as the band’s lead singer. “Mónakó” uses the same technique more subtly. “Sex Eða Sjö” drills itself to a summit and then floats away lightly on a hum. The album is built around this simple idea of opposites: loud versus soft, up versus down, and delicate glock versus blaring brass. Competing forces tug at one another. It never gets dull.
Unfortunately, one of the competing forces is Hermannson’s voice, and it is dull. He sings in a dour moan that tries to flatten whatever it touches. I think this drone is supposed to be part of the band’s knocked-together aesthetic in the same way that Jeff Magnum’s out-of-tune fragility is an integral part of Neutral Milk Hotel, but where Magnum seems moved and human, Hermannson sounds like a half-bored man in a supermarket queue amusing himself by humming under his breath. Where Magnum’s croak made him seem defenseless, the flatness of Hermannson’s voice starts to feel like a defensive reflex.
This is the bad side of the same sense of irony that sees him in one publicity shot wearing a dumbly ingratiating grin and holding his guitar at an awkward angle, poking fun at the idea of rock stars with their sexy poses and shiny, appealing wedges of teeth. Other singers draw attention to themselves by seeming excited. He does it by undercutting the excitement of his fellow band members. After “Sól á Heyhóla” has pumped itself up with drum and guitar, his groan pours in like a bucket of cold water. Hermannson’s voice is part of the band’s style, but not a fun part. Perhaps it sounds witty when you can understand the Icelandic lyrics.
He’s at his best when he doesn’t have the rest of the group raging around him. When the instruments in “Sól á Heyhóla” die down and his voice is almost the only noise we can hear, then its good qualities come out: he sounds tender, and less strangled. The same thing happens at the beginning of “Aldrei”. It’s when he has to raise the volume of his voice that it goes dour. Oh, and when he has to carry long notes. When he opens his mouth at the beginning of “Ég á bát” and begins dragging out vowels to be murdered on the rack, my heart sinks.
It un-sinks when the instruments start to blare and scrawch. A flat instrument is easier to listen to than a flat voice; it doesn’t have the same bad-karaoke overtones. There are times, in “Stoffer”, for example, and later during “Aldrei”, when the band sounds like a less extreme Maher Shalal Hash Baz. The brass and drums crash in a Baz-like way without tipping over into discordancy. When I feed Kajak into my computer, the programme categorises it as ‘rock’, but if this is rock then it’s a very odd, indie kind of rock. It’s either thrashing away joyfully in the margins, or charging at the forefront of whatever rock might be if only it could extend itself to embrace trombones. I’m not sure which.
Kajak is a stronger album than Benni Hemm Hemm. The songs on the earlier release sounded as if they had been written here and there over a number of years. That they were together on the same CD sometimes seemed more like accident than design. Kajak is tighter, less piecemeal. The short recording time has worked out to the album’s advantage, and the indie roughness of the first album has been refined without being lost. I applaud that. Still, I wish they’d find a different singer. That professional-amateur sound Hermannson is aiming for can be a tricky thing to perfect. Why does he have to sound so underwhelmed by his own achievement? Or is that part of the joke?