The rhapsodic raptures juxtaposed with distortion-fueled vexations that encompass Mugiboogie in one way outline the singer/songwriter Örn Elías Guðmundsson’s own spectrum of conscience: equal parts attrition and audacity. But this emotional and musical mélange seems to be as immanently Mugison (Guðmundsson’s guise) as it is Icelandic.
Under his musical moniker—named by drunken Malaysians one night in 2001 (his father’s nickname is Mugi)—Guðmundsson blithely personifies much of the contrast between his island nation’s bright exterior and murky undercurrent. As he described in a 2005 Paste interview, using polished American superheroes to contrast, in Iceland, “It’s nearly like a fascination with murderers, misfits, the lowlifes—they always win ... the stories always conclude like, ‘Yeah, he’s the winner,’ even though he had three wives, was a bad father, and went bankrupt 20 times.” The innate mix of realism, despair and humor that inhibit Icelanders’ conscience makes for well-adjusted fishermen who don’t take things too seriously, he claims. That partially explains the title to his celebrated sophomore release, Mugimama, Is This Monkey Music?, and other whimsical gestures. On his latest, the song, “Jesus is a Good Name to Moan”, is an apt example of such dark humor and the synthesis between Guðmundsson’s scope of styles. His favorite part of the song comes when an audience full of girls moans along in unison, but scorching effects and nose-diving guitar lines can suggest a darker interpretation.
Another Icelandic trait inseparable from Guðmundsson and his music is self-sufficiency. Like other artist luminaries, and fellow citizens, that precede him (e.g. Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mum), isolation breeds independence, be it from record labels, producers or studios. For Guðmundsson, that meant not only redesigning the cover art his label procured for his debut album, Lonely Mountain—a somber collection of electronically infused existential songs—but also hand-sewing the cardboard sleeves for each of 10,000 copies, a labor lasting over two months.
Guðmundsson ’s newest album, Mugiboogie is an exercise in emotional indie that de-crescendos from brooding psychedelic thrash metal to indigenous melancholy ballads without hesitation. In other words, it fluctuates like anyone’s mood. But in its entirety, it’s inherently comprised of far-off variations on the blues, consistently augmented with vociferous vocals and effects. Also featuring hand-made cover art (this time with a little help from his friends) the album begins with the upbeat, “Mugiboogie”, a churning song with keyboard melodies and a bellicose beat. It progresses towards gentle sonorous melodies before impulsive rock with a decidedly punk ethos takes over again, finally resolving in a cohesive denouement. Other heavy tracks like “Two Thumb Sucking Son of a Boyo”, and the industrial, but mystical, “I’m Alright” are arresting in their diesel-powered antipodal tones and primal growls. The epic “Sweetest Melody”, veers towards demonic distortion from vulnerable vocals when he sings, “Something that makes me feel more alive / Please ask your god to save me,” is an amalgamation of the range of sounds that precede it, and also a fitting conclusion to the album.
Enveloping the ostensibly interloping metal songs is a collection of heartfelt, and comparatively tame, tracks. In a rustic, yet clearly emboldened voice, Guðmundsson ruminates about performers as preachers on “The Pathetic Anthem”, a gripping track with effectively simple guitar, concluding with, “But some I think are for real / Solid like brick or steel.” With funk-laced falsetto and more percussive effects, “The Animal” is decidedly Beck, circa Mutations. The comfort of “George Harrison” lies in its lazy, but gorgeous, melodies and accompanying glockenspiel effects. So, while the tone is hazy and removed, the melody is engaging. Similarly ethereal is “Deep Breathing”, one of the album’s best offerings. Atmospheric string arrangements and lush strumming exhale in unison, while a winding celesta suggests something uncertain lingers: “Why are you breathing so / Is someone mean to you?”
Guðmundsson’s dogged determination has lead to accolades on his small island nation (winning Icelandic Music Awards in 2007 for best rock record, video and album cover) and a growing following stateside. His eclectic mix of adrenaline and heartache, tumult and evanescence is sing-along, and contemplative. But whether he can maintain his fierce independence, growing popularity, and handmade album covers all at once remains to be seen.