“For the most part, Icelandic music is crap. Maybe not the musicians, but everything about it. Everybody’s always in such a hurry, there’s no budget, etc. And therefore, the results are bad. Yet people keep asking me: why is Icelandic music so special? The reason is that all the bands that are any good they all know that their music won’t be played on the radio, they know they won’t sell more than 200 albums in Iceland, especially if it is a young band. So they make music just as they please.” —Bardi Johansson (Bang Gang)
Screaming Masterpiece opens with a spiraling shot of the Head Pagan of Iceland (an actual position, believe it or not) singing traditional poetry out in the expansive icescapes of his home country, occasionally cutting to a swooping, epic view of the snow-capped mountain ranges that so beautifully decorate Iceland’s geography. It’s a bold opening for a documentary, but an opening that, as we find out shortly, is suitably Icelandic: strange, beautiful, and familiar all at once.
The poster for Ari Alexander’s musical timecaspule claims to cover “1000 Years of Icelandic Music” which it does, but only to a small degree. Talk of the rich Viking heritage is mentioned in passing once or twice, but more time is spent showing footage of Bjork performing not one, but two whole songs from a New York concert. Yet one thing that the movie makes abundantly clear very early on is that the focus is on the current Icelandic music scene—one that is not only successful, but strikingly diverse in its own right (just seeing an eye-popping music video for Bjork’s deliciously twisted take on pop music in contrast to a live performance of Sigur Ros in all of their orchestral-rock glory is enough of a great introduction to the eclectic nature of the Icelandic music scene).
But modern Icelandic music is not too different from America’s own DIY indie soundscape. While the idea of a quartet of guys playing nothing but keyboards may sound a little strange, the resulting band, Appatat, actually makes for a delicious product of electro indie-pop. At one point, when groups Mum & Slowblow are performing together, a woman holds a handsaw between her legs, hits it with a large drumstick and bends it to get just the right note. Such a strange choice of instrument isn’t meant to be used for the sake of eccentricity—it’s a genuine element for their own set of whimsical songs. Some of these stranger bands are glimpsed at only in passing (like the surreal Ghostigital), but the glimpses themselves are fascinating nonetheless.
Though such sights can be both ear- and eye-poppingly outrageous (watching the lead singer of the Stooges-inspired group Minus performing a drum solo on his friend’s bare back manages to be such a treat), Alexander’s film follows a distinctly non-linear path, veering somewhat haphazardly from one band to the next, having the group-of-the-moment wax philosophical on either their own existence or why the state of Icelandic music is as fascinating as it is before moving on to the next group. Because of this, there isn’t much of a rising action or climax to get to. As such, the film begins to run out of steam partway through the 60-minute mark.
Though a good amount of time is spent with Head Pagan Hilm Orn Hilmarsson in preparation for a musical performance of the 800 year-old poem “Odin’s Raven Magic” with full orchestra and Sigur Ros in tow, that event in itself (though fairly hair-raisingly epic in its own right), is never given a full backstory. At one point we get a sampling of Icelandic pop history with a montage featuring various UK-inspired ‘70s punk bands (as one interviewee points out, surrealism and punk-rock found a very natural fusion in Iceland) and the Sugarcubes, but even then their influence is not brought into much light.
Given this CliffNotes take on musical heritage, it’s still hard to criticize a documentary where the filmmakers sit back and simply let the music speak for itself. Small acoustic group Mugison gets to perform two songs, one of which is an attic rendition of their two-guitar only number “Murr Murr”, which they do at a speed that’s even faster than the studio take (which if you’ve ever heard, you’ll know what an amazing feat that is). At one point the film cuts to the music video for Mum’s extraordinary “Green Grass Tunnel” (cross-cut in with footage of the band themselves admitting that they have absolutely no idea how they got to where they are), and their epic soundscapes pull us in for a few moments of delicate, almost touching musical catharsis.
With the commercial dominance of Sigur Ros and Bjork taking place here in America, the film boldly explores how the American influence makes its way into the Icelandic scene as well. The full-fledged rap-rock of Quarashi is unabashedly American in stature, but it still has an edge all its own. Slowblow tackles slowcore (appropriately enough) while the Bang Gang serves up Franz Ferdinand-styled angular guitar rock but with more emphasis on drama and atmosphere. We get treated to a few moments of insight from Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters (who let high-school rock group NilFisk open with a song during the band’s Iceland visit) as well as an incredibly random run-in talk with Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn (who describes having dreams of beaches made of black sand and eventually coming to Iceland … because of the beaches with black sand). Ultimately, there isn’t a huge divide between the American aesthetic and the Icelandic one, but there is a difference. Slowblow singer Dagur Kári Pétursson at one point describes how the bands in Iceland are like one big family: if someone needs an amp for a show, another band will gladly loan it to them - a genuine sense of mutual appreciation and camaraderie - something that is sorely missing from the cut-and-run hit-or-nothing marketplace of American music. As the quote that opens this review states, Icelandic bands are only making music for themselves - and that’s why it’s so good.
Bjork, the crazed song nymph is who is always smarter than anyone gives her credit for, closes the film with her claim that every national anthem across the world is really just the same song. Sure, some words and notes are difference, but each anthem has the same goal: to unite, to ennoble, and to make one proud. It’s true with every country - be it American or Icelandic or Canadian or Indonesian. Each anthem has the exact same goal - so how could they really be different songs? After viewing Screaming Masterpiece, you too just might stop caring what song comes from where, and just enjoy the fact that good music is good music, no matter where it’s from.