[25 February 2009]
Thanks to the glacial epics of Sigur Rós, the skittering, geothermal beats of Björk, and the ethereal landscapes of múm, most of us non-Icelanders have long assumed that all Icelandic music is heavily indebted to the island nation’s unique geography. As this compilation reveals, that is not always the case. A product of Iceland Music Export (IMX), a government-sponsored initiative tasked with promoting Icelandic musicians overseas, Made in Iceland was originally slated for release in both digital and physical formats in October 2008, though it has yet to surface in either form. The IMX website lists no release date for the compilation. It seems that at least for the time being, the disc may be chalked up as yet another casualty of the global economic crisis.
According to the press release, Made in Iceland aims to showcase “15… key Icelandic artists who have captivated audiences in their native homeland”, artists that IMX hopes would serve as the “greatest ambassadors of Icelandic music”. That’s a tall order, but considering the disproportionate amount of pop talent that has emerged from the nation of 300,000 people during the last 20 years, it’s certainly not unwarranted.
Iceland, as it turns out, has a more diverse music scene than most of us would have suspected. Over the course of its 15 tracks, Made in Iceland manages to cover most of the contemporary pop spectrum, jumping from electronic to folk to punk to avant-garde classical. Unfortunately, this variety cuts both ways: for every track worth hearing, there are two worth skipping. Does Iceland—or the world, for that matter—really need another slinky electro outfit like FM Belfast or Steed Lord? Another snotty dance-punk band like Benny Crespo’s Gang? Another radio-friendly emo-rock troupe like the Sign? Another blues-rock revivalist like Mugison?
Luckily, not every artist on Made in Iceland follows a well-worn path. Hjaltalín’s “Traffic Music” is a quirky little start-and-stop number that evokes both the rhythm of traffic and the melodies of Andrew Bird, all while referencing MySpace. Borko’s “Shoo Ba Ba” splits the difference between the hazy static of Dntel, the folk recontextualizations of Four Tet, and the soaring melodies of Sigur Rós. Ólafur Arnalds’ ambient instrumental composition, “3055”, stands as the compilation’s greatest triumph, a piece that’s by turns haunting, spare, and triumphant. And while it’s not the most original track on the disc, Valgeir Sigurdsson’s “Focal Point” is sure to please fans of Björk’s Vespertine, with its delicate music box melodies and glitchy beats.
Unsurprisingly, the handful of headliners represented here manage to carry their weight as well. On the title track from her recent EP, Me and Armini, Emiliana Torrini toes the line between worldly songstress and timid ingénue. Múm’s Ólöf Arnalds turns in the delicate, harp-driven “Klara”, sounding like an Icelandic version of Joanna Newsom. And Sigur Rós’s “Inni mér syngur vitleysingur” is a thrilling, triumphant march of a song, though you’ve likely already heard it on Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.
Ultimately, Made in Iceland succeeds at revealing the eclectic nature of Icelandic pop, though it mostly fails at its stated objective, introducing the world to exciting new Icelandic artists. Out of the handful of good tracks here, nearly half are from artists that you’ll already recognize. And while the three or four songs that remain are not without their charm, they’re far from revelatory. While there’s little doubt that tiny Iceland has had an extraordinary musical run, Made in Iceland documents a scene that seems to have reached a lull. If there’s an upshot to the financial crisis and social upheaval that currently hold Iceland in their grip, let’s hope that it’s a new generation of pop iconoclasts befitting of the nation’s rich musical history.