Meet your new Arcade Fire: The longest line at the door on October 12th, the opening night of the 2011 Iceland Airwaves festival, was at the Reykjavik club NASA for a young local group, Of Monsters and Men, that has owned Icelandic pop radio for weeks and just issued its debut album. The band may be a quartet (according to a press photo I saw) or a sextet (per one website devoted to the act) and were described to me, before I arrived, as the country's version of Mumford & Sons: engaging folk-pop with a light shot of rock.
None of that was not quite right, at least at NASA. Of Monsters and Men were a bright charging octet, with extra guitars, keyboards, accordion and drums, playing the songs from their new release, My Head Is an Animal (Records Records), in all of the right parallels with Win Butler's army: full-steam ascension, unison-vocal choruses and the clear lusty harmonizing of singer-guitarists Ragnar Thorhallsson and Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir. The pair rode the climb of local hits such as "Little Talks" and "Love Love Love" with delighted poise – with good reason. The group had just returned from a whirl of label talks in New York; the buzz on my flight home was that the ink was already drying on a deal. The songwriting, on first exposure, felt strong, if still coming out of the starting gate; the show confirmed that Of Monsters and Men have the live drive to carry them through the necessary evolution. Expect them to be all over America's indie radar shortly.
An Extraordinary Return
The new Sinéad O'Connor who performed on October 14th was the same one, dramatically reborn, who shot to fame, then repeated notoriety, with her transformative 1990 cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and confrontational Irish-Catholic anguish. She made her Icelandic debut at Frikirkjan, a Lutheran church – acoustic heaven and spiritually neutral ground – with a duo of keyboards and guitar, singing several songs from an imminent new album and of course, that Prince cover with a matured power and confidence that bloomed further in the venue's echo and stark grace. In the last verse of "I'm Not No Animal," from the new record, O'Connor hit a series of high bullet-like notes, turning her head back from the mike as if to spare it meltdown.
O'Connor – back to Joan of Arc hair, wearing spectacles and a sleeveless black T-shirt – has not lost her gift for tossing quip grenades. She remarked that Bob Dylan's last release was "a posthumous album" and noted that her father used to say he could take his daughter anywhere twice, the second time to apologize. She is writing with the same dead aim. In the deceptively whispered ballad "What Is Going On," O'Connor lit into the devastating crassness of a desperate failing music business, the trade in money for ethics. "Pretend you stand for something else/Than a hankering for fame," she sang, before bolting into a spasm of Celtic crying prayer over a stoic electronic drone. "'Til all is well, fuck all is well," she intoned, back down in sobering register, in the closing punch line. You could call this a comeback. But little has changed, in the right ways.
Sponsored by Icelandair, the national airline, Iceland Airwaves is an established good time – this was its 13th year – in a quixotically hardy nation. Three years after Iceland's banks and runaway economy collapsed, the local currency, the krona, is worth half what it was when I was here in 2007. Yet CD sales are up three percent this year, and new bands form and gig with impressive velocity. The last time I attended Airwaves, three members of the sextet Dream Central Station were in the great and late upstart-punk group Jakóbinarina. At the club Idnó, their new enterprise played a stately droning psychedelia closer to the Texas Velvet Underground, the Black Angels, and were already getting good at it – Dream Central Station had only formed two months before this show.
The city government was well represented in the clubs, in a most peculiar way. Last year, in the wake of the country's economic debacle, Reykjavik's citizens decided things couldn't get much worse, so they might as well get funny. Jon Gnarr, a comedian and original running buddy of the country's post-punk stars, the Sugarcubes, ran for mayor on a platform that promised, among other things, a "drug-free Parliament by 2020" – and got the job. He named Einar Örn Benediktsson, Björk's haranguing-vocal counterpart in the Sugarcubes, to a position on the city's executive council, in charge of arts and culture. Einar returned from a state visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair in time for a closing-night Airwaves set with his long-running electro-hip hop project Ghostdigital. The group, which included loops-and-processing DJ Curver, raised a punishing ecstasy: scouring whoops and rib-rattling bass groans with Einar barking at the audience in assaultive haiku-like bursts.
Two other city council members performed at the Reykjavik Art Museum with the Icelandic metal institution HAM. Active in the late Eighties and early Nineties, HAM were the arctic island's Swans, grinding out songs about young Icelanders falling prey to drugs, whoring and death wish in the big city. The reformed group appeared in Weimar-party dress but plowed the air with monolithic effect, like Slayer at half-speed – and were no doubt back at City Hall first thing Monday morning. They could pave the whole town with this kind of heavy.
The international success of Icelandic spaced rangers Sigur Rós has inspired a local boom market in symphonic-guitar rock. One fine quartet, For a Minor Reflection, includes a brother of Sigur Rós bassist Georg Holm. Two bands I caught in daytime sets, Miri and Porquesí (who barely squeezed into a tiny jewelry store on the main shopping street), were wordless pleasures, if too reliant on staccato strum and crescendo episodes in lieu of actual composition. The Scottish group We Were Promised Jetpacks showed the way up and out of that template in a blitz of a set at Idnó that suggested Explosions in the Sky with burred-vocal brio, powered by the New Order engine room.
Yoko Brings Out the Cops
Other good times included the spindly chamber-folk tensions of Mógil; Agent Fresco, an Icelandic band that somehow veered from blazing alt-guitar rock to Steely Dan-ballad piano figures and Queen stadium-gig hurrahs, often in the same song, to decisive euphoric effect; and the Finnish trio KXP, which didn't do much (elementary keyboard motifs, dirty-zoom bass, jolts of howling-dog vocals) but did it all to straight iron-rail drumming that should have come stamped "courtesy of Neu!"
But it took a 78-year-old Japanese woman, Yoko Ono, to bring out the Reykjavik police, who turned up to shut her down when her late-night set at Harpa ran past closing time. She may have violated some noise ordinances as well. Her son Sean led an eight-piece Plastic Ono Band that included Wilco's Nels Cline on avant-shred guitar and drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, who unleashed his inner Keith Moon during the scoured-and-bleating brawl of "Why" from 1970's Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Cline recreated John Lennon's tremolo-guitar spasms in "Walking on Thin Ice," and in her World War II memoir of hunger and survivor's imagination, "Mulberry," Ono fronted a thrilling free-rock trio of Cline, Saunier and Sean on bass, which roared behind her brittle scatting with spasmodic empathy. They may be the closest thing she's ever had to her original POB with Lennon. Give them some meaty riffs in something approaching conventional rhythm, and they will be a glorious electric danger on their own.