Iceland is out there -- on its own.
A volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, it sits
just below the Arctic Circle, steam rising from its hot springs
and geysers. Less than 300,000 people live there. "It feels
extraterrestrial, this wind-scoured place," says FRONTLINE/World
reporter Marco Werman.
Yet this small, isolated country produces some of the most
innovative pop music on the planet. To find out why, Werman
-- a veteran music journalist for public radio heard regularly
on PRI's The
World -- visits the 2002 Iceland Airwaves Festival, a three-day
showcase for local groups. "Northern European rock is hot these
days," says Werman. "And the music business is paying special
attention to Iceland."
Bjork is Iceland's most famous musical export. Her quirky
charm, bracing originality and inventive music videos have made
her an icon of alternative rock. In the wake of her international
success, other avant-garde pop artists are emerging from Iceland.
Among them are Sigur Rós, the stars of last year's festival,
a band that has since performed in America and earned a spot
on many a rock critic's Top 10 list, and an intriguing new group
called the Apparat Organ Quartet, known for its deadpan humor
and space-travel sound.
Werman catches a press conference touting the release of Apparat's
debut CD -- an event that includes dancers from Iceland's Ballet
Academy, who provide a surreal, comic touch. Then, after a brief
stop to sample a local concoction of vodka and honey, Werman
plunges into a roomful of bands promoting their homemade CDs.
In the swirling mass of electronica heads and other postrock
revolutionaries, there's even a lone heavy metal drummer from
a band called Changer. He confesses to Werman, "We're trying
to get out of this country -- it's not very good for metal here."
"You can't see everything [at the festival]," Werman acknowledges,
"but you can run yourself ragged till the wee hours of the morning
trying." And try he did. With cameraman Peter Pearce, he takes
FRONTLINE/World viewers on a musical crawl though the
bars and nightclubs of downtown Reykjavik -- experiencing everything
from rave venues to punk bands to "a sonic artist who works
off a laptop."
"I couldn't take (the sonic artist) for more than five minutes,"
Werman admits. But he clearly relishes the rest of his musical
odyssey, ending up in the company of Trabant, a band named after
a defunct East German car. Trabant's high-energy political satire
recalls John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Country Joe and the
After surveying the scene from one end to the other, Werman
decides to learn more about the guys from the Apparat Organ
Quartet, whose name derives from the instruments on which they
play their spacey music -- old organs. It turns out that one
member of the band, Hörour Bragason, is also one of Iceland's
leading church organists. The morning after performing in a
late-night rock concert, Bragason shows up to play in a Lutheran
service at a retirement home.
The resident philosopher from Apparat, Jóhann Jóhannsson,
explains that in one aspect at least the experimental group
is quite traditional, salvaging and recycling old instruments
the way Icelanders use every part of the national animal --
the sheep -- for food, fuel and clothing. Nothing goes to waste.
"We even eat the head, you know, and the brains," Jóhannsson
Jóhannsson also tells Werman that Apparat is committed to
taking experimental electronic music out of the fringe and moving
it into everyday life. To make their point, the band strikes
a deal with a local supermarket to play their esoteric music
over the store's public address system while the band members
serve drinks and hand out questionnaires to puzzled shoppers.
Outside, Werman feels the intensity of Iceland's stark natural
environs and long cold nights. It is this "austere beauty,"
he has discovered, that the best Icelandic bands manage to capture
in their sweet, haunting, contemplative, yet energetic music.
"Icelandic musicians have taken American rock and revolutionized
it with their own sub-Arctic touch," concludes Werman. "This
experimental sound is adding an invigorating sparkle to pop
music that's been missing for far too long."
Elektra Entertainment Group
Filmus Productions Iceland
Apparat Organ Quartet
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