The Ghost Choir – “The Ghost Choir” (2020)

It seems like coronavirus has been in our lives forever, but if you’re in the US like I am, it’s been more like a couple of months. The first reported case here was reported on January 21 in Snohomish County, Washington, which is fairly close by – it’s the county just north of where I live. And then on Saturday, February 29 the news broke of a suspected 50+ cases of the virus in a nursing home in Kirkland… which is less than two miles from my house. All of a sudden we went from feeling like the virus was something “over there”, impacting only Asia and Europe, only to find out it wasn’t just in our country or our state or our county… but within walking distance of where we live and shop and generally make our lives. Since that date I have only gone into the office to work one time, and as the government restrictions became tighter and tighter there have been multi-day periods during which I haven’t even walked outside of my house.

I’m not seeking anyone’s sympathy here. Our situation is not remotely as dire as it is in Italy and Spain and New York City. Not by a long shot. Holly and I both have jobs that allow for virtual work, and both of our employers were at the forefront in getting all their employees the equipment and technology needed to work from home in short order. We’re not sick and we’re still getting paychecks, which is way more than a lot of people can say. That being said, the situation is making things a bit weird as we all try to adjust to the new normal of quasi-isolation and social distancing, of meetings by Zoom and having “happy hours” with your friends in which you Face Time each other and drink.

Without an hour commute each morning, I’m starting work when it’s still dark out, despite the days getting longer. And the best listening for those quiet, dark mornings with a hot cup of coffee and the only light coming from a pair of computer monitors is chill musical fare along the lines of Brian Eno and Kiasmos. But my current go-to is the brand new release from the Icelandic ensemble The Ghost Choir. It’s been on constant rotation and I’ve recommended it to a number of folks since it’s available on Spotify. So far everyone is giving it rave reviews.

The Ghost Choir is comprised of an impressive group of musicians. Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason has been part of the scene for years through his uniquely flavored hip hip project Epic Rain and most recently as part of Hvörf, and in The Ghost Choir he joins Hannes Helgason on the various keyboards. Guitarist Pétur Hallgrímsson was part of Cosa Nostra back in the 1980s and has been involved in projects with the likes of Páll Óskar, Bubbi Morthens, Quarashi, and John Grant. Magnús Trygvason Eliassen’s percussion stylings have contributed to ADHD, Tibury, and Kippi Kaninus, just to name a few. Bassist Hálfdan Árnason is part of Pain of Salvation and Horrible Youth. Those are some impressive resumes.

I feel Pálmason’s influences immediately, right from the opening bass of “Vanishing Hitchhiker”, its cinematic darkness harkening to an earlier time when the macabre was less about overt gore and violence and more about setting a mood, generating tension, and creating a sense that something is going to happen very soon and it will probably be bad for someone. With instrumental tracks you only have the music and the titles to go by, and the name “Vanishing Hitchhiker” gives the listener an almost unconscious frame of reference for the David Lynch-esque music that follows. The Ghost Choir’s eight instrumental tracks all have similarly themed titles, names that set a scene – “Man In Grey”, “The Watcher”, “The Murdered Peddler”, and even “William Mumbler”, which conveys an image of the kind of guy you probably don’t want to encounter on a cold, rain-soaked night.

There’s a smoothness here as well, perhaps nowhere as more perfectly realized than on “The Watcher” with its light-touch jazz drumming, slowly walking bass, pretty guitar, and subtle organ. The western guitar opening of “The Murdered Peddler” is sublime, the drums hit a bit more stiffly and the bass acting like the slow voice of an old man telling a story he’s told hundreds of times before, but you still ask him to tell you again. Every song has its own character, both sonically and in terms of the person you envision while listening. It’s a mood. It’s the people who live on the fringes of society, those who are more comfortable in the late night hours than in the bright light of the day. It’s the sense that most nights nothing untoward will happen. But every now and again… something unexpected, and probably unfortunate.

The Ghost Choir is pressed on beautiful white vinyl and released by our good friends over at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I’m not sure how many were pressed, but my guess is it’s pretty limited. You can give it a listen on Spotify, then when you fall in love with it you can order a copy from Lucky HERE.

Epic Rain – “All Things Turn To Rust” (2019)

With All Things Turn To Rust Epic Rain takes us on a guided tour into insanity. The only question remaining is, is this a one way trip?

Dripping with jazz influences, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason continues to push to evolve as Epic Rain, over time moving from hip hop to pure storytelling, both with words and sounds. The opening track, “Lumaclad Reflector”, drifts off towards the classical end of the spectrum, the instrumental establishing the sombre mood of the album, casting a damp nighttime blanket over you, the closing repeated note sounding like a distorted fog horn off in the distance… but you can’t tell the direction it’s coming from… I wondered for a moment if we weren’t in store for an instrumental album, but the next track “Distortion of Reality” quickly erased that thought (though there are other instrumental tracks) as I was ushered into a killer’s mind, his thoughts and motivations laid bare, Jóhannes’ voice matter-of-factly painting the scene, both internal and external. “Every Road” takes us on another trip deep into a depraved and, in this case, hopeless mind, this time using a martial style snare drum roll to act as a counter to the depth of the rest of the music. This time it’s a suicide. Or is it a murder suicide… ? I’m not quite sure. On “Apart” we find him on the verge of singing, the lyrics including a chorus and patterns that give them a style closer to rock than hip hop while still maintaining the sense of setting, of place and time. A female vocalist joins Epic Rain on “Mirror Maze”, “Framing the Sky”, and “Evil By Heart”, taking over the duties with her underlying sadness, the sound of someone so exhausted that they don’t have any more tears to give but still haven’t managed to purge those feelings, a contrast from Jóhannes’ more menacing style. He returns to close the album on “Trading Secrets” (I trade secrets with your reflection in the water…), the tempo picking up as the races to the finish. Is it the dawn peaking over the horizon? Did we survive another dangerous night to arrive at the respite of daylight? And will tomorrow night bring more of the same…?

All Things Turn To Rust is available to stream, as well as purchase by download or on limited release vinyl on the Epic Rain Bandcamp page HERE. You can also pick it up directly from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, as it’s on their own Lucky Records label as well.

Hvörf – “Music Library 01” (2019)

Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason is best known for his work as Epic Rain, and in fact the fourth Epic Rain album came out earlier this month (review to follow in the upcoming weeks…). However, that’s not the only record Jóhannes released in 2019. Hell, it’s not even the only album he released in November, because on the same day that Epic Rain’s All Things Turn To Rust came out, so too did Music Library 01 from his new project Hvörf. Joining him as part of Hvörf is none other than Þórir Georg, who has appeared on Life in the Vinyl Lane many times for his solo work as well as with Fighting Shit, Óreiða, Roht, and probably a dozen other bands I’m forgetting. Between them the pair have covered a wide range of musical genres from electronic to hip hop, singer-songwriter to hardcore, indie to black metal, so when I first heard about Hvörf I was curious as to what kind of sounds they’d make together.

I was not expecting library music.

Now, don’t be confused. Music Library 01 isn’t some kind of generic collection of music and sound designed with TV and film producers in mind. At least not entirely. There are absolutely some delicate tracks such as “The Cosmic Connection”, with it’s piano and gentle guitar foundation, that would be absolutely perfect for a movie score. But we also have more experimental works like “Life On Other Planets” that utilize dialog samples from other media as part of the sonic composition. When viewed as a whole we see that Music Library 01 is anchored by these two styles, and in fact they alternate across the albums eight tracks – the odd numbered songs played as low key and at times dramatic instrumentals while the even numbered tracks have a more sci-fi sensibility and use dialog sampling all of which seems to be tied to aliens and/or a possible nuclear apocalypse, giving them a somewhat dystopian feel. It’s like two four-song EPs, except instead of each EP taking up one thematically consistent side the songs are shuffled together like a deck of cards. The effect is not as obvious as you might think, because while the two styles are different they retain some similar stylistic elements, the underlying atmospheric foundation the same for all eight compositions. It’s some exception chill out music.

Music Library 01 is available for listening at Bandcamp HERE. The vinyl was put out on the Lucky Records imprint, and while not for sale on Bandcamp it is available through their store in Reykjavik. Discogs indicates it’s a relatively small pressing of 250 copies, so make sure to get yours.

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 3

Well, it’s the “hump day” of Iceland Airwaves – Friday. Day 3. The tipping point.

We finally stumbled out of bed and got ourselves organized sometime around Noon after a late one last night and hustled down to KEX Hostel to see Mikko Joensuu. A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to get to spend a bit of time with KEXP DJ/Program Director Kevin Cole and he was absolutely gushing about Joensuu, so I knew I wanted to check him out at Airwaves. And Kevin hit the nail on the head with this recommendation. Mikko performed with a fairly large ensemble – somewhere around 9-10 musicians including a string section. The rich textures of his voice reminded me immediately of my dad’s favorite, Neil Diamond. But don’t be fooled, because this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) music. Joensuu brings a spiritual vibe to his lyrics and musically offers a contemporary take on folk and indie rock. I got a bit reflective during this show, reminding me as it did of Diamond and given my dad’s passing earlier this year; I think dad would have enjoyed Mikko’s music. One of the things that strikes me about artists, and musicians in particular, is how much they expose themselves in their work, something that is not easy for most people to do and in fact is something we’re encouraged, either directly or indirectly, to suppress. The words of “Drop Me Down” are so spiritually heavy, and Joensuu’s delivery so authentic, that it was almost painful to listen to, but I’m glad that he was willing to share this experience with us.

Later in the afternoon we were back at Lucky Records for a pair of performances. First was the electronica set by the previously reviewed Kuldaboli, who put out one of the best albums of 2016 in Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016. After that we got a solid 40 minutes from Epic Rain, mostly material off the recently released Dream Sequences but also with a track from 2014s Somber Air. They’re always a favorite, and this was their only show at Airwaves in 2017 as they prep for an upcoming French tour. Good stuff.

The on-venue evening started weakly, and since I don’t like to talk crap about musicians on Life in the Vinyl Lane I’m not going to tell you who we saw. But we were definitely the oldest people in the room with the exception of some of the performers’ parents, and I wasn’t interested in hearing a bunch of very young dudes telling me how “money comes and money goes” and how they’re “rollin’ kilos” in the mean streets of Reykjavik 101. I wanted to tell everyone in the room to get off my lawn. But after that things improved considerably with the sort of soul/hip hop performance by CRYPTOCHROME (below) in front of a small but enthusiastic group and we felt like things were moving in the right direction.

From there it was off to Gaukurinn where we saw American performer VAGABON in a stylistically diverse indie set. That brought us to the band we came to see, the one I had circled on the schedule weeks in advance – Tappi Tíkarrass. (♠) Before Björk became a mega-famous international star, she was in a band called The Sugarcubes. And before she was in The Sugarcubes, she was in Kukl. And before she was in Kukl, back when she was still a teenager, she was in Tappi Tíkarrass. They only left behind an album and an EP in the early 1980s and disbanded in 1983. As near as I can tell, they reunited once for a show in 1987 and that was the last anyone heard from them until 2017 when the band reunited, sans Björk, and played a show at the Hard Rock in Reykjavik. Which brings you up to date to last night when we saw them rock the house at a not-quite-packed Gaukurinn (below). It was a fun, old school punk show, and even without Björk (who we secretly hoped might make an appearance) I’m glad to have checked this off my music bucket list.

Holly and I called it a night after that, making a quick pit stop at the Waffle Wagon on the way back to our apartment. Our friends Norberto and J headed over to the Art Museum to catch FM Belfast and partied late into the night with a thousand of their newest best friends, because watching FM Belfast is a family experience.

We’ve passed the half-way point of Iceland Airwaves 2017, which is always a bit of a surprise when it happens… even though you know it’s coming. Just two more days to go…

(♠) Which roughly translates to “Cork the Bitch’s Ass”. Really.

Epic Rain – “Dream Sequences” (2017)

2017 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for new releases from Iceland. We’ve already seen and heard new albums from established veterans of the scene DIMMA, HAM, Singapore Sling, and Sólstafir; young up-and-comers like Fufanu, Úlfur Úlfur, and Vök; and debuts from the likes of Madonna + Child and Milkywhale. Plus we’ve been told to expect stuff from Legend and Gusgus before the end of the year. And that’s just scratching the surface – the DIY scene is bubbling under with so many cassette releases that I stopped even trying to keep up. But even with this wealth of sonic riches vying for my attention I was caught by surprise to see an announcement last month for another forthcoming record, this one by our friends Epic Rain.

It’s been three years since we’ve heard new music from Epic Rain, back when Lucky Records put out their excellent Somber Air in 2014. And it’s been a time of transition for the group, which is the brainchild and vision of vocalist Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason. More emphasis has been placed on the musicians, giving them space to shine, and the departure of male co-vocalist Bragi coupled with the growing role of chanteuse Ingunn Eria moves things in a more haunting direction on Dream Sequences, and that’s saying something given Epic Rain’s penchant for describing the darker aspects of life.

I first listened to Dream Sequences on my very long, early morning commute into work a few weeks ago and was immediately swallowed whole by the dreamy and eerie opener “Dream Sequence 1”, so much so that it wasn’t until a few songs later that I snapped out of it and thought, “wait a minute, did this album open with an instrumental track?” I actually had to go back and check, and sure enough it does. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but considering that the most distinguishing characteristic of Epic Rain’s sound is Jóhannes’ voice and cadence, opening with a full-length instrumental is an important statement – Dream Sequences is not simply a collection of songs, or even a group of songs loosely tied together around a common theme. This is a cohesive and immersive experience, one meant to be heard all the way through. There’s a definite plan here.

Musically we’re treated to a combination of electronic and instrumental performances, often blended together so well that it’s hard to hear the line separating the two. The defining musical element of the album, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic jazz-style drumming of Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (aka Maggi), who is probably best know for his work with the Icelandic jazz quartet ADHD. When I mentioned this observation to Jóhannes via email he completely agreed, noting that Maggi’s drumming gives the percussion on Dream Sequences a completely different sound than that of previous Epic Rain efforts. And here’s the thing – this isn’t super-intricate drumming; it’s at times snappy, other times brushed, keeping time and creating structure while also contributing to the mood. The way the album is mixed gives the drums more prominence than they had on Somber Air, where they were flatter and spent more time in lower registers. Maggi’s percussion is sometimes even at odds with the rest of the music, existing on a higher plane and providing a counter to the ethereality of the rest of the performers. “Disguisement” is a prime example of this, the snare popping like low calibre gunshots behind Jóhannes’ staccato vocals. While the album is best considered as a whole, listeners are sure to still have favorite songs and this is mine, due in no small part to Maggi’s drums.

Dream Sequences creates an emotional environment similar to the effect of those 1960s era horror and vampire movies, films that didn’t rely on the pure shock value of excessive gore and violence but instead on the more subtle approach of slowly and methodically building your disquiet. When Jóhannes rasps I document your dreams behind the picture on the wall / I sense that you’re running, trying to reach the door / You’re bound by my chain and I’m bound by this psychosis / Now wake up my darling / It’s time to smell the roses on “A Night Like This” the song doesn’t crescendo, it’s almost banal – you’re slowly descending into madness, I’ve been watching you, and now it’s time to smell the roses. There’s no other way. Come on, let’s go. Don’t make a fuss and accept the inevitability of what is to come. Taking on the voice of a killer in “’62 Mustang” he describes his murder kit and weapons in the same unemotional way a mechanic would describe his tools, each with a specific purpose, no one more important than the others. Coupled with the sad tones of some far away surf guitar it’s not maudlin but instead matter-of-fact in its dreariness. This is who I am, this is what I do, and these are the things I do it with.

Across the first five songs Pálmason and Ingunn Eria circle each other, usually existing in distinctly separate spaces but in a way that strongly if indirectly implies a relationship like that of perpetrator and victim, all the while infusing the entire thing with a sense of inevitability – he knows her so well, and she’s both aware of his presence and the inescapability of what is to come. The first and last songs are instrumental “Dream Sequences” which bookend the story expressed in the middle three tracks. The same format is used for the second batch of five songs (Eria, however, makes a brief vocal appearance on “Dream Sequence 4” so it’s not technically an instrumental), though this time the story has shifted to a confused tale of drug abuse and memory blackouts that imply a violence that can’t be remembered. The subtlety of the first story is put aside in favor of a blunt tale of the descent into madness, which is already well on its way by time we’re introduced to the scene, and this time it’s Eria that feels like the voice calling the soon-to-be victim to his grave. The strength of Dream Sequences is that these two vignettes fit together sonically and thematically like a pair of cautionary tales, completely devoid of morality and instead simply warnings of what is to come.

Dream Sequences is the next step in the continuing evolution of Epic Rain, taking their sound in musically richer and lyrically darker directions. You can get a sneak preview on YouTube with the opening track, the instrumental “Dream Sequence 1”. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Dream Sequences at Airwaves this fall.