Frakkarnir – “1984”

Mike Pollock’s name seems to pop up all over the place in the Icelandic music scene during the 1980s. He was a member of Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, and Das Kaptial, plus released a solo album called Take Me Back in 1981. The singer/guitarist covered a lot of musical ground from punk to hard rock to folk. Not bad for a kid born in California and who didn’t move to Iceland until the 1970s when he was already a young adult. By 1984 he was ready to take on something new: new wave.

As he does on Take Me Back, Pollock sings in English on 1984, making the album much more approachable for non-Icelandic speakers. It’s a new wave record, but certainly one with other musical influences such as disco (“Boogie Man”) and some heavy doses of funk (“1984”). The sound is a bit on the darker side of new wave, with a dive bar vibe, a feeling like you’re in a big, impersonal city on a cold rainy night and need to hunker down for a bit and have a shot and a smoke before going back outside. It’s right there in the song titles – “New York,” “Berlin,” “Babylon,” “Armagedon,” [sic] and “1984” (about an Orwellian not-so-distant future). Side B in particular captures a feeling of alienation that is difficult to escape.

Just because you’re paranoid,
That doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
— “1984”

1984 is a solid new wave effort, every bit as good as the more well-known albums coming out at the time. Definitely worth a listen.

Egó – “Breyttir Tímar” and “Í Mynd”

I’m getting to the last of the records I bought on our trip to Reykjavik about six weeks ago. Finally!

Here’s that pesky Bubbi Morthens again. The bottom line is you can’t talk about Icelandic pop and rock music in the 1980s (and probably the 90s as well) without Bubbi Morthens coming up at some point. He fronted a number of incredibly popular and influential bands like Utangarðsmenn, Das Kaptial, and Egó, plus he was prolific as a solo artist and working on joint projects with other musicians.

Morthens formed Egó after allegedly being fired from the Utangarðsmenn, and it didn’t take him long to show up his old bandmates. Egó’s 1982 debut Breyttir Tímar (Changing Time) was a mainstay at the top of the Icelandic charts and was one of the best selling albums ever by an Icelandic artist. I have to say after giving it a listen that it’s a solid album. The music could best be simply described as “rock”, though Morthens and the boys mix up the styles a bit. The title track actually remind me a lot of Icelandic metal masters HAM, not in that it’s a metal track but due tot he slowed down, plodding, ominous sound – about 10 seconds into hearing I was wondering if HAM possibly covered this song at some point because it sounded that familiar. The closing track, “Jim Morrison”, shares this heavy sound, while “Vægan Fékk Hann Dóm” is probably the hardest rocking cut on the record.

Immediately after listening to Breyttir Tímar I plopped Í Mynd on the platter. Impressively Egó released both these full length albums in the same calendar year, 1982, which is a good thing because they basically broke up shortly thereafter, but still fulfilled their contractual obligations to produce a third LP which came out in 1984. I don’t hear a lot of stylistic differences in the second album when compared to the first, though I was taken in by the last song on side A. It’s got a cool ska feel to it, and when I looked at the jacket to see the name I found, “Dancing Reggae With Death”. A closer listen and I suddenly realized this song was in English, the only song on these two albums that’s not in Icelandic. Which I think is just further proof that when I hear vocals, I generally focus on their sound and not the words, something that drives a lot of people I know crazy but probably explains why I don’t have any problems listening to music that’s not in English, whereas a lot of my friends really struggle with that. Regardless, “Dancing Reggae With Death” kicks ass and is a great song, and not because it’s in English.

Egó is good stuff, and it even got the Holly Seal of Approval. Bubbi Morthens is one of those talented musicians who is good enough and original enough that pretty much everything he puts out is at the very least decent, and often excellent. He’s still churning out solo material and appears to be collaborating with half of Iceland, which is great to see. I may have to track down some of his more recent solo work on our next trip and see what he’s up to these days.

“Northern Lights Playhouse” Compilation

I figured since my last two posts were about Icelandic compilation albums I should just keep that train rolling and spin the last of the comps we brought back from our recent trip. My own Icelandic vinyl great white whale. Northern Lights Playhouse.

Now, back when I made the somewhat ridiculous decision to get back into vinyl, I knew I wanted to take advantage of our international travel to hit record stores in far-flung places and pick up discs by local bands I’d never heard of before. So with that in mind, before our trip to Iceland for Airwaves in 2011 I did a bunch of research online and came up with a list of old school Icelandic punk and new wave bands to look for. I trotted down to Lucky Records with my list, and that visit yielded not only a healthy stack of records but also sparked a friendship with my buddies Ingvar and Gestur.

One of the records on my list back then was the Northern Lights Playhouse compilation. Released in 1981, it included some of the earliest and most influential punk and new wave bands of the time – Þeyr, Utangarðsmenn, Purrkur Pillnikk, Fræbbblarnir, and oddly Iceland’s own Bob Dylan, Megas (also included is a band called Taugadeildin who I literally will be hearing for the first time in a matter of moments when the song currently playing ends and they kick in). This had all the bands I’d read about and was right up there with Rokk Í Reykjavík. Lucky didn’t have either during that 2011 visit, nor again when we went back for Airwaves in 2012… but I did find a nice copy of Rokk Í Reykjavík at the flea market which I quickly scooped up as I high-fived myself in the aisle like a total dork.

But Northern Lights Playhouse continued to elude me. On our third trip to Reykjavik following my foray back into vinyl I hit up all the local shops again, and still no Northern Lights Playhouse. I was beginning to think it was just another Nordic myth like valkyrie or that fermented shark meat makes suitable food. But then I made my last record store stop at a small shop called Geislandiskabud Valda. I didn’t find anything that really excited me, but figured I’d pick up at least one local oldie that looked interesting because if for no other reason it’s a good way to strike up a conversation with the guy running the store. And lo and behold… he has some “good stuff” behind the counter if I was interested (I was). And it was good stuff… though I had everything in that small stack… everything that is except this copy of Northern Lights Playhouse! Turns out it wasn’t a myth after all.

Technically speaking there are 17 songs on this album, which seems like a lot at first blush. But… our friends Purrkur Pillnikk contribute the first 10 songs of side B, which range from 30 seconds to 1:50, so that certainly allows you to cram more tracks onto one LP. That being said, this is a great mix of post-punk and new wave tunes by the bands that ruled the local scene at the time. Turns out this was never released on CD and it’s actually a pretty rare record, so chances are if you find it, it’ll cost you. Realistically if this period in Iceland music interests you, you’d be much better served by picking up Rokk Í Reykjavík – it’s a double album, and while it’s more expensive on vinyl, you can get it on CD for a pretty reasonable $20-25. But if you’re a vinyl junkie like me, you’ll have to buy it. If you can find it. Just call me Ishmael.

Utangarðsmenn – “45 rpm”

I covered another Utangarðsmenn album last year and also covered some of the spin off projects like Bodies, Mike Pollock’s solo album, and Das Kapital. Utangarðsmenn features the strong vocals of Bubbi Morthens and the great guitar work of Mike Pollock (alongside his brother Danny) combining for a strong new wave rock (with some obvious blues influences) performance. The songs on the six track EP album are a tight mix of English and Icelandic, with a more punkish four song, nine minute side A followed by a trippier reggae influenced two song, nine minute flip side. That B side is where the magic is. “Það Er Auðvelt” is one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time – it’s a straight forward 1980s style punk jam, but right in the middle it breaks off into a totally reggae track for a minute or two… then melds right back into the same punk jam that started it. The other song on that side, “Where are the Bodies,” has a beat and pace that just drives its way straight into your brain and makes you move with the intensity of a snake facing a snake charmer. It’s hypnotizing and bad ass.

When I came across this at the store, they actually had two copies identically priced. One had a nicer cover… the other a nicer record. I almost took them to the front and offered to pay a bit more if they’d let me mix and match, but decided not to. Not really my style, so I bought the one with the nicer record since the cover wasn’t so bad, and let’s be real, you can’t play the cover.

This is one of the best Icelandic punk/new wave albums I’ve ever heard, if not the best. It’s got punk and funk and reggae, and it gets in and gets out before you get bored. Side B is a fantastic two song burst and so good that when it finished I picked up the tonearm and put it right back at the start. I can’t believe I passed on this one not once but twice on two prior visits to Reykjavik before picking it up this time. It just goes to show it’s never too late to figure it out.

Utangarðsmenn – “Geislavirkir”

Bubbi Morthens has a long and distinguished history in the Icelandic music scene. Sometimes it seems like it’s actually harder to find a group he wasn’t involved in. Utangarðsmenn (“Outsiders” in English) was one of his earliest bands, and also one of the most successful, playing some large shows in Iceland as well as opening for the Clash.

Released in 1980, “Geislavirkir” is a different example of Icelandic new wave, with a heavy dose of reggae influence (there’s even a track titled “Chinese Reggae”). When I first put this vinyl on the turntable at Lucky Records, I wasn’t particularly impressed. I was on the hunt for Icelandic punk and new wave, and this really has a different sound and tone to it, which was not what I was looking for. Fortunately Ingvar insisted that I needed this album, and the price was right, so I picked it up. Thank you, Ingvar, because “Geislavirkir” has some great music on it.

With 14 tracks, “Geislavirkir” is a fairly substantial album though it still clocks in at a relatively tight 36 minutes. And some of it is in English… it’s unusual in that it has songs in both Icelandic and English, something I generally haven’t seen in my (admittedly limited) experience with Icelandic bands, especially from this era. It’s hard to describe in terms of a style. The release year certainly puts it in the midst of the punk/new wave era, and certainly a lot of punk (especially from England) had reggae influences. But like many Icelandic bands, Utangarðsmenn take it in sort of a different direction. There are some hard numbers here, along with some that are slower. There’s even a 50’s-style rocker. Personally, I even hear a little early Blue Oyster Cult in the style, but maybe that’s just me. Their follow-up LP, Í Upphafi Skyldi Endinn Skoða, includes a cover of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, which gives us a little more insight into their influences.

There actually is an Utangarðsmenn album, their self-titled release from 1994, available on iTunes, and it includes at least a few tracks from this record (“Hiroshima” and “Tango”). Go check out the samples and see what you think. Utangarðsmenn may just expand your musical tastes.