There’s way more to Icelandic music than Björk and Sigur Ros – beyond the country’s two most famous musical exports lies a network of electronic artists as diverse as they are close-knit. April Clare Welsh heads to Sónar Reykjavík for a glimpse of the local scene that has, in recent years, undergone a renaissance.
“We’re locked inside a lot of the time due to bad weather, so we have to make our own fantasy worlds,” says Icelandic producer NonniMal when we meet at the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre in his hometown. Since the mid-‘90s, the sparsely populated country has been mining a specific strain of deep-frozen, dub-minded techno that encapsulates the biting winds, the bleak grey drizzle and the plunging temperatures of its subarctic climate. “It’s like a big spacey sound,” he adds. NonniMal’s own music often incorporates elements of this sound, in particular his Freyja EP, which came out on legendary Icelandic techno imprint Thule Records last year.
Initially spearheaded by Thule co-owner and “godfather of Icelandic techno” Thor, the country’s electronic music landscape has conceived and nurtured a number of world-renowned artists, including late ambient legend Biogen, who co-ran Thule and was a key member of the scene up until his death in 2011, and atmospheric techno heavyweight Exos. Since the early ‘00s, both Thule and Exos had lain dormant, but their recent comebacks have shone a light back onto the bubbling Icelandic techno scene.
The fifth edition of Sónar Reykjavík, which took place last weekend in the breathtaking Olafur Eliasson-designed Harpa Concert Hall, provided a sketch of the local scene through a handpicked selection of homegrown acts. Performing on the same bill as international stars like Danny Brown and Bad Gyal, DJ Yamaho, Árni, EVA808, Volruptus and Bjarki all served up unique performances that illustrated both the diversity and the close-knit nature of the Icelandic electronic community. A number of artists tipped their hat to the stark and icy Thule aesthetic, while others skated completely off-piste.
NonniMal performed at the Thule Records showcase in popular record store and live music venue Lucky Records on Thursday evening alongside Waage, a rising Reykjavík producer inspired by Basic Channel, and Cold, a beatmaker with the most Icelandic name imaginable. EVA808’s booty-shaking basement set in the dirgy, club-perfect environs of the SónarLab on Friday night included a genre-crossing mix of grime and other bass-heavy mutations. “There was a moment where the force of the bass was so strong that I saw people were having a hard time breathing normally,” laughs Eva when we speak the next week. Showcasing her own tracks like ‘PRRR’ and ‘Empress’, which she mixed to a Michael Jackson bootleg, her set offered a break from the 4/4 sounds that dominated the carpark venue all weekend. Björk, who had been seen skanking to Jlin earlier that night, was even spotted in the crowd at one point.
A few hours prior to EVA808’s performance, Árni, aka rave disruptor Árni E. Guðmundsson, churned out wobbly acid bangers among local cuts like Bjarki’s ‘Outrospeis’. “The energy levels are always high for that one,” Guðmundsson noted after the show.
Although Guðmundsson recently relocated to Berlin, he’s quick to praise the unique sound of his homeland which he believes hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves. “I’ve been trying my best to find and play this music in my sets over in the past years and will continue to do so,” he proudly states, name-checking Trip Records’ self-described ‘alien boogie commander’ Volruptus as his favorite contemporary Icelandic producer. Volruptus’s eye-watering 3am lot fed the hardcore revelers, tearing through furious electro-funk and hardcore techno and mixing new and unreleased tracks into his set, before ending on gabber-ready nosebleed tempos that called for some hakker-style dancing from the crowd.
The following night, Andartak aka synth enthusiast Arnór Kári Egilsson, kicked the basement club into gear with the only live DJ set of the night, weaving deep and driving techno into wavier improvised jams. “To feel is the accurate term, because I never know anything for sure when improvising,” Egilsson says after his set. “The focus point on the soundscape is too narrow for me to experience the whole picture.”
“What I love about the electronic music scene in Iceland today is that I feel that every individual is seeking their own voice,” he continues. “Even though we may not fit exactly in the same field of genre, the sincerity of creation is what makes us connect.” Andartak says he was “inspired by the magnitude of Bjarki,” whose primetime Saturday night performance on the SónarClub stage was, without a doubt, the most mind-bendingly unreal spectacle of the entire festival. A retro-futurist sci-fi rave fantasia, the oddball Icelander picked over the carcass of rave with weird and wonderful breakbeat-infused electro nonsense, while a crew of silver morphsuit-clad dancers and broken TV-headed mannequin props amped up the surreal vibes.
“There is a certain anarchy and discipline in my work, and I wanted to do something completely different than with Trip,” Bjarki says of his own label, bbbbbb, which he calls “a constantly evolving project.” Bjarki’s Icelandic-focused imprint launched in 2016 and has, to date, put out records by Volruptus, IDM junglist rapper Lord Pusswhip and Bjarki’s own Cucumb45 alias. “I’m trying to do the best thing imaginable – that’s my ambition. Get Icelandic dance music out there.”
Last year, Bjarki was forced to cancel his tour and sever ties with his label partner Johnny Chrome Silver after a transphobic comment from Silver was posted on the Instagram account of trans artist Octo Octa. He says going alone without a partner “was scary at first,” but he has since hired another three people to work alongside him and things and the label is doing really well. In May, bbbbbb will release the debut album from EOD, the label’s first full-length, while two predominantly Icelandic artist compilation albums, Future Sound Of Selfoss and Psychotic Selfoss Window, will land in the summer.
According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, the total number of foreign overnight visitors to Iceland was around 1.8 million in 2016 – a 40.1% increase from 2015. NonniMal notes the effect of the tourism boom on the country’s residents. “There’s a housing problem in Iceland,” he explains, suggesting that more and more people are putting their houses on Airbnb, thus hiking up the rents. He says that a lot of artists have been forced to move back in with their parents, including himself.
Add to this the limited amount of venues and clubs and it’s a wonder how the local scene survives at all. But Icelandic techno is currently enjoying a renaissance both at home and abroad, with Thule Records finally getting the recognition it deserves. Icelandic DJ Yamaho – who went b2b with Cassy for a triumphant close to the festival on the Saturday night – recently played Berghain and bbbbbb is just one of a number of Icelandic-born labels and crews that have sprung up in recent years that. Exos’s new X/O imprint recently put out the Fifth Force EP by Thule Musik collective member Yagya, among other records, while key labels Sweaty Records and FALK continue to rep the scene, along with the city’s Plútó crew, who played at Sonar last year. All in all, a plethora of goings-on, in spite of the odds.
“The scene is always evolving and a lot of young rappers and vocalists are producing their own beats,” says Eva. “Club music and hip-hop is really starting to bond as one at the moment in Iceland. And it’s not just boom bap like it used it be, which is great.”
“The music scene has never been as vibrant as it is today, especially in the electronic music,” says Bjarki. “I’ve dreamed about it for years.” And for him, it’s only the beginning. “I think there will be a time everyone in music wants to work with someone from Iceland,” he declares, adding his own explanation for the country’s unique musical identity. “The significant amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide in the air leads to headaches, dizziness and increases our heart rate which makes us do very moody music. Stuck on an island could be the answer. Being super bored and stuck on an island…”