While the country is known for ethereal music and progressive politics, these musicians are showing there’s still a lot to fight for – and doing so with decidedly un-whimsical music
Ask an average music fan about Iceland and they’ll likely answer ‘Björk’. And while the singer stands tall as a musician and figure of inspiration, there’s a lot more going on in the land of fire and ice today. A new wave of women is leading the way across a vast swathe of genres – from trap to pop, house and hardcore – all united by a passion that keeps the country moving. There’s a vibe that permeates throughout Iceland Airwaves festival, a feeling that highlights the country’s diverse world: “Don’t fuck with me and you can come dance with me.” If you’re on board, then things will be great; just don’t try to box Icelandic music in.
The best way to get to the core of the big, shifting mass that is Icelandic music is to let the musicians speak for themselves. Though their genres might make them seem incredibly different, groups like grunge-pop trio Dream Wife, rap troupe Reykjavíkurdætur, and experimental punk outfit Hórmónar face a lot of the same challenges, encounter a lot of the same situations, and share in a lot of the same thrilling results as musicians. The Icelandic scene feels a lot like a sort of dream version of a local city scene, one in which musicians support each other and different bands’ members collaborate on new projects. And in that community of cross-pollination and opportunity, these artists continue to push against the boundaries of what is expected, innovating and fighting for change.
Hórmónar’s music runs at profound speed in deliriously high volumes. Chords are long and loud, leaving the listener open to every subtle change. It stings and caresses in equal measure. Translating to “Whoremoans” in English, the recent winners of the Icelandic Music Experiments (IME) don’t worry about the crossover-driven style of previous prize-winners like Of Monsters and Men – instead, they focus on killer riffs, amplifier worship, and gigantic, burning parades of emotion. Inspired by Sonic Youth and fellow Icelandic bands like Mammút and Agent Fresco, the group sing about “abuse, tragedy and emotions”, according to drummer Örn Gauti. Their track “Kynsvelt” is a colossus, the sound somehow paralysing and exhilarating.
This year’s IME contest featured a record number of female performers, a sign of growth that Hórmónar latch on to eagerly. “We are equal, and the only difference in our case is that there are three vaginas and two penises on stage,” says Gauti. “And that’s awesome.” Rather than gender, the band is set apart by their music’s raw intensity in a country often stereotyped for its pastoral mysticism. They sound unlike anything else in the country, and yet they are driven by the communal feel – the scene celebrates individuality, no matter what form it may take. “We’re a young band and we are still learning the ropes. But nobody has puked or crapped themselves on stage so far.” And while they took the opportunity to throw the map out the window and start pushing forward, “nobody’s aiming to please or to sell or be bought,” according to Gauti. “Most people who do music in Iceland are doing it for themselves and because they love it. We are a small island in the middle of the ocean.” These are the foundations from which Hórmónar now sprawl.
There’s a surprisingly strong trap scene in Iceland, one fused with the minimalist electronic music that the country is often associated with. Self-proclaimed “bubblegum bitch” Alvia Islandia – she seems to perpetually have a wad of Hubba Bubba on hand – burst into the spotlight in that intersection. “I’m inspired by bold artists like Björk and Nicki Minaj,” she says. While she’s been a bold example of the community incubating unique styles, Islandia continues to evolve. “My mind has been really bubbly and candy-licious lately, but it’s flowing more into elegant ho, another level loco,” she explains. “Like Jessica Rabbit on acid.” Her new album, Bubblegum Bitch (which was premiered on Dazed earlier this year), carries enough swagger and magic to transcend the potential language barrier, her flow skittery and tangled across whiplash melodies that suggest a short-circuiting carnival ride. Islandia sugarcoats trap contours in a way that proves her understanding of comfort with nuanced melody, particularly moments when she seems to be working to fit inside our world and to augment it. “No way I can fake trap,” she offers on “Bubblegum Bitch”, shaking the ground awake.
Donning Fila athletic wear and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice, Islandia’s Iceland Airwaves sets played like coiled springs: a sharp edge at the end but full of bouncy energy. The musician acts as a perfect touchstone for trap’s rise in Iceland, grabbing pieces of experimental pop, electronic, house, beats, and bass until they coalesce into something that looks a lot like more traditional trap. It feels organic, a key element of Iceland’s passionate scene. “I like to see different ways people go from the same small spot,” Islandia says, a perfect encapsulation of the diverse world of Icelandic music.
One key to the Icelandic music scene is the close-knit, evolving, collaborative relationships that drive it. “The same drummer can be in a punk band, a reggae band, and doing beats for a hip hop artist,” says Rakel Mjöll, vocalist for grunge-pop band Dream Wife. Bands form in an almost infinite number of ways, but Dream Wife came together through fate and fantasy. The trio met in art school, and formed a “fake girl band” for a gallery exhibition. That faux-formation worked out so well that they decided to keep going, and the resulting music has been undeniably magical. Notes pneumatically bolt to beats, guitarist Alice Go’s eyes close, and bassist Bella Podpadec’s jaw tilts skyward, fingers flying across the strings rather than measuring when and where the groove should land. Each song has a hum-worthy hook, and the band moves perfectly with Mjöll’s words. She sings instead of screams, moving in quickstep time with the instrumentation, sharing intentions beyond aural anarchy: “We just want everyone to feel like they can be part of our shows,” adds Mjöll.
The frontwoman carries echoes of Kathleen Hanna and Debbie Harry, rising into sudden, pure near-shouts and then slinking dreamily back into a cheeky whisper. The band’s compositions rumble and howl with neon punk energy, nodding toward Sleater-Kinney, Spice Girls, and Kim Gordon as influences. However, the scene wasn’t always as friendly to female musicians as it is today. “When I was getting into adolescence, there were too few women in live shows, and the genres were all guys in leather jackets,” says Mjöll. These days, after-school programs and organisations like Girls Rock! are empowering the next wave of powerful female musicians. Dream Wife is just one band formed from the growing number of women standing as strong examples for those even younger musicians, their songs finding a seam between structural specifics and universal depth that allow for connection. They’re playful, and that’s what we need right now. “I’m very excited to see how this will affect the next generation of Icelandic musicians, changing this into a norm that nobody questions,” says Mjöll.
“The most unique thing about Icelandic music is how much of it there is,” says Kælan Mikla’s Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir. “Our scene is so small, so when we perform in Iceland it feels like performing for our family.” The goth and new wave-driven trio thrive in the supportive punk scene as well as making connections in the black metal scene, an overlap that shows the energy and openness of Iceland. It’s important to acknowledge their modest origins; Kaelan Mikla’s music is the aural equivalent of a time-lapse video of a lonely droplet forming an intensely deep, dark puddle – something that doesn’t sound too far off from the realities of the Icelandic environment. “The beauty of sorrow and the embrace of emptiness fuels our creativity,” says Kristjánsdóttir. “Iceland is very isolated and has an existential feeling to it. Caspar David Friedrich, the romantic painter, would have loved it.”
Iceland in general, and specifically Iceland Airwaves, is so stretched open to experimentation that it wasn’t just typical to see Kælan Mikla’s gothy tunes in a hotel lobby in the middle of the afternoon, it was totally transcendent to see one of the members of the gauzy and esoterically compelling Iceland heavyweights Múm get up and start grooving to their songs. That comes from Kælan Mikla’s fire and drive to carve their own path as young women in the scene. “My creation is usually based on fear, anger, melancholia, and to overstep my problems,” says Kristjansdottir. The slow then steadfast post-punk weight establishes a goth mold that they’re trying to fill anew. Some songs are so careful, like “Kalt”, revealing notes that arrive one by one, and then measuring their slow collapse into the clash around them. Kælan Mikla’s unabashed way gives them room to roam, folding ideas into one space and taking any negativity and turning it into something remarkably relatable.
Stalking, stewing, spitting and clawing. Enormous rap tones rattle like stones in a tin can. This is Reykjavíkurdætur, a reboot rap troupe that pull hair, rip clothes and sprint across the stage with reckless abandon. They use small illusions to pose very large questions about music, art and the state of rap. While many other acts focus on the inclusivity and strength of the Icelandic music world, all-female rap wonders Reykjavíkurdætur (meaning ‘Daughters of Reykjavík’) note that they faced a little bit of adversity when they hit the scene – “haters”, as they tell me. But if any group was set to face that reaction, it would be the 17-woman strong Reykjavíkurdætur. Their shows are so kinetic that it can be difficult to count exactly how many people swarm the stage, their intense concoction of mosh-wrestling frequently spilling out at the edges, particularly on “Brauðmolakenningin”, which is “about the battle of two political parties”. Their set featured crowds roaring to songs like “Hæpið” and “Ógeðsleg”, furious tracks which show their preferred lyrical agenda: important topics from the politics of their homeland to sexual violence, though all rendered with frantic, fun energy. But their rap also varies stylistically from track to track, letting each and every one of the women showcase their own strengths and passions. And the scene – and the world – is catching on. “We still have a little bit of haters of course, but so much love too!”
As women in a largely male genre, Reykjavíkurdætur see an opportunity to make real change. “We can actually change society through our music,” they note. “Our muse is our message about rape culture, white male privilege, the first world, the feminist battles we face everyday, our right to dress ourselves as we want, and everything in between.” Songs like “Tista” and “HÆPIÐ” carry that boundless energy, the righteous strength of women on a mission, the intensity and drama rattling bones and hoping to shake them clean.