Last weekend I flew to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves, a twelve-year-old music festival that’s a fifth the size of this week’s CMJ. While there, I asked every native Icelander I met why their island nation of 320,000 has perhaps the world’s highest bands-per-capita index. “The weather is so terrible,” they’d invariably say, “there’s nothing to do.” (This meteorological observation was confirmed immediately upon arrival.) But these locals usually added another causal phenomenon: “Everything changed after Björk.” These explanations both reassured me, as I’d traveled to Iceland on the brink of its bleak winter darkness mainly to see Björk, and not the other 250 bands that were playing.
But before seeing Björk — in her second gig since the release of her highly inventive but uneven new album, Biophilia — I sampled about a dozen of her indigenous successors: Some two thirds of the festival's 250 bands were local. (Making the trek from America were Beach House, tune-yArDs, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr, and James Murphy, doing a powerful D.J. set for a lucky and patient few.) Among the Icelandic bands, the level of competence was impressive, and their musical reference points were easy to find. The three kids in Satanic shawls and kohl eye makeup who formed the electronic group Samaris played well beyond their teenage years, marrying the style of the XX to Tricky’s laziest beats. The band Lay Low* sounds like Camera Obscura with a country twang. There were too many solid post-rock droners in the wake of Mogwai and Icelanders Sigur Ros (Björk’s successors in crossover acclaim) to even name, and the energetic, ska-tinged Lara Runarsdottir finds her analogue in Gwen Stefani, though with a cutesier appeal. The undisputed “next big thing,” per everyone in Iceland right now, was Of Monsters and Men: Their incredibly catchy single, "Little Talks," had packed crowds screaming along during both of their festival performances. (The song is currently overplayed on Icelandic radio.) They’ve been compared to Edward Sharpe and Mumford & Sons, and they also have the cult-leading energy of Arcade Fire at its folksiest. And that, in a way, might be the problem with all these next big Icelandic things. The country's last two breakthroughs, Björk and Sigur Ros, have one thing in common: They don’t sound like anyone else, and they never really tried.
Björk is impossible to imitate, even though she is a member of Iceland's mythological pantheon. Among all the ancient Viking artifacts at the National Museum of Iceland on the outskirts of Reykjavik (in other words, a ten-minute walk from city hall), the only pop music item is an album cover from Björk’s real debut album, a piano recital she recorded in 1977, when she was 12. It looks trippy and Orientalist. One night, while I waited in a lounge for James Murphy's D.J. set, a thin Icelander wearing a strange leather necklace began talking to me without prompting. After sharing his intimate knowledge of Brooklyn neighborhoods, he explained that the Icelandic D.J. we were listening to, Hermigervill, was doing a pastiche of pre-Björk pop that every Icelander understood on a visceral level. This chipper sprite (who never gave his name) was also the first person on my trip to offer a reason other than bad weather for Iceland’s band explosion: “We didn’t have any pop music of our own until about 40 years ago. We had to learn everything incredibly fast, and we’re still learning.” In a land that seems to prize individuality and wears its strange geographic location and volcanic eruptions as badges of honor, the road to true musical uniqueness has long been paved with imitations of every subculture since World War II. Björk, my new friend said, had baffled Icelanders for years. “She was just this weird screamer.”
On Sunday night, Björk performed in Reykjavik’s striking, Olafur Eliasson-designed Harpa concert hall. Biophilia and its accompanying apps have received middling reviews, but in a small venue like this, she was able to project her personality into pure showmanship. Her hybrid instruments hummed and sparked and boomed around her — a computer-pipe-organ, a trio of turtle-ish kettle drums, four giant pendulums, an enormous electrode — while a choir of two dozen in gold and blue swayed above and below her like some Art Nouveau freeze. The woman herself resembled a gold and gray fish in a dress made of scaly sequins and gill-like fabric, topped with a yellow-orange Brillo wig. Her voice was pitch-perfect even in those fabled tearing screams. Given the pseudoscientific trappings and all the bells and whistles that come with her new concept album, I’d been expecting bombastic pyrotechnics. Instead there was deep and loving strangeness.
Since she performed in the round, Björk would sing each song to a different quadrant of the audience, addressing not a group, it seemed, but each individual. Her lyrics, which generally make little to no sense, took on some greater meaning in the context of her position as grandmother and godmother of the music scene that swirled around her. “The best way to start anew is to fail miserably,” she sang to her would-be successors, from “Moon” on her new album. And she finished her encore with a song I’d never really liked before, from Volta, an album I never bothered to buy, but its powerful invocation was the perfect closer: “Declare Independence!”
If there truly is a new Björk in Iceland, it might be one of the 160 bands I missed. Or it might just be Björk.
*This post has been corrected to clarify details about the band Lay Low.