Iceland: Geological and musical hot spot

Songwriter Sin Fang recording a World Café session with David Dye (right) before a live studio audience in Iceland. Sin Fang is know as "the Beck of Iceland."
Songwriter Sin Fang recording a World Café session with David Dye (right) before a live studio audience in Iceland. Sin Fang is know as "the Beck of Iceland." (JOHN VETTESE)
Posted: July 02, 2014

I went to the land of the ice and snow with the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

Touching down in Reykjavik, Iceland, days before the summer solstice, I couldn't but echo Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," with Robert Plant's ululations accompanied by images of animated kittens on a Viking ship from a viral video etched in my Internet-addled brain.

I was in the northernmost capital in the world along with a WXPN World CaféLive Travel Adventure. XPN's cultural trips have previously gone to Cuba, Brazil, New Orleans, and other locales, bringing members along for the recording of the David Dye-hosted World Café "Sense of Place" series. Reykjavik, 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle in an Ohio-sized country with more than two dozen active volcanoes, is both a geological and a musical hot spot.

Among its better-known artists are art-pop avatar Björk and Sigur Rós, the experimental "post-rock" band whose sound is at one with the nation's lava-laden landscape, where tiny horses and sheep are often more abundant than people. Both acts are featured in a 2013 episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer congratulated Icelanders for surviving on an island "that looks like the moon and smells like rotten eggs." (The tap water truly does.)

But there's more to Icelandic pop than those brand names.  For starters, there's Of Monsters and Men. The indie folk-pop quintet, fronted by songwriters Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar þórhallsson, sold a million copies of its 2012 debut CD, My Head Is an Animal, powered by the breakout hit "Little Talks."

The homey OMAM rehearsal space outside Reykjavik was the first musical stop for the World Café crew of Dye, producer Kim Junod, multimedia blogger John Vettese, and general manager Roger LaMay, who acted as pirate captain/cruise director.

OMAM are halfway through writing their second album. For the World Café session - which will air during the nationally syndicated show's "Sense of Place: Iceland" week, beginning July 14 - the band did a stripped-down "Silhouettes." This delicately catchy song was written for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but they had never played it live before.

After an Icelandic pancake break, Hilmarsdóttir and þórhallsson talked with Dye. "In the winter, it's very depressing because it's dark all the time, and all you want to do is sleep," þórhallsson said. "And in the summer, it's light all the time, and you can't sleep."

Hilmarsdóttir protested: "But you don't want to sleep!" She said the landscape shapes the music: "There's open space here, and calm."

"Sense of Place" was Dye's idea. "I thought it would be really interesting to go to a place and talk to musicians about what's special about it, and do it as a kind of guide."

The DJ spoke after a subsequent session with pianist Ólafur Arnalds at the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service's studios, attended by XPNers with whom he had spent the morning in the geothermal Blue Lagoon.

The island nation where Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played chess in 1972 was overdue, Dye said, "because Icelandic music is everywhere, and it's incredibly diverse."

LaMay came up with the notion of pairing "Sense of Place," funded by a grant from the Wyncote Foundation, with vacation packages. For Iceland, they began at $3,369 per person, for four nights and five days. LaMay says the global adventures have "put the world back in the World Café."

Arnalds, who scored the British TV drama Broadchurch, makes graceful, classically influenced music with electronic beats.

"I think people who like punk are better than other people," Arnalds told Dye, with a laugh. "No matter where you live, it influences the music you make. If I lived in New York, I'm sure I would be doing acid jazz. But I live in Iceland."

For XPN, the trips serve a threefold purpose. "First, we gather great content," says LaMay. "Second, we spend time with our members, who are very passionate. And third, we make a little bit of money." This trip raised about $500 per each of the 39 travelers, he said, going to the station's general operating budget.

Margie and Mark Mannix, of Philadelphia, were among many repeat travelers. "There's a really nice camaraderie," she said, recalling a Dublin concert by Bell XI in 2010.

"You really get the background," her husband added, during a break between arty songwriter Sin Fang ("the Beck of Iceland!") and quasi-classical quartet Árstíðir. "People listen to the same kind of music we listen to, so it's instant chemistry. We'd go in a heartbeat, anywhere they go."

The XPNers saw the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir, which gave the world a name for spewing water spouts. At Thingvellir National Park, the North American and European tectonic plates pull apart an inch a year. "You get the sense," LaMay said, "the planet is still being formed."

I took detours to hike Mount Esja, a wildflower-covered volcanic peak, and drove around in the rain in glacial Snaefellsjökull National Park. (Did I mention rain?)

One of the kicks of Reykjavik in June was the disorienting 24-hour daylight. Around midnight, the sun turns the sky orange, on rare un-cloud-covered evenings.

Record shopping in sticker-shock-expensive Reykjavik, I picked up folksinger Ásgeir's mega-selling - in Iceland - debut album, and an impressive This Is Icelandic Indie Music compilation. Plus, a small-world find: Tricks Of the Shade, the 1992 debut by Philadelphia hip-hop band the Goats.

Grimness would seem unavoidable where acts like Viking metal band Skálmöld and hard-core punks Endless Dark thrive. Arnalds titled his 2013 album For Now I Am Winter. The musicians Dye interviewed typically said that they also played in punk or metal bands in the everybody-knows-everybody music scene.

And that, it seemed, is the Icelandic way. To respond to a harsh land of extremes by either raging against it, or striving to create ethereal music that mirrors the otherworldly beauty of the place they live.

215-854-5628 @delucadan

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