Hot sounds are coming from some cold places
Scandanavian lands are studies in contrast. Jagged glacial peaks and gently bubbling geothermal wells. Fierce Vikings who believed in flower blossom fairy dwellings. Landscapes that are harsh and isolated but at times remarkably green. Lands of sagas and songs.
While the region's long nights have helped to make it black metal's bastion, home to air-guitar championships, there's another, perhaps surprising, side to the musical terrain. Bands such as Sweden's the Hives and the Soundtrack of Our Lives are models for modern-retro and retro-modern rock, respectively, while Iceland's Múm and Sigur Rós contrast organic with advanced electronics to create something otherworldly.
Relative isolation can either lead to doing your own thing or to redoing something. On first listen to the '60s/early-'70s-influenced psychedelia of the Soundtrack of Our Lives, they seem to lean fully toward the latter. But delving further into Soundtrack's distilling of the Stones, Roky Erickson, the Who, Doors, Love, early Pink Floyd and later Beatles reveals a group no more retro than, say, the Verve or Super Furry Animals. The group's three domestically released albums — Welcome to the Infant Freebase, Extended Revelation and Behind The Music — aren't so much a rehash as the result of a scene evolving for 30-odd years. Soundtrack puts the prog in prog-rock. After all, where better to bliss out than directly under the Northern Lights.
Múm and Sigur Rós, meanwhile, manifest isolation's other facets by combining the airiness, iciness and earthiness of land whose "invisible world" is still relatively tangible. After all, how many times have you heard Björk described as a pixie? Múm and Sigur Rós embody an Iceland no less whimsical, but more ethereal, recording the equivalent to lucid dreams.
A laptop quartet, Múm is a more mysterious fairy — delicate and porcelain as a flitting, clicking music box. The group provides a child's eye view of melodic glitch, but with its sophomore album, Finally We Are No One, the electro-acoustic Icelanders adopt a bit more structure. Icy digital beats babbling through hazy melancholic analogues — swaying scapes of muted harpsichords, melodicas, tinkling pianos and waifish choruses — make for Powerbook pastorals, an intimate isolation more peaceful than panicked.
If Múm is fields, Reykjavik quintet Sigur Rós is the foothills. While not overtly religious, the group has recorded some of the most ascendant, transcendent, spiritual music of recent memory. They continue with ( ), so perfectly named for such searching music. It is an arch snapshot of how to fill in sound while leaving meaning open. To capture harshness, Sigur Rós planned to record ( ) in an abandoned concrete NATO compound in the mountains, but the group instead customized a former public swimming facility in an outlying Reykjavik artist community.
Stripping down the featherweight elegance and bombastic drone that had folks comparing their 1999 release, Agætis Byrjun, to Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Mogwai and Spiritualized, ( ) offers eight untitled tracks of crystalline, willowy guitars, plaintive pianos and raw, palpable wonderment. The narcotic drips echo with all the narrow depth of standing on the lip of a fjord, its somber, searing sounds evoking the flow of lava onto a glacier.
The thing about Scandinavia is that it's cold, yeah, but the imagery that arises as a reaction to the cold — woolen clothes, bushy beards, rosy hearths — is all warm. The music is no different. From Múm's dainty skitter to Norwegian duo Röyksopp's lush downbeat, the winsome folk of Norway's Kings of Convenience to the electro-funk of Iceland's Trabant, the hot bands from cold places create more expansively than your ABBAs and A-Has. Don't just hear talk about the mythic stateliness of Nordic lands, hear it for yourself.