"once a home of nordic bards, iceland is now exporting rock bands"
the 280,000 residents of iceland's geyser-pitted capital enjoy five professional theatre troupes, a national opera and a contemporary dance company. but where iceland really excels is in alternative rock music. leading the way is bjork, a pixie-diva whose quirky voice has made her the most famous icelander alive-though at a cost: she has become too commercial for reykjavik's hipsters. "i respect her," says one dreadlocked musician, "but i would never listen to her. way too plastic."
hljomalind is a grungy independent record store in downtown reykjavik. kristjan, the cheerful communist behind the counter, puts the strength of icelandic music down to the fact everyone knows each other. "if something is good, word travels quickly." friendly competition helps, as does the fact that most things-a new bass guitarist for instance-are only two phone calls away. a number of new icelandic bands are promising to take over where the sugar cubes, bjork's original band, left off. young talent is recognised and sup-ported at home, not by the government which, musicians complain, underwrites just about every other cultural endeavour but by a progressive icelandic label, smekkleysa (bad taste), set up by einar orn, formerly of the sugar cubes. three bands he has scouted stand out. for lovers of very loud noise, there is minus, an experimental thrash band. a softer, more electronic sound comes from mum. then there is sigur ros, the hottest thing to come out of iceland since, well, bjork. sigur ros have already captivated the music press on both sides of the atlantic. the band's third album and first international release, "agaetis byrjun" (a good start), was the pick of many rock critics around the world last year. "the kind of beauty that could drive you to the brink of madness." radiohead were so impressed they have twice asked the icelanders to tour with them. icelanders buy more cds per capita than anyone else: 15,000 of them have bought "agaetis byrjun". "even my parents listen to it," laments one fan.
word of the band has reached america where, because the release has been delayed, "agaetis byrjun" has been boot-legged from the internet, in record numbers. this, despite the fact that sigur ros sing either in icelandic or in a language of their own making, "hopelandic". no matter if audiences can't understand the words. "they get to make their own words and dreams," says the softly spoken lead singer, jonsi birgisson. only 25, mr. birgisson has the makings of a superstar. he is something of a viking anti-hero: slightly built, his locks shaven but for a spare tintin-style quiff, blind in one eye, openly gay and (most scandalously for an icelander) a vegetarian. his voice and guitar drive the band, who use conventional instruments in unconventional ways. mr birgisson attacks his guitar with a violin bow and sometimes sings directlyinto it, producing a dreamily distant sound. his exquisite countertenor voice serves as another instrument, while strings and keyboard produce something not far from whalesong.
the industry categorises them as ambient rock or post-rock. nay sayers call their sound "elfin". others find it angelic, heavenly, ethereal. no song on "agaetis byrjun" lasts less than seven minutes. each begins slowly, drawing you in like the undertow of a wave, before crashing down on them. mr. birgisson flinches when asked to expound on the music. "i don't know," he says finally, "just call it sincere." hailing from iceland lends an exotic al-lure, but also invites labelling: snow-punks, icerockers, popsicles. still, sigur ros admit iceland's landscape is an influence. the vistas from their studio outside reykjavik are inspirational: cobalt ocean, snowy mountains, black lava rimming a valley of bright green grass like eyeliner. sigur ros's connection with the icelandic language runs similarly deep. they have no plans to release an album in english. their next effort will be a collaboration with an icelandic farmer who chants lyrics in a traditional fashion.