Imagine you're an American band, living in a van broke down in a bleak and incomprehensibly vast ice field, with nothing to eat but, say, lutefisk and commercial white bread.
You'd be one lucky musician if 1) at least nobody stole your gear, and 2) your mp3 player held the comfort of Hvel, the March 2015 release and third studio album by the rising star of Icelandic popular music, Árstíðir. The contours of its experimental pop evoke the aurora of Northern Lights over a rolling landscape of whites, tonality nuanced as in the feathering of a rainbow. Harmonies melt and mold the vocals into a tight-knit family, organic and warm. Yet, there's that edge in there, like a twig in the sleeping bag.
More accessible than the work of fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós and Björk, Árstíðir's music is beautiful to the mind's ear, and far from mindless. Stories lurk in its shadows and can emerge unbidden from a listener's own imagination. Just one view of an Árstíðir video, like the mythically forsaken and exquisitely costumed "You Again," or the neurotically edgy fairy-tale "Shades" may engrave their imagery for life.
Now imagine you're an Icelandic band on your first tour of the United States, living in a van broke down in the nowhere that is Nebraska, eating foreign fast food from a roadside rest areas. Or you're keeping an eye on the gas gauge through the harrowing passes of the Rockies while trying to find a signal, any signal in time for a scheduled interview. What's your comfort music?
It could be Beck, as it turns out. "We are very fond of the Fleet Foxes," said Árstíðir's pianist/vocalist Ragnar Ólafsson, ultimately via an email interview. "Beck is also a big influence on us and then contemporary composers like Philip Glass." Árstíðir is performing at Hotel Congress Saturday, Aug. 1. It's a stop near the end of one of the most benighted tours anyone can imagine—at least nobody has stolen their gear.
Epic adversity seems to be their wheelhouse, though. "We started this band right at the time of the collapse, which was a very stressful period in Iceland because of the uncertainty that followed," said Ólafsson, speaking of the last decade's economic collapse and depression in Iceland which some economists believe precipitated our own "Great Recession." Hope sprang, though, from Icelanders' response to their band. "After the dust settled people turned away from material values, and music and arts took on a much more important role in our society. The first years after the crash were a very interesting time in Icelandic music history."
The response to Árstíðir's music in their homeland encouraged them to make a first tour abroad in 2010, but then came Eyjafjallajökull. "The volcano eruption happened right about the time that we were going to embark on our first international tour," said Ólafsson. "We were on the first plane out of Iceland after it was safe to fly again, and because of it we became a bit of a spectacle. Everywhere we went people were curious to know about the volcano."
In 2013, a YouTube video, featuring a sound that has little in common with their own, made Árstíðir an internet sensation. The acoustics of an old train station inspired them to sing a traditional Icelandic hymn in a capella harmony, just to hear it ring through the building's eaves and arches. The video has attracted more than four million views. "We had not planned on singing this hymn at the time, and we had no plans to record it. It was a lucky chance that ended up reaching a lot of people and direct them to our own music."
Any advice for Greek musicians, since it looks like their economy could be next? "Make as much music as you can," Ólafsson says. "Many people have told their stories to us, about how our music inspired them to face difficulties or comforted them during rough times."
That sounds like just the distraction we need in this rough summer of confrontations and a hovering anxiety about economic collapse. This scribe plans to listen with eyes closed, visualizing herself in the cool arctic under the Northern Lights, maybe riding an ice floe. Never mind that polar bear.