The spectacular country of Iceland has had a lot to deal with of late. First there was the banking crisis, which almost sent the entire country bankrupt. Then a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull caused an almighty stink, grounding aircraft all over Europe. But in spite of all this, the country’s music scene is still vibrant. James Hendicott went along to The Grand Social in Dublin to catch one of the country’s best-loved groups, Amiina.
Iceland, astoundingly, has a similar population to Belfast. We only mention it as the quality of musicians emerging from the politically-fragile island wilderness is staggering: not only do they have the superstars in Björk and Sigur Rós, but there’s also a strength in depth that’s slowly seeping into the international music community. Amiina had a substantial head start in their career. As former backing band to Sigur Rós, their first album was always going to be one to watch, and offered a subtle introduction filled with fairytale qualities. Puzzle, the more expansive follow up, really hammers the point home.
When AU grabs hold of drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (better known as Maggi) before the show, though, the Amiina man proves to be anything but placid, speaking openly and expressively in near-perfect English (“not good enough to write lyrics, that scares me – I leave it to the girls”).
Maggi has been touring with Amiina for three years, but only become a formal part of the band’s studio work since the recording of Re Minore last year. In his view, his new role really comes to life in new album Puzzle. “It’s more electronic and has a bit more depth as we’ve added the percussion and electronics into the mix. It’s a lot of fun to join them, and I’ve been made to feel like a creative force right from the start. Previously, everyone was classically trained, so my background in jazz brings something a little bit different. Our electronics man is very into African and world music. Our influences are all just thrust together on Puzzle.
“The Re Minore EP was only 500 copies; an exclusive concert thing. They’re all sold out now. We’re quite flexible about things, though. We have the new album in Dublin, even though it’s not out for a few more days. We’ll be all over Europe, and it’s a real family event. Our babies come on tour with us, and that changes the tour’s atmosphere. There’s not much drinking or partying, but it really inspires us. It’s a wonderful experience, very low key.”
Iceland’s musical success is hard for even the musicians involved to contemplate. “I really don’t know why,” Maggi tells us. “It helps that it’s such a close community, and people play together and start bands every week. Also, nobody is stuck in a specific genre. Most Icelandic people play music regularly, too. It’s not that expensive to study music at an early stage. Iceland’s a great place to form a band, but with such varied influences, it’s more a coincidence that we live there. Of course, the culture probably comes through in the music.”
As for the future? “The band will be touring the new album, and we’re also thinking of putting together a B-sides album from all the things that we have lying around on the studio floor, which will be interesting. We’re hoping to release that early next year. As for the disastrous events taking place in Iceland, it’s not ideal, and a lot of people are really struggling, but it might provide another spark of inspiration, and it brings the community together.”
Amiina, it seems, also have a positive effect on the community, at least the gig-going one. Tonight’s audience in Dublin is as varied as they come, and there’s not a loud conversation, ringtone or glassy clink to be heard. Where beauty comes in quiet form, respect, it seems, follows closely behind.
Live, Amiina are stirringly organic. Before each longer-than-average piece of concerto-meets-nature-documentary melody we’re treated to an on-stage reshuffle, with each member taking their place at various times on vocals, assorted instrumentation and chatting away to the audience in charmingly clunky English.
Maggi is the feisty one, pumping his arms at the back and egging on an audience that’s drifting dreamily with a spattering of ill-placed air punching that has the rest of the band chuckling into their chin rests. The crowd interaction is no less captivating; gentle and awkward despite a rapturous reception. The bumps and crashes of between-song manoeuvring is both a comic release and serves to emphasise just how frail and tantalising Amiina are.
The quieter moments are so mellow that they allow the whir of The Grand Social’s lights and air conditioning to compete with the gentle chords that seep from the group’s fragile violin parts. The slow-building, epic crescendos, meanwhile, take a leaf from Sigur Rós’ classical influences. When vocals are occasionally thrown into the mix – as in the colourful summer slur of ‘Over And Again’ – they’re offered more as instrumentation than verbal communication.
It would be hyperbole to suggest that Amiina fill the missing link between classical and pop music: it’s a hole that’s been filled many times before, but few do it with such effortless and touching quality. Songs that take time to reach their climaxes, stopping off at both the stark and the intricate along the way and peaking at the tear-jerking heights of a full orchestra reaching its zenith are perfectly blurred with playful and subtle electronics along the way, making the new release Puzzle achingly necessary. The whole thing is so aurally dazzling you could classify it as a journey. As a journey you take in person, it’s so beautiful it hurts. James Hendicott
As published by AU Magazine, September 2010.