That one time I cheated on Seattle, or 10 Icelandic artists you need to know

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Epic Rain hanging out with some friends at Lucky Records in Reykjavik

Epic Rain hanging out with some friends at Lucky Records in Reykjavik

Dear Seattle music scene,

I have a confession and it’s not an easy one for me to make. Last year, in a moment of weakness I went on a 10-day bender vacation and, well, I cheated on you. That’s right, I had an affair with another city’s music scene and I don’t feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty about my actions. Actually, I feel reinvigorated and fueled by a passion I haven’t felt about music in quite some while.

It’s not that I don’t love you, Seattle music scene. When it comes to music scenes, what’s happening here in the Emerald City will always be my first love. It’s that I just happened to be in the right place (Reykjavik) at the right time (Iceland Airwaves 2013) and things just happened. The old cliche of it’s not you, it’s me is highly applicable here so let me explain a bit of what happened back in October and November of 2013.

While in Iceland I learned that  just like the Seattle music scene is more than Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Macklemore the Icelandic music scene is much more than Bjork, Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men. There are countless excellent artists making noise in the land of fire and ice that are waiting to be discovered and I could easily write thousands of words about the dozens of bands I fell in love with while in Iceland. But instead of sharing all of the salacious details of my torrid whirlwind affair with my stunningly beautiful and cold mistress all at once (Late nights spent dancing shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty Europeans! Slamming shots of exotic liquor!  Dining on hot dogs slathered in funny-looking sauces!) I’ll start slowly by sharing 10 Icelandic artists that immediately took over my music-loving heart. Hopefully this will help you better understand how this all happened and maybe you’ll fall for a few of these wonderfully talented artists yourself. 

Olafur Arnalds
If you listen to KEXP then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Olafur Arnalds. He’s a composer who mixes electronic music with beautiful orchestral arrangements. It’s not quite EDM and not quite classical. He’s one of the few Icelandic musicians who performs in Seattle regularly (the last time he was in town he played with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra) and seeing him live was one of the most moving musical performances I’ve seen in years, so be sure to check him out the next time he’s in town. Listen to more of his music over on his Sound Cloud page.

I managed to see quite a few bands while in Reykjavik (34 to be exact) and the band that made the biggest impact was Mammut. I have no idea what singer Katrína Kata Mogensen is singing about but there’s something about the combination of her vocals and the band’s musicianship that really strikes a chord with me. The band’s latest album, “Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir,” which Google tells me translates to “Come to my Black Sister,” was named the top Icelandic album of 2013 by many Icelandic publications which hopefully means a U.S. release of the record is on the way soon. Take a listen to “Salt” off “Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir” over here.

FM Belfast
Several years back there was a band in Seattle called United State of Electronica and their shows were known for being ridiculously fun dance parties. FM Belfast is the Icelandic version of U.S.E.  with a bit of the flair of Yoshimi-ere Flaming Lips thrown in for good measure. Basically what I’m trying to say is that if Reykjavik had an official party band it would definitely be FM Belfast.Check out the above video, which begins with a quirky cover of “Killing in the Name Of.” It starts slow, so if you aren’t down for the long haul here watch a few moments of the beginning to get a feel for the cover and then skip ahead to the 3:30 mark. If that doesn’t get your booty shaking them watch their performance for KEXP over here.

Retro Stefson
Speaking of dance parties … take a listen to Retro Stefson. While FM Belfast’s offbeat, uptempo pop can get you nice and sweaty real quick, Retro Stefson’s smooth, fluid dance-pop has the same effect but does things a bit slower. They’re one part R&B, one part pop, one part soul and all parts awesome. Retro Stefson’s self-titled album was hands down my favorite Icelandic record of 2013 and it’s still in heavy rotation at Guerrilla Candy HQ. I seriously smile every time I listen to “Glow.” It’s such a good song. Check out “Glow” above and listen to more of their music over here.

Epic Rain
If you couldn’t tell, Icelanders have a solid grasp on just about every genre of music, hip-hop is one where they need a little bit of help. Enter  a group with a name that screams Seattle but is 100 percent Icelandic: Epic Rain. Their music, which was described to me as being gypsy rap, isn’t necessarily hip-hop but it sometimes borrows from the hip-hop family tree. It’s not like much else out there, which makes for a very refreshing listen, and the dual vocalists combined with live instrumentation and a DJ adds depth to Epic Rain’s unique sound.  Listen to more of Epic Rain’s music (might I suggest giving “Life Savings” or “Coffee Stained Pages,” both of which have a bit more hip-hop flavoring, a listen) over here.

1860 have been described as the Icelandic Fleet Foxes and while that isn’t quite a spot-on descriptor, it’s easy to see how the comparison was drawn since they are a rootsy folk band with gorgeous harmonies. The above clip features a few members of the band performing “For You, Forever,” a song that will always make me think of Iceland because of its simplicity and beauty. For a slightly better sampling of the band, and to hear them sing in their native Icelandic, listen to the full band perform “Snæfellsnes,” which I think is a song about an Icelandic national park, over here. If you like what you hear, consider picking up the group’s latest album over on their Bandcamp page.

Bloodgroup was the first band I saw while in Iceland and their stellar performance was a good omen of things to come during my trip. I was immediately taken by the band’s atmospheric electro-pop. At times Bloodgroup’s tunes can be dark and moody so don’t expect rays of sunshine and rainbows over layers of glossy guitars and shiny synths.  Instead brace yourself for beautiful sonically engaging soundscapes with hauntingly beautiful vocals.  Find more of Bloodgroup’s music over here.

Emiliana Torrini
If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings films then chances are Emiliana Torrini’s voice sounds awfully familiar. The story goes that Peter Jackson wanted Bjork to contribute to “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” but she couldn’t because she was pregnant at the time so Jackson chose Emiliana Torrini to sing “Gollum’s Song.” And while there are some vocal similarities between Torrini and Bjork, she isn’t a Bjork wannabe. Her music is much more straightforward and pop-oriented compared to Bjork’s occasionally odd and quirky tunes. Her latest record, “Tookah,” was released last year and comes highly recommended from yours truly. Listen to the album’s title track over here and be sure to give a listen to the ridiculously catchy and fun “Jungle Drum” above.

Mum are another electro-pop(ish) outfit. According to my pal Jeff over at Life in the Vinyl Lane, they’re considered a krútt band, which is sort of Iceland’s version of twee-pop. The group’s latest single, “When Girls Collide,” was recently featured on You can check out the video for that song above and find more of their music over on their website.

John Grant
Okay, so technically John Grant isn’t Icelandic. But I discovered him while in Iceland and since he’s an American ex-pat who now lives in Iceland and his 2013 album “Pale Green Ghost” made my Pazz & Jop ballot above Pearl Jam there’s no way I couldn’t include him on this list. Listen to more of John Grant’s music over here.


Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.