Tag Archives: Iceland

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 22

Welcome to day 9 of my ‘Album of the Year 2015’ countdown. I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my choices so far – if you’re new to this series, be sure to check out numbers 30-23 via the links at the bottom of this post.

I’ve yet to hear many dissenting voices to my picks thus far – you can’t all agree with me surely?! Please, let me know what you think, I do enjoy a good healthy debate!

But enough of that, here’s today’s main event…

Number 22

af coverAgent Fresco
‘Destrier’
Long Branch Records / SPV

Formed in Reykjavik in 2008, Agent Fresco are a quartet that is comprised of vocalist and composer Arnór Dan Arnarson, drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson, bassist Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson and guitarist/pianist Þórarinn Guðnason. My love of all things Icelandic is no secret but Agent Fresco have given me another reason for taking this wonderful country to my heart.

Many bands use real life experiences as inspiration for their music but with Agent Fresco, it’s a little more than that. Composer Arnór Dan Arnarson was savagely attacked one night leaving both physical and mental scars for a significant period. ‘Destrier’ is the album that channelled all those thoughts, feelings and experiences into something cathartic for the creator and something wonderfully magical for the listener. The vibe of the album is naturally quite dark but a sense of positivity and strength permeates throughout.

Credit: Birta Ra'n Photography

Credit: Birta Ra’n Photography

Musically, the album is a varied, multi-faceted affair where elements of math rock, prog, alternative rock, ambient, post-rock, pop and electronica all collide in a heady mix of ambition and a steely attitude that absolutely nothing is off-limits.

I penned a review of ‘Destrier’ on this blog earlier in the year. If you want to read it in full including a more in-depth exploration of individual tracks, click here. However, to quote a small passage, “the biggest thing that strikes me with Agent Fresco and ‘Destrier’ is the way that the album flows from start to finish really beautifully, taking the listener on a journey throughout. That journey is comforting, scary, beautiful, sad, thought-provoking and often quite sombre. However, it is a journey that is never dull, always captivating and calls you inexorably back for more.”

What I want to focus on, having lived with this record for several months since I wrote the review is its atmosphere and the feelings that it conjures up within me as I listen. Yes, ‘Destrier’ is a ‘progressive’ album in that it toys with several different and juxtaposing ideas throughout. But more than that, it possesses real depth and that journey that I mentioned previously, it’s one hell of an emotional rollercoaster.

In the moments of calm, I am transported to the wilds of Iceland where there’s literally nothing to keep you company other than the stunningly rugged vistas and an occasional wild pony. I feel comforted, warm and strangely calm. But then, around the corner comes a spiky riff or a moment of musical confrontation that takes on a much more sinister and dark edge. Then there are the moments of utter sadness where you’re left feeling almost bereft. Few albums this year have touched me in such a powerful way and that is credit to Agent Fresco.

Back to the music itself again and I really can’t speak more highly of it. Tracks like ‘Howls’ and ‘Let Them See Us’ are hook-laden and demonstrate an immediacy that will no doubt please many. However, ‘Destrier’ also boasts the likes of the pop-inspired title track, the moody and introspective ambient majesty of ‘Death Rattle’ and the stunningly sensitive ‘Bemoan’.

Put as simply as possible, if you don’t allow ‘Destrier’ into your life, you will miss out on a very special and magical aural experience that gloriously defies simple genre classification.

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 23
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 24
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 25
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 26
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 27
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 28
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 29
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30

And from previous years:

Album of the Year 2014
Album of the Year 2013
Album of the Year 2012

Agent Fresco – Destrier – Album Review

af cover

Artist: Agent Fresco

Album Title: Destrier

Label: Long Branch Records / SPV

Year Of Release: 2015

My thoughts and feelings towards the musical talent emanating from Iceland are well documented on the Blog Of Much Metal. Indeed, I even wrote an entire commentary on the music from one of my most favourite places on Earth. In that post, which you can access here, I didn’t mention Agent Fresco but that was purely because I was unaware of them at the time. When I wrote the article, Agent Fresco had only released the one album and, despite being very well received, had not registered on my personal radar. However, if I were to re-write the post now, Agent Fresco would feature heavily.

Formed in Reykjavik in 2008, Agent Fresco are a quartet that is comprised of vocalist and composer Arnór Dan Arnarson, drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson, bassist Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson and guitarist/pianist Þórarinn Guðnason. Their debut album, ‘A Long Time Listening’ was released in 2010 to much critical acclaim but it has taken the better part of five years for their sophomore effort to see the light of day. In the intervening period, live shows and festivals have played an important part for the talented quartet but the long wait for new material continued.

Credit: Birta Ra'n Photography

Credit: Birta Ra’n Photography

Reading the extensive and intriguing biography that accompanied this release, it appears that the inspiration and driving force behind the debut was the rather tragic passing of Arnarson’s father. And, with inspiration for the follow-up hard to come by, it took another significantly negative event to act as the necessary catalyst, namely a brutal attack late at night that saw Arnarson suffer a broken eye socket, cuts and concussion, as well as mental scars that, for some time, ran far deeper than the physical injuries. As you might imagine therefore, the tone and subject matters explored on ‘Destrier’ are not always warm and fuzzy. Indeed, the title of the album, ‘Destrier’ is the name given to a medieval warhorse and serves as the focal point of sorts for the album’s concept, a concept that explores mainly dark themes but in a positive and constructive way if that makes sense.

Onto the music itself and, as engaging as the lyrical content is, it is with the music that Agent Fresco play their trump card; for a reviewer, the content is the stuff of nightmares because it is such a varied affair with seemingly a thousand things going on all at once, including but not limited to math rock, prog, alternative rock, ambient, post-rock, pop and electronica.

For the listener however, the experience is simply wondrous.

I will allow myself to delve into some of the songs in more detail in a moment but suffice to say that the biggest thing that strikes me with Agent Fresco and ‘Destrier’ is the way that the album flows from start to finish really beautifully, taking the listener on a journey throughout. That journey is comforting, scary, beautiful, sad, thought-provoking and often quite sombre. However, it is a journey that is never dull, always captivating and calls you inexorably back for more. Every time I listen, I hear something new and despite its overt technicality in terms of the beats, rhythms and song structures, I can see this album being loved by both the underground and the mainstream alike. It’s an impressive feat, but Agent Fresco might just have pulled it off and pulled it off with consummate professionalism.

This sophomore release kicks off with ‘Let Them See Us’ which begins in strange fashion thanks to an increasing monotone noise that gives way just as it begins to become uncomfortable. In its place is a deeply atmospheric, almost cinematic composition dominated by a rich, moody simplicity that immediately showcases Agent Fresco’s melodic sensibilities and Arnarson’s sensitive vocal ability which manages to sound delicate and fragile whilst frequently displaying a raw, untamed and wild edge. As such and coupled with the expansive nature of the musical backdrop, the wild, rugged nature of the band’s homeland comes unbidden into my mind. I feel like I’m being transported to a cold, desolate environment which is as beautiful and welcoming as it is bleak and dangerous.

The impressive start is then built upon by ‘Dark Water’, an equally powerful track but in an entirely different manner. Heavier yet more upbeat in tone, ‘Dark Water’ is more of a straight-up alternative rock/metal track that delights thanks to an addictive central melody enhanced by a tinkling piano and a rousing, spiky guitar riff, but all the while allowing plenty of room for experimentation with off-kilter beats, incongruous sounds and lashings of atmosphere.

Elsewhere, the title track seems to be able to blend a mind-boggling but understated technicality with more sublime almost pop-like melodies and even manages to inject a dose of the unexpected in the form of highly sampled guitars, bass and drums that borders on syncopated rhythmic noise. And yet it works, seamlessly.

‘Howls’ is another of those big, hook-laden alternative art rock tracks that is bordering on genius. The feeling of euphoria that courses through my veins as the track develops is the kind of unquantifiable tonic that only great music can provide. The initial simplicity of the track is also an illusion as the composition deploys enough subtle technicalities that to study it closer will addle the mind, at least for a failed musician like me.

Credit: Marino Thorlacius

Credit: Marino Thorlacius

‘Pyre’ experiments with syncopated rhythms and a touch of electronica whereas ‘Wait For Me’ offers an industrial feel before opening into a delicate piano-led piece with another huge chorus melody with pop sympathies. ‘Citadel’ has a jangly, almost indie-rock vibe to it and ‘Bemoan’ is sensitive, emotional and absolutely stunning thanks to the layers of synths that sparingly enter the fray and build with spine-tingling majesty. By now, it almost goes without saying that Arnarson’s vocals are also, once again, another masterclass of emotional authenticity. ‘Angst’, by stark contrast, is a short, intense and furious blast of Meshuggah-like djent aggression that descends into a wall of noise as it concludes.

‘Destrier’ then concludes with ‘Death Rattle’ and ‘Mono No Aware’. The former is an ambient, post-rock masterpiece that acts with minimalist precision to devastating effect and once again evokes images in the mind of Agent Fresco’s stunning homeland. To a certain extent, the latter is cut from a similar cloth. Swathes of synths are then accented by a wonderful drum beat and the track builds into the kind of euphoric crescendo that seeks to cast aside the darkness, bitterness and raw fragility of the preceding thirteen tracks in order to leave the listener with a feeling of hope and the sense that there is an end to the apparent darkness and despondency.

I’m not sure that even this lengthy review has done the material on ‘Destrier’ full justice. However, if it has convinced you to give the Agent Fresco a try, then it will have done its job. Be warned though; if you don’t allow ‘Destrier’ into your life, you will miss out on a very special and magical aural experience that gloriously defies simple genre classification. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Album of the Year 2014 – Number 3

It’s getting serious now as I enter the final three albums in my 2014 top 20 countdown, the bronze, silver and gold positions. Needless to say that all three bands coming up have released fabulous albums, worthy of any accolade coming their way.

Remember, every post in this series can be accessed at the bottom of this post along with the full series’ from 2012 and 2013.

But enough of that, here’s Number 3 for 2014…

Solstafir-Otta-2014Sólstafir
‘Otta’
Season Of Mist

Iceland. In my opinion, one of the most magical countries on Earth and, given the size of the population, a musical powerhouse. When my brother passed away in 2008, my family and I started a search for a perfect resting place for some of his ashes. His love of rugged landscapes, mountains and the wilderness led us inexorably towards Iceland. None of us had visited before and when we arrived in 2009, we were not prepared for the impact it would have on us. Breathtakingly beautiful, it felt right and there was no hesitation in leaving part of him behind in a tranquil spot near the Gulfoss waterfall in the shadow of mountains and glaciers.

My parents and I returned to Iceland earlier this year to revisit my brother and once again, the island worked its magic. We were only there for three full days but by the end, I simply did not want to leave. I would move there tomorrow given half a chance.

You may be wondering why I’m saying all this on a post about my third favourite album of the year. The answer is that it provides some much needed context so that when I say that ‘Otta’ feels to me like the sound of Iceland, the importance of this statement can be fully understood.

Very few bands manage to convey a sense of their surroundings so eloquently but by heavens, with ‘Otta’, Icelanders Sólstafir are one such band. The quartet have come a long way from their more extreme days and the post-rock inspired ‘Otta’ has to be considered to be their masterpiece to date.

Picture by: Guðný Lára Thorarensen

Picture by: Guðný Lára Thorarensen

We already knew it but music does not have to be technically complex in order to be engaging, enjoyable and full of depth. Compositionally, this is not the most overtly complicated music from a technical standpoint but regardless of this, to write music as good as this is not easy. On this record, Sólstafir concentrate on creating intense atmospheres and painting epic vistas in the minds of the listener, many of which bring me close to tears. As I allow this very organic and natural-sounding album wash over me and seep into my psyche, I ache to return to the homeland of Sólstafir, to once again experience the landscape which has been reimagined so beautifully in musical form. The striking artwork will give you a clue and more of an understanding of what to expect.

Unlike Sólstafir’s previous album, ‘Svartir Sandar’, ‘Otta’ is contained on just the one disc. As such, it’s a more honed affair. Admittedly the eight tracks still last for nearly an hour collectively with a good half of the compositions reaching well beyond the seven-minute mark. Importantly though, the perception as you listen is of a much shorter album, so effectively does it pull you in and delight you at every majestic turn.

The album opens in impressive fashion with ‘Lagnaetti’ and maintains the quality until the last note dies away. The opener begins in quiet, relatively sombre fashion but builds throughout its length into something more urgent and powerful. However, all the while it is held together by a really engaging melody line.

What transports this album into the higher echelons is the melodic sensibility at play here. The title track begins with an ambient feel but once again builds around a central melody which is stunningly beautiful but also rather unique given that it is brought to life by a banjo.

In the centre of the album sit the more truncated and, arguably, more immediately accessible trio of ‘Rismal’, ‘Dagmal’ and ‘Middegi’, each of which could teach a thing or two to sections of the post-rock fraternity about how to write material that is both catchy and full of integrity whilst still managing to once again convey an impressive soundscape in the process.

‘Non’, ‘Midaftann’ and ‘Nattmal’ complete the album in equally spectacular fashion. ‘Nattmal’ is the longest and most challenging composition on ‘Otta’ whilst ‘Midaftann’ is simply gorgeous, dominated as it is by a lone piano, thereby lending the track a more introspective feel.

I think the opening couple of paragraphs will help you understand just how much I love ‘Otta’ and, more importantly, why. However, this album from Sólstafir is just so brilliant and engaging that anyone who likes powerful guitar-based music should derive an awful lot of satisfaction from listening to it. It is an honest, vibrant and poignant album that I have taken it to my heart. And I bet I’m not the only one. Sensational.

Check out the other posts in this series:

Album of the Year 2014 – Number 4
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 5
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 6
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 7
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 8
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 9
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 10
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 11
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 12
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 13
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 14
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 15
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 16
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 17
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 18
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 19
Album of the Year 2014 – Number 20

And if you’re interested, my similar countdowns from previous years can be accessed here:

Top 20 of 2012
Album of the Year 2013

Scandinavia: A Giant of Heavy Music – Iceland

P1070881

In a slight deviation to what I promised in my introduction, I want to start my more in-depth analysis of the musical strength of the Scandinavian countries with a country that I didn’t initially mention and that, strictly-speaking, is not part of Scandinavia.

Let me explain…

It may not be part of Scandinavia as such, but the country’s history is closely interwoven with their Scandinavian cousins, having been inhabited by the Norsemen well over 1000 years ago. As such, is referred to as one of the ‘Nordic countries’ and therefore, I’m including it in my series. I am, of course, referring to Iceland.

This decision has been brought about thanks to a couple of trips to this magnificent and intriguing country, the last of which was just a few weeks ago. What struck me during both visits, apart from the rugged beauty, the isolation and the tranquillity, was the influence of music on this country. And whilst my focus is naturally music of a heavier bent, Iceland has also produced some non-metal music that I hold dear to my heart.

With a population of less than 400,000, it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Nevertheless, here is a country that well and truly punches above its weight on the world music stage.

To begin with, there were the factoids on the aeroplane TV screens during my flight to the country. They talked of glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs…and the fact that 10 rock bands are formed every year and look to take on the world. Ten. Supposing that each of those bands has four members, that’s 40 Icelanders every year that try to find their way onto the rock/metal world stage. It may only be approximately 0.01%, but it’s 0.01% of the entire population. Madness when you think about it. It is even more bonkers to think that this is one of the facts that Iceland is so proud of. I love it and it smacks of a country obsessed with music and proud of their contribution internationally.

Then there’s the film, about heavy metal, for which actress Ϸorbjörg Helga Dýrfjörð won the Best Actress award at the Eddas (the Icelandic Film and Television awards). Entitled ‘Málmhaus’ (‘Metalhead’), it was directed by Ragnar Bragason and tells the story of a girl in her twenties who retreats to heavy metal music to cope with the loss of her elder brother in a tragic accident. I have yet to see this film but that is something that I would hope to rectify very soon.

Speaking of metalheads, having arrived in Iceland, I bump into a group of them within seconds of leaving the hotel for the first time, all adorned in the black uniform that’s so instantly recognisable. I spy a Bloodbath beanie amongst the logos and there’s a knowing look that passes as my Dimmu Borgir hat is noticed. Wherever in the world you are, the language of metal is the same.

A few moments later, the sound of rock comes blasting out of a bar as I walk along the central Rejkjavik streets. I feel very at home here all of a sudden.

The following day, whilst on a walk along the main high street of Rejkjavik, I hit the mother load – an old-fashioned record shop. You know the kind I’m referring to – where you go in and can actually speak to the people who work there, where you can ask their opinion and where they’ll put an album on the stereo for you to listen to before purchasing. The name of this great shop is Smekkleysa, the Bad Taste Record Store and is run by Kristjàn, a great guy who knows his music and is proud to promote local acts, spending time to talk, advise and enlighten fellow music lovers. I could have spent a long time in the store given half the chance.

P1070894

And what of the local acts? Who are they exactly?

First of all, there’s the international superstar that is Björk. Everyone, whether or not you enjoy her eclectic musical output, has heard of Björk. Personally, I’m not a big fan and so I shall move on swiftly to some music I know more about.

Sigur Rós is another internationally-recognised name, a post-rock band that have made it big from very humble beginnings. They are a band that hold a very special place in my heart. My parents and I first visited Iceland in 2009, on the first anniversary of the passing of my brother. He was always fascinated by nature and had a particular fondness for mountains and isolation. He never went to Iceland, but had always wanted to. The decision was made to travel there and scatter some of his ashes in the beautiful country.

Nick was also a big Sigur Rós fan, more so than I to be perfectly honest. Prior to travelling, I sent a few emails and was kindly invited to the Sigur Ros studio just outside Rejkjavik. There, we met Kjartan Sveinsson (the then keyboardist) and studio engineer Birgir Jón ‘Biggi’ Birgisson. It was a very special experience and one that I treasure to this day. The humble attitude of the chaps and the understated feel of the surroundings really hit home to me how down to earth Icelanders really are, regardless of international fame and fortune. Truly, there are no VIPs in Iceland.

Oh, and the beautiful simple and atmospheric compositions of Sigur Rós make for a fittingly epic soundtrack whilst watching the Aurora Borealia, the Northern Lights. That’s an experience I shall also never forget.

Sigur Ros - Kjartan  Sveinsson & producer 1

Turning my attention to more metallic acts, there are approximately 50 active Icelandic bands at the current time, a quite unbelievable number. However, there are three who I believe are worthy of particular mention: Dimma, Skalmold and Sólstafir.

dimmaDimma are a rock/metal band in the more traditional mould that really caught my ear whilst in the aforementioned record store. Big riffs, nice melodies and strong vocals all add up to a rather positive listening experience for fans of classic hard rock and metal with an ever-so-slightly melancholic feel. Maybe this blog will be the catalyst for that extra bit of recognition that they deserve? I certainly hope so.

skalmoldSkálmöld, on the other hand, have already found themselves on the Napalm Records roster and is a name that is more familiar with the worldwide metal fraternity, having released two studio albums to date during their five-year existence. Skálmöld occupy the folk/Viking metal genre but their style harks back to older bands rather than being ultra modern. There’s a great blend of heaviness and melody to their compositions and the latest album, ‘Börn Loka’, in particular is worth having a listen to.

solstafirThe most well-known of the three though, is Sólstafir. The band have come a long way from their crust and punk-infused black metal beginnings and now offer a very unique and fabulous post rock/metal aural experience. The music on their most recent recordings is epic in the truest sense of the word and evokes those barren and bleak mental images that are completely in keeping with their homeland. They’re a fabulous band and if you’ve yet to check them out, I suggest you rectify that oversight immediately.

And with that, my whistle-stop tour of Iceland and it’s musical footprint comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.