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Movie Review: Screaming Masterpiece

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With Regards The Setting Of Scenes Prior To The Reviewing Of Screaming Masterpiece

Says a friend of mine to the local pharmacist of an evening a couple years back; "Tell me this, now… Can you perchance supply to me this fine noontide a toxin might feasibly instill within these cells, bones, nerve-endings and such, a sensation akin to that which Mother Mary must've felt when her belly got to swelling with the vapors of The Lord?"

The fellow chewed the lips a time, clucked the tongue, and then; "I have exactly the article for that."

From inside the old suit-jacket he had on, itself emblazoned with any number of Sufjan Stevens pins and Daniel Johnston badges, he produced a compact disc upon which was scrawled, in blue marker, the words Sigur Rós – Reykjavik 2001.

"What's this" asks the punter. "OxyContin?"

"None o' that" quoth the merchant, "None of that at all. What it is, is the music of the glaciers, the sound of the Northern Lights glistening on the waters of Lake Langisjór, the symphonies of the Njarðvík night, the…"

"This is Icelandic music you're givin' me?" the lad interrupts, jerking the head back a touch, cocking an eyebrow. "The felchin' Christ do I want with this?"

"What don't you want with it?" rebuts the merchant. "Iceland, boyo. It's where it's at."

"Since when?"

"Since… like, fuckin', ever. The vocals like they're comin' at you from across the river of Hades, the samples, the beats, the…"

"Beats?" the punter scoffs. "I care less for them than a willy-john cares for the sheen o' the Marble Arch. Samples? I couldn't give a fisted arse I never hear another in all my days."

"Suit yourself, son" the seller shrugs, turning away. "But I tell you this; I put that on for no more than ten minutes and I swear on Noah's ankles it was a month afore I could see again."

The lad bites his bottom lip, his eyes all twitching with contemplation. "Alright" he says eventually. "Alright then, give me the damn disc, and let me see if it's all that, right enough."

He took the disc.

No one saw or heard tell of him until early last December, when he showed up on the banks of the River Bann, bruised of body and famished of stomach and bollock-naked save for a length of sea-otter hide he'd wrapped about his skull like a turban.


Whilst altogether right amusing and beguiling in its own right, this particular anecdote serves also to illustrate here and now the shift occurred in the world of the musicologically minded sometime around 2002, when ( ), the fourth record by the aforementioned Sigur Rós, got to capturing the imagination of anyone who'd ever spent half an hour on Pitchfork Media pretending to have heard Devendra Banhart years before they did.

What ( ) went ahead and revealed to the likes of our giddy-pill-peddler there and his fierce skeptical client, was that something right wicked exciting was going on Iceland with regards the composition of melody and the kicking of notes about a stave.

For sure, everyone with half a drum in the ears knew about Bjork, and knew that her music was as beautiful and complex and evocative as anything anyone had ever even considered going about creating, and that it was as the sighing of the angels upon the frost-stung windows of heaven, or as the twitching of a sparrow's wings 'pon a dew-kissed hedgerow of a winter's morn, or as the swelling of a neon cityscape out the belly of Arcadia. Scarcely a man, woman or child walked the Earth in ignorance of these facts, but what ( ) suggested was that other individuals hidden away in the basements of Selfoss or wandering lonesome about the shores of Keflavík were creating music of a similarly compelling, fascinating, otherworldly nature, which, if not quite as astounding as Bjork's, was at least fit to sit upon the same shelf.

Left and right and hither and thither, folks with immense cravings for sounds not unlike those of violins melting in the guts of the gods, or for melodies akin to the solemn lamentations of dying fauns choking on the fog, there and then they tuned the lugs to Iceland, and lo!, what wonders they found.

These wonders, it turns out, have since been gathered together and stacked arse-to-jowl 'tween the opening and closing of Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon's 2005 documentary Screaming Masterpiece, or Gargandi Snilld, being an expansive, wide-reaching overview of the contemporary Icelandic music scene, released on DVD by Milan Records on the 6th of March 2007.

With Regards The Cinematic Worth Of Screaming Masterpiece

Screaming Masterpiece opens with a series of shots detailing the kinds of untouched, crystalline expanses I see back my eyes every time I talk to my good friend Maja about her homeland, being the land of Iceland, conveniently enough.

Great towering glaciers and frozen lakes and azure skylines hung precariously in the heavens like a cracked windscreen dangling 'tween the metal frame on God's own Volvo.

Vapors and mists hovering about the ice like opium smoke.

Gurgling, discombobulating wounds on the surface of the earth.

These opening images, they invite a number of loose associations and stereotypes to come jiggering and jiving up front the lobes; desolation, isolation, mythology, the footprints of the Vikings, tiny communities huddled about Lutheran church halls.

In-between the talking heads and the shredded violas and the incredible music and the drunken romping peppering Screaming Masterpiece's hour and a half run-time, we return time and again to those black beaches and silver pastures, mountain vistas and wetland sprawls, the resultant impression being that the creative genius on display every direction is as integral to the country as its topography or its history, and that each element feeds off the other.

Rather than douse the celluloid with a wild amount of analysis or critique or sociology or what have you, however, Magnússon, a noted painter outside of his film work, approaches his subject in much the same fashion as a 15th century artist might have gone about crafting a fresco mural depicting maybe the destruction of Gomorrah, or the life of King David. He incorporates most everyone anyone might deem half-ways relevant, and works hard on establishing a mood (one of self-sustaining community and artistic freedom and cultural isolation), but Screaming Masterpiece serves better as a gorgeous-looking (and sounding) primer to further examination than as an exhaustive, comprehensive stand-alone investigation.

It's more concerned with evoking the feel of the music, the feel of the country, than going into anything in any real depth.

That said, it does at least attempt to answer, to varying degrees of success, a handful of core questions the lay-folk might well have rattling about the skulls soon as anyone might mention that Iceland is near to bowing with the weight of the musical gorgeousity erupting from therein.

It wants to tell us Who The Hell These People Are.

It wants to let us hear What The Hell These People Sound Like.

It wants to at least suggest a couple reasons for Why The Hell Those Sounds Sound As They Do.

For to settle the first concern, being Who The Hell These Folk Are, Anyroad, Screaming Masterpiece gathers about its jodhpurs a pleasingly diverse bunch of artistes and ensembles and assorted scenesters, some of whom share Sigur Rós' fondness for the ethereal, cerulean soundscapes, others who prefer to grasp at the coat-tails of less obviously "Icelandic" inspirations, be they Public Enemy or Nirvana or Sham 69 or whoever.

With regards What The Hell They Might Sound Like, the answer is that they sound like you would expect a bunch of folks who share nowt but a postcode in common to sound like; fairly different from each other.

The likes of Slowblow and Bang Gang, for example, sound like the waves lipping and lapping at the beaches, their semi-orchestral music by turns tranquil and tumultuous, raging and serene, whilst Ghostigital, by way of contrast, bring to mind some sort of amalgamation of The Fall and Atari Teenage Riot, all sneering yelps and stuttering, speed-fried rhythms. The Apparat Organ Quartet, meanwhile, busy themselves with fashioning pump-organ electronica, as crazed a melding as testicles and thistles, or religion and politics, and yet oh so very gorgeous to the hearing-holes. Then there are folks like acoustic nomad Mugison, a fella who rehearses his folk-pop ditties in an old church somewhere in Súdavik, an area on the west coast of the country all but abandoned since an avalanche in 1995.

Hearing this music, one almost gets to mouthing a further question, being Why The Hell Are The Icelandic All So Amazing When It Comes To The Tunes And What Have You, but it soon becomes apparent that, actually, they're not. Just in case you might doubt such a pronouncement, Screaming Masterpiece offers us footage of several fairly fucking diabolical traditional rock band types for to shatter any illusion you might have had about how a man probably can't play a damn chord in any of those 23 counties without giving rise to some hitherto unimaginable symphony of ineffable wonderment.

Now, whilst nobody has ever gotten anywhere worth being by attempting to hold above any group of people, let alone an entire nation, any sort of umbrella fashioned from the threads of The Unifying Traits, it is still fairly evident that the musicians and composers and performers featured herein do share a set of Core Characteristics, even though they may all operate within wildly different musical genres or disciplines, and even though some of them might be shite.

These Core Characteristics, they probably go some way towards slapping an answer 'longside the last of those questions, being, as you'll recall from a wee while back, Why The Hell Do These Sounds Sound As They Do?

The majority of these folks, for instance, obviously harbor a sense of experimentation, of adventurousness. They share a disregard for the rules concerning what might constitute a pop song, or a musical instrument. They also share a sense of community, of self-preservation. Rock bands and hip-hop acts and acoustic jazz-techno outfits play alongside one another, swapping personnel and equipment and audiences when the need arises. It's inspiring as all hell, is what it is, in the same way that the similar situation in, for example, Omaha is inspiring as all hell.

And if that doesn't offer explanation enough for why the sound is so distinctive, then there are plenty other possibilities offered throughout, whether by musicians or historians or cultural commentators or pagan scholars or whoever.

Most likely, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of all the potential reasons one might well conjure out the yap, reasons relating to cultural identity (the reclaiming of such), economic necessity (we had to create these bizarre instruments and fashion music in this manner because we couldn't afford anything else – how different Rock N Roll might've been had The Beatles not been beneficiaries of the welfare state and the advent of hire-purchase…) and a sense of genuine detachment from commercial concerns. As one interviewee has it, the bands become accustomed to the fact that they're probably not gonna get on the radio, that they'll probably play to no more than a handful of people, so why shouldn't they allow themselves the freedom to take their music whatever the hell direction they feel like?

If one were to grab those last couple paragraphs by the neck and riffle about their innards like they were chickens out the olden days, one might well find glowering therein the explanation for The Icelandic Sound.

Then again, maybe Bjork has the right idea, and since she made Medulla and Vespertine, we have no reason to assume she has anything else. What Bjork suggests is that there's no such thing, really, as an Icelandic Sound, that the music is no different to the music being produced anywhere. What is different is the mood of the performances.

The nature of the Icelandic Mood, she poses, grinning of occasion and with the eyes all mischievous and glistening with the fires of creation, that would make for a much more worthwhile discussion.

Bjork also shows up now and again throughout the reams of astounding live footage Magnússon has strung about the run-time. She appears as the 15-year-old frontwoman for Tappi Takaris in footage taken from vintage punk rock doc Rokk í Reykjavik, whilst more recent material has her stood afore a massive crowd in New York, ripping the very particles out the air by way of a couple face-melting performances.

Further performance footage features Sigur Rós in sublime form in New York, Slowblow afire with violin and accordion abandon, Múm spluttering and glitching in incantatory fashion and a group of young fellas by the name of Nilfisk who appear live for the very first time of all ever as guests of the Foo Fighters, of all people.

When the credits have rolled and all's left onscreen is a message about piracy causes bird-flu, what will most likely hover closest to the corner of the brain related to the remembering of things past, is that those performances were fucking incredible.

For this reason alone Screaming Masterpiece would be essential. It's not as comprehensive as a fella might maybe have liked, and is probably best viewed as an introduction to Icelandic Popular Music, rather than as an All You Need To Know type deal, but it does have a staggering performance of All Is Full Of Love, and it does at least name-check the various elements and influences helped create this most astounding of near-Bohemian musical communities, a community thriving on little else but its own sense of adventure and suspicion of convention.

Line it up for a marathon night's viewing alongside Jason Kulbel and Rob Walters' Saddle Creek documentary, James Szalapski's Heartworn Highways and the first couple instalments of Penelope Spheeris' Decline Of Western Civilisation series. That right there is the basis for a truly brain-frying eve of musical wonder, community values, terrifying hair and shockingly underrated genius.

Thanks, folks.

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About The Duke

  • Cool, I am going to look out for this DVD that you so righteously describe. Also this might be the most awesome review of yours that my eye-holes have yet beheld. All of the legendary Duker stylations plus extreme focus.

  • jon, i thank you no end, and my god, just last night i was lamenting to my ladyfriend, beautiful ms gillian, that i had just submitted a review to blogcritics that may be the most nonsensical, ill-considered, pointless mess i’ve ever scribbled, and that i may well have some apologising to do to all concerned once the folks who sent the material get to reading it. i don’t say that for to have all “oh, not at all, it rocks” etc but for to illustrate the relief i felt there now; “extreme focus”!

    i really am very very suprised at that, and pleased, also. maybe i couldn’t make sense of it when reading it back because i’ve got the flu…

    either way, thank you very much, and yes, keep an eye out for the flick, it’s well worth a gander, is my opinion on the matter.

  • jon, i just left a lengthy comment thanking you for the “extreme focus” remark, owing to how i was shittin it that this made no sense. sadly, the comment was lost to the ones and the zeroes for some reason. but thank you, was all i said really, and also, yes, keep an eye out for the flick. some astounding stuff in there.

  • jon, i tried a few times to say thank you, and my comments keep dissapearing, so third time lucky, thank you very much, particulary for the “extreme focus” remark, since i was wailin to my ladyfriend just last night that this was nonsense that lacked anythin approachin focus. so nice to know it made sense to you. maybe it’s cause i’m used to havin NO focus, so havin some seems weird to read back. i dunno. anyhow, thank you!

  • Superb Duke, as always, focused AND poetic!

  • gillian

    great review, and you were stewin a bit over this. there was no need to worry; another excellent article 🙂 xo