Tuesday , February 27 2024
Decades before Bjork appeared, there were some truly outstanding bands in Iceland, just waiting to be heard.

Music Review: Svanfridur – What’s Hidden There?, Odmenn – Odmenn, Trubrot – Trubrot

A good twenty years before Björk and the Sugarcubes put Iceland on the international music map, the tiny island nation had already produced its first super-group. Trúbrot was formed when members’ groups whose name translated as Sounds and Flowers came together in 1969. Fans of both bands were initially angry about the merge, and the members used this as a basis for their moniker, which in English means Breach Of Faith.

Their 1969 self-titled debut impressed the few lucky enough to hear it. It was recorded at London’s Trident Studios, and engineered by Tony Visconti (who would go on to produce David Bowie, among others). The tragic mistake they made was in recording the entire album in their native tongue. If it were not for this, Apple Records may have signed them. Instead they were picked up by EMI. The record was only available in Iceland, and the initial (and only) pressing of 3,200 sold out within weeks.

So how does this instant collectible sound 40 years later? For one thing, the Icelandic lyrics are probably nowhere near as off-putting as they once were, thanks to the explosion of so-called “world music” since then. A good idea of what Trúbrot’s originals sound like can be inferred from the covers they chose. The album features a version of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” Jose Feliciano’s “Rain,” and “My World Is Empty,” made famous by The Supremes. I have to admit that hearing Lennon/McCartney in Icelandic is a bit strange.

Trúbrot contained a lot of elements that were popular on US radio at the time. There were jazz influenced numbers ala Chicago or Blood, Sweat, And Tears, some Steppenwolf-ish heavy rock, and even the mellow tones of someone like Burt Bacharach. Had their album been recorded in English, and distributed internationally, things may have been very different for Trúbrot.

The situation was very different just one year later, when Ódmenn’s one and only album was released. They were an all-out hippie/prog rock band, and their eponymous double LP debut reflected a variety of influences. Only one of the fifteen cuts was sung in English, “It Takes Love,” which sounds like it may have been intended as a single. The song is much more mainstream than the rest of the record.

What Ódmenn specialized in was a heavy blues, with an emphasis on solos. This certainly fits in with what was going on in “underground” music at the time. Opening track “Ein Ég Ræ” has the classic heavy guitar sound of Blue Cheer, while “Betri Heimur” trods the boogie path made famous by Humble Pie.

Elsewhere there are nods to the acoustic bliss of happy hippies such as CSN, and guitar showcases along the lines of what Carlos Santana was doing. The ultimate Ódmenn track is “Frelsi.” This tweny-minute extravaganza originally occupied all of the vinyl album’s side four, and is a suitable period piece.

Excess was the hallmark of the era, and bands generally considered their “long” song to be their best. “Frelsi” is better than a lot of its contemporaries. There is some real virtuoso guitar playing, and I imagine that the group really cooked onstage. Plus, you gotta love the mandatory drum solo.

Fast-forward to 1972 and we get another long-lost slab of prog-immortality in Svanfrídur. They were another Icelandic act whose sole output was their debut, What’s Hidden There? While it can sometimes be tempting to overrate a forgotten artifact like this, Svanfrídur’s album speaks for itself. This record is that rarest of all prog albums from the early seventies, it actually still sounds great.

One thing that helps is that it is all sung in English. But it is the variety of instrumental flavors that the group utilize that make this one truly unique. For example, the use of violin at the time usually resulted in an unlistenable song. Exhibit A would be “White Bird” by It’s A Beautiful Day.

The way Svanfrídur incorporate not only violin but flute into the title track is a testament to well thought-out arranging. There is no silly showboating as was common at the time, just some perfectly appropriate shading to a very nice ballad.

Make no mistake though, while there are a couple of pleasant acoustic cuts, Svanfrídur’s mission is to rock. On “Please Bend,” and “Give Me Some Gas,” they do just that. The former features some serious power-chording and an over the top violin solo, while the latter is a furious blues jam.

Closing out with “Finido” the group leaves one wishing they had stuck around for a few more years. The instrumental features one of the more inspired bass solos I have heard, and resolves itself with some furious guitar leads from Iceland’s Eric Clapton, Birgir Hrafnsson.

All three of these albums were reissued by the incomparable German label, Shadoks Music. They feature extensive liner notes (in English), and all of the original artwork. It is an impressive project to be sure. But the best aspect of finding such lost treasures is just being able to finally listen to them. It fascinates me to no end to hear what was going on in such “isolated” regions as Iceland some 40 years ago.

Their musicians were every bit as talented, adventurous, and just plain good as anyone in the “official” histories of rock. There is an undeniable allure in listening to something as exotic as original Icelandic prog, no doubt. But there is also little doubt that if you do enjoy that type of music, you will like these bands as well.

About Greg Barbrick

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