Traditional music in Iceland is closely related to Norse and Viking musical traditions. Many of the lyrical themes of these folk songs were on topics such as life at sea, love, the harsh winters of the north, and mythological creatures (elves, trolls, dragons, etc.). These songs didn’t have any religious ties to them, and many of them were humorously written. Because Iceland is an island and sits pretty far away from other islands, their isolation helped to keep these traditions alive far longer than the Scandinavian countries where these styles originated. A lot of the poetic styles that were popular during the Middle Ages, namely skaldic poetry and rímur, also doubled as musical styles as well. These were typically sung a cappella, and the lyrics were highly metaphorical.
By the time the 18th century rolled around, other musical styles from the European mainland started slowly pouring into Iceland via Denmark. Dance music styles such as the waltz (from Austria and southern Germany), the schottische (from Bohemia), the reel (Scotland, Ireland), and the polka (Bohemia, central Europe) became increasingly popular. After these dances arrived in Iceland, their own native dances practically fell to disuse. However, there are dance troups the emerged during the 20th century to try to re-teach these folk dances so they're not lost. Many of these dances are circle dances or partner dances, and the steps are simplistic, danced by both men and women. There are quicker dances as well.
Some of the instruments that were popular in Icelandic folk music include the langspil, a zither that acts like a drone. It has one melody string and can have between one and five drone strings. Most commonly, it will have at least two drone strings. The body of the instrument is typically made from a variety of different kinds of wood, even driftwood. The langspil can either be plucked, hammered, or played with a bow. The fidla is another type of zither, but this one is made like a box. There are two pegs that stick up on one end with one string tied to each peg and stretched across the box lengthwise and across the bridge. Holes are cut in the top of the box for resonance.
Iceland has produced many popular artists today, several of whom have reached international fame. One of my all-time favorites – I’ve listened to her since the mid-1990s – is Björk. As I was doing my research and writing about Iceland this week, I started listening to some of her music again, and I’m constantly reminded why I love her music so much. She mixes a little bit of rock with ambient trance and electronica sounds, but she isn’t afraid to add in classical and jazz elements to her music as well. And she sings in English. I recently read an article about her and her choice to speak out for how difficult it is for women musicians who write their own music. More specifically, how much credit goes to musicians who also produce their own music vs. how much credit the producer actually takes (which is usually far more than what was actually done).
Another famous Icelandic musician is Sigur Rós. Their music also has an ambient-rock feel to it with breathy, echo-y vocal lines. I like their music because of their use of classical elements as well as minimalist techniques. Many of their songs have been used in movies and TV shows. Jónsi of Sigur Rós is particularly famous for his use of the bowed guitar. Their songs are performed in Icelandic.
Another artist that I heard for the first time is Emiliana Torrini. Very much of an alternative sound (or indie rock as I prefer), her music borrows from elements of rock and pop. I listened to the album Tookah, and it was kind of a calming album. She makes use of acoustic guitar with synthesized keyboards and strings in the background; all of her albums I found are sung in English.
Anther band I listened to are the Sugarcubes. Their style reminds me of The Cure. Like, a lot. I’m a huge fan of The Cure, so I was immediately drawn to their late-1980s/early-1990s sound, which is also sung in English.
I’m also a huge fan of electronic/trance/house music, so when I listened to the music of GusGus, I liked what I heard right away. I would put this music in the trance category. Like so many other Icelandic musicians, his music has English lyrics.
One band I was completely surprised was Icelandic is Of Monsters and Men. I had liked their song “Little Talks” for a while now, and it’s very popular in the US. I enjoyed the album that song is from, My Head is an Animal.
Seabear is another indie rock/alternative rock band that I came across. I listened to their album We Built a Fire that I like very much. I think it’s a good album to listen to if you want to chill. It’s also a good album to work by.
Iceland wouldn’t be doing its Scandinavian bloodlines justice if they didn’t create some metal and hard rock bands. Skálmöld is a metal band that merges typical metal music with some classical elements and mandatory screaming. Agent Fresco is a hard rock band that will actually soften its music in many of its songs. It’s an interesting sound and is a nice change. I kind of liked it. Dead Skeletons is a band that surprised me. I was expecting more screaming metal (I mean, come on, their name is Dead Skeletons). But it was like rock music with a drone underneath the quasi-chanting of the lyrics. I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard, and in fact, I really kind of liked them. It was different and almost trippy.
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