Nothing But Music

The sun had set more than seven hours earlier over the desolate main drag of Mosfellsbaer, Iceland. But inside the town's tiny one-room tavern at about 10 p.m., the entertainment was just beginning. Seated at six long candlelit tables, customers threw back shots of schnapps and picked over the remains of a traditional Viking feast: rotted shark, lamb brains and pieces of ram's testicles. Cheers rose up as a stout, bearded middle-aged man in a tightly buttoned vest strode solemnly to the microphone and began to recite poetry.

It was a typically Icelandic scene. Ever since the 12th century, farmers and fishermen have been helping their neighbors through the dark, lonely winters by singing poetic verse known as rimur. But there was nothing typical about the local backup band that took their places behind the poet. As the raconteur described vast glaciers and rivers of lava, Sigur Ros added thumping bass notes and the haunting whalelike sounds of a bow rubbed across the face of a Gibson Les Paul guitar. The bass picked up, accompanied by thrashing cymbals, expansive keyboard chords and the plaintive falsetto of the lead singer, Jon (Jonsi) Thor Birgisson.

Sigur Ros's music was as elegant and naked as the vast steppes that begin just outside Mosfellsbaer. But its impact is being felt thousands of miles away. In the past two years the band has put Iceland on the map as one of the world's hottest new musical incubators. Their first album, "Agaetis Byrjun," touched off a fierce bidding war. MCA Records won and began marketing the album in the United States. It has made it onto many of the industry's most prestigious top 10 lists and prompted a steady stream of talent scouts from New York and Los Angeles. At least five other Icelandic bands have signed with major labels, and more are expected to do so. "There's always been a buzz because of [Icelandic pop star] Bjork, but it only kicked into hyperdrive when Sigur Ros hit," says Leigh Lust, a top record talent scout at Elektra Entertainment Group. "The floodgates are now open."

Whether the little island becomes the next Seattle (where scores of grunge bands were signed in the early 1990s) depends on what happens next. Sigur Ros's recent acclaim has yet to translate into massive commercial success. Record-industry executives are eagerly awaiting their second album and the impact of Columbia Records' latest Icelandic discovery, a raucous band called Quarashi. Whatever the ultimate outcome, Iceland's musical progress is already astounding--considering the country has only 280,000 residents.

So how did this remote and barren land end up on the talent scouts' radar screens? Back in 1997 an attorney for one band invited scouts to Iceland to hear his client play. "Little did we know it would become a viable music source," says Harry Poloner, vice president at EMI Music Publishing. "I knew Bjork, but it never occurred to me there would be a Bjork on every corner."

There was. In music shops, clubs and on the streets, everybody had a favorite band--if not a band of his own. It turns out that during the long winter, there isn't much else to do. "Icelandic music hardly existed 100 years ago," says Stefan Hafstein, a managing director for Edda, Iceland's largest media conglomerate. "But when Icelanders set their mind to something, they are really diligent."

What makes Icelandic music distinct is that it is so eclectic. "It's not European, not American and not Scandinavian, yet it has the influence of them all," says Poloner. Approaching the far wall of his Manhattan office, he gestures at several shelves of Icelandic CDs. "They have it all," he says. "I've got artists who you would swear are black girls from Philly."

The success of Sigur Ros has only fed local experimentation. The band has refused to make compromises that could pave the way for breakthrough success. Their songs unfold languidly and go on for as long as 10 minutes. Many are sung in Icelandic, some in a made-up language the band calls "hoplandic." "When we started to record our last album, a lot of people around us said, 'This is ridiculous', " says bassist Georg Holm. "I guess people thought the music was too odd." Record companies have asked Sigur Ros to sing in English. "But we don't want to now," says drummer Orri Pall Dyrason.

Clearly the band embodies at least one key Icelandic tradition. From the moment the Norwegian Vikings stepped ashore in the ninth century, Icelanders have cherished their independence. Not even a boatload of record executives can change that.

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