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17 Nov 2016

Thor’s Hammer ” From Keflavik…With Love “ CD Compilation Iceland Garage Rock Beat















Thor’s Hammer ” From Keflavik…With Love “ CD Compilation Iceland Garage Rock Beat
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Twenty of Thor’s Hammer’s 1965-1967 recordings are on this compilation, which emphasizes their mid-‘60s English-sung sessions in London. The other half is filled out by Icelandic songs and their 1967 Columbia single, as well as an outtake from the Columbia sessions, “By the Sea.” Thor’s Hammer was undoubtedly the best-known 1960s Icelandic band, which is not too useful a guide for curious consumers, as they’re likely the only Icelandic '60s band whose product has been reissued for the international market. All joking aside, this would be respectable British Invasion-styled rock no matter where it came from, though it’s not great. Certainly the best cuts are the toughest ones from their 1966 London session, where Petur Ostlund pounded the drums with a Who-like fury, and the group wrote engaging, tough mod rockers with “I Don’t Care,” “My Life,” “Better Days,” and “The Big Beat Country Dance.” “If You Knew,” which is like the hardest Merseybeat or early Hollies, is another highlight. The lighter Merseybeat-ish items are less impressive, but still reasonably fetching (though they totally lose the beat during the instrumental break of the ballad “Love Enough”). The Icelandic-sung cuts are of a lower order, because of both their more perfunctory production and more generic songwriting. The Columbia cuts are an odd, not wholly successful attempt to Americanize their sound, especially with the peppy horns. Three songs from a 1967 LP find them going into a more reflective British-pop style, with the addition of an English session man on organ. Extremely lengthy and informed notes by Alec Palao provide a history of this hitherto mysterious (to non-Icelandic residents) band…..by Richie Unterberger….. 

From Keflavík, With Love is a retrospective anthology issued in 2001 by Big Beat Records consisting of twenty songs by Thor’s Hammer (Hljómar), a 1960s garage rock and beat group from Iceland who were one of the best-known Icelandic groups during the era. Though they worked with different producers on various labels, Thor’s Hammer sound is best-typified by the tough, aggressive fuzz-drenched rockers they recorded in London for Parlophone Records in 1966, such as “I Don’t Care,” “My Life,” “Better Days,” and “The Big Beat Country Dance”, and “If You Knew”.While the lyrics to most of their songs were sung in English, several tracks were recorded in their native Icelandic, such as “Fyrsti Kossinn”, “Ef Hún Er Nálægt Mér”, and “Ertu Med”, which was covered by the Savages on their Live 'n Wild album.Some of the tracks from Thor’s Hammer’s final period in the late 1960s, such as “Stay”, show the group stretching their sound stylistically, augmenting certain arrangements with keyboards and horns.[1] At his time, Thor’s Hammer moved into a more eclectic direction, but they broke up in 1969, with several of their members going on to join the progressive rock group, Trubrot…wickipedia… 

MENTION “Icelandic music” to non-Icelanders and most people will get as far as Björk and then get stuck. This is perhaps surprising, because in the last few years Iceland, and particularly Reykjavík, have developed a reputation for being a centre of new musical enterprise, as well as earning a place on the list of established world-class tour venues. It’s well known that the Icelanders are voracious readers and prolific writers – visit any Reykjavík bookshop for proof of this – and nowadays many of them, particularly the young, are also accomplished musicians. At times it seems that just about everyone you meet plays in a band, as well as having several day jobs. Interest in Reykjavík as a cultural centre has snowballed, and several books have recently been published in the UK that between them deal comprehensively with the current musical scene there. I’m not intending to deal with the current scene in depth, given that so much has already been written about it. 

There are many good music shops in Reykjavík. The one you’ll find in all the guide books is 12 Tónar, in Skólavörðustígur, just off Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Mainly classical CDs on the upper floor, and pretty much everything else downstairs including a selection of new vinyl. You can borrow one of their CD Walkmans to listen before you buy, and with its sofas and coffee tables (and, indeed, coffee for the thirsty listener) it has to be one of the most friendly and laid-back places I’ve visited. When I went there in July 2006, there was a whole rack just inside the door dedicated to CDs by “the Casio lady”, Sigríður Níelsdóttir. This remarkable 76-year-old sings and plays her own music on a Casio keyboard in her kitchen and records it using a cassette recorder and a single microphone. The resulting CDs are necessarily very raw in sound quality, but are quite charming, very listenable, and have a spontaneity very often lacking in slick, commercial studio-produced fare. Sigríður has made nearly 50 CDs in five years, and also contributed to the soundtrack of the film Nói Albínói. I spent an enjoyable hour or so listening to a few of these discs, and came away with two: Úr Bók Sálmanna and Ljósboginn. 

Back on Laugavegur, the place to go for mainstream releases is Skífan, Iceland’s answer to Virgin or HMV, which has a huge selection of CDs by Icelandic artists. When I visited, there were hundreds of reduced-price items on the tables in the middle of the store, many of which were still at full price in the alphabetical racks. Moral: don’t buy anything at full price here until you’ve checked whether there’s a marked-down copy! There are branches of Skífan at the Kringlan and Smáralind shopping centres, both a bus ride away. Also on Laugavegur is Smekkleysa, another independent shop (and record label – it has the honour of having launched the careers of Björk and Sigur Rós). Unfortunately the shop was closed when I dropped by, so I didn’t get the chance to investigate. It’s in a basement under the Bónus supermarket. 

If you’re after traddy folk music, any of the tourist gift shops should be able to help. Perhaps the best is the one by the tourist information office, on the hill in Bankastræti. Pick a quiet time to go because the place is usually heaving. The fabbiest bookshop in town, Mál og Menning, on Laugavegur, has a good selection of CDs by popular Icelandic artists (as well as a first-rate coffee bar upstairs). 

For second-hand music, there are two excellent places on the side streets off the eastern half of Laugavegur. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of either! One is just a few metres off Laugavegur, heading uphill, and is clearly visible from the main street. There’s a huge selection of CDs and DVDs in the front part of the shop, and quite a good amount of vinyl in the back room. The other shop is off the other side of Laugavegur, going down hill, and is on the right near the bottom of the street where it joins Hverfisgata. This place is quite big, and is absolutely groaning with floor to ceiling vinyl LPs. You’ll need several hours to do it justice because hardly any of the stock is categorised or in alphabetical order! Both shops have a good-sized section of vintage LPs by Icelandic artists, but be warned that some of these can be laughably over-priced. 

Perhaps a decade ago, at the height of the resurgence of interest in 1960s pop and beat music, a lone copy of a 1966 EP by a hitherto undiscovered band, Thor’s Hammer, surfaced on the record collectors’ market. After some research, it was discovered that the group was from Iceland, one of the first beat groups in the country, and the record had been pressed in Britain for export to the then microscopic Icelandic pop market. I didn’t attempt to buy this record – in any case my budget didn’t run to the amount that its owner wanted for it! – but I made a passing mental note: Iceland, music, investigate? It was subsequently on my first visit to Iceland in 2001, while browsing through these racks of LPs by people with þ’s and ð’s in their names – people I’d never even heard of, let alone heard – that I started to develop an interest. A shopful of completely unknown records was, for me, irresistible, and after a lengthy process of elimination, I settled for a 1973 album of Icelandic folk songs called, er, Icelandic Folk Songs, by the group Þrjú Á Palli (Three on a Platform), because (a) it had a nice sleeve, (b) the sleeve-notes were translated into English and © at 1000 krónur it was probably the cheapest item in the shop. The album sounds very ‘Seekers’ – Þrjú Á Palli were two boys and a girl – and it contains a stack of delightful tunes. One of these, Lilja, was written in the 14th century and has an extremely strange melody. The story goes that this was caused accidentally, centuries ago, when a scribe misplaced some of the sharps and flats while copying the music by hand. Strange things happen in another track, Einbúavísur (Hermit songs), with the verses played in a very unusual 13/4 rhythm. 

One record down, and several thousand to go. The question then was: whither now? The books that I mentioned earlier deal almost exclusively with the current and very recent Icelandic scenes, but there didn’t seem to be any guides to the more ‘vintage’ stuff, like 1973. The answer came quite by chance, in a second-hand bookshop just off Skólavörðustígur, where I unearthed something called Poppbókin, by Jens Guðmundsson. This 1983 publication gives biographies of all the major Icelandic-language rock and pop acts up to that date. What is even better is that it lists each artist’s LP recordings and gives them a star rating. The only slight facer was that the whole thing is written, cover to cover, in Icelandic. Clearly I would have to pick up some of the lingo – but that’s another story, for another web-page. This tiny problem apart, Poppbókin was exactly what I had been looking for. I handed over a cruel, cruel amount of krónur to the book dealer, and went back to the hotel to try to make sense of some of it. 

As Thor’s Hammer were a singles band and didn’t issue any LPs at the time, they don’t get a mention in Poppbókin, but Hljómar, an earlier group name for essentially the same people, is in. The band smartly realised that there was a greater chance of international success if they sang in English, but they wanted to continue making Icelandic language records too. So it was decided that the Icelandic records would continue to be issued as by Hljómar, for the home market, whereas the Thor’s Hammer name would be used for English-language releases. 

Hljómar released a first-rate (and now very collectable) LP in 1967, on Svavar Gests’ SG label. Of its 12 tracks, seven are competent Icelandic-language covers of English-language songs, and the remainder are originals. The organ-led Miðsumarnótt, at four minutes the longest track on the album, is worth the price of admission on its own. The set was reissued on CD a few years ago, and is highly recommended listening. Poppbókin gives it four stars; I would have given it five. Hljómar are still going, and had a new CD out a couple of years back. 

As you might expect, all the Thor’s Hammer singles have been well and truly ‘discovered’ and as a result are now hideously expensive in their original form, assuming you can even track them down. Happily, all the sides have been made available on a couple of recent CDs, From Keflavík With Love and Umbarumbamba… And More. 

But, Thor’s Hammer apart, it’s perhaps folk music that travelled abroad best. Almost every tourist gift shop the world over has a stock of CDs of indigenous trad music for the visitor to take home. The quaintly-named Savanna Trio (quaint because the country is a bit short on savannas) were an all-male folk act along similar lines to Þrjú Á Palli, and date back to 1963, when they made their debut at a New Year’s Day concert in Reykjavík. They spent the year researching and rehearsing published and unpublished material, and issued their first LP, called – wait for it – Folk Songs From Iceland – in November the following year. It sold steadily for years, to tourists as much as to locals, and was by the mid-70s the top-selling album of all time in Iceland. In 1971 the second record in the series appeared, entitled, heaven help us, More Folk Songs From Iceland. It features the sound of the langspil, an ancient stringed instrument unique to the country. There’s a picture on the sleeve of someone playing one. However, perhaps the most interesting Savanna Trio release is the 1967 LP Ég Ætla Heim…,which one presumes was aimed purely at the domestic market because of the lack of English sleeve-notes. It offers Icelandic-language versions of foreign folksongs from Ireland (Butcher’s boy), Scotland (The Wee Cooper of Fife), the USA and Japan. 

Given Poppbókin’s publication date, it is perhaps not surprising that the bulk of the records covered are from the Seventies. On my travels around the music shops and the flea market – of which more later – one LP that seemed to be everywhere was Upphafið, by a group called Þokkabót (pretty untranslatable, but means something like “and all this as well”). It was evidently quite a popular release in its day, which was 1974, and the book seemed to like it enough to accord it three stars. I scored a near-mint copy from a junkshop for a piffling ISK 300 (about GBP 2.50). It was the band’s first record – the title means ‘the beginning’ – and is light, melodic harmony pop with clear folk influences. There are fabulous versions of The Owl and the Pussycat and Little Boxes, all sung in Icelandic. 

By the time their third album, Fráfærur, appeared two years later, the group had changed musical direction somewhat. The record starts with a duet for clarinet and church organ, which leads into a set of songs in a range of styles, some jazz-tinged, some rock, some choral. I’m in agreement with Poppbókin’s five stars: this LP is 70s progressive music of the first order. If you see it, buy it. The follow-up record, 1978’s Í Veruleik, isn’t bad, but nowhere near as interesting. 

Spilverk Þjóðanna were another “progressive” group from around this period. Their sound, at least on their eponymous debut LP (1975), is similar to Fráfærur, except all the words are sung in English. Lazy Daisy should have been a single, a joyful slice of folk-pop and a dead ringer for Tudor Lodge, but the stand-out track is the dreamy Of My Life. The record comes in a plain brown cardboard sleeve with a “use no hooks” symbol on it, and the eight-page pullout inside gives all the words and some photos of the band. In instrumentation and arrangement, as well as presentation, the LP is very much a child of its time. An undiscovered gem. 

Reykjavík’s long-established flea market, Kolaportið, has become a fertile hunting ground for the music collector. On my first visit five years ago, there didn’t seem to be much at all, but when I went there in July 2006 there were several dedicated second-hand record and CD stalls. Prices were considerably lower than those shops off Laugavegur. Follow your nose if you can’t find it – it’s a fish market as well, and the notorious “delicacy” hákarl (putrid shark) is sold there. 

It was at Kolaportið that I found some reasonably priced Icelandic 45rpm singles. Ævintýri, a five-piece from 1969, made an unusual choice of material for their debut 7″, the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, complete with hallelujahs – on which they were accompanied by a 15-strong subset of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The other side is more conventional, an Icelandic version of Time Is On My Side, given as Ævintýri enn gerast. It’s often difficult to guess what a song is from its translated title…. but Ég Einskis Barn Er, by Kristín Ólafsdóttir, translates literally as I’m Nobody’s Child, so there was really no excuse for me not twigging that it was a version of the theme song of Scottish duo the Alexander Brothers. Help ma boab! Face is somewhat saved by the B-side, with a good rendition of I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. Other refreshingly cheap purchases included some records by Pelican, who were another mid-70s “prog” combo, and a fairly weak 1974 single by Hljómar. However, my best find was a 4-track EP by a combo called Geislar (The Light Rays). All four songs are well worth hearing, but the lead track, Skuldir, is top-grade freakbeat, and easily up to the standard of anything by Thor’s Hammer or even Hljómar. The record came out in 1968 and was the group’s only release. 

One can only hope that Kolaportið has a future: according to a recent article in the national daily Morgunblaðið, the customs office next door is about to expand, and wants to grab the space currently occupied by the market for car parking spaces. It won’t go without a fight….by….wimvanhooste………. 

Personnel: 
Erlingur Björnsson — guitar, vocals 
Gunnar Þórðarson — guitar, vocals 
Rúnar Júlíusson — bass, vocals 
Pétur Östlund — drums 
Engilbert Jensen — drums, vocals 

Tracklist 

“If You Knew” 2:25 
“I Don’t Care” 2:43 
“Better Days” 2:41 
“By the Sea” 2:00 
“The Big Beat Country Dance” 2:00 
“Love Enough” 3:07 
“My Life” 2:21 
“A Memory” 2:39 
“Once” 3:19 
“Fyrsti Kossinn” 2:11 
“Ef Hún Er Nálægt Mér” 2:09 
“Show Me You Like Me” 3:10 
“Minningin Um Thig” 3:04 
“Ertu Med” 2:34 
“Kvöld Vid Keflavik” 2:23 
“Stay” 2:26 
“By the Sea” 2:33 
“Heyrdu Mig Góda” 2:35 
“Thu Og Ég” 3:09 
“Midsumarnótt” 4:08 

johnkatsmc5, welcome music..

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