Photography by David Stevens
Review by Amanda Stevens
Shepherd’s Bush Empire 26/11/14
A second wave of Icelandic music is hitting our shore following the success of the formidable Sigur Rós and pioneering Björk back in the late Nineties / Early Noughties. Expectations were high for relative newcomer Ásgeir playing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Wednesday 26th November; so I went to see what all this fuss was about…
At 7:30, when the first support took to the stage there was a cosy crowd. Tenterhook, the 19 year old singer-songwriter from nearby Notting Hill, made a gallant attempt to warm up the rather cold crowd. Tenterhook’s sound is built on minimal guitar with strong falsetto vocals, and whilst the in-vogue, go-to sound of many emerging artists of the moment, Tenterhook (Archie, to his friends) performs his crowd pleasers ‘Stereo‘ and ‘Blackfire‘ with a passion and heart far beyond his 19 years, and soars to high notes which would rival that of Jeff Buckley.
The pace picked up when Lay Low hit the stage at 8:15. Lovisa, the English born Icelandic singer, really charmed the audience with her interludes. A more established band and sound, with hits such as ‘The Backbone’, Lay Low mix elements of country, blues and folk effortlessly, which explains their rise to Scandinavian success in the mid-Noughties. Lovisa’s voice is beautiful and smooth – with a depth that has to be heard in person to be fully appreciated. Lay Low’s set list was varied, consisting of upbeat tunes interspersed with slower, rockier songs that teetered on the edge of dropping into something heavier.
By 9:15, when Ásgeir promptly took to the stage, the venue was full with a mixture of Icelandic diehard fans and experimental locals. Ásgeir has had his popular album ‘Dýrð í dauðaþögn’ (‘In the Silence’) translated this year, with the help of John Grant. My concerns that the translated songs may lose impact were unfounded; English translations were interspersed with original Icelandic versions and popular songs such as ‘Kings and Cross’ were performed in both languages so the audience could fully appreciate both.
Ásgeir impressively and elegantly transitioned from complex arrangements supported by a nine-piece band (including three-piece brass ensemble, a sound reminiscent to tracks on the wonderful ‘Michigan’ by Sufjan Stevens), to playing acoustic solo numbers, to electro and synth-heavy pieces. Rather than clashing, each song created a new mood and atmosphere under a cohesive canopy; proof of the eclectic style and talent of 22-year old Ásgeir.
For such well-crafted songs, Ásgeir is refreshingly accessible, and I challenge anyone to hear the title track of ‘In the Silence’ and not be humming the infectious melody for the rest of the day. That said, Ásgeir never molly coddles the audience; in songs such as the commanding ‘Torrent’ he keeps them on their toes with unexpected tempo shifts and syncopated riffs. A simple graphical projection and effective lighting evolved throughout the set and complimented the songs, with ‘Harmony’ culminating in a strobe show to rival any rave in the capital.
It is no surprise then, to hear that apparently 1 in 10 households in Iceland now own Ásgeir’s album. Having experienced the performance on Wednesday, this is a real testament to the progressive musical taste and creative gems emerging from our Nordic neighbours. I have no doubt that Ásgeir will soon outgrow these smaller intimate venues, so seem him up close whilst you can.