Seafood and fish-related products have long enjoyed a stranglehold on the title of Iceland’s biggest export, but beautiful, offbeat, experimental music seems to be coming out just as fast. Among their countrymen, the members of Mï¿½m combine the airy glockenspiel grandeur of Sigur Ros and the house-y electronica of GusGus, but they manage to achieve a grandiose sound with a fraction of the members those bands have. As tends to characterize Icelandic “rock,” the focus is on texture and atmosphere rather than virtuosity, a trait found too rarely amongst talented musicians from other countries.
These Peel sessions, recorded live in studio in September 2002, display Mï¿½m between the release of its highly praised 2000 debut, Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK, and its follow-up, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, when the band lost Gyoa Valtysdottir, one of its founding members, and was operating as a trio. It’s unclear how much of the music here is preprogrammed aside from the beats and occasional washes, but it’s an astounding, seamless array of instruments packed into the twenty-one-minute, four-song set.
If you didn’t know better, you’d never know this is performed live-the sound quality is as pristine as the performance. After opening with a combination of songs, “Scratched Bicycle/Smell Memory,” the band dips into an unmistakably Tortoise vibe on “Awake on a Train,” a plinking digital melody line vaulting around a reedy synth and faintly hummed vocals. The beats are complex and fairly static over the first half the song, until a zippy tweak distorts the groove into a mellower vein. The ethereal vocals in “Now There Is That Fear Again” float above a glitchy beat that sounds like a collection of lighters snapping shut in a dizzy rhythm, while an accordion drones a haunting melodic bed for a delicate string line.
The set closes with the unearthly “The Ballad of the Broken String,” off Yesterday Was Dramatic, a spare, breathy accordion drone and mournful harmonium accompanied by rattling noise. It completes the dramatic stylistic shifts of the set by touting another facet of Mï¿½m’s diversity. After showing off its accomplishments as dynamic beat programmers, complicated vocal harmonies and mastery of an eclectic range of instruments, the closing dirge stands out for its quiet simplicity.
There are probably better places to start with Mï¿½m, because the brevity of this live set as an official release borders on the outrageous for all but the most dedicated completist. But as for stirring up interest in the band’s new album, due later this year, and showcasing the musicianship of one of Iceland’s finest bands, mission accomplished.