British patriots still upset at Icelandic victory in the Cod Wars should steel themselves: the upstart islanders are at it again. This time they’re trying to muscle in on one of Britannia’s most prized assets. No, not mackerel; I refer to the national tradition of sensitive male singers with yearning voices and melancholy music – all those Nick Drakes and Chris Martins and James Blakes whose fluting tones have wafted out to beguile the world.
Ásgeir Trausti is the subarctic interloper. Only 21, with a diffident manner and flimsy beard that fail to reflect his country’s Viking origins, he released Iceland’s biggest-selling debut album ever last year. Now an English-language version has appeared, In the Silence, its lyrics translated by the US singer-songwriter and Reykjavik resident John Grant. The original Icelandic verses were written by Ásgeir’s father, a schoolteacher and self-published poet.
The show – if that’s not too demonstrative a word to use – opened with Ásgeir and a drummer, guitarist and two keyboardists obscured in a fog of dry ice, their silhouettes dimly outlined by the Union Chapel’s restrained lighting system. “Far up in the north the nights can be so dark,” the singer piped up amid the murk, acoustic guitar and politely pattering beats settling around him like a comfort blanket. The song, as Ásgeir’s tend to, faded away unobtrusively at the end.
His father’s lyrics are full of grand Nordic imagery: gods of iron, secretive forests, souls floating among the fjords. But much of the music tonight was merely nice, an impulse that reached its climax with a soothing version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, Ásgeir turning Kurt Cobain’s perverse howls into a gentle lullaby. Only the drummer’s over-enthusiastic use of the cymbals allowed a faint echo of the original’s violence.
The singer’s reserve was authentic. On the rare occasions the lighting penetrated the dry ice he could be seen standing with head bowed, looking down at his keyboards or guitar. Matters improved when the songs stirred themselves into action. The James Blakean moodiness of “Going Home” was brought to a pitch by a powerful synthesiser solo while “Torrent” built into a pounding wave of riffs, evidence of a submerged current of prog rock running through the better songs.
It was noticeable too that Ásgeir sounded better singing Icelandic lyrics than English, the guttural tones of his first language preventing his voice from disappearing off into wispy prettiness. It was consolation of a sort for British patriots.