Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters And Men. Besides having some particularly interesting artist names, Iceland, with a population of 319,000, has had its fair share of success down the years, and even coined its own genre of ‘Icelandic Pop.’ If you read that term with dismay, expecting the same old ‘intelligent pop’, do not despair as, although Retro Stefson have been often grouped with their fellow countrymen, this is entirely unrepresentative of the group’s personal style, one which is particularly eclectic in its scope of influence.
Retro Stefson, fronted by brothers Unnsteinn and Logi Stefánsson, have been making music since they were 16. Although a fair number of club-based and pop influences can be heard in the band’s output, this fact of age and early musical development goes some way to explain how a band quite so young sounds, on the whole, so mature. The album opens with Solaris, which is possibly comparable to fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós within the intro. However, this is simplistic and the track more comfortably sits with modern ambient music such as Canadian Tim Hecker’s The Piano Drop, Bonobo’s Kiara or even some of Steve Reich’s work such as Different Trains. Although the track drops into a trance riff which, along with electronica, influences much of the album, the complexities displayed within the opening passage, and their musical ambiguity, is carried on throughout the remainder, displaying a sense of maturity, intellect, and depth that has come to be expected from Icelandic musicians in recent years, whilst also juxtaposing their own unique set of catchy melodies and beats upon this underlying structure.
Glow is a highlight of the album, with a Latin-influenced percussion track that would sit quite comfortable amongst Alt-J’s output. The Icelandics somehow turn this infectious, and complex, initial rhythm into a delightfully hooky chorus that would, rather bizarrely, sit quite comfortably amongst the ’90s mainstream dance output of Kylie Minogue or even Sophie Ellis-Bextor. This is not intended as a criticism but does point to a major flaw of the album in that, beyond its sense of eclecticism and intelligent interweaving and juxtaposing of different musical styles, it’s a bit bland.
It would sit rather too comfortably on any normal, run of the mill, generic dance floor. The interesting rhythms of tracks such as the aforementioned Glow and also (o)Kami, which is also quite timbrally interesting at the outset, peter out to the same soulless tune, arguably due to poor songwriting. Lyrically at least, the album remains rather uninteresting, with lots of repeats such as the vowel ‘O’ which is used 24 times in a row at the end of one chorus in Qween.
If things were destined to get more exciting, and if there was a hope that the band would live up to their obviously huge potential, displayed in their previous two albums Kimbabwe and Montaña, later in the album these hopes are quickly quelled. The penultimate, and last, tracks Fall and Julia both star with interesting synth-led bass lines which show huge signs, and potential, for development. However, Fall sounds unfinished, the work of a teenager on a Casio keyboard, whilst Julia falls into the already well-trodden trap of not really properly evolving, with the use of the title as the only lyric in the chorus and a promised climactic ending that somehow never quite delivers.
Retro Stefson is a particularly listenable album, but it’s one that never quite delivers sonically as effectively as it does conceptually. There is a certain maturity in sound with the infusing of house beats with Latin influences and soaring melodies which, although all exciting and intriguing elements, don’t blend together as well as they should. The songwriting and musical potential of the band is infectious, with moments of genius often coming within the introductions of most of the songs. It is only once these moments have been expanded on effectively that Retro Stefson can create the astounding results they are obviously so capable of.