Icelandic metal band Une Misère—whose debut album, Sermon, arrives days before they perform at Icelandair’s annual Iceland Airwaves music festival—breaks down how ear-shattering music helps locals cope with weeks of darkness in winter.
It’s 1 a.m. in Reykjavík, and I look up. I don’t see breathtaking mountains, stunning waterfalls, or the Northern Lights; I see the lead singer of metal band Une Misère scaling the rickety wooden rafters in Dillon whiskey bar, wailing aggressively in a language I can’t understand at a black-clad, beer-wielding, raving Icelandic crowd.
I pause and think back on my last visit to Reykjavík, largely overshadowed by the vast natural beauty I’d experienced in the Icelandic countryside in the days prior. Then, I return to the moment, in which I’m surrounded by six-foot-tall Nords thrashing about, screaming their heads off.
This is the last thing I expected to do in the world’s most peaceful country. The music makes me feel like an animal. Yet even after the show leaves my ears ringing, I’m ravenous for more.
Metal is a genre largely misunderstood (and even feared) by many; the dark, often heavily-tattooed and pierced looks and anguished roars that define the scene can be a lot to handle. But in a place like Reykjavík, it’s a necessary outlet for creatives whose lives exist at the mercy of an environment far beyond their control.
A few hours before I’m violently slinging my hair around alongside dedicated metalheads (in this crowd of long-locked locals, I’ve never been so thankful for my sew-in weave), I head to Prikið, a local favorite also on Laugavegur, to hang out with a few members of Une Misère: guitarist Gunnar Ingi Jones, guitarist Fannar Oddsson, and drummer Benjamín Árnason.
If you see these three on stage, you’ll almost certainly jump to conclusions. With their dark fashion, serious expressions, cropped haircuts, and inked skin—not to mention the intensity of the music they play—it’s easy to assume they’d be rough around the edges.
But off stage, they’re warm, welcoming, and a riot to be around, and what is supposed to be a 30-minute conversation easily turns into two hours of chatting and laughing over drinks.
All three hail from humble hometowns (Árnason grew up in the Westfjords while Jones and Oddsson, who are cousins, come from small towns around the capital), but their days of small-town living may be numbered. Next year, they’re headed to the States for a few months—and a shift to touring larger cities and countries can determine whether Icelandic bands make it or break it.
“You can’t tour Iceland,” Jones says. “It’s four shows—four major cities in every corner of the country. And saying ‘major cities’ is a stretch. It’s more like villages.”
“There’s a ceiling for the number of people you can have in attendance,” Oddsson adds, referring to Iceland’s population of just 350,000. “It’s a comfort zone some people don’t want to leave. And that’s fine, but we don’t want to do that anymore—we want to make a career, do this professionally, and finally figure things out.”
Iceland as a whole is still figuring things out. Following a financial crisis in 2010, the social media-fueled tourism boom rocketed the island nation to international acclaim—and that acclaim holds steady, bringing in upwards of 2 million tourists each year. Reykjavík—though often a quick stop for passersby on their way to popular destinations like the Golden Circle and Vík’s black sand beach—still struggles to manage the waves of tourists rushing to Iceland’s shores.
But the country’s complications began long before the low populace, financial crisis, or influx of tourists. In truth, one of the greatest challenges Icelanders face has nothing to do with humanity—it’s all about the elements. For visitors, Iceland’s long winter nights bring more opportunities to spot the Aurora Borealis; for citizens, they bring weeks of never-ending darkness.
“It’s a very Icelandic thing to resent being stuck on this island.”
“It’s a very Icelandic thing to resent being stuck on this island. These super-long, pitch-dark winters—it’s depressing as fuck,” shares Jones. “Peak wintertime in Iceland is like three hours of sunlight. And even then it isn’t sunlight; it’s twilight.”
“A lot of people go crazy,” he continues. “We have to take measures to prepare. The normal amount of Vitamin D is like three tablets, but we sometimes take ten. We get daylight lamps, as well. Some people just stay abroad for that whole time.”
For many locals, coping means stocking up on meds and happy lights; for the wealthy, it means retreating to warmer climates. But for the city’s musicians, it means grabbing their instruments, warming up their vocals, and heading to the studio.
The Icelandic community is proud of the art it creates. While in other major cities, large populations result in a watered-down talent pool, Reykjavík’s tiny locality—just 100,000 people, a third of the country’s population—means there is next to no room for mediocrity.
“It’s a small country, small city, small scene, so you have to be genuinely good to branch out,” Árnason says.
“There are not that many people here—one out of ten will be an artist or musician,” Oddsson adds. “So there’s a quality standard you have to meet.”
Passion, too, breaks through the darkness—and in the metal community, that passion is fervent. The music, loud and angry, serves as a release for the emotions that build up all winter as artists spend their days stranded in darkness; Une Misère’s rage-tinged songs result from the difficult climate all Icelanders face each year and never quite get used to.
“If you want something to be here, you need to create it yourself.”
“We have a lot of shit to talk about that explains why we are this band: Our environment, how we grew up, and how we want to integrate our feelings and surroundings into the music,” explains Oddsson. “Some people go to a doctor; we go fucking nuts on stage.”
“It’s a survival mechanism,” concludes Jones.
And it shows. This music, dreamt up in endless twilight, has a raw energy and unbridled emotion to it one could only create in a place like this. In the face of harsh conditions, limited relations, and a lonely spot at the top of the world, metal equips bands and fans with an emotional means of survival.
“There’s a lot of isolation that comes with being here; there are a lot of things absent,” Oddsson says. “But this is why I think art, music, and creativity are all very common in Iceland: If you want something to be here, you need to create it yourself.”
Before I hit Une Misère’s show that weekend, I tell a few locals where I’m headed. More than once, I’m told how packed Reykjavík’s metal shows get and that I’m in for quite a night. They aren’t wrong: at the concert, I’m packed into a mass of bodies hollering and moshing and throwing their heads in circles.
A wild, cacophonous, uncontrollable display, I can’t imagine a sharper contrast to the tranquil fjords and waterfalls most tourists lust after. Still, caught in a sea of black and surrounded by the warlike roars of the crowd, I feel like I’m witnessing something just as vast and beautiful as the countryside.