After seven lean years, Iceland’s melodic progressive In Siren is back with the song “Hverfum”, with a new album also in the works. The band’s first album, In Between Dreams, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim, just before the members dispersed to various places on the continent to pursue other projects. Muzyka Islandzka visited the band in its rehearsal space before its first show in 7 years and had a chat with guitarist Kjartan Baldursson and vocalist Ragnar Ólafsson over a cup of coffee.
As soon as I stepped into the local music school, where Kjartan is actually a guitar teacher, I was reminded that while In Siren can rock out the stage, there is a family bond within the band. The drummer, Kristján Einar Guðmundsson, was leaving the rehearsal in the company of his three daughters, who had just made some noise on the drums, following in the steps of their father. Next, I met three brothers, Kjartan Baldursson (guitar), Erling Baldursson (bass) and Hafliði Baldursson (guitar). So far, only Ragnar turns out not to have grown up in the same street at Hnífsdalur in the West Fjords of Iceland. Are you ready to join the prog family?
How did it start?
RÓ: In Siren is actually a pretty old band that started in 2007. In the first two years of the bands existence, we called ourselves Polymental. The music was very progressive, very hard and very fast. Basically we were five guys who were very good at our instruments and wanted to show it [laughter].
Polymental released an EP in 2008 which was co-engineered and mixed by the one and only Ólafur Arnalds. This was at the time when he was still the drummer of the metal band Celestine — not many know this but he (Ólafur Arnalds) is actually a great metal drummer. I remember sitting with him in his parents garage in Mosfellsbær when he was mixing the Polymental EP in late 2007. His solo career was taking off, and he had just released Eulogy for Evolution. Good times!
KB: After the Polymental EP came out one of the members quit and we started writing differently. Our music became more melodic and less heavy. More mature. Eventually we felt we had to change the band’s name because the direction we were taking was so different from the original Polymental sound. And so In Siren was born in the spring of 2008.
RÓ: This is around the same time as my band Árstíðir is getting started. There have always been many musical and emotional ties between these two bands, and for some time In Siren functioned as a decompression chamber for musicians who later joined Árstíðir. First one to pass through was piano virtuoso Jón Elísson, who played with In Siren for about a year before moving on to Árstíðir. When Jón quit In Siren, Karl Pestka joined on violin. Like Jón, Karl also quit In Siren eventually, but continued to play with Árstíðir for a few years. Another Árstíðir member who also occasionally performed with In Siren was Árstíðir’s first cellist Hallgrímur Jensson.
KB: I had been working and even touring internationally with both Jón and Hallgrímur in other projects even before In Siren. It’s kind of funny how it all connects.
But he doesn’t happen to be from the same street as the other guys?
RÓ: The artwork for “Hverfum” is actually the Hnífsdalur valley.
KB: This photo is taken from the garden of our childhood home. So this is the view that we were waking up to in the morning as kids.
RÓ: There are three brothers in In Siren Kjartan, Erling and Hafliði, and their childhood friend Kristján who all grew up playing together. This guy [pointing at Kjartan] turned Kristján on to drums!
KB: My brother Erling, who plays bass in In Siren, and I bought a drum kit that was absolute crap. We had one of those big Quality Street [confectionery] tin cans as a snare drum and were practising every night, making noise and making everyone mad. And there was this kid hanging outside our garage – Kristján – looking through the window and spying on us, and was espcially curious about the drum kit. We invited him to play with us and the rest is history.
I was wondering what the connection with the artwork is. What was first? The lyrics of In Between Dreams or the cover art by Hólaf [Hörður Ólafsson, bass player and vocalist in Momentum]?
RÓ: When we we’re making In Between Dreams we set out to make an epic old school progressive rock album, so of course it had to be a concept album. The band’s name is taken from the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. These god-like female creatures who sang so beautifully that every sailor that heard them would row towards their island, just to be crushed on the cliffs surrounding the island. I was intrigued by this concept of beauty and death: The most beautiful thing you’ll ever hear is also the last thing you’ll hear. Or if you will: the same force that fills you with life, is equally likely to take your life, and that’s the core concept of all In Siren’s lyrics.
We had been working on In Between Dreams for some time when first saw this particular piece of art Hólaf by coincidence and I was completely mesmerized. His uniquely surreal two meter tall drawing gave me the missing pieces of the lyrical puzzle that I needed, and so everything on the album became one big juxtaposition between this life and death concept, Greek mythology and Hólaf’s artwork.
How does it work for the next album? Is this also a concept album?
RÓ: Yes it will definitely be a concept album, and we even have an idea for it. The idea arrived readymade one day as we we’re working on new material – such is the nature of ideas! This idea will be married with our core concept where we explore the relationship between beauty and death, euphoria and darkness.
KB: And, of course, the artwork will be linked to the concept.
RÓ: In this sense our latest single “Hverfum” is the outlier since it’s the only one not married to any artwork. And, as things stand now, it’s probably the only song we’re going to make in Icelandic.
KB: “Hverfum” will not appear on any any album either. It’ll just be a single. It’s liberating sometimes to step out of your own musical box and experiment and do whatever you feel like doing. And we felt like doing this one in Icelandic.
What is it about, since not everyone understands Icelandic?
RÓ: The lyric on “Hverfum” is treading on classic In Siren’s territory. The one thing that inspires your creativity can also be what will brings you over the edge. It’s the perilous intoxicating force that makes your heart beat and makes you want to embrace life but at a high price. And in classic In Siren’s fashion this force is “embodied” by a female metaphor. Like the Sirens in the Odyssey.
It’s been seven years, and, knowing the Icelandic music scene, we can of course excuse this by the numerous projects that everyone here has, but what motivated you guys to get back together?
RÓ: In Siren went on hiatus after we released In Between Dreams in 2012. The last thing we did was to perform the entire album at a release concert at Gaukurinn. We also performed covers of favourite prog songs “The Prophet’s Song” by Queen, and “Roundabout” by Yes. It was a very ambitious gig, with all the band members, old and new, coming together on stage.
After this, I guess we felt a bit depleted. Worn out by our own ambition, so to speak. So we sort of concentrated on other projects for a few years. Also Kjartan moved to London to study and lived there for 7 years.
KB: That was one of the main reasons for this long hiatus: Living in different countries made it difficult to keep the band going. But we never stopped talking about our next move — the band never quit — and so in our minds the band has always been alive. When I decided to move back to Iceland last year, it was kind of natural to pick it up at the place where we left it.
Can you actually point out some connections to other projects that together helped shape In Siren in order to draw a picture of the music scene?
RÓ: Hehe, in typical Icelandic fashion there’s a lot of connecting points here, so prepare to become confused!
Erling and Kristján were founding members of the band Momentum: the primal Icelandic metal giants who reigned the metal scene here for about a decade, and we’re principal performers at the Eistnaflug Festival for the first 10 years. I performed as a guest on both their albums, and even toured Europe with them. Their first full-length album, Fixation, at Rest, which was actually partially recorded in my apartment around the same time we were working on In Between Dreams in there. Erling also played with Plastic Gods, together with my brother Ingólfur Ólafsson – another family connection! Kristján is now in Kontinuum. When I say that the metal scene here is one big family I mean that in both spirit and blood.
KB: Hafliði, the youngst of us brothers, is the last member to join In Siren, filling the gap left by Karl Pestka. He hasn’t really been active for a while, so he’s kind of coming back to music now. I’d obviously been in England for seven years doing mostly session work, so I wasn’t involved with one specific band. Before that, I was playing with a fusion band called Virtual Motion, so my background is very much in jazz and fusion.
When did you start working on the new album?
KB: Last December I was filling in for one of the guitar players in Kontinuum on a European tour that the band did with Sólstafir. And at sound-checks and rehearsals me and Kristján would start jamming after everyone else had left, coming up with riffs and recording them on our phones. Before we knew it, we had a whole bunch of ideas that we then presented to the rest of the guys in January. One of the first song ideas we finished was “Hverfum” and so it felt natural for us to record and release that song first.
How much does the new album differ from In Between Dreams in terms of sound?
KB: Quite a lot. The first album was written over a long period, and we had member changes during the writing process. The first ideas originate from the time when we were still Polymental. And the members that passed through the band at the time – Jón, Karl – all contributed differently to the song writing. Today’s line-up has two guitars instead of a violin or a piano, so in a way we’re stepped back to a more traditional rock band setup. That’s going to change the sound in a way, and I think the new material is going to be slightly heavier.
RÓ: The sound is still progressive but maybe less classical 70s prog.
What do you have coming up for In Siren in the future?
RÓ: We have a gig in Hard Rock Cafe on September 6th, together with our progressive friends in Future Figment and Flavor Fox. And we plan to release a few more singles this winter before we finish the next album.
KB: I can’t put my finger on the date, but it won’t be too long.
We hope that too. Takk fyrir okkur, In Siren!