Pity poor Hjaltalín. The Icelandic baroque pop seven-piece are taking time out from the festival circuit to headline a couple of smaller UK shows, and Manchester has let them down. Only 25 or so people have managed to lug themselves to the Deaf Institute, but as the band stride on stage they seem not to care a jot about the paltry turn out.
Shorn of their usual brass section, Hjaltalín are straight into a bouncing version of ‘Suitcase Man’, the song given additional punch as Rebekka Bryndís’s bassoon drives it forward. Next up is a highlight from their excellent debut album, ‘Sleepdrunk Seasons’; ‘Goodbye July/Margt Að Ugga’ is simply sublime with lead singer Högni Egilsson’s rich timbre shining through the orchestral backdrop. Egilsson is resplendent; his blond mane and heavy stubble evoking the look of a Viking who has given up a life of pillaging to read Oscar Wilde – a modern day indie-pop Thor. The few audience members make a lot of noise after each song; the clapping and whooping ratio per attendee is impressively high.
Hjaltalín use the night to air a handful of new songs – particularly impressive is one going under the working title of ‘Stay With You’, which is introduced as a “love song about spontaneous moments late on a Saturday night or Sunday morning”. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. All the new stuff sounds fuller and less orchestral than much of ‘Sleepdrunk Seasons’, suggesting an intriguing change in musical direction for next year’s sophomore album.
They end with their best song – the transcendental ‘Traffic Music’. Högni and backing vocalist Sigga exchange skittering verses about “checking messages on your MySpace page” before gushing into a chorus so magical, so uplifting, that the band seem to merge into one joyous head rush. It feels like, for a moment, Hjaltalín are the best band you’ll ever see – or in Manchester’s case, the best band you couldn’t be bothered to get off your lazy arse to see.
After the gig, Högni is back out on stage with his last remaining copy of ‘Sleepdrunk Seasons’. He decides to hold an impromptu auction (“because I hear you like them in England”), and starts the bidding at 50p. When someone offers £20, Högni seems somewhat aghast (“Twenty quid? For an album? That’s too much”) before deciding that band will all sign the CD for the eventual winning bid of £25. Icelandic chamber-rock God he may be: auctioneer he is not.
Words: John Freeman