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Burning issue for Iceland's coolest acts

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There's something about Iceland. A few weeks ago, the two artists who really put this Arctic outpost of Northern Europe on the map, Bjork and Sigur Rós, joined forces to put on an open air concert in Reykjavik's Laugardular Park to raise awareness of urgent ecological issues.

The show, which had an audience of 30,000 people (that's 10pc of the population) was webcast by National Geographic's World Music website. It was organised to protest against heavy industry in Iceland, specifically three new aluminium smelting plants -- owned by a US-based corporation -- which they believe threatens the environment of a country that is known for the extraordinary beauty of its scenery, with its ice floes, lava and startling lunar landscape.

Conservationists say that industrialisation has already wrought havoc on the countryside, with many unique and ecologically important areas such as Kárahnjúkar suffering.

Bjork told a local newspaper in her native Iceland that she's merely doing her bit for a cause that is close to her heart. "Sigur Ros and I are neither environmental experts nor politicians, but we travel the world a lot and we have seen how far behind Iceland is in conserving our environment. I was in South America for two months and you could see all these impoverished people recycling. We need to be in the forefront."

You could argue that the world needs another finger-wagging rock star like a hole in the ozone layer. And it's not as if Bono has retired to a live a quiet life tending sheep in Killiney. The difference is that if Bjork is thinking globally, she's acting locally. When was the last time U2 organised a charity shindig in the Phoenix Park?

Writing on her website, Bjork explains: "Too often battles being fought for nature turn into something negative and into mudslinging. We will not go that way, we are not saying that this and that is forbidden; we are rather asking 'What about all these other possibilities?' The 21st century is not going to be another oil century but rather a century where we need to recycle, think green and design both power plants and our surroundings in harmony with nature."

With this in mind, Bjork is directing fans to www.naturra.com, which takes suggestions from the public regarding innovative ways to help save the environment. So the spirit is openly democratic, rather than sternly autocratic. And when you note that Iceland was recently voted the country with the best quality of life in the world, then you can understand hwo much is at stake

Special guests at the Reykjavik gig were Bjork's former Sugarcubes colleague Einar Örn, Ghostigital and Ólöf Arnalds -- all local artists. Indeed, the concert helped to highlight just how vibrant the Icelandic music scene is right now: Bjork's own extraordinary live show (who can forget her silver-sprayed forehead, multi-coloured dress and the green-robed choir) lit up last year's Electric Picnic in Stradbally, and she went down equally well when she returned to play Belfast's Odyssey.

As for her co-conspirators, Sigur Rós, they will be one of the star attractions at this year's Picnic. Their new album Me Su í Eyrum Vi Spilum Endalaust ('With a Buzz in Our Ears, We Play Endlessly') is another fine piece of work, sending no less a figure than Irish-based, Booker-winning novelist DBC Pierre into rhapsodies when he reviewed it recently for a Sunday newspaper. Their trademark ethereal sound can be mesmerising.

Their recent concert film, Heima, which features the band playing live in various remote outdoor locations, was voted the best documentary ever by the Internet Movie Database.

Also coming our way are two other Icelandic artists, both lauded for their quirky, innovative take on their respective genres. Next weekend, composer Johann Johannsson plays Grand Canal Quay in Dublin as part of the Analog Festival. Johannsson is like a Scandinavian Michael Nyman, unfurling stately, majestic orchestral music that is often built on a few simple phrases repeated with dramatic effect.

Cult indie label 4AD recently released his 2002 debut Englaborn ( 'Angels'), which followed his most recent release IBM Users Manual, which featured swooshing strings in tandem with an old archive recording of a techie computer geek explaining, well, the IBM user's manual.

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Then on August 1, left-field indie experimentalists Múm (pronounced Moom) headline the Mantua festival in Ballinagare, Co Roscommon. Famous for their quirky, animated videos Múm's most recent album, last year's Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, confirmed their status as one of Iceland's coolest bands.

But can the collective might of Iceland's pop geniuses defeat the rapacious multinationals? Possibly maybe.

Johann Johannsson plays the Analog Festival, Grand Canal Quay, this Friday; Múm play Ballinagare, Co Roscommon, on August 1; Sigur Ros play Electric Picnic on August 29.

nkelly@independent.ie


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