Screaming Masterpiece Review

”They have their own alphabet and great stories of their triumphs. They still record their history in songs or rhyme and carve it into rock so that these memories will be preserved unless the violent forces of nature erase them. That was from Saxo Grammaticus in the Twelfth Century AD, and what was written then about the people of Iceland could, with only a little updating of technology, still stand today. Screaming Masterpiece emphasises this continuity by moving from a soloing singing a hymn that could well be many centuries old to burst of atonal guitar playing and a wailing lead vocal – Sigur Ros, filmed live in New York.

To use some statistics the film produces an hour inn, Iceland is a country of 300,000 people and is home to ninety music schools, has 6000 choir members, 400 orchestras and marching bands and an untold number of rock bands, jazz combos and DJs. This film is stronger as a sampling – in the format of live footage plus interview – than as a historical piece, but some details of the past do emerge. Punk was big, but young Icelanders merged it with surrealism, to provide their own idiosyncratic blend. Traces of that blend can be seen in today’s musicians, including Bjork (with or without the Sugarcubes), who is interviewed at some length. Also interviewed is director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, best known for films like Cold Fever, who documented the local scene in a 1980 film, Rock in Reykjavik, extracts from which are shown.

You’d have to be of exceptionally broad taste to like all the music here, which ranges from hard rock to freeform jazz with all manner of stops in between. You can’t help thinking that the directors have selected some of the more intrinsically Icelandic music and musicians, with the result that a lot of it will sound quite strange to non-local ears. You do wonder how many bands in Iceland play European-style rock/metal, for example – even if that risks making them indistinguishable from a band from any other country. Another cavil is more to do with marketing: most of these bands, Bjork being an exception, are quite obscure outside their native country. Anyone picking up this DVD because of Damon Albarn’s and Foo Fighters’ names marked prominently on the sleeve are in for a disappointment. Albarn appears for a few seconds’ worth of interview and all we see of Foo Fighters is Dave Grohl announcing Nilfisk, their supporting band when they played Reykjavik.

Soda’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is anamorphic, in the original ratio of 1.85:1. This looks, archive footage apart, to have been shot on high-definition video, with the results you may expect – the image is stable and sharp but just a little “cold” and flat. That said, this looks much as it was clearly intended to look – and there’s very little to fault.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. As much of this film is made up of interviews, the soundtrack only really comes into its own with the live footage. This is the sort of track that impresses with its clarity rather than showy use of the surrounds. The subwoofer does its job, by filling in the bottom end of the various musical numbers. There is an alternative track, surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, but the 5.1 has the edge.

The special features begin with some additional interviews, featuring Apparat Organ Quartet, Múm, Sjón, Einar Örn Benediktsson (formerly of The Sugarcubes, now of Ghostigital) and Kjarten Sveinsson of Sigúr Ros. These play for 58 minutes in total. The individual interviews cannot be selected separately from the menu, though you can skp back or forth using the chapter button. These go into more depth than there would have been time for in the feature, and will be of considerable interest to fans of particular musicians.

Additional extras are the rather lengthy theatrical trailer (3:12), a “screaming selector” which leads you to the musician of your choice, and DVD-ROM features that were not present on the DVD-R screener I was sent to review. Also not sent was a photographic booklet. The extras are concluded by a Soda Pictures trailer reel: Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, Reconstruction and Head-On.

Ultimately this is one for the connoisseur rather than a general audience, but so be it – the extra material will make this disc attractive to that audience.

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