Sometimes, you can feel where a band is from. Agent Fresco are as untamed, graceful, momentous, dangerous and unpredictable as the land they come from. Agent Fresco are from Iceland – a country almost impossible not to be influenced by. “Living in a country that has summers of non-stop light and winters of almost complete darkness is bound to have an impact on your state of mind,” says vocalist, composer and frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson. So that’s settled.
Agent Fresco’s music is a reflection of this ever-changing landscape, with its overwhelming sense of freedom and vastness. This is a progressive Art Rock band that needs to be experienced from a few steps back to be grasped in its entirety, like a bold work of art. In the last couple of years, their iridescent, propulsive, arty and highly addictive music made the highly esteemed Reykjavik band – comprised of Arnór Dan, Þórarinn Guðnason, Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson and Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson – become the favourite of a music-loving nation and an act sparking international interest. Or, to use the words of MTV’s own Halley Bondy: “By and large one of the best bands to come out of Iceland”. And this in a country with a higher band per capita ratio than most others!
All it took was one album. A Long Time Listening, released in 2010, caused disbelieving faces, breathless wonder and bottomless enthusiasm for a passionate musical display like this. Prog Rock, Avantgarde, Metal or Alternative? Jazz, Post Rock or even Djent? The critics raved, vying with each other in a futile attempt to label these tunes from Iceland. “An amazing album by the best rock band in the country today,” was the verdict of the country’s most important national newspaper, Morgunblaðið. Even by the wide-open standards of Icelandic music Agent Fresco’s interpretation of the rock genre is unusually soulful and multi-layered, with a quicksilver rhythmic pulse and mother-of-pearl harmonies reflecting every mood colour imaginable. “There’s an incredible amount of artistic freedom in this band,” Arnór Dan states and Þórarinn adds: “The moment we stop pushing boundaries we can call it quits. I truly hope that never happens.” For Agent Fresco, the challenge is of utmost importance. The challenge to surpass oneself, to go places, to enter new territories. This is only possible by maintaining integrity, says Arnór Dan: “I truly feel like we’re creating something unique and honest while we challenge ourselves on a professional and personal level.”
An especially profound challenge lay in the concept of the first album. A Long Time Listening was centered around his father’s death. “It made me realize how monumental music can be,” he says. “It not only gave me the chance to deal with the loss of my father, it also gave me the possibility to honour his name in the best way possible.” It’s true, every single listener will experience this album in a different way, will get something else out of it. Arnór Dan is not the guy to tell straightforward stories. “I find that creating layers of imagery within the song helps the listener experience the song more uniquely and leads them to a more personal interpretation. Writing lyrics in a direct manner just never fascinated me.”
This was five years ago. Since then, two tours have led Agent Fresco through Europe, taking festivals such as Roskilde and Euroblast by storm. Their reputation for being a rare treat when heard live, an intense monster once unleashed on stage, quickly added to their prestige. “Playing live is a whole other feeling, so different from composing,” comments Þórarinn. “It’s about interpreting your own work – kind of like dancing with yourself.” This didn’t go by unnoticed as the band learned after their stunning gig at Reykjavik’s own Iceland Airwaves. “Seriously, this band is so impressive and the way the entire room sings along to their stunning Eyes Of A Cloud Catcher is a moment that’ll live long in the memory of all here,” an enthused Paul Brannigan of Kerrang Magazine wrote after seeing the band at this prestigious festival.
But the second album… well, it just wouldn’t come. A classic case of catch-22 for Arnór Dan as he again had plans to exorcise some pretty serious demons with the help of this record. “The emotional trigger for this album was a disgusting encounter with violence that I had three years ago,” he remembers. “Two guys attacked me very late one night and I was left behind with a broken eye socket, a cut to the eyebrow and a concussion. This changed me. I decided to let the anger and angst intensify and I kept them animated throughout the entire writing process to feed off of these raw emotions.”
That’s why the album is called Destrier. “A destrier (pronounced DES-treer) was a medieval warhorse, born and raised for battle. I found this to be a beautiful, mysterious and muscular companion for the songs and a perfect concept for the album.” But the events of Arnór Dan’s brutal encounter were still so close to him that he couldn’t let them go. “In hindsight, I now realize that it got a bit out of hand in the end. I almost fell victim to my own personal Stockholm Syndrome in dealing with my anger and that is what I wanted to capture in the See Hell music video.” This stunning second single, with its thoughtful, tragic images, leads into the dark world of the second album. “It’s amazing and terrifying how destructive angst and anger can be to your physical health. I constantly lost my voice, had a difficult time sleeping, experienced anxiety attacks and had a very hard time focusing during the last stages of the recording.”
At long last, the mission Destrier is accomplished, and it outstrips its predecessor almost effortlessly. The 14 new pieces of music are a cornucopia of musical atmopsheres, ideas and textures, an emotional tour de force through lightless chasms, up to the skies, leading from the darkest aspects of human existence to moments of sheer beauty. Suddenly, it is all just too clear why this album took so long: works like these are not to be written between lunch break and dinner. Agent Fresco managed to maintain the musical variety of the debut album, but stretch it even further. “I’ve tried to explore and analyze difficult emotions such has anxiety and anger while Þórarinn experimented with how harmonics and rhythms can be perceived differently by the listener.” Þórarinn’s take on it is this: “There are so many ideas that have not been explored, especially of the rhythmical kind. I’ve also been very fascinated by the harmonic series and its relationship with sound, perception and links to other aspects of music and natural sounds.” This makes Destrier his very own playground of visionary ideas.
To be precise, Destrier is a journey through every guitar-drivengenre developed before, with influences ranging from classical music to philosophy, from poetry to ancient myth, to create their very own brew of emotionally packed pieces. Rolling Stone described Agent Fresco as “an Icelandic band that somehow veered from blazing alt-guitar rock to Steely Dan-ballad piano figures and Queen stadium-gig hurrahs, often in the same song, to decisive euphoric effect.” The Music Void’s take is this: “a male version of Björk with a band coming from a Rage Against The Machine angle.” Yep, it’s in there too. But far from coming close to the core.
Destrier is proof that too many cooks do not necessarily spoil the broth. The album is conceived as a work of art, not just a mere collection of songs. “I’ve always found it natural to write and produce a record as a unified work or art,” Arnór Dan shrugs. Agent Fresco’s music is not for mere entertainment purposes, that should be clear by now. Although, to be fair, they wouldn’t mind if you’d use it so. “My music is an extremely powerful outlet for me and I believe that writing lyrics help me evolve emotionally and intellectually as a human being,” says Arnarson. “Being creative and making music simply gives me a purpose.”
– Björn Springorum
Agent Fresco are,
Arnór Dan Arnarson: vocals
Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson: drums / percussion
Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson: bass / upright bass
Þórarinn Guðnason: guitar / piano / programming