It’s fair to say we’ve covered a lot of new ground this year at Soundsphere magazine, and our trip to Iceland Airwaves is no exception – it’s our first visit to the world’s northernmost capital and an amazing opportunity to get an insight into Iceland’s music scene, as well as catching some great talent from further afield while we’re at it. As the Reykjavik-based festival crams hundreds of performances into just five days, it’s physically impossible to see everything – but here’s the lowdown on what we did manage to catch…
Wednesday, October 30
We’ve only been walking the streets of Reykjavik for half an hour but already it’s clear that the festival has taken over the entire city – we see a band (Camp Keighley) playing in a shop window with a crowd gathering outside, and another (For A Minor Reflection) in a packed-out local record store. Even as we go to pick up our wristbands at Harpa there’s a performance (from Mark Steiner & His Problems) taking place on the ground floor.
After filling up with some hearty Icelandic meat soup, we head to Hallgrímskirkja to catch some of Icelandic record label Bedroom Community’s showcase there. We witness a string quintet led by Valgeir Sigurðsson play to a backdrop of thunderous processed beats and juddering bass stabs – a perfect sonic match for the cavernous, imposing space. This is the first time that Iceland’s largest church has been used in the festival’s off-venue schedule, and on this evidence it ought not to be the last.
After that, we move on to the festival schedule proper, which is already well under way at Harpa (Reykjavik’s impressive glass-fronted concert hall) and various other venues around the city. Wednesday night at Airwaves is a showcase of exclusively Icelandic talent, and we kick off in Harpa’s Silfurberg venue with singer-songwriter Sóley. Whether it be self-consciously removing a 30-year old jacket her mother gave her for the performances (“She wanted me to wear it…but I’m taking it off.”) or playfully hushing a couple of people who cheer upon hearing the serene intro to ‘Pretty Face’, she’s completely adorable. But she’s also exceedingly talented, with the breezy acoustic alt-pop of ‘Smashed Birds’ and the macabre, haunting ‘Kill The Clown’ showing off her varied abilities. She’s perhaps at her best when she meets these two styles in the middle though, as on the aforementioned ‘Pretty Face’, melancholy new number ‘Halloween’, and set-closer ‘I’ll Drown’, which features some spellbinding vocal loops.
Hotly tipped Icelandic trio Samaris are up next – they’ve already released their self-titled debut record (a compilation of two previously Iceland-only EPs) on One Little Indian this year, and on this showing seem to have plenty of new material for their forthcoming debut album proper. Whether it be a relentless four-to-the-floor thud or a more relaxed trip-hop groove, their electronica is embellished by haunting clarinet motifs and Jófríður Ákadóttir’s equally gripping vocals, making for a unique sound that very much fits the bleakly beautiful landscape of Iceland. Later in the set the band inject some pace into proceedings by re-appropriating Icelandic drum ‘n’ bass producer Subminimal’s remix of ‘Stofnar Falla’ as their own, but it’s set-closer ‘Góða Tungl’ that’s the best demonstration of their sound – its glacial two-step beats leaving plenty of space for those interweaving melodies to float around in.
Having had our fill of calm and solemnity, we decide that it’s about time to up the ante – fortunately, the organisers must have been thinking the same thing, as the evening ends with a showdown between two of Iceland’s best party-starting bands. In the red corner – Retro Stefson, whose frontman Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson bounds on to the stage and immediately engages the crowd. “I’m going to speak English tonight, does everybody understand English?” he shouts, and a roar goes up from locals and tourists alike as ‘Solaris’ gets the band’s set off to an effortlessly cool start. This is a type of music quite unlike what you might expect to come out of Iceland – sunny, infectious electro-pop that makes us forget all about the cold outside. Every track is a hit, from ‘Fall’s sultry groove and yearning vocals to the rave-like synths of ‘Time’, and Unnsteinn proves to be just as irresistible a frontman, working the crowd with consummate ease – the best moment being during ‘Qween’, when he gets the entire crowd jumping from side to side. He also takes the opportunity to showcase the talents of each of his band members during the song, and we swear that synth player and producer Hermigervill references Mr Ozio’s ‘Flat Beat’ in the process. Finishing off with the sublime ‘Glow’, Retro Stefson have well and truly laid down the gauntlet for any band following them, both tonight and at any other point during the festival.
However, in the blue corner are FM Belfast, who have no intention of being outdone. The makeup of this band is essentially one synth magician, one percussionist, and least four other people whose sole objective is to sing and dance while making sure the crowd do exactly the same. That task is made much easier by the fact that the band have the tunes to accomplish this – from the almost industrial-like throb of ‘Delorean’ to the cheesy, feel-good 80s synths of ‘I Can Feel Love’, the band make the kind of gleeful electro-pop that’s impossible not to dance to. The anarchic ‘Underwear’ gets an extended run-through as each of the band members gets a chance to strut their stuff, as well as seeing half of them discard their trousers and perform the rest of the show in their underwear, as befits the title of the song. Special mention must go to Egill Eyjólfsson, who body-pops like a man possessed and could well be Iceland’s answer to Bez from the Happy Mondays (fun fact – he’s actually a Brussels-based bureaucrat when he’s not performing with the band). An encore of the impossibly cheery earworm anthem ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Sleep Either’ ends in a gleefully chaotic fashion while paying homage to the Beastie Boys’ ‘Fight For Your Right’, ending the night on the best possible high. See this band if you get the chance, and you won’t want to go to sleep either.
Thursday, October 31
Thursday’s entertainment gets off to an unusual start, with veteran Icelandic experimental band Múm trying to start a mid-afternoon party by DJing in a fancy clothes shop called JÖR. If you’re wondering why this is occurring, it’s part of the off-venue schedule for Iceland Airwaves, which offers even more chances to catch great bands by cramming them into bars, restaurants, hostels, hotels, shops and more besides. Continuing to embrace the spirit of the idea, we hang around the shop for a couple of hours to catch Sin Fang play an all-too-short solo set using a plethora of electronic equipment – the dream-like ‘Look At The Light’ is particularly lovely – and then watch Borko play a stripped back set that has us eagerly anticipating his full band performance on Friday night.
The evening’s entertainment starts off in the main hall of Harpa – Eldborg is an impressive space, and it’s here that we take our seats for what is unquestionably one of the night’s major events. First off, The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra play Max Richter’s re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (they’re also conducted by André De Ridder, who astute Soundsphere magazine readers may recognise for his work with These New Puritans). Now, we’re not going to claim to be experts on classical music here, but this performance is pretty accessible, given that the Four Seasons is one of the most popular works of music ever written. We’d read before the performance that Richter’s recomposition discarded as much as 75% of the original source material, but he’s obviously kept all the most recognisable parts – so we still get all the drama of ‘Summer’s third movement and the celebratory pomp of ‘Autumn’s first movement, with the lead parts delivered with consummate skill by soloist Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir. It also seems that, to begin with, people aren’t quite sure how to react, perhaps (like us), not having much experience watching classical performances – which does lead to a couple of awkward silences early on, almost as if the audience is universally unsure as to whether or not it’s appropriate to applaud. But when the more familiar movements come around then applause is more readily forthcoming, and by the time that ‘Winter’s final act reaches its stirring conclusion, the standing ovation that results is well-deserved.
But as wonderful and accomplished as that performance is, it’s perhaps not the reason that people (ourselves included) were queuing up to get tickets for the Eldborg show from about 9am this morning. For the Iceland Symphony Orchestra are also accompanying Ólafur Arnalds as he plays his recent album ‘For Now I Am Winter’ in full. It’s a universally gorgeous record, and the backing of orchestra only serves to lend these pieces more power, particularly the lively classical meets two-step aesthetic of ‘Brim’ and the stirring, melancholy strains of ‘Only The Winds’. Ólafur briefly involves the crowd in the first song of the show, recording the auditorium singing an F and then using the recording during ‘Sudden Throw’. The performance also features a contribution from Arnór Dan Arnarson (of Icelandic post-rock band Agent Fresco), whose vocals bring a little something different to proceedings and are generally a welcome addition – though he could, perhaps, have stepped aside for a couple of minutes so everyone could get a good view of Ólafur playing the delicate solo piano piece ‘Words Of Amber’. Arnór’s best contribution comes on ‘Old Skin’, where his voice soars above Ólafur’s sparkling piano playing like a bird above a tranquil sea, before swelling strings and electronic beats rise up on either side. The final act of the album is also a definite high point – first ‘This Place Was A Shelter’ projects its agitated cello stabs and rising violin lines onto a backdrop of menacing electronica, before the serene, ambient ‘Carry Me Anew’ ends proceedings. Another standing ovation is in order, before Ólafur Arnalds returns to play one final solo piano piece – the beautiful and moving ‘Lag Fyrir Ömmu’ (‘Song For Grandma’). As a second standing ovation erupts amongst the audience, we feel sure that we’ve witnessed a true highlight of the festival.
We then decamp to the Reykjavik Art Museum to watch Jagwar Ma do their neo-psychedelic thing. They’re very much akin to Tame Impala (and we’re not just saying that because both bands are from Australia), and they prove to have some good tunes at times, with ‘Come Save Me’ being the obvious standout. At other points, however, everything seems to blur into one indistinct baggy haze. It’s entirely possible that this band would sound a million times better in a sunny field with a cold drink in hand, but in the here and now we remain on the fence. Or maybe it’s just because we’re a a little fatigued this evening?
Happily, Canadian three-piece METZ quickly blow all our feelings of grogginess away by starting a scuzz-rock riot back over at Harpa. Pumped up and clearly grateful to be here, they charge through a set predominantly drawn from last year’s self-titled record. From the buzzsaw guitars of ‘Dirty Shirt’ through to the ultra-agitated ‘Wet Blanket’ via the BRMC-gone-deranged riffage of ‘Headache’, it’s utterly invigorating stuff – and the crowd reciprocate the band’s energy by crowd-surfing and moshing with good-natured abandon. Of course, now we’re wide awake it’s time for bed again…
Friday, November 1st
Friday starts with us discovering our favourite new Icelandic band. We’re talking about Vök, who are playing at the KEX Hostel as part of a live broadcast for Seattle-based radio station KEXP. Despite having only emerged in February, the band already appear to have a well-realised musical aesthetic, taking the spacious, emotional music made by The xx and putting their own spin on it via a more prominent use of electronic elements and the surprisingly judicious use of a saxophone. The band currently sing in a mixture of Icelandic and English, and to be honest the English-sung tracks make us wish that we understood the rest of the lyrics. ‘Before’ and ‘Tension’ demonstrate that Vök have already developed a knack for an affecting hook – in particular, ‘Tension’s chorus of “It’s so wrong together/it’s so wrong forever” drips with forbidden lust. But there’s still something soothing about songs like ‘Ég bíð þín’ (‘I’ll Wait For You’), even if we don’t comprehend any of the words the time. It’s early days, but Vök have absolutely marked themselves out as ones to watch in the coming months.
The off venue shows continue with another visit to JÖR to catch Prins Póló – his upbeat indie rock style makes songs like ‘Tipp Topp’ and ‘Niðrá Strönd’ very engaging despite the fact we don’t really have a clue what he’s singing about. After that, because we can’t get enough of either Samaris or Retro Stefson, it only seems logical to make our way over to Slippbarinn, where both bands perform early evening sets that are every bit as good as their performances on Wednesday night. In between we’re treated to a set from synth wizard Hermigervill (also affectionally dubbed “Hamburgervill” across the pond), who is both impossibly upbeat and impressively hirsute – seriously, check out his amazing beard and flowing red locks. He plays his electronica with irresistible vigour, bouncing between synthesisers as he offers up a mix of original tunes and re-worked versions of past Icelandic pop hits. He also has some crazy skills with a theremin, his face the very picture of concentration as he deftly conjures up a melody line – though we swear he plays the instrument by swinging his hair near it at one point.
Our evening’s entertainment begins with Borko, another impressively-bearded Icelandic musician. His melodic voice is quite engrossing too, and it’s complimented by a surprisingly varied musical backdrop – from the stately, grandiose ‘Born To Be Free’ to the more ominous ‘Hold Me Now’. The set closes with the stirring, hopeful anthem ‘Sing To The World’, and it’s a wonderfully uplifting way to round off an excellent performance. After that, a mix of technical difficulties and an overly crowded venue mean that we don’t enjoy Danish electro-pop starlet MØ as much as we did when we saw her at Live At Leeds earlier this year. Sorry MØ – you’ve still got some great tunes though!
The evening’s brilliantly surreal zenith comes with Omar Souleyman‘s performance at Harpa. The mere fact that this legend of Syrian music has come to the near-freezing climes of Iceland to perform is incredible in itself, and the celebratory mood he inspires in the crowd is even more so. It’s quite possible that you’re unfamiliar with Souleyman’s output, so let us enlighten you – he performs music based on the traditional Syrian “dabke”, but replacing traditional instrumentation with keyboards and synthesisers, courtesy of long-time collaborator Rizan Sa’id. The end result is an electrifying sort of techno-folk, which simultaneously sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before while being reminiscent enough of western dance music for audiences over here to latch on to it. And the Iceland Airwaves crowd do just that, dancing, clapping and crowd-surfing along to Sa’id’s hypnotic synth hooks while Souleyman presides over the whole affair with an air that’s half benevolent uncle, half total badass. There are some awkward pauses between tracks that make us wish for a more seamless experience, but these are immediately forgotten as soon as the next thumping beat kicks in. It’s quite possible that not a single person in the crowd understands a word that he’s saying, but Omar Souleyman nevertheless manages to convey a sense of warmth and emotion through his singing – he’s worth experiencing live if you get the chance, but the recently-released full-length record ‘Wenu Wenu’ also does an excellent job of encapsulating his style.
With our original plan of catching Sin Fang’s proper headline show at Gamla Bíó thwarted by the place being absolutely packed, we’re at a bit of a loose end – so it’s time to take a punt on a venue at random, and we end up in Iðnó, a pleasant little venue on the edge of Reykjavik’s Tjörnin (which literally translates as “pond”). Norwegian songstress Carmen Villain is up first with some psychedelic desert-rock influenced soundscapes – she seems interesting in short doses but her music begins to feel a bit one-note as the set goes on. After that, we gamely try to play along with Icelandic artist Petur Ben’s moody alt-rock – we last until the point where he delivers the lyric “I hate the grooooound,” with deadly-serious angst. We later kick ourselves for missing out on Canadian rockers The Balconies, whose infectious track ‘Kill Count’ we hear being played over the PA during more than one changeover the day after. Can’t win ’em all, I suppose!
Saturday, 2nd November
Reykjavik has a surprising number of independent record stores, and we head down to one of them, Lucky Records, early on Saturday afternoon to catch Canadian band Moon King, who impress us with their fuzzy, fast-paced dream-pop vibe. Further off-venue shows give us the chance to check out a couple more Icelandic bands, both of whom are worth a listen – Hjaltalín, who are purveyors of brooding, expansive indie-rock (check out ‘Crack In A Stone’) and Rökkurró, who make sweetly-sung, electronica-tinged indie-folk (check out their latest single ‘Killing Time’).
On to the evening then, and we’re at Harpa again – we’ve heard a bit of hype surrounding Manchester-based indie band Money, so we take it upon ourselves to investigate. Their set begins with frontman Jamie Lee reciting a poem while stalking the stage in a theatrical manner – it’s an interesting if slightly odd way to make a first impression. After his bandmates join him to begin their set proper, it strikes us that they very much have a kindred spirit in Wild Beasts. Now, the fact that we’re making comparisons to that band is praise in itself, but it does leave them a high standard to live up to – and as the set draws on we can’t help but find Money slightly wanting somehow, like there’s a certain spark of inventiveness that’s not quite there yet. Our impressions of them aren’t helped by the fact that when they’re told they only have one minute left, Lee exclaims “I can think of a lot of things I could do in one minute, but not play a song.” Of course, they decide to play their last song anyway, perhaps hoping to make a big impact to justify their overrunning – but unfortunately, we’re merely left thinking that they’ve kinda wasted an extra five minutes of everyone’s time. We’re much more impressed by what we see of Ásgeir – he may be singing in Icelandic tonight (in deference to his home crowd, no doubt), but his mix of folk, rock and electro will surely translate well to UK audiences when he releases the English-language version of his album next year. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
American alt-rock stalwarts Midlake have gone through some turbulent times recently, parting ways with frontman Tim Smith at the end of last year. Still, this new chapter in the band’s history makes it as good a time as any for us (or this writer, at least) to be given an education in their music. As far as we can tell, Eric Pulido has done a good job of stepping into the role of frontman, and it’s difficult to fault their expansive indie-rock sound – though it is, perhaps, the kind of thing that we find easier to admire than to truly fall in love with. We can certainly relate to Pulido’s closing sentiment though – “we wish this moment could last forever,” he says gratefully as the band’s set draws to a close. Apply that thought to cover the whole festival and we couldn’t agree more.
There’s still more magic to come though, thanks to recent Mercury Prize nominee Jon Hopkins. He’s not only made a fantastic new album in ‘Immunity’, but he’s rapidly developing a reputation for putting on a flawless live show – and tonight’s display at Harpa lives up to that reputation. He starts by seamlessly blending ‘Breathe This Air’ with ‘We Disappear’, and the crowd are captivated from the off – but he doesn’t just want their attention, he wants them to dance. He’ll have to work a little bit harder for that – mammoth techno odyssey ‘Open Eye Signal’ provokes some more vigorous movement, and after he plays the throbbing, sensual ‘Collider’ and the euphoric ‘Light Through The Veins’ back to back the crowd are basically putty in his hands, with more and more people appearing on friends’ shoulders as the set goes on. Hopkins then continues to serve up invigorating electronica in an infectious, animated fashion, stabbing at sample pads and tweaking synths in a way that suggests that he’s one with the music – and by the end of his performance, it feels like the crowd are too.
Sunday, November 3rd
Having run around catching bands for the last four nights, we decide to take a bit of a break on Sunday to catch up on sleep a little – but there’s still time for us to see a couple more off-venue performances before tonight’s main event. First up, we return to Lucky Records to watch Danish four-piece Shiny Darkly, whose moody psych-rock atmospherics remind us of bands like The Horrors and Toy. Then we decide to drop in at the KEX Hostel one last time for another mid-afternoon rave-up with Hermigervill – because hey, why not?
However, tonight’s main draw is undoubtedly German electro pioneers Kraftwerk, whose show at Harpa prompted a huge, snaking queue to form outside the venue when the tickets were released on Friday. It’s the full 3D show too, so we stick on our goofy 3D glasses (they kinda remind us of watching ‘3D’ programs on TV as a kid…) and prepare ourselves for the performance. The visuals vary from the creepy dancing mannequins of opener ‘The Robots’ to an undulating, proto-Matrix backdrop that features during ‘Numbers’ and ‘Computer World’ – there’s even some cellos floating in space at one point, for some reason, and a cheer goes up when, after displaying satellite images of the globe, the screen zooms in on Iceland itself. It’s perhaps fortunate that the visuals are there to provide a spectacle, as the four members of the band stay mostly static behind their neon-edged podiums. Indeed it’s somehow odd to see an electronic act delivering their set with such cold, robotic precision, particularly when we’ve seen acts like Jon Hopkins, Omar Souleyman and Hermigervill perform with such warmth and humanity.
But as the set goes on, it’s clear that the music alone has the power to move us – ‘Tour De France’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ both call to mind epic journeys, while ‘Radioactivity’ manages to invoke the kind of existential dread that one might expect to feel if a nuclear disaster was looming. Don’t fret though, the band do know how to have fun (fun fun auf der Autobahn) – ‘Computer Love’ could very easily be re-purposed as an affecting modern house banger, while the closing one-two-three punch of ‘Boing Boom Tschak’, ‘Musique Non Stop’ and ‘Techno Pop’ sees Kraftwerk fully embrace their more playful side. Indeed, Eldborg does occasionally seem like a strange choice of venue – on the one hand, we’re quite happy to sit back and watch the genius unfold at times, but during songs like ‘Planet Of Visions’ we feel like we should be out of our seats and dancing like crazy. Nevertheless, after all the great electro we’ve seen over the past few days, we come away from this legendary band’s performance with a far greater appreciation of where it all began.
And with that, our time in Reykjavik rapidly approached its end. We can’t help but feel if we didn’t have to do trivial things like eat and sleep then we’d be able to squeeze even more enjoyment out of Iceland Airwaves – but nevertheless, it’s still a damn fine festival, hosted by a country with a surprisingly deep music scene.