Our reviewer Emmett Mullaney says it is the best festival on Earth and from the feast of music he describes in part one of this Iceland Airwaves festival 2013 review it’s easy to see why he loves it so much.
Show me a person who says Iceland Airwaves isn’t the best festival on Earth and I’ll show you someone who has never been to it.
Heading north for my third Airwaves in a row and my fourth trip to Iceland in total I feel that warm familiar happy glow as I step onto the Icelandair flight from Copenhagen. Currently in its 15th year of existence, Airwaves boasts nearly a thousand gigs between official shows, off venue events (which require no ticket) and random happenings that spring up along the way. Starting officially on the Wednesday but in reality on Monday with warm up shows taking place around the city I land in Keflavik airport late on Sunday night and go to bed at 1am knowing very well that this is the only time I’m going to get any semblance of normal sleep for the guts of a week.
I’m up early and while it’s cold and windy at least there’s no hurricane blowing like last year. There’s a Möller Records label showcase taking place in the rather spacious Lucky Records premises near the main bus station so off I go and get there just in time to catch the man responsible for 2011’s excellent album The Optimist, Steve Sampling.
Laying down a set of soulful tunes he paves the way for Futuregrapher aka Árni Grétar and co-founder of the aforementioned Möller Records who is accompanied by cellist Veronique as he delivers his own style of drum n bass to the decent sized crowd gathered.
The other half of Möller Records then steps up as Skurken (Jóhann Ómarsson),the man who gave us the absolutely brilliant album Gilsbakki whips up a crescendo of beats that has my foot tapping like Gene Kelly. There’s no stopping the beats then as Murya steps up and brings the funk into the equation.
Bistro Boy follows suit and I notice a lady of Asian appearance buying at least 10 CDs from him after his set.
Tanya & Marlon Pollock close the night with a nice chilled set. More about them later.
Seltjarnarnes is the destination the next afternoon to blow away the cobwebs. Cobwebs made of Thule beer that is. This is a small suburb only two miles from downtown Reykjavik but which feels a million miles away. It’s a great place to take a photo or 50 and it’s not long before a man feels tip top again and heads back into Reykjavik for some food.
A friend then tells me that there is a band in a box show happening. Not having heard of such a thing before I venture along in the spirit of trying out all things new and get in to see the band Bloodgroup setting up with three of them in a white box and two in another side by side, the idea being that two separate cameras were filming them but broadcasting it as if one was on top of the other.
They deliver a great set of their own distinctive brand of electro pop before Sign take to the stage with frontman Ragnar Zolberg on his own in one of the boxes lying down with a Flying V and the rest of the band cramped into the other box.
Jams are kicked out and hair starts flying with bone crunching riffs coming our way. This is rawk at its finest and as Ragnar gets out of his box to join the other members the crowd is lapping it up and roaring their approval. Fantastic.
It’s left to Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán or UMTBS for short to bring the party and that’s exactly what they do. How they manage not to smash their heads open bopping around to their infectious feel good synthesizer techno is beyond me. I read somewhere that they toured with a Norwegian circus once and I well believe it looking at them. It’s a really fun gig and a great way to end the night.
Springing out of bed the next morning in KEX hostel where I’m staying I go downstairs to catch more bands. Did I say springing? I meant crawling.
There’s a full program of live music here all week and this morning its Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band with their colourful outfits that are playing. I think I count 13 of them but don’t quote me on that with a bit of a hangover from the night before. Either way they bring the noise and even though it’s a brass band it all gets a bit Rage Against The Machine towards the end. Consider cobwebs well and truly blown away.
I grab a quick bit of breakfast (honestly there’s so many shows on here it’s easy to forget to eat) and walk over to Lucky Records to catch Bellstop, a three piece with some great acoustic guitar lines and strong vocals, in particular the song ‘Trouble’ and the equally good ‘Run’ from their 2013 album Karma.
Back to KEX then and I just manage to squeeze in to see Emiliana Torrini. The room is packed and I only occasionally catch glimpses of her but manage to hear the song ‘Tookah’ from this year’s album of the same name so I leave satisfied and stroll down the city centre in search of more fine music.
The real beauty of Airwaves is that everywhere is so near. It’s so easy to hop from one gig to another and while there are 11 official venues there are many more than that between the off venue events. Strolling into a bookstore where Nóra are playing I manage to make my way up the first two floors easily until I hit a wall people on the top floor. After many a sorry and excuse me I’m through the masses where I spot my friend Tracy against one side of the wall.
I haven’t seen her since last Airwaves so we take in the magnificent Nora playing songs from their outstanding albums ‘Er einhver að hlusta’ ‘& Himinbrim’. I always make a point of checking this band out every year and this year more than makes my trip worthwhile.
We make our way to the Hallgrímskirkja, a 73 metre Lutheran church where James McVinnie, Nadia Sirota, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Ben Frost & Daníel Bjarnason, all members of the Bedroom Community are gathered along with the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra. The surroundings are perfect for this type of neo-classical music and while feeling that the pipe organ was overdone a little and the piano not utilised enough we make our way over to Harpa Concert Hall with a spring in our step in time to see Sóley who gets the warm and fuzzies inside us going with her piano based songs from her magnificent album We Sink.
No need to move then as Samaris are up next with this trio darkening the atmosphere with their spooky blend of clarinet based electronica. The fact that they are so damn good and are still just teenagers would almost make you sick. I shudder to think how good they will be in a few years.
Bloodgroup wrap the night up then with the vocal duo of Sunna & Janus getting the whole place dancing and it’s off into the Icelandic night in search of booze we go.
I manage to find my way to the docks at noon to see Árstíðir, a six piece band with members playing cello, guitar, violin and piano in a folky pastoral style with lyrics in Icelandic. Announcing “We are the band that featured in that YouTube video in the train station” they launch into their first song.
The harmonies here are simply astounding and as the morning sun gleams in the window and illuminates the whole group all six members leave down their instruments and treat everyone to an accapella composition which puts a smile on the faces of the congregation gathered. If that wasn’t good enough there is free casked aged punch on the way out the door. Nice.
It’s a gorgeous day outside so I spend sometime outside taking photos and a couple of hours later I find myself in my favourite haunt in Reykjavik, Dillon Rock Bar. It’s Halloween today and the band MORÐ appear dressed like your parent’s worst nightmare complete with inverted crosses and corpse paint.
This here is death metal at 2pm and by God it’s loud. Guitar tunings lower than the depths of hell and stares from the bassist that would freeze your blood while the vocalist, covered in black paint prowls around the bar like a man possessed screaming into the faces of punters gathered, some of them drinking at the bar minding their own business. Their name means “Murder” and that’s exactly what I do to a pint right after they finish. Absolute quality.
After a lot of running around town to meet various people I stop on the footpath to watch HaZar playing in a clothes shop window dropping beats that would break glass, which is kind of prophetic as the shop front glass was indeed cracked two days later.
In need of a rest of I make my way to Harpa to see the Iceland Symphony Orchestra doing a reworking of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. It’s an hour spent relaxing before I’m back out into the madness once more and up the very front of the Reykjavik Art Museum for Sometime, a band that have a real knack for writing catchy synth based tunes, one of which ‘Decide’ get heads nodding in approval from the first few rows.
It’s a nice half hour set of feel good electro pop so the change is very apparent when I get into the Harlem venue and Subminimal is laying down his particular style of dark drum n bass. The crowd is more than up for it however and so am I for that matter.
In need of something completely different then, and at Airwaves there is always something different on offer, I go to see the Norwegian psych band Electric Eye. This four piece are all about long jams and pushing their rack of pedals to the limit. The bassline starts and weaves a hypnotic trance like rhythm while layers of otherworldly sounds are added resulting in one hell of a racket. I knew this band would be good having checked out their sounds on the internet before leaving home but I didn’t know they would be this good. Fantastic.
It’s time then for probably the best metal band in Iceland in the shape of Solstafir. The place is packed to capacity as vocalist/ guitarist Addi pushes his Flying V up to the amps to produce a long intro of feedback before Pjúddi on guitar and Svabbi on bass come crashing in along with the dreadlocked Gummi on drums.
I wasn’t actually going to attend this due to them clashing with Jagwar Ma and the fact that I had seen them twice before but any lingering doubts about this choice are soon blown clean away as a wall of sound envelops the concert hall and heads start banging. By the time they play ‘Fjara”, which was a number one hit in Iceland, the crowd are going mental.
The only complaint I could have about this is that the set was too short and the crowd obviously think so too as they roar for more at the end. We aren’t getting any more unfortunately but I am never so glad in my life that I changed my mind and went along. They are simply out of this world live.
Sprinting up the street then to catch Anna von Hausswolff I turn the corner to see a massive queue outside the old cinema where she is playing. By the time I get in she is just starting ‘Mountains Crave’ one of the songs of the year in my opinion.
The hairs stand up on the back of my neck as the Swedish songstress belts it out with gusto sitting at an organ and flanked by her band members. Echoes of Kate Bush abound and even traces of Burzum can be heard if you listen to the first couple of tracks of her magnificent album Ceremony which was quite rightly nominated for this year’s Nordic Music Prize. Her performance is utterly beautiful and I simply cannot wait for a chance to see her again.
Back out into the cold Icelandic night then and back into Harlem to see Tanya & Marlon, cousins who have been instrumental in developing the now flourishing Icelandic electronic scene. This time their set is far more up tempo than when I saw them in the record store on Monday night.
The place is packed and everyone is up for the breaks, drum n bass and various other styles they throw at us with abandon. I nearly lose my mind when they play the classic P-L-X track ‘Day One’ and by the end of their set the sweat is pouring off me. It’s a fitting end to an epic day of music in downtown Reykjavik.
Catch up with part two of Emmett’s Iceland Airwaves review this week on Louder Than War.
All words by Emmett Mullaney. You can read more from Emmett on LTW here.