Iceland Airwaves is a festival so massive our reviewer had to tackle the review in two parts! Here’s the second installment of Emmett Mullaney’s round-up of what he calls ‘the best music festival on the face of the planet’.
I’m woken up by John Grant sound checking so decide to stroll downstairs and check him out. The place is fairly full and is packed by the time he comes on. He lives in Iceland now so is more or less a local. Playing a selection of songs from his two solo albums it’s a nice way to kick start the day.
Lucky Records is hosting a showcase of Irish artists so I grab my hat, scarf and gloves and head over there and can immediately spot every other Irish person in there without even talking to them. It’s a special skill we have – how to recognise any other Irish person abroad by sight alone. The lovely Katie Kim is playing when I get in. She has a dreamy voice, a great ear for a tune and the sun is shining. What more could you ask for?
Back downtown then to catch a band that has been playing a lot of shows around town during Airwaves but I’ve managed to miss until now- Vök. They are playing in a bar with a massive concrete pole right in front of the stage, which isn’t ideal, but the music more than makes up for the restricted view.
Sounding a little like their fellow Icelanders, Samaris, but with a saxophone instead of a clarinet their blend of downbeat electro pop finds a receptive audience here. I really enjoyed them but would like to catch them in a bigger venue next time.
Frikirkjan is a church by a pond in downtown Reykjavik that has hosted some memorable concerts over the years. Last year I saw Patrick Wolf here and the year before Dustin O’Halloran played an amazing show in the venue. This year it’s only being used for one concert and not surprisingly there is a huge queue long before headliners múm take to the stage shortly after 8pm.
They have a new album to showcase after a lengthy hiatus and ‘Smilewood’ certainly is worth the wait. It’s a brilliant album and the tracks they play off it are well suited to the hushed environs of this old church with its gleaming pipe organ and ornate windows.
I’m told later that they actually played until 10pm but I reluctantly leave at 9.15pm to attend an event organized by a friend of mine so it’s jacket on and out into the biting wind in search of black metal and stoner rock for me.
Where to start with this? I get to the Santa Karamba Mexican restaurant which has been converted into a venue for the purposes of showcasing some local metal bands and meet the organizer, Hreiðar. He tells me that everything is running late due to someone spilling beer into the amplifier and all the lights blowing.
I buy a beer and hang around chatting to some locals. I go up to get a second one and the barman tells me they have run out but that I can have tequila or vodka instead. Declining this option I venture into the darkened room hosting the bands and lean against the wall.
Next thing the barman, a burly Mexican gentleman, comes into the room, takes one look at a guy on the far side and grabs him telling him he has to leave. When the guy isn’t too inclined to comply the barman grabs him by the throat and literally drags him along the floor to the door and boots him out into the courtyard. The action doesn’t stop there however as the guy gets up and makes to come back in. A swift combination that would make Julio Caesar Chavez proud has him flat on his back seeing stars, literally.
At this stage I’m wondering if Santa Karamba isn’t the patron saint of total madness when Otto Katz Orchestra start up in the little room inside. The bar have restocked with beer so it’s all systems go as the ears are melted off everyone in the room with heavier than lead riffs and stoner rock guitar lines.
It’s a bit Kyuss meets Clutch meets Icelandic craziness all wrapped up in a deafening vortex of dropped tunings. Great stuff. It’s time for another beer after this but when I get to the bar they have run out of beer again. It’s just as well then that headliners Tundra start up so it’s back in to see them I go.
These guys are a mixture of stoner, sludge and doom and love to play loud and heavy. Long jams of bluesy riffs and pounding basslines ensue. My ears were ringing for two days after this. Brilliant.
After all that madness I get into the old cinema venue, Gamla Bio just in time to catch the man responsible for one of the albums of the year with ‘Flowers’, namely Sin Fang. The place is packed as he plays songs such as ‘Look At The Light and ‘What’s Wrong With Your Eyes’, the latter being a contender for single of the year in my book. The show is a delight from start to finish as the audience are treated to a selection of tracks from the vast songbook of this extremely talented Icelandic musician.
Hearing on the grapevine that there was a band that kicked serious ass playing at a club down the road I ventured in there just after 2am to see The Vintage Caravan in action. It took all of ten seconds for me to realise that ass kicking was this band’s bread and butter. How they get such a powerful sound from a trio is beyond me.
Meaty riffs of classic rock with thundering basslines and crashing drums they have the crowd going completely crazy from the start. Apparently they have been playing together since they were 12, and it shows. Think Budgie meets Led Zep meets early Sabbath. They signed to Nuclear Blast Records just a few weeks before Airwaves and are scheduled to play the famous Roadburn Festival in Holland next year.
Their set is high octane rock n roll from start to finish and there is hardly a person in the venue who isn’t covered in sweat and grinning from ear to ear by the end. Unbelievable.
Things start off at a fairly slow place today due to a late night/early morning drinking session involving people in Viking helmets, blonde wigs and shiny silver trousers. The less said about that the better.
In need of some soothing sounds then I squeeze my way into Eymundsson bookstore to catch the twin sisters known as Pascal Pinion. One of them, Jófríður is also in Samaris but here she takes a completely different approach along with her sister Ásthildur and brings the audience on a journey of gorgeously wrapped intimate songs with elements of lo-fi and folk using just old keyboards and acoustic guitars. You can hear a pin drop while they play ‘Somewhere’ off their last album ‘Twosomeness’. It’s like being wrapped in cotton wool.
Well, wrapped in cotton wool then, but flinging on the leather jacket just in case I walk over to the venue Iðnó right on the pond. I have great memories of this venue from last year after seeing I Break Horses there. This time I’m here to see the Faroese musician Eivør Pálsdóttir or just plain old Eivør as she is known in the Faroe Islands.
I had in fact seen her once before, at a festival on the Faroes last summer so I’m well aware of her amazing vocal range. Here, backed by her band she gives us a selection of tracks from her 2013 album ‘Room’ notably the magnificent ‘Wake Me Up’ and the magical ‘True Love’, the video for which is the best I’ve seen all year. At half an hour the only complaint I have is that the set is too short. I could easily have listened to her for another hour.
There is a lot of different bands playing around this time but there is no way in hell I’m missing Kontinuum in Amsterdam bar at 9.40pm. This is the band I’m looking forward to the most from the entire festival line up as I’d never caught them live previously but was completely blown away by their debut album ‘Earth Blood Magic’, an epic nine track masterpiece of powerhouse metal.
A few chords in and heads start banging and I just know this is going to be a special night. Songs such as ‘Moonshine’ and the nine minute long ‘Steinrunninn Skógur’ send more shivers up my spine than any Icelandic wind ever could. The word awesome is bandied about a bit too much these days but this gig is simply out of this fucking world awesome. Before this, Nine Inch Nails in Belfast had been my gig of the year. Now the title belongs to Kontinuum. Unreal.
It’s going to take some show to come anywhere near that but luckily I’ve got just the thing in mind as I make my way to the very front of the dimly lit Gamli Gaukurinn venue to see the dark electro/industrial overlords known as Legend.
Fog machines cover the stage in an eerie mist as Halldór A Björnsson and his Virus T1 synthesiser fill the air with impending doom with the opener ‘Amazon War’. Drummer Frosti Jón Runólfsson wades in minutes later as frontman Krummi Björgvinsson enters the arena covered in paint and launches into ‘Virgin’. The power of this band is simply incredible as ‘City’ and ‘Runaway Train’ follow.
In fact they are bringing out a split single with Solstafir (mentioned in part one) on Artoffact Records next month with Solstafir covering ‘Runaway Train’ and Legend covering the Solstafir song ‘Fjara’.
Waves of arpeggios rain down upon us as Björgvinsson screams the chorus into the microphone. By the time ‘Benjamite Bloodline’ is belted out the crowd have been whipped into a frenzy. It’s an amazing performance from a band that I cannot get enough of.
Their debut album ‘Fearless’ was easily the best of 2012 in my book. I cannot wait to hear what the second offering will sound like. This is how music should be played. This is real. This is Legend.
After this it doesn’t really matter what I see such was the power I’ve just witnessed from Kontinuum and Legend but I go along to see Fatima Al Qadiri in Harlem bar anyway. It’s all well and good but in reality I’m still reeling from what I just witnessed so I walk over to Harpa Concert Hall and land into Jon Hopkins in the middle of his set. I’ve seen many a gig in Harpa but this was the loudest by a country mile. When he drops ’Open Eye Signal’ I can feel my whole body vibrate. Fantastic.
The schedule for Airwaves on Sunday is always a quiet affair which is no harm whatsoever after the craziness of the previous few days. I catch Japam in the afternoon in KEX hostel and not having heard him before am pleasantly surprised and enchanted by his dreamy chillwave electronica.
I venture outside for something to eat and to do some record shopping and stop into a bar called Boston for a beer to check out the nice country tinged sounds of Elin Ey.
It’s back to KEX then for Berndsen who gives a show complete with nipple flashing and rolling around on the floor singing about science fiction while Hermigervill goes crazy on the synths. Massive fun.
When I woke up earlier I had a feeling of regret. It wasn’t about the ten pints I drank the night before though. It was because I had missed Faroese act Byrta. I’m delighted then to discover that an off venue show featuring them playing in the window of a clothes shop is starting in half an hour. I get there right before they start and get a good spot inside while a sizable crowd gather on the street outside.
This new electro pop duo featuring Guðrið Hansdóttir and Janus Rasmussen (Bloodgroup) have a real knack for writing catchy songs and ‘Loyndarmál’ and ‘Norðlýsið’ are no exceptions with excellent hooks and choruses augmented by the backing vocals of another Bloodgroup member, Sunna Margrét , Heidrik A Heygum (who has also directed music videos for both Bloodgroup, Byrta & Eivør) and a third member who I confess to knowing nothing about. It’s an absolutely brilliant set and I’m so glad I didn’t miss them this year at Airwaves after all.
The man that was going wild on the synths during Berndsen’s show is now playing his own set in KEX so it’s back there I go to find the place completely packed. I grab a chair and stand on it trying to get some sort of a view but all I can see is the odd bit of flying ginger hair as he does his thing bopping around like a madman using a Theremin and treating us to some feel good electro synth madness. Brilliant.
Time to wrap the week up once and for all then as I head over to a bar called Dolly for a party organised by some Irish people. There’s a guy called Daithí from County Clare playing tonight. I found a bunch of flyers for this the previous evening and spent half the night handing them out while drunk and offering anyone 1000 Krona if they could pronounce his name properly. Unsurprisingly none could.
The party gets stared anyway as Daithí uses a loop station to loop live fiddle parts and has a whole table full of gadgets like Kaoss pads, Ableton controllers and various other bits and bobs. It’s a miracle the whole thing isn’t knocked over as the crowd isn’t exactly sober in here. And why should they be? This is Airwaves.
This is the best music festival on the face of the planet and as the masses go wild and the beats keep dropping with fiddles wailing I’m left looking around with a huge grin on my face knowing that I will be back here next year no matter what. No. Matter. What.
All words by Emmett Mullaney.
Images by Brian James.