It’s just before eleven in the morning and I’m sitting behind a row of wheelchair bound residents watching a disco act in an old folks home on the outskirts of Reykjavik city centre. I’m not making this up. Okay, so the band in question, Boogie Trouble have stripped it down to an acoustic set and there’s no one throwing zimmer frames to one side to break it down, but I’ve been coming to Iceland Airwaves for the past six years and this is the most surreal start to it yet. The free coffee was nice too.
What keeps me coming back? Well it definitely isn’t the weather in November. Nor is it a budget destination. This time last year 1,000 kroner was worth roughly €7. This time it’s about €8, which is the minimum you should expect to pay for a pint of beer in most places. So not what you would call value for money. This doesn’t seem to be stopping the tourist hoards arriving however, and while summer is peak season with North Face clad tourists walking down the main street, Laugavegur, missing only the crampons and ice axes, November brings music fanatics such as myself to town in search of the best sounds this country has to offer. And you don’t have to search far to find talent here. The guy serving you coffee at breakfast? He’s the front man in a doom metal band. That girl in the bank? She’s part of a hip hop collective. Even some of the politicians here are in bands.
It’s with a spring in my step then that I walk from the old folks home to The Laundromat Cafe where Hildur is playing. After seeing her play with her band Rökkurró at last year’s festival I’m delighted to be able to catch her more pop orientated solo output including the extremely catchy “I’ll Walk With You”. With nothing much catching my eye after this I go for a soak in the geothermal hot tubs at Sundhöllin, the oldest swimming pool in town and leave relaxed and hungry for more music.
Night has fallen by the time I enter the cavernous Gaukurrin bar to see black metal band Auðn. Despite being told several times how to pronounce their name by locals I still only manage something approximating an owl on ketamine. This five piece dressed in matching charcoal suits sans ties blast the ears off all and sundry to let us know that Airwaves has truly started. Crushing slabs of dropped tuned guitars rain down on the black clad masses assembled while heads bang in time to the furious blast beats emanating from the drums. It’s fantastic stuff and just the way to kick start the evening.
The next act couldn’t be more different. Up the road in an old cinema called Gamla Bio, Hinemoa are playing. The stage is bathed in a crimson glow as soothing voices and gentle strumming of guitars fill the air. Pastoral like tunes such as “Bye Bye Birdie” soon have feet tapping and bodies swaying. Leaving suitably impressed I make my way to Iðnó, a theatre and restaurant built in 1897 and nestling by the city centre lake shore. This is one of the oldest buildings in town. The band I’m here to see however are brand new, having just released their debut album “Flugufen” the previous day. Ambátt take to the stage at half past ten and what follows is like being immersed in a David Lynch film for half an hour. Spooky trumpet sounds merge with ambient passages and reverb laden guitar and I half expect to see The Man From Another Place dancing in front of me or Killer Bob peering in through the windows. Damn fine music.
I saw Kælan Mikla a few years ago when they were first starting out and was impressed enough to want to hear more. Having been told by Icelandic friends that they had changed their sound somewhat since, my interest is piqued enough to stick around in the same venue as this all female trio fill the room with darker than dark synth lines and occult goings on. Bringing to mind elements of Ladytron with a mixture of post punk, goth and poetry these ladies are a more complete unit these days. Dropped tuned meandering basslines furrow their way over and across evil synthesizer minor chords while programmed beats hammer down like sheet lightning on a winter’s night. Singer Laufey Soffía Þórsdóttir looks like she’s in a trance while delivering tales of doom and despair in Icelandic. If ever a band were suited to scoring a Nordic horror movie (take note Baltasar Kormakur) it’s Kælan Mikla. Mesmerising.
Then I’m torn between staying put for the last band or making my way back to Gaukurrin. I opt for the latter and walk up the dimly lit stairs where a wall of sound hits me in the face like a sledgehammer. After checking with somebody that this is actually the band GlerAkur I stare transfixed at the stage. Most of the music I’d heard from them online was of the ambient drone variety so I’m stunned to be greeted with two drummers and four guitarists sounding like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping across the roof. The name of the band which roughly translates as “glass field” is the project of sound designer Elvar Geir Sævarsson, whose day job is with the National Theatre of Iceland. Here each song builds into a crescendo that serves to whip up a frenzy of furious drumming and distortion laden guitars that sound like they could crumble the whole building to its foundations. Loud as all hell and absolutely brilliant stuff.
After a spot of brunch I make my way to KEX hostel where Samaris are playing. It’s standing room only here and I just about manage to squeeze in between two tables by the window which affords a magnificent view of Mt. Esja across the bay. I’ve seen this band many times but not since they released their excellent debut single from their latest album “Black Lights”. Here “Wanted 2 Say” with its building synth lines, pulsating drum n bass style beats and the wonderful voice of Jófríður Ákadóttir kick starts day two in the best possible way.
An hour later I’m in the offices of The Reykjavik Grapevine, an English language newspaper that has been around since 2003. There’s free bottles of Einstök beer on hand and a rap trio called Krakk & Spaghettí playing in one of the side rooms. As they rap exclusively in Icelandic I haven’t a clue what’s being said but it’s entertaining all the same with an almost cabaret like performance taking place among the back issues of the newspaper. The Einstök went down well too I’m told.
Over to the finest purveyors of vinyl in town then at Lucky Records to catch Thomas Kudela, a German born, Danish based pianist who records under the name Sternlumen. He treats those gathered to a fine set of neo classical brilliance including the piece, “Red Wine Melancholia” which echoes Nils Frahm in places.
It’s only a skip around the corner afterwards to Hlemmur Square hostel for a new act called Milkywhale. Consisting of Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson from FM Belfast and singer Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir it takes all of two minutes before the whole place goes bat shit crazy with Árni blasting out body popping electro grooves and Melkorka dancing on tables showing the dexterity of someone very familiar with gymnastics. These two certainly know how to work a room and the track “Invisible” with its build up and catchy chorus soon has the grinning crowd going wild. Half an hour later I’m dripping in sweat and smiling widely. They were so good that I went to see them again the next day.
Evening sees me in the plush environs of Harpa Eldborg, an 1,800 seat venue that is the centrepiece of this magnificent concert hall complex right on the waterfront. Normally this venue is not open for Airwaves but tonight The Bedroom Community record label are celebrating ten years in existence with a two hour performance showcasing the many acts on their roster backed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Ireland’s Crash Ensemble. The name of the hall which translates as “fire castle” is a sight to behold. The crimson decor which resembles the interior of a volcano gives a real warmth to the space and the views of the stage from the balcony are magnificent.
The first piece is “Tristan Da Cunha” with Nadia Sirota on viola and the composer of the piece, Paul Corley on electronics. It’s a haunting passage of music that reverberates beautifully in the full hall. There follows pieces by Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Emily Hall & Valgeir Sigurðsson plus a vocal piece by the newest addition to the label, Jodie Landau. Included are fine acoustic performances by Puzzle Muteson with “En Garde” and Sam Amidon with “I See The Sign” and “Saro”. Daníel Bjarnason completes the evening with a trilogy of pieces.
I leave Eldborg and make my way up to the front of Silfurberg, another of Harpa’s concert spaces and named after the translucent calcite crystal that is rarely found outside of Iceland. Another rarity is a band changing it’s sound as much as the next act. Fufanu started as a techno duo and are now a low down scuzzy rock powerhouse with the world at it’s feet. Many moons ago I saw them in the now defunct Faktory venue going under the name Captain Fufanu. They are totally unrecognisable from that incarnation here with the theft of a laptop containing all their masters being the catalyst for change. Currently a four piece and with techno nowhere to be seen, these lads have a swagger about them that is as infectious as the tunes they deliver. Prowling the stage with vocal volleys batted in the crowd and menacing guitar riffs filling the venue they deliver a performance only equaled by their set at last year’s festival. Powerful stuff and a band to keep both eyes on at all times.
Having just missed Throws and a hell of a gig by all accounts I get to Gamla Bio where Sin Fang is taking to the stage. Starting the set with an old song “Clangour and Flutes” he is joined onstage by four other musicians and the set consists mainly of tracks from his more guitar orientated 2013 album ” Flowers” and this year’s electronic infused opus “Spaceland”. Half an hour later I’m standing outside and considering walking home seeing as it’s 1am and officially weeknight closing time. However a text from a friend informs me that things are running late in Gaukurinn and American act Go Dark have just taken to the stage. At the venue the bouncers aren’t letting anyone in but I give them some line about my friend having my car keys and make my way up the stairs. A little bullshitting goes a long way in Iceland.
Onstage Oakland duo Crash and Doseone are decked out in black Lycra with blue, pink and yellow neon stripes and are tearing it up with tracks from both of their EP’s “Bitchsword” and “Brightwild” – both incidentally released on Halloween in subsequent years. This is electro pop at its finest and their set takes us up to almost the 2am mark. There’s something extra satisfying about partying when everywhere else has shut down. Even more so when it’s with an act as talented as Go Dark.
All words by Emmett Mullaney. More writing by Emmett on Louder Than War can be found at https://louderthanwar.com/author/emmett-mullaney/
Images by Bryce Lafoon