The sun makes an appearance on day three of Iceland Airwaves as I saunter up to Kex hostel to see Moji & The Midnight Sons. Featuring two live members of dark electronic act Legend, the five piece led by singer Moji Abiola dole out a hefty dollop of bluesy rock and roll to blow any booze cobwebs away. That’s the thing about Airwaves – no matter how messed up you get the night before, all it takes is just one good band, a smile and a nod at those you met the previous day and maybe a little hair of the dog. Then you’re as good as new and ready to go again.
The pints are flowing for happy hour when I enter the bar known as Boston on the main street. Pink Street Boys, featuring what looks like a younger version of Brent Hinds from Mastodon on vocals blast out a sonic boom of garage rock that is as raw around the edges as some of those nursing hangovers at the bar. It’s fantastically loud and in complete contrast to the next gig with singer songwriter Soley playing in a small cafe on the edge of town. The place is absolutely packed to the rafters and the only reason I manage to get in is because I decided to get there early to catch Milkywhale beforehand. Even now I can’t actually see her and there is a sizable crowd out on the street gazing in the large glass windows. The former member of Seabear gives us half an hour of delicate yet heart warming indie folk compositions as the sun goes down over Reykjavík.
That evening I find myself in Harpa Eldborg to see múm & The Kronos Quartet. The show is divided into three parts with a selection of songs from múm kicking things off. After this the band depart and San Francisco’s famous quartet take to the stage. The final section sees both playing together but by this time I’m in a nearby venue checking out Reykjavíkurdætur. The daughters of Reykjavik is the English translation of their name and they are a sixteen strong all female rap outfit that took the festival by storm last year. Having missed out on the opportunity to catch them then I make amends this time around. One member of the group works the decks while the rest, looking radiant in dresses of various different colours strut across the stage delivering rhymes of female empowerment that raise cheers from the up for it audience. It’s certainly a unique experience and massive fun.
It’s about this time that I notice something amiss. For a while I can’t put my finger on it and then it hits me – the crowds, or lack thereof. Usually the Wednesday of Iceland Airwaves is fairly quiet but by Thursday and most definitely Friday there is a noticeable increase in punters. Tonight however Harpa is half empty and the queue up the stairs, which is normally an ever present feature, is non-existent. Very few rooms in the concert hall are full with the notable exception of electronic act Kiasmos who as always pull a big crowd with Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroese music maestro Janus Rasmussen dishing out a healthy serving of minimal techno with a stunning backdrop of 3D visuals.
Still, it’s a strange feeling wandering around so freely and I spend some time dipping in and out of gigs with nothing really catching my fancy. Taking a chance I end up at US hardcore act Show Me The Body. I’m a little late to the party and only manage to catch the last ten minutes but there’s a distinct energy about them that has my eyes glued to the stage. This is also reflected in the mosh pit that has formed up front. This is their last gig of a four month tour and they put everything into it and depart the scene to shouts of approval and a sea of raised fists. Powerful stuff.
Feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the previous day I decide to resist the temptation to dive headfirst into a plethora of gigs straight away and instead take the opportunity to visit a swimming pool on the edge of town. Vesturbæjarlaug has a fine selection of outdoor geothermal hot pots and it’s in one of these that myself and photographer Bryce soak our weary bones and discuss the festival so far. Having never been here before I notice that it seems like a more local affair than the city centre pool, Sundhöllin, and even spot actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson of “Trapped” and “Everest” fame in a nearby tub. Thoroughly refreshed, we take a drive out to Seltjarnarnes, a suburb of Reykjavík but with a real countryside feel to it. There’s also a hidden hot pot here camouflaged among the rocks. We cap the afternoon off at the local flea market and manage to grab some fish and chips in a nearby restaurant before night descends once again.
It’s just after 5pm by the time I arrive at Hlemmur Square hostel for an off venue show by Berndsen. The ginger bearded one is in fine fettle as I squeeze my way through the crowd for a better vantage point. A trip back to the 80’s ensues with analogue sounding synths, bouncy basslines and catchy choruses filling the room coming together on the excellent “Gimme Gimme” which has the audience shouting the refrain and grinning like loons. Massive fun.
There’s no need to go anywhere else afterwards as another red haired genius is next up. This time it’s Hermigervill who cranks it up to party mode. There’s no better man for that job as his own distinctive brand of theremin infused synth pop floats out from the speakers and lodges itself in our brain pleasure centres. A new track called “Solitaire” with it’s 808 kick drum and uplifting arpeggios almost makes me feel like this is a club at 6am rather than a hostel at 6pm. Utterly brilliant.
Up to Boston then on the main street where Faroese musician and filmmaker Heidrik is playing with his band. Showcasing tracks from his latest album “Funeral” the bar feels like a café during World War Two. Old time swing fills the room and I half expect to be handed a dossier full of secret army bases or have a damsel in distress fall into my arms. No such luck however as I leave and am faced with the 21st century on the street once again.
NASA is an institution in Reykjavík and has hosted some iconic concerts ever since it opened its doors in 2001. I have fond memories of seeing Canadian Rich Aucoin literally crowd surfing with a surfboard there plus awesome live performances by Bloodgroup and Operators among others. The sad news is that the club is now closed and as I write this builders are busy tearing the insides out of what was once the heart of Reykjavík nightlife. For anyone who is familiar with the city’s policy of building hotels on every corner to cater for the tourist boom this will come as no great surprise. The iconic Faktory suffered the same fate a few years ago. If this keeps up then pretty soon there will be a whole bunch of nice swanky hotels for tourists to stay in but nowhere to catch live music and meet the locals. A classic case of shooting yourself in the foot if I ever I saw one.
I have one last chance at entering its doors however so I grasp the opportunity with both hands and go along to see Thorunn Antonia. Sporting a glittering grey jumpsuit and backed by our friend from earlier on, Berndsen, she produces an uplifting set of sparkling pop songs that serve as a fitting finale to such a great venue.
Germany’s Warm Graves take to the stage in Gamla Bio bathed under a canopy of azure light and launch into a selection of tracks from their debut album “Ships Will Come”. Their particular brand of dreamy shoegaze reminds me a little of Swedish act I Break Horses and finds a receptive audience here as do Slow Down Molasses in Gaukurinn who echo Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth in places.
Having watched the excellent documentary “The Punk Syndrome” about four Finnish punk musicians with intellectual disabilities I’m delighted to be able to catch them next. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät deal with the issues that matter on tracks such as “Coffee” and blast out edgy riffs and distortion infused power chords while the raspy vocals of Kari Aalto add the necessary punk rawness. The Gaukurinn crowd lap up every minute of it and so do I. Great stuff.
If there was one act I was looking forward to seeing during Iceland Airwaves it was Canadian act Doomsquad. I had their Bella Union album “Total Time” on repeat for weeks before I got to Iceland. Getting to the venue Hurra nice and early then I snag myself a spot to the front right of the stage. The band which formed in 2010 and consists of siblings Allie, Trevor and Jaclyn Blumas plus the Hasko twins, Josh and Jesse, are only playing one show during the entire festival and there’s no way I’m missing it. The five piece take to the stage at half past midnight and by 12.31 my mind has been blown to smithereens. Featuring drums, extra live percussion, guitars and a very large array of synths Doomsquad hit the gas from the off with an astounding palette of sounds that take in everything from world music to electro to psychedelia and everything in between. It’s almost as if Swedish band Goat had their guitars taken away and were locked in a room with just a few synths and a sheet of blotter acid. “It’s The Nail That Counts, Not The Rope” which reminds me of Finnish band K-X-P is a highlight with it’s 4/4 beat, ascending bassline and trance like invocations. By the time they depart the stage I’m left gobsmacked. I doubt a word in the English language exists to describe how good they are. Fan for life right here.
The last day of Iceland Airwaves is always a very chilled affair with the schedule slimmed way down to give us all a breather. Early afternoon sees me at KEX hostel which is not crowded for once where Subminimal is treating those gathered to a drum n bass set and finishes with an excellent Samaris remix of “Stofnar Falla”. Hexagon Eye up afterwards brings it back down to a lazy Sunday with just occasional clinking of glasses from the bar mingling with soothing ambient passages.
For some reason this puts me in the mood for cheesecake so I go on the hunt for said dessert until sated, I find myself at Loft hostel to catch a trio from Bellingham, Washington called The Living Arrows. The band, which have a total of nine shows during Airwaves are proving very elusive thus far. Mainly due to the fact that they have so many gigs I keep saying ah sure I’ll get the next one. It’s the last chance saloon today however at this event, organised by Sofar Sounds Reykjavik who booked them on the strength of their busking skills on the streets of the Icelandic capital. Lilting harmonies combine with dreamy saxophone soundscapes to deliver a very uplifting form of folk pop that makes me very glad I finally managed to catch them.
Most of the action this evening is taking place in the massive Valshollin, home of the sports club Valur and about a twenty minute walk from the city centre. On the way there I decide to duck into Friðarhús, an anti-war café and community space. I’m here to see Italian singer songwriter Blindur. Settling into a chair at the back I put my feet up while he treats those gathered to a fine set of acoustic driven songs sung in Italian. He’s joined on violin by the lovely Carla and as my Italian is a little rusty Blindur gives us the background to his songs in English before playing them. Delightful.
Entering the massive sports hall I make my way upstairs where Icelandic act Hatari are on stage. Dressed like something out of Mad Max with the drummer sporting a leather studded mask, the other two members emerge from a sea of dry ice rigged out in some kind of military uniforms. A snare drum laden with reverb and delay echoes around the room before the sound of dark electronic industrial comes crashing in. Lord Humungus on drums does his thing while the contrast between the other two couldn’t be more different. One sings in an almost falsetto type voice and is bounding around the stage like a man possessed. His uniformed band mate however stands perfectly still, looking like an assassin sent from the future, and barks out lyrics in a distorted growl. This is totally different to anything else I saw at Airwaves and absolutely brilliant. Ones to watch for sure.
Downstairs in the main hall most of the crowd have yet to arrive but American Kevin Morby and band manage to warm up those gathered. By the time Icelandic act Mammút are on stage the place has filled up considerably. Showcasing a bunch of brand new songs singer Katrína Mogensen succeeds in winning over the crowd with their own style of guitar driven indie rock. Headlining tonight is PJ Harvey who arrives on stage with a whole host of musicians decked out like a marching band. The first hour is spent delivering tracks from “Let England Shake” and “The Hope Six Demolition Project” but I sneak away with a good half an hour left in her set as I want to finish the festival in Gaukurinn.
One final hurrah in my favourite venue in Reykjavik then as Hórmónar arrive on stage and proceed to dive headfirst in a furious set of balls out punk rock. Brynhildur Karlsdottir looks like she was born for the role of front woman while Urdur and Katrin on bass and guitar respectively kick out the jams in spectacular style.The two male members of the group, drummer Orn and Hjalti on sax steer this armada of sound on its course toward sonic Valhalla. Any regrets about leaving PJ Harvey are instantly banished from my brain. Outstanding, and a great way to wrap up another year at Iceland Airwaves.
All words by Emmett Mullaney. More writing by Emmett on Louder Than War can be found here.
Images by Bryce Lafoon : www.brycelafoonphotography.com