Iceland Airwaves Festival – live review Pt 1
Reykjavik
31st October – 4th November 2012

My first visit to Iceland, and I can honestly say I was blown away. Literally. One evening, up by Reykjavik harbour, a sharp gust made a sail of the back of my coat and for a second or two I was but a passenger flying directly and terrifyingly towards a dual carriageway. (This admittedly would have been considerably more terrifying were it not for the fact that outside of a “rush hour” roughly akin to that of a village back home, there’s rarely much in the way of traffic there. Safely back on my feet, had to admit it was quite a buzz actually.)

The next day there was chaos – again, in the literal sense – on the streets: the now 63mph wind was attempting to dislodge the roof from an apartment block in the middle of the capital’s busiest road. The crane sent to hold it on was still there three days later. Allegedly the temperature was somewhere around zero degrees C – not exactly extreme for a northern English person with a big coat – but this was like no zero degrees I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t even like the minus fifteen of a Norwegian winter night that once froze our breath as we exhaled it. No, this wind came at us relentlessly, at ferocious speed and loaded with Arctic ice, stopping only to change direction at random so you may find yourself blown back into the lamp-post you were just clinging to. But you know what? You can keep your fortnight on the Costa, this is what I do for a holiday.

Iceland became a popular destination a few years ago and it’s easy to see why – from the lavafields of Keflavik to the bubbling geysers at Geysir (yep, that’s where they got their name, though Geysir itself doesn’t go off any more, leaving the tourist-friendly every-eight-minutes-or-so eruptions to its neighbour Strokkur), the rip in the landscape where continental plates are pulling apart to the cool independent cafes and gourmet restaurants of downtown Reykjavik – but to the music fan it’s long been known as a tiny country that punches well above its weight. Bjork and Sigur Ros might be the big names, but for a country with a population of about 300,000 (that’s roughly the same as Coventry, and rather more isolated) it produces a hell of a lot of bands.

Iceland Airwaves was born in 1999 as a single showcase event in a hangar at Reykjavík Airport, and has grown into one of the essential city events on the global new music calendar, holding its own alongside SXSW and outliving (it seems) In The City. These days it operates as a wristband access festival across around ten core venues including a church, some delightfully sweaty little clubs and various rooms at the shiny and massive new Harpa conference and event centre on the harbourfront, but there are at least twice as many official (and a few more unofficial) fringe venues: pubs, cafes, hostel and hotel lobbies, a bookshop, the arthouse cinema and makeshift tents between buildings which are open to everyone, free of charge, wristband or not. So you might find yourself dancing to electropop under a tarpaulin alongside a local family with their kids, or drinking coffee in the cinema foyer while a black metal band rattle the windows. Music seems to take over the whole city from around midday til the not-so-early hours of the next morning, for five whole days. I’ve been meaning to go for years…

“So who’s playing?”
“Erm… I’m not really sure…”

Had this conversation a few times in the days before heading out. My answer’s not strictly true: I know Swans are playing (actually they don’t, in the end, their flight falling foul of the US’s own extreme weather event Hurricane Sandy – when we discover this we are hugely disappointed, though by the time they should have been on we’ve seen so many great bands we don’t miss them); the immensely talented Olafur Arnalds; a couple of Icelandic bands I caught at the Airwaves promo show at Brighton’s Great Escape back in May; while the UK appears to be represented by Ghostpoet and The Vaccines. Sigur Ros, meanwhile, play a separate show (with discount tickets for festival-goers) on the final day, their first homeland gig in four years. About 80 per cent of the bands on the bill are Icelandic, and many of their names are unknown to me. I like it that way. These were some of them, in strictly alphabetical order only. There will be more bands whose names start with letters after H in part two…

APPARAT ORGAN QUARTET 

Not to be confused with the German electronica bloke Apparat (Sascha Ring) nor his “Apparat Band”, they’re actually closer to (a male, Icelandic version of) Sisters Of Transistors. There’s a Farfisa Compact onstage (the greatest sounding vintage organ that ever was, ask Y Niwl or Clint Boon) along with various other stuff that looks like it’s been dredged from secondhand shops and lovingly restored. When I say onstage, I actually mean at one end of the beautiful upper-floor cafe-bar area in KEX Hostel whose large windows provide a stunning view of Reykjavik harbour; it’s Thursday afternoon and the place is in the hands of (rather appropriately) Seattle’s KEXP Radio who are broadcasting live online to the world. The band eschew modern sampling and computer-based electronics in favour of Silver Apples-style oscillator boxes and hand-played old keyboards, creating glorious retro-futuristic krautybleepypsychpoprock. I declare them favourite new band of the day at the time, though there may be more before the day’s out.

ÓLAFUR ARNALDS

Also at that KEX/KEXP session: a rather informal audience with the young multi-instrumentalist who’s probably one of the country’s best known musical exports following a string of releases on the wonderful Erased Tapes label. Despite starting his musical journey in hardcore bands, these days the floppy-fringed 26-year-old creates searching, dramatic compositions that blur the lines between post-rock, modern classical and ambient and often include electronic elements. He’s playing piano today, though, accompanied by a couple of string players, and you’d be forgiven for thinking as you gaze out across the bay to the unforgiving icy cliffs on the far side that his inspiration comes directly from his homeland’s unique geography. And you’d be wrong, at least some of the time: as he explains: one particular track was a commission for a TV advert for bathtubs which was supposed to be a generous payday, except the bathtub company didn’t like it, but remains a tune inspired by, well, plumbing. Like his friend and labelmate Nils Frahm he’s bringing classical-flavoured music to people and venues that wouldn’t normally consider it and in a manner that’s closer to that of an indie band. Oh, and he’s also got an equally talented cousin…

ÓLÖF ARNALDS

Late Wednesday afternoon in the foyer of Reykjavik Downtown Hostel, the place is rammed (there have been a couple of acts on already) and it’s snowing horizontally outside. She walks straight into the space that’s serving as a stage, before realising her fingers are so cold from walking across town with her guitar that she can’t actually play it just yet… when she does, though, it’s something very special.

I really need to stop telling people I’m not into “one man/woman plus acoustic guitar” acts as I keep finding exceptions: I guess the glut of ex-lead-singers from old bands that seem to have been plodding and strumming their mouldering ex-hits around the UK these past few years was off-putting but there’s a world of difference when the songs were actually crafted to be played like this. Ólöf’s voice is unique: sometimes childlike in the way the young Bjork could be, sometimes fragile, sometimes belting out like an early 20th century music-hall starlet; her songs meanwhile are beguiling as they are entertaining. It’s a lovely intimate session with a singer we will see again, three days and a great many bands later, in the lakeside Art Deco theatre Iðnó where it works equally well.

BÁRUJÁRN

The day all that weather happened (Friday) we ended up holed up in the cinema for the entire afternoon, watching six bands all of completely different genres and all great, and like the hostel gigs mentioned already this was an “off venue” (free to all) show. “Our band name means corrugated iron, which has been flying around Reykjavik all day just as we have” explains the singer and we like them already; they turn out to be really dark surf pop, like a harder Y Niwl only with vocals as well. The vocals are in Icelandic, though singer Syndri makes sure we visitors aren’t left out of the loop when it comes to their subject matter: “This is about a young couple who have killed their parents and go fucking in the woods” – brilliant stuff!

BLOODGROUP

A great mix of rather cold, Germanic sounding electronic pop with warm female vocals; really good at the live performance side too. Fans of (especially current line-up) Section 25 should check them out.

DREAM CENTRAL STATION

It’s ten past two on Friday night / Saturday morning; the Þýski Barinn Deutsche Bar has half emptied following a popular set by rabble-rousing if rather average local indie-rockers Reykjavik! (yes, that was their name, imaginative eh?) – and it’s shoegaze time! Male singer Hashi was a veteran of briefly-nearly-famous indie rock’n’roll teens Jakobinarina and of Singapore Sling (whom I once described in a festival review as “doing BRMC doing JAMC pretty well”), while female singer Elsa Maria was in a band called The Go-Go Darkness about whom I know no more than we can guess from the name. They, along with four other blokes, make gorgeous 1991-flavoured sounds with the ethereal qualities of Slowdive and the fucked-up power of Spacemen 3. Expect to hear a lot more from them, they have international psychedelia-fest band written all over them

FOR A MINOR REFLECTION

Yep, it’s basically textbook instrumental post-rock of the quiet-loud, swoop-and-soar guitar pile-up kind, but then Iceland had a fairly big hand in writing said textbook.

I love this sort of thing and they do it very well; they’re in the second biggest hall (Nordurljos) of the Harpa centre and its sleek dark modernist architecture, massive sound system and spotlights and dry ice against the pitch blackness of the room serve them perfectly.

GOOD MOON DEER

Another of the eclectic delights of that afternoon in the cinema foyer, this duo do glitchy electronics with live drums and sound a bit like Manchester’s own (adopted sons, anyway) Ghosting Season. (One of whom is, coincidentally, also taking his holiday at Airwaves, although I don’t actually see him all week).

HAM

Insane. And legendary. Bjork once claimed they were her favourite band. They once split up and said they would only reform if Rammstein played in Iceland and they could support – and (in 2001) they did. These days they perform only sporadically (as Ham anyway, a couple of them are in Apparat Organ Quartet and others are or have been in bands called things like Bleeding Volcano and Dr Spock) which is possibly why the absolutely packed Nordurljos hall is going absolutely crackers and chanting their name like a rally (it is quite easy, I suppose, even for us foreigners). Less musical performance, more complete and utter brain-rewiring, they do very dramatic semi-Wagnerian prog-metal weirdcore led by a mad man dressed in yellow who shouts things like “That song was about friendship. The next song is also about friendship… AND HATE!!” between songs.

HEFLARNIR

Late one night in a venue called Amsterdam that feels like it’s been transplanted from Manchester’s Northern Quarter circa 2000, we find the truly bizarre Heflarnir, three men well past their youth doing baroque 80s melodrama pop with gloriously cheesy keyboards. You just would not get this at a British hipster-friendly festival. I love the fact that here nobody seems to give a fuck about the rules the rest of the developed world has for music.

HJALMAR

One of two native reggae bands we managed to see. Yes, Icelandic reggae exists. The other lot (Ojba Rasta, who weren’t quite as good) even had a blond dreadhead; these don’t, though there are a number of beards in evidence. Our first experience of Hjalmar is at the KEX/KEXP hostel show where we love their deep dub bass and guest spot from sometime Warp Records artist, Finnish saxophonist Jimi Tenor. We catch them again a couple of nights later in the Harpa’s biggest, Academy-sized hall and the atmosphere is bordering in the tropical party, except with huge piles of heavy coats and scarves and hats all over the floor… Seriously good though.

HJALTALIN

One of the few bands on this list I had seen before, as they have brought their seven-piece baroque indie/post-rock (think early Arcade Fire) to the UK a couple of times: this is very different, though. After the day of bands in the cinema foyer we move into one of the screen sooms where Hjaltalin are performing, fully live, their soundtrack score for “Days Of Gray”. An otherwise silent film set in some desolate and unforgiving post-apocalyptic landscape, in which venturing outside means wearing a protective face mask and the few survivors seem to have reverted to an Amish-like existence; against this backdrop a young boy meets a girl with facial disfigurations and gradually discovers the unsettling truth about their society. The cinematography is stunning – large parts of the island look pretty post-apocalyptic anyway – and Hjaltalin’s delicate score enhances it all. This isn’t a soundtracking in the way other bands such as British Sea Power, 65daysofstatic and others have done, working to an old film; Hjaltalin’s music actually is the soundtrack, and as such I can highly recommend the film even without them playing it live.

HOLLOW VEINS

Well nobody’s going to challenge them under Trade Descriptions. A really, really incompetent (or drunk, or both) low-budget Suicide with no tunes and a weirdly overpowering smell of Vicks VaporRub. This is not a euphemism or drug reference, by the way. No, actual Vicks VaporRub. Heroically rubbish. I enjoy them immensely.

Join me in part two for some Viking metal, ambient drone, funky pop, a couple of visiting Australians and the world’s most surreal DJ club…

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