Iceland Airwaves Festival â live review Pt 2
31st October â 4th November 2012
Missed Pt 1 – catch up HERE
It’s Saturday morning – well, early afternoon if we’re being honest – and Reykjavik is recovering from two days of storm-force winds. The temperature outside is about five degrees C. And I’m half standing, half floating, up to my neck in a lake, trying to dance to techno. As you do.
The lake in question being, of course, The Blue Lagoon – a geothermally heated spa in a lava field in GrindavÃk 45 minutes south-west of the city centre, whose waters hover around a warm and cosy 38 degrees C and are packed with salts and silica and algae that are meant to be good for your skin and hair; it’s one of Iceland’s most visited tourist attractions, but today it belongs to us. “We” being a select few attendees of the Iceland Airwaves festival, three days into a five day live music bender and most with some fairly heavy hangovers to shake off after Friday’s demented-even-for-Iceland weather meant most of us spent much of the day indoors watching bands and drinking. And now we’re mostly submerged what’s basically a thick, warm salt-bath while some of Reykjavik’s most renowned DJs provide the sounds from the poolside.
When the tickets for “Blue Lagoon Chill” went onsale to people who already had festival tickets I just thought “that looks bloody insane” and snapped some up – perhaps as well, as it sells out quickly every year. And it is bloody insane. I can’t even describe what it feels like being in there; swimming in it is like trying to navigate very salty treacle, and any part of your body not immersed in the warm water is at the mercy of the icy air; I spot one person in a balaclava. They’ve probably been here before. It goes well beyond the scale of surrealness.
Anyway, some more Icelandic bandsâ¦
Brilliant and slightly manic electro-acoustic art-pop chamber music, again part of that amazing afternoon in the cinema foyer. Against the backdrop of a violin and cello duo, the focus of Snake Cult is one ÃÃ³rir (“Thor”) Bogason, who apparently grew up in California before moving back to his homeland to make wildly eclectic and psychedelic music. An almost elfin looking boy, he plays guitar, synth, autoharp or just dances about as if nobody’s watching and sings in a lovely reverbed half whisper.
Hailing from various parts of the wild, rocky southern coast of the island this young five-piece have chosen for their musical direction not glacial post-rock or unsettling black metal, but an 80s-inspired sound that hovers (mostly) just the right side of the cheese line, largely via that kind of gloomy synthy pop Nordic types do so well. Some of them also have beards they must have started growing as soon as they hit puberty. They were actually the first full set we caught on the opening Wednesday of the festival, when they played out the back of the central Hresso bar, in an oddly reversed scenario in which the audience were under cover (a marquee type thing) but the stage wasn’t. In true 80s style they even whipped out a sax player for their last song…
Two long haired metal kids and two who look like hardcore punks, they melted the insides of our ears late one night in the Amsterdam bar. Like a young Mudhoney regurgitating gravel. In a good way.
One of the great things about Airwaves is that most of the Icelandic bands do a few sets throughout the festival, maybe one or two at the bigger wristband venues and a few at the fringe places.
By the time we actually caught up with this local Reykjavik four-piece – at the third of their five shows – we’d been trying to see them for a couple of days and things kept getting in the way. What we eventually get is hazy shoegaze indie, with Ride-like guitars topped with My Bloody Valentine boy-girl vocals, and the fact that they seem to suffer all manner of technical gremlins doesn’t detract from the fact that they are every bot as good as all those American bands currently whacking up their effects pedals to great critical acclaim.
Dark and threatening as the weather outside, Plastic Gods make sludge doom rock with titles like “80 Pounds of Shit” and “Zero Tolerance”. Yet another hit from the flawless Bio Paradiso cinema line-up (it’s a good job the weather was too horrible to venture outside that afternoon actually, as we wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of them) they recall in roughly equal measure Dylan Carlson’s Earth and the more brooding atmospheric end of Nordic black metal; tectonically slow and heavy (one of the guitarists is even sat down) and fronted by a Viking Kurt Cobain lookalike with a growl so low the local whales are probably heading inland as we speak to mate with him.
You’d be forgven for thinking all Icelandic bands operate in genres we in other countries would consider “alternative” (though when your country’s best known musical exports are Bjork and Sigur RÃ³s and everyone seems to be in at least two bands of different genres there doesn’t really appear to be any of the stupid arbitrary boundaries between alternative and mainstream that British and American music fans get so hung up on) – well here’s a out-and-out unashamed pop act. They’re also the first Icelandic band we’ve seen all week who aren’t 100 per cent white northern European, hyper-enthusiastic lead singer Unnsteinn Manuel StefÃ¡nsson and his bassist brother Logi Pedro StefÃ¡nsson’s names giving a hint at their heritage: born in Portugal to Angolan and Icelandic parents, apparently. And they are massively, enormously popular, in much the way boy-bands are in the UK (Unnstein getting more than a few screams as he stalks the stagefront in his sharp suit) – we’ve caught them at what’s probably not one of their favourite shows ever, though. It’s the night before the massive storm, but the wind’s already getting up and the poor sods are booked to play an outdoor stage whose tarpaulin “walls” are only just holding – and their equipment’s having a strop leaving band members and crowd alike with an increasingly shivery twenty-minute delay. When the seven-piece do get going though it’s full-on party time – a mix of Vampire Weekend-esque Afro-indie, funk, soul and a bit of ska that sees kids dancing on their parents’ shoulders, teenagers snapping away on camera phones and shoppers wandering off the main street to join in the fun. We soon forget how bloody cold it is too, thanks to the magnetic Unnstein getting us all to jump, jump, jump – even if Logi and keyboard player ÃorbjÃ¶rg Roach GunnarsdÃ³ttir somewhat impressively manage to keep their gloves on throughout. I guess they may have had some practice.
Better known outside Iceland for his production work (including Bjork, Bonnie Prince Billy, Maps, and more recently Feist) SigurÃ°sson is also a composer and musician in his own right; his performance Architecture of Loss (his third album in his own right, the score for a ballet) with just a couple of collaborators in the beautiful IÃ°nÃ³ makes for a much-needed calm around the half-way point of that Friday in which I somehow managed to see 14 bands.
OK, I’ll come clean: I’ve never been sure about Sigur RÃ³s. Always considered them a bit too nice, kind of “My First Post-Rock”, a gateway drug for Coldplay fans: they make some nice noises but I can’t say (though I own a couple of albums) I listen to them that much at home. But we weren’t going to miss this: it’s Sunday night and Iceland Airwaves is winding down after five days with this special show at the new LaugardalshÃ¶ll Arena, where the country’s citizen-led constitutional reform took place in 2010 and on the site where Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in the legendary Cold War thriller chess match of 1972. Now arena gigs the world over suffer from the indisputible fact that it’s really diiifcult to create much of an atmosphere in what’s basically a big sports hall, and the fact that the band eventually start their set over an hour after their published time (which may of course not have been their fault) doesn’t help – but they rise to and above the challenge. A career-spanning set played out in front of (and sometimes behind) huge projections and a stunning lightshow ends with a brand new track called “Brennisteinn” which is something of a surprise departure from what anyone was expecting (especially considering the quiet near-ambient nature of their most recent album “Valtari”). This video doesn’t really capture the atmosphere of being in the middle of it with lasers going off everywhere (not that clips of live shows on Youtube ever do really)… but take it from me, it was fucking immense.
Ostensibly a metal band, and not afraid to stand three in a row each with the same foot on the monitors, SkÃ¡lmÃ¶ld are the total antithesis of the boring heavy fretwank blues-rock that gives Metal a band name to this day so far as many mainstream, indie and even punk music fans are concerned. Performing in the none-more-black surroundings of the Harpa Nordurljos they’re loud, menacing, invigorating and utterly brilliant. Their name means “Age Of Swords” (a reference to the bloody and violent Age of the Sturlungs, AD1220-1264, when various different Icelandic clans fought for supremacy) and they describe themselves as a a Viking / folk metal band. Their songs are as epic as the Sagas that inspired them, powered by Black Metal thunder and the singer’s deathly growl but packed with intricate and catchy melodies where guitars twist around the upbeat riffs of the Mohicaned keyboard player, and a kind of Balkanesque folk vibe.
“After a long day on the beer there’s nothing I like more than a good spanner solo” – random Irish bloke watching StafrÃ¦nn HÃ¡kon in the Amsterdam bar, sometime after midnight on the opening day of the festival. There is indeed spanner-on-guitar action as the band who effectively pre-dated the shoegaze revival by a good few years or were a bit late for the original era (mainstay Ãlafur Josephsson started making music as StafrÃ¦nn HÃ¡kon in 1999) do what they do best. Big swirly quiet-loud things with loads of fuzz and reverb, mainly.
A sometime member of Jonsi from Sigur RÃ³s’s solo-project band, this slight, shy-looking looking young man creates some of the most intense abstract ambient-drone music I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly not “ambient” as in quiet, more as in, well, densely layered, unsettling and based on sonic textures as opposed to tunes and rhythms. Performing with a woodwind section and guitarist in the seated theatre venue in the Harpa complex, it’s like he’s pulling sound from the air and twisting it into new shapes. Apparently he’s recently signed a record deal with Western Vinyl and is set ro release his debut album early next year: Fans of Tim Hecker et al should take note, there’s a new kid on the block and he is seriously talented.
Guessing (correctly) that Ãlfur might be quite a popular draw here, we got into the venue early – this was the first night and we didn’t want to leave anything to chance, not that we ever found ourselves having to queue for any venues all week, although some of the high profile visiting acts such as The Vaccines and Patrick Wolf saw lock-outs, as did some of the trendier venues later on.
Our reward was some pretty, haunting folk with dreampop influences performed by a very friendly young band who charmed everyone by chatting away in English a lot better than theys eemed to think it was. And a lot better than my Icelandic, certainly.
THE REST OF AIRWAVES
We did manage to see a few non-Icelandic artists along the way – though actually not that many. Ambient composer PAUL CORLEY, gothy electrogazers EXITMUSIC and Texan purveyors of big epic indie SHEARWATER variously did the American flag proud (hipster-friendly Brooklyn band DIIV were less interesting, lacking the basic requirements of any sort of tune despite a nice Cure-ish guitar sound), whilst Swedish shoegazers I BREAK HORSES played a brilliant set to a packed-out IÃ°nÃ³ (just before DIIV, actually. If you’re going to be average don’t go onstage after someone great). As far as I can recall the only English artist we caught was about three songs of JAMIE N. COMMONS, in between other stuff, who’s a remarkable talent with a blues growl well beyond his 23 years, if not really my thing so we didn’t stick around.
A special mention however needs to be made of two young people who had come a very long way indeed to share their music with us: Alex Ward and Ross James. She (Alex) works under the name MOON HOLIDAYÂ doing really lovely solo electronic pop that’s lush and a little bit haunting, whilst he calls himself LANTERNSÂ and his is a bit edgier with some James Blake type vocal manipulation, though elsewhere he’s more electrogaze. They both hail from Sydney, Australia, over ten thousand miles away by any route and about as far as you could travel without actually leaving the planet. They’ve been brought over by Sydney’s alternative radio station FBi Radio which also broadcasts online (well worth bookmarking if you do internet radio); they did play one night in the Harpa concert hall but we caught them doing a fringe showcase in the cinema bar where the fact that the audience numbered about twelve (the cinema being some way from the main hub of venues) actually made for a really nice friendly atmosphere.
Will we go again? Damn right. Certainly not every year and probably not not next year – the place isn’t as expensive as its reputation, and main festival sponsor Icelandair does some very reasonable flight-hotel-festival packages which is how we did it, but it’s still a week and a bit off work and a few hundred quid. I’d go every year if I could. Would I recommend it? Well if you’re an indie fan who only likes indie bands, or a punk who just does punk, or a metaller who won’t countenance anything that’s not metal, or ineed one of those people who only likes to see bands they know they already like or at least have heard of, then don’t bother, there are festivals for you and this isn’t one of them. If however you love music including bits of all of the above and every other genre you can think of, you like weird landscapes, and don’t mind there being a lot of weather (though very little rain, which after the summer the UK’s had this year was nice) then it’s one hell of a holiday.