Where to begin with this? My head is just getting back to some semblance of reality a full four days after the festival ended. Think of the craziest party you’ve ever been to and multiple it by ten and continue like that for five days straight and you’ve some idea what went on. This time last year I’d been to Airwaves three times and Iceland four times. This year it was my fourth festival and my seventh time to the land of Nordic debauchery.
I knew there would be little sleep but how little the body can handle and still function has amazed me. If scientists want to test the limits of the human body then forget about getting grants or funding just give somebody a ticket to Iceland Airwaves and watch it all unfold on Instagram. That’s providing they don’t lose their phone that is.
The festival doesn’t actually start until Wednesday but I touch down in Keflavik airport on Sunday afternoon and make my way into Reykjavik to my usual lodgings at KEX hostel where I actually manage to get a normal amount of sleep that night.
Monday sees me having the first of many soaks in Sundhöllin, the oldest public baths in the city where I run into the Canadian band Embassylights in one of the hot pots outside. Well refreshed I run into a friend that tells me there’s a protest against the government in front of parliament buildings. Certain media outlets would have you believe that because of Iceland refusing to bail out their banks that all Icelanders are living the dream untouched by the austerity that has effected many other countries in Europe. Yeah right. This particular protest is organised by Icelandic singer songwriter Svavar Knutur and as chance would have it he’s the first act I catch of the week as I stroll into the wonderful surroundings of Aurora Reykjavik the next afternoon.
What follows is a wonderful set of acoustic folk tinged tunes accompanied by a batch of funny anecdotes and jokes. A song called Girl From Vancouver follows which he says was inspired by a girl travelling across the States to see him, being drop dead gorgeous and Svavar getting embarrassed and tongue tied. Kicking himself afterwards he decided to write this song as an ode to her. A time lapse of the Northern Lights play on a big screen behind him and by the time the last note rings out we are all left with a warm fuzzy glow inside us. And this is the same guy who is trying to put it up to the government!
That night there are some bands playing in The Nordic House as part of a Greenlandic film festival and seeing as Nanook, the only Greenlandic act on the Airwaves bill have cancelled I seize the opportunity to catch one of their compatriots in the shape of Nive Nielsen and The Dear Children and am instantly glad I did. Greenlander Nive and her band dish up a heady stew of folk and ballads that have us all swaying in our seats with smiles on our faces.
Also on the bill is Samaris who I’ve seen nearly as many times as I’ve had hot dinners. Still, they never fail to impress with the eerie sound of the clarinet mixed with minimal electronics and the haunting otherworldly voice of Jófríður Ákadóttir floating over it all. It’s on to a party in town then with some friends and drinking until the wee hours before the real mayhem starts the next day.
Wednesday sees the official start of the festival with Kiasmos playing at KEX at 2pm. This particular project is a collaboration between the famous Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroese master of everything electronic Janus Rasmussen. Their recently released self titled album being one of albums of the year thus far in my book. What follows is a fine exhibition of minimal techno which ebbs and flows and gets the waterworks going in the eyes of the lady beside me. Leaving the hostel the wind brings tears to my own eyes as I make my way into The Laundromat Cafe to catch the ginger bearded maestro that is Berndsen.
Here he’s backed up by another red haired synth genius in the form of Hermigervill who I actually met in the changing room of the swimming baths earlier that morning. By now you’re probably getting the idea that it’s pretty common to run into musicians pretty much anywhere all over Reykjavik at any time of the day or night and you’d be right.
The place is pretty much full to capacity as we are treated to a full on synth extravaganza with tracks such as Planet Earth and the excellent Game of Chance. A quick leap off stage and the bearded one is dancing on the bar with his top off while the crowd goes wild. Bear in mind this is only 4pm!
The wonderful concert hall Harpa is the next stop where 1860 or as I like to call them, the Icelandic Midlake are playing. This five piece waste no time in warming up the crowd with their folk infused melodies and relaxing rhythms. A particular highlight for me is the track Go Forth off their 2013 album Artificial Daylight. They even made the front page of one of the national newspapers the next day. Next up are Lucy In Blue in the Frederiksen venue downtown and if 1860 are the Icelandic Midlake then this band who look very young are the Icelandic equivalent of Pink Floyd. There’s some nice interplay between the four members as they delve into extended jams so reminiscent of the British band that made the sound their own so many years ago.
All this trippy music has got me in the mood for some ambient tunes so there’s nowhere else to be other than atÁrni² down in the bowels of Harpa where Árni Valur and Árni Grétar are standing face to face trading sounds back and forth while a large screen behind them projects images of the ocean and waves breaking on the beach.
There’s barely a seat to be had but I manage to grab one after being ushered up off the steps by a member of staff. I take my seat just in time to let the music cascade over me while closing my eyes and sinking even deeper into the ambient nirvana. Leaving quite relaxed I’m now ready for something completely different and at Airwaves you can always be sure that there is something very different right around the corner.
Strolling into the dimly lit Gaukurinn bar around 11pm I order a drink and spot some friends. I barely have time to open my mouth to greet them when the roar of metal cuts through the air and Momentum emerge onto the stage. Now I have to admit that when doing my research I had written off this band and hadn’t intended seeing them at all. That notion was soon blown from my mind however as these purveyors of psychedelic doom metal deliver a fine performance that get all the heads in the front row banging.
After this it’s time for the main event, the main reason I’m here, the band that delivered the finest performance of 2013 anywhere not just at Airwaves in my book.
Some say they live in a cave in the deserts of Iceland and live on a steady diet of riffs and power chords. Others that they are outlaws wanted in connection with blowing the eardrums of Icelandic youths. I say that they are the best motherfucking band in Iceland right now and that they are called Kontinuum.
Here they are showcasing songs off their debut album the epic nine track long Earth Blood Magic as well as some tracks from the next album the title of which has not been revealed yet. One of these is the epic Í Huldusal which in my book is single of the year thus far. This is powerhouse metal at its finest with the quieter almost ambient passages that occur in the middle of the songs accentuating the guitars that come cashing back in like a tank coming through the walls of the club. Just like last year I’m left sweaty, deaf and grinning from ear to ear. Absolutely brilliant.
Thursday sees the day kick off in KEX where Árstíðirare playing. This is a band that knows a thing or two about melodies and create a wonderful sense of the pastoral with acoustic guitars, piano and in particular the violin and cello combining to great effect. They play a set just shy of the half hour mark and the good vibes that float throughout the room afterwards sets the tone for the day.
It’s time to visit my favourite bar in town after this. Walking into Dillon Whiskey Bar I’m taken upstairs by the sounds of loud guitars and pounding drums where a band called Brött Brekka are playing. Suitably impressed by this young trio I finished up my pint of Viking lager and head along to see the lady with the most stylish hair in Iceland.
Disa and her band are just setting up as I get there so there’s loads of time to grab a drink and get a front row spot in Bunk Bar which operates like KEX as a bar and hostel. With everything set up the band get going and the gothic electro type stylings float through the air producing songs like the excellent Stonesand new song Sculpture which sounds fantastic . However before we get to hear the excellent Sun the bar manager throws a hissy fit and insists that no more songs can be played as they are running over time. Grrrr.
Racing back over to Gaukurinn just in time to catch Polish act Stara Rzeka I’m surprised to see it’s a one man operation as having listened to the excellent albumCień chmury nad ukrytym polem I had assumed there was more than one person involved.
Here it’s the main man Mr Kuba Ziołek presiding over a table of pedals and electronic gadgets while sitting down with an electric guitar. It’s a great set that veers from ambient to almost folk like moments to death metal and back to ambient again. Great stuff.
There’s a lot of musicians involved in a lot of different bands at Airwaves and its not surprising to see the same people popping up again and again in various guises. None more so than Janus Rasmussen who I go along to see with his new project Fura.
Here he’s joined by fellow Bloodgroup bandmate Hallur Jónsson and blonde haired songstress Björt Sigfinnsdóttir. There’s a lot more guitar involved in this project than any other project I’ve seen Rasmusssen involved in and it works to great effect combined with the electro flourishes of Hallur and the beautiful haunting voice of Björt rising towards the ceiling of Iðnó, built in 1896 and making it one of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik.
There are three bands in a row I want to see back at Gaukurinn and number one on that list are Norwegian Tremoro Tarantura. Arriving just before they start and grabbing a beer the glass nearly flies out of my hand when the band take to the stage and the headbanging starts. The sheer fucking power of a song like Cameneontakes everyone by surprise with it’s slow rhythm and menacing guitars accompanied by almost industrial like vocals. I knew these guys would be good but this is fucking outrageous. Gun to the head I’d have to say they’re the highlight of the entire festival.
Dimma have been on the local scene for quite a while with four albums under their belts the first of which was released in 2005. Live they are a lot louder and heavier than on their records and in places resemble old school Iron Maiden. The crowd here are loving it as singer Stefán Jakobsson wraps the mic lead around his hand and gives a rock star performance while Ingo Geirda on guitar solos his way down the fretboard with the rhythm section of Birgir Jónsson and Silli Geirdal guiding the ship towards its course of rock Valhalla.
Time then to wrap things up for the night and who better than Canadian band Odonis Odonis to bring proceedings to a close. These Torontonians bring an industrial vibe not unlike A Place To Bury Strangers mixed with Ministry to the stage as they lash out song after song from their brilliant 2014 album Hard Boiled Soft Boiled.
Beer is spilled, heads banged, shirts torn as blast beats come out of nowhere to make everyone in the place lose their fucking shit as song after song rains down on us unmercifully. By the time the last notes of New Obsession have rang out everyone in place is looking at each other as if to say holy shit this is only day two!
Part two will be available soon.
All words by Emmett Mullaney.
Images by Bryce Lafoon.