Iceland has a special allure. The island is alone in the North Atlantic but upon touching down in the country, you get the sense it is unique in more ways than its geographical position. Sure you’ve heard about its most famous cultural exports: Sigur Ros, and Iceland’s most famous musician Björk. Not a day goes by without a mention or a spotting of the lady herself while in Reykjavík. Despite cancelling shows for the remainder of the year including Iceland Airwaves, Björk gave a press conference during the festival to call for action to stop the destruction of the Icelandic highlands (petition here).
Iceland is idiosyncratic. At just over 300,000 inhabitants, the music is topsy turvy in this part of the world with alternative/rap/rock and folk seemingly more dominant than mainstream pop.
The country teaches music throughout primary and secondary school, meaning there are lot of music-educated people in the country. All that musical knowledge is felt at Airwaves with what felt like 150 bands from the country playing the festival.
Adding to the mystique of the country and the festival, is the adventurous young landscape that gives us jutting volcanic rock, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, black ash beaches, mossy green ground and geothermal volcanic water that gives magical tourist attractions like the Blue Lagoon and a culture of naturally-heated public pools that the entire population use almost daily. Its wonder isn’t confined to the ground either, as the the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis were spotted in the sky on our last night. It all adds to the uniqueness of the Airwaves adventure.
Three things people enthusing about Iceland maybe didn’t tell you? Post-crash and on the way up, the country is an expensive place to stay once again. Secondly, the hot water smells like sulphur, that rotten egg smell which is a surprise jolt to receive in your first morning shower. Thirdly, the Icelandic love rap. Those hard Icelandic vowels lend themselves to it. Which leads us to…
The Daughters of Reykjavík
The Icelandic love rap. You couldn’t escape it at Airwaves. Like many other places reappropriating the American cultural force, much of it copies the source. The few rappers I saw were pretty standard.Yet overall, the Icelandic bands had an equal amount of women as men (the country has a history of a strong women’s equality movement) and it was like a refreshing glimpse into a hopeful future.
It was most evident when I encountered The Daughters of Reykjavik aka Reykjavíkurdætur (1).
Reykjavíkurdætur, who I saw three times at the festival, embody that feeling. They are all-female rap group formed from girls-only rap nights, who take to the stage with between 11 and 22 rappers depending on whether they’re all available (one gig saw a rapper do the first song then make excuses and leave for work). Their collective performance was the pinnacle of this idea. Here were a wild collective of Icelandic ladies with fierce attitudes, unapologetic demeanours, distinct personalities, styles and flows; united in sisterhood by rap.
They rap in Icelandic so the content of much of their lyrics are unknown though at Airwaves the songs were about social networks, slutshaming and a song in English, that you wish you were left guessing, about the joys of get a finger up the ass.
“Daughters of Reykjavík / On dark nights / We own this town / Listen to the lioness words,” they sing in Icelandic on the chorus of their eponymous manifesto song ‘Reykjavíkurdætur’. With the lyrics obfuscated by a language not understood, live, it’s the individual characters of the performers that draw you in.
With so many rappers, the quality can vary throughout the verses but the unique energy and spectacle was more than enough to keep us coming back over the course of the week. With so many members of varying commitments, each show was different. Reykjavíkurdætur may remain an Icelandic concern due to logistics and the cost of bringing so many people on tour but for those who witnessed them for the first time, they empowering to watch, female or male. There was talk of the Daughters Of Dublin being formed as a direct result of their shows.
More on them from Grapevine.
My own experiences with Icelandic music other than Reykjavíkurdætur didn’t have a great hit rate. While I didn’t get to see Fufanu, Soley, Tonik Ensemble, Milkywhale, Mr. Silla and countless others on my list, I did enjoy a set from Samaris’ Jófríður (2) and her band who all drank tea and chilled us out off-venue at the Alda Hotel on Friday, as well as a small slice of the Austra-style electro-pop of East Of My Youth (3).
Much of the Airwaves action takes place in Harpa, Reykjavik’s recently-built architecturally-impressive luxurious concert hall on the docks, which is where I see an Icelandic band singing about a thing I travelled to see the day before – a waterfall. Iceland’s biggest new band, if the crowd in Harpa, is anything to go by, is Vök (4). It’s hard not to be impressed at first, the band’s glacial electronic moody pop takes advantage of Harpa’s great soundsystem and the band’s stylistic monochrome live-captured visuals is perfectly pitched to their mood. The xx-style ambiance is a natural fit to Iceland’s own vistas, but their icy electronics soon give way to a a lower quality that basically boils down to flimsier songs and too much wailing reverbed sax. When in doubt, do not just keep playing that saxophone.
Kiasmos (5), the electronic project of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, know the power of minimalism. Their cinematic electronic music has a neo-classical and contemporary sensibility that moves in small shades and gradual dynamics. Matched by sumptuous visuals that might be graded and mirrored Icelandic tourist videos, Kiasmos in Harpa is a high-definition event. The next morning at the geothermal public pool at Vesturbæjarlaug, Arnalds is seen relaxing in the naturally-heated hot tubs. That’s just how Icelanders roll and one of the nice things about Airwaves, fitting into the local’s leisure time.
Ever since I first saw Sophie (6), the male producer at SXSW in 2014, the hyperactive, pinging electronic pop music he’s been making has been crowded by peers in PC Music who aren’t as captivating or take the music too far into art project territory. People were unimpressed at the fake energy-drink branded QT show in Nasa where she pressed play on a CD/USB and stood there as if it was an art project like this. Thankfully, my check in with Sophie proves he’s a cut above the rest in the same venue later that night. That’s because Sophie’s music has its own sonic imprint even if it impressively sounds like a mashup between Daft Punk, Michael Jackson, Dutch hardstyle and the Chipmunks. It takes real skill to take disparate styles and make then your own. Sophie did that live. Plus, he played his brilliant Charli XCX collaboration, which points a way to establish this unique fizzy pop into the mainstream. Kudos also to Kane West (7) who did a great job later that night in Hurra of delivering his own take on percussive lo-fi weirdo dance pop music.
Earlier that night, it was electronic pop of a different persuasion, one informed by soul and R&B that impressed. My previous run in with the English singer Nao (8) at the Great Escape in Brighton earlier this year was let down by a crowded venue and poor sound, but this time around there were no problems. Nao killed her set in Nasa. Tight, bright and funky, songs like ‘Inhale /Exhale’ and ‘Zillionaire’ were responded to fervently by the engaged Nasa crowd in front and watching from the sides, so much so that there was a dance circle formed at the back of the room.
North American thrum
The North American contingent featured with some strong marquee names like John Grant, Father John Misty, Mercury Rev, Ariel Pink, Beach House and Battles among them yet some of them didn’t live up to that stature. The latter two headline shows caused the busiest night and the longest lines in Harpa. Mercury Rev has the loudest show imaginable, so loud, many hardened gig-goers were forced to the back or to leave the room. Ariel Pink remains a curio, unable to translate his quirkiness into something palatable live. Father John Misty has one of the albums of the year concerned with confronting his jaded romanticism but he looks like a jaded performer these days, bored with the characterisation he’s undertaken, not engaging with the audience other than to quip about preferring the mink whale meat back home or to record the perfect take of a song for a fan on their mobile. The set suffered from sound issues though so the scowls aimed at the scrambling backstage and a buzzing speaker in front of the audience and that didn’t help the performer and audience connect. Only, Grant’s show with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra was among the most coveted and special for many and softened the blow of no Bjork show. I was filled in another way at the same time, by one of the best meals I ever had in the Nordic restaurant Dill, which could show Irish chefs how to embrace our local produce with flair and imagination.
There was plenty of both at shows from Braids (9) and Hundred Waters (10) at Airwaves. The former Canadian band left the best impression of themselves as a great cross between indie electronics and jazz drumming. Drummer Austin Tufts is so impressive during Deep In The Iris’ standout ‘Blondie’ that not even his glasses falling from his face can distract his intense breaks. Hundred Waters meanwhile, as one of my favourite bands ever since a chance encounter at SXSW years ago, never fail to make me melt. Nicole Miglis’ voice makes me drippy, it has a special quality, as does their music. Live, the now-three piece have bridged a perfect gap between their debut’s pastoral electronics and the second’s moody ambience. Live, ‘Down From The Rafters’ transforms into a propulsive number using the Huxley remix as a guide. The New Jersey hardcore punk rappers Ho99o9 (11) are outliers of the American music here, though they fit in with a lot of the metal-leaning Icelandic bands. The band (it’s pronounced ‘Horror’) brought some serious mosh vibes in wedding dresses and face masks to NASA complete with backflips.
Backflips and hardcore noise with Ho99o9 #airwaves15 ✔️ A video posted by Niall Byrne (@nialler9) on
On the first night in Iceland, Feel Good Lost hosted an Irish welcome with Slow Skies, Talos and Daithí playing in the budget gastropub-housing KEX Hostel. As the night wore on, spirits continued to lift and Daithí (12), once again, as he did at Electric Picnic, put on a killer hour-long performance that got the natives throwing big shapes for a Monday night. It set the scene for the rest of the week, the streets of Laugavegur, the main street where many of the daytime off-venue gigs took place were filled with familiar Irish voices and faces.
The UK contingent was also strong at Airwaves. Later in the week, KEX hosted the Manchester post-punk funk musician LoneLady (13) whose taut danceable rhythms lingered long in the ear. Skepta and JME (14) shutdown the Reykjavík Art Museum with their chiptune-recalling London grime. Anna B Savage (15), fresh from supporting Beach House, delivered an intense solo set of brittle electric guitar confessionals that reminded more than a few people of PJ Harvey.
The final night takes place outside the city in a very large hall, the only one that can accommodate more than 2000 people in one go. That jump in size doesn’t benefit Sleaford Mods, whose music, guttural and compact doesn’t travel around the room but no such problems for the people-bolstered Hot Chip (16), festival closing vets at this point, with the best drummer around in Sarah Jones, who finish us for good and end a magical week with our Lumo #1 closer, their spiffing cover of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in The Dark’ interpolated with LCD Soundystem’s ‘All My Friends’.
In between all of this music, Iceland seeped into my pores. Whether it was watching the awesome power of water at Gullfoss, driving through a country which had four seasons out each window, catching the Northern Lights overhead, losing hours browsing second hand vinyl at Lucky Records, having a great coffee at Reykjavik Roasters, dancing late into the night elbow to elbow in Kaffibarinn, or spending the most relaxing time of recent memory in the local pool at Vesturbæjarlaug, there was much to mark Airwaves out as a destination festival and Iceland as a haven in the North, to which I will readily return.