A three-night crawl-style celebration of the best new music of Iceland, in Iceland – it was always going to be a magical weekend. To be an outsider welcomed into something as tight-knit as Reykjavík’s ever-blooming and perpetually-evolving independent music scene is an experience of immersion quite unlike any other and, over the three days and nights spent in the city, we find ourselves totally consumed by the indomitable grassroots spirit its creative inhabitants live and breathe.
Each evening of Music Mess - now in its third year – is split between two venues: for the most part, Volta – a fairly standard-issue club in the centre of the city with an enveloping downstairs bar – and the gorgeous vintage-swathed restaurant/bar/library of Kex – a hostel overlooking the breathtaking Mt. Esja that could easily, without hyperbole, be described as one of the hottest spots in Europe.
The weekend is sparked off by an opening party on Thursday night, for which all ticket holders have been invited to an open exhibition of exclusive artwork based on the mugs of the bands appearing over the weekend. Prints of the work hangs from strings through Kex’s enormous wooden-floored gym, where an enormous turnout makes short work of a gargantuan supply of complimentary Thule – a beer from an independent Icelandic brewery, responsible in part for the festival’s sponsorship – before gathering around to loosen their limbs to local heroes Boogie Trouble. The band’s line of pop-funk is all sung in Icelandic, which is refreshing, and features bass so fantastically frantic it could almost be described as disco. The rhythm is infectious, and the whole evening feels like what we imagine a show in an English village hall might feel like if an energetic crowd and a band capable of satisfying them filled it. As opening parties go, it’s massively enjoyable and relaxing.
On Friday evening the sonically diminutive Þorir Georg makes a quiet appearance in the library segment of Kex’s open-plan hang-out-and-be-merry space, where he plays to a small assembly and the buzzing restaurant behind them. We’re pleasantly surprised by his style’s likeness to midwest American emo-folk, bleating out lyrics like ‘I will die, you will die, and it will be alright’ – just the right balance of melancholic and heartfelt.
Þorir makes a sheepish departure from the floor after a murmured ‘takk’ and is followed by the first foreign-to-Iceland band of the festival – Edinburgh’s burgeoning Withered Hand, AKA Dan Willson, appearing tonight full-band and bringing a slightly muted Okkervil River/Low Anthem-style folk sound to the proceedings. The ardent folk-pop of ‘Religious Songs’ goes down a storm, as does the violin that spills out later in the set. This is the first of two appearances the band will be making at the festival, and we’re excited to see them spread out into the more dedicated Volta setting on Sunday.
Volta is exactly where we wander through the streets to soon afterwards, awed by the brightness of Reykjavik’s summer nights, and there we settle into a set opened by a band called Good Moon Deer – one of many Icelandic artists on the lineup that are totally new to us. The band turn out to be a two-piece comprising of a guy with a desk and computer and another behind a solid drum kit, and holy heck, it’s butter-wouldn’t-melt cool. We’re led in by a heavily electronic, avant-garde sound akin somewhat to Thom Yorke’s, which is suddenly blasted skywards by the implementation of monumentally resounding live drums. This is not, we hope, the last we’ll see or hear from this band (as it turns out, we’ll be seeing them again on Saturday night in Kex), for they have all the makings of being what Battles were to experimental alternative music in their early days and could happily floor certain subdivisions of alternative music culture in the UK.
The frantic percussion and dark electronica is continued by the arrival of Bloodgroup, whose sound tonight features an undeniably gothic element. Their dark set, which sees two of the five members become increasingly entangled in rolls of film hanging over stage (which is eventually torn down in a frenzy), is almost unbearably intense, and slips, in parts, into something touching on screamo – we’re totally hooked. As the congregation catch their breath after Bloodgroup’s departure, Australian experimental rockers PVT (once Pivot) set up. The band very much look the part to be cranking out ‘80s-esque alt-rock, and with the crowd now loose and limbered-up, their soaring, drawn-out vocals and deep, resonant bass (to which we can’t stop closing our eyes and seeing the opening titles of Drive) the atmosphere is milk-and-honey rich.
Our evening is about to take a turn we weren’t expecting, however, in the form of Sykur – a young, largely-electronic four-piece who deliver one of the most mind-blowingly energetic live sets we’ve ever seen. Singer Agnes, who spends half the set belting huge vocal melodies and the other half rapping feverishly in Icelandic, is not a performer to be taken lightly, and as the front of the crowd fling themselves all over the place to the band’s unique and ear-splittingly loud sound, she leaps from the stage to join them. We leave feeling absolutely dazed – and of course, it’s still light outside.
Good Moon Deer
Saturday evening begins, again, with Good Moon Deer, who, even in the slightly less appropriate setting of Kex’s expansive restaurant, deliver nothing short of a killer take on a background-jazz-style set whilst we sit at the bar enjoying a few shots of icy Brennivín. The infectiously catchy Stafrænn Hákon follows – another full-band arrangement – and the crowd swarms to enjoy it. We’re again pleasantly surprised by the strong likeness to another culture’s music; in this case the Scottish alternative rock scene. The spangly guitars, understated vocals, layers-upon-layers textures and long shoegazy instrumental sections are reminiscent of the softer side of early Biffy Clyro and the heavier side of Frightened Rabbit, and the audience in Kex is tighter and more animated than it’s been thus far.
We make it over to Volta – tonight dedicated to rock, punk and hardcore – in time for Oyama, a band who have this year been prolific in the UK, playing The Great Escape last week and London no less than three times since February. On their home turf, though, they open by asking “Are there many people here who only speak English?” to which a few crowd members, us included, sheepishly raise our hands. “Nope, not enough!” they respond to laughs from the fast-swelling audience, before launching into a loud, grungy, Sonic Youth-style set.
The voices of the male and female leads echo those of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher, and with these vocals wafting over the 90s rock songwriting it all feels nicely homegrown. For the most part though the presence of the band is highgly subdued, and it’s somewhat hard to shake Bart Simpson’s voice whilst watching The Smashing Pumpkins saying “making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel”. Before the set is out, though, the bassist and guitarist make a scene by flinging themselves from the stage as a wall of sound builds, battling with the necks of their instruments like rutting stags.
The crowd are now warmed up, but whether they’re warmed up to the extent necessary for Muck is another question. The youthful band bring the entire UK portion of the audience screaming back to their teenage live music experiences – of young punk-rock bands with nothing to lose throwing all caution to the wind on pub stages. Their sound, therefore, isn’t massively ground-breaking, but it’s exhilarating to hear hardcore punk sung in Icelandic, and all the more cathartically fascinating as a result. Every now and then the fresh-faced frontman, sweet-looking offstage and howling through heavy curtains of hair on, slips out an earth-shattering riff and the whole thing slips into Silverchair territory, but for the most part this is good, frantic punk rock, and we love it.
These sounds are kept alive with fervour by another Australian contribution to the festival – two-piece thrash pop heroes DZ Deathrays. Although comparisons have likely been made in the past, this set is brilliantly reminiscent of a sleazier, tighter Pulled Apart By Horses coupled with lashings of Death From Above 1979, and it’s a great insight into the broad Reykjavíkian music taste that they’re here – our tranquil dip in the Blue Lagoon this morning feels beyond a million miles away.
At least, it does before Mammút follow DZ’s sweaty departure. This sound is obsidian-dark and simply of a world separate from ours, dipping in and out of atonal gothic takes on trip-hop and alternative rock, with the glorious singer’s Icelandic vocals echoing those of Björk and Beth Gibbons. We’re thrilled to have seen this set – it’s in so many ways exactly what we were hoping to stumble upon in Iceland.
We begin the last night of the festival by seeing Just Another Snake Cult – who, despite the name, are actually quite charming. The sweet, very minimal two-piece, who appear to be as curious as two children happily investigating the uses for instruments, nestle comfortably into the Kex library, treating us here and there to splashes of soothing cello and an overall feel not unlike Ireland’s Lisa Hannigan.
We get a good grin next with an appearance from MMC – a band you can quite happily imagine your dad listening to on crackly vinyl in a basement whilst getting high for the first time with his friends. Featuring a very Doors-esque organ sound with a large brass presence over it, the oldest band on the lineup are theatrical, avant-garde and, although pretentiously proggy in parts, the pitter-patter drums and general groove are as close to flawless as you could ask for from a sit-down gig.
“I hear that fights are very common at Icelandic gigs – is that true?” asks Dan Willson in his diminutive voice at the start of his second appearance as Withered Hand, this time on the red stage of Volta. “It doesn’t seem very likely right now.” His ability to string the crowd along with him, despite appearing to be full of nerves, is impressive, and throughout their sweet, gritty set of folk-rock singalong songs the large audience are enraptured.
We’re feeling the curse of Sunday night as the set reaches its end, though, and Monotown, the final band of the festival, play to a crowd far smaller than they deserve. The band look far more traditional than they very quickly show us they are, growing more and more intriguing with every bar. There’s fantastic groove to their pop, laid out by the bassist and the drummer of last night’s Bloodgroup – who, it turns out, is something of a staple in the Reykjavík scene, and who consistently drops incredible fills into the mix at exactly the right points. We wind back, happily, to a set of super-clean, perfectly constructed Dire Straits-style guitar solos and a very tight backing line to the energetic frontman, whose Zeppelin-shaming scream as they reach the climax of their gargantuan closing track is still ringing in our ears.
We’re a little crestfallen to be sidling out of Volta for the last time. There’s still hours (and hours, and hours) of light left, which leaves more than enough time for plenty more Icelandic beer and a world-famous hotdog or three, but our brief, intimate love affair with Reykjavík’s music scene has reached its end. As mentioned, this was always going to be an incredible weekend, but it’s not simply because Iceland is a magical place, or because it produces inimitably great music – it’s down to the utterly stellar work and vehement determination of the people behind Reykjavík Music Mess to keep alive something they and (almost literally) everybody around them relish being part of.
For a DIY festival to compliment a DIY scene with such professionalism and integrity is no small thing, and it’s a rare treat to be invited into something as precious and well-kept as this country’s indie scene. We look forward immensely to future of Reykjavík Music Mess as an infallible yearly revision of the independent music of Iceland.
Photographs by Merlin Jobst.