Iceland Airwaves remains one of the world’s most superlatively unique musical experiences. The coming together of a peculiarly beautiful Nordic attitude to music and the state of wonder that visiting bands and fans find themselves sharing is something that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
Imagine the best bits of ATP, SXSW and Glastonbury transplanted to a city the size of a small English town. Imagine a multi-venue festival without all the problems that you associate with such things. Add to that the magic of the northern lights and the occasional appearance from the country’s most famous musical export and you’re half way to understanding just how special the annual event is.
It’s Best Fit’s third time at Airwaves and an experience that bears out the above manifold. Last year saw a hurricane add colour to our encounter with the island nation but this time around the climate is more welcoming. While the Uk deals with one of the worst spells of weather in more than a decade, we watch some of the best music the world has to offer with a gentle sun and cool breeze to accompany us from venue to venue.
The festival has always been marked by a respectful balance between homegrown talent and the bigger names from everywhere else. While Iceland’s bands are slotted around the entire five day event, the opening evening is traditionally dedicated solely to locals – and not surprisingly it’s a highlight and a change to see some of our current favourites play one of the festival’s hallmark venues, Harpa.
We first saw the poetic downbeat electro-trio Samaris play in a rainy courtyard at Hresso, one of Reykjavik’s most loved bars. That was two years ago and they’ve come a long way since then, flowering into an awesomely tight unit with a visual punch to match their impressive sonics. Twenty four hours earlier, we were in a studio with the luminous frontwoman Jófríður Ákadóttir (also of Pascal Pinon) and seeing her transformed into a shimmering white glow on the awesome Silfurberg room stage is quite magical. The band can now call One Little Indian - Björk’s label – their home and 2014 will see their follow up to this year’s double EP debut album drop with, we hope, a stratospheric impact.
The remainder of the opening night is a largely similarly female-front affair; the magnificent Sóley shines as bright as usual and Emiliana Torrini bring a notably tight band to top off the evening’s pleasures. Across town, we also catch the esoterically ramshackle Grísalappalísa bring a beautiful punk energy at Gamli Gaukurinn (where some of the festival’s best and most challenging line ups play each year). They’re one of the festival’s biggest surprises, defying any real attempts at categorisation – a very Icelandic thing, really.
Some of our number haven’t yet been to the Blue Lagoon and we’re always told by locals that it’s “overrated” – we therefore return feeling somewhat uncool in our opinion that it’s probably the best place we’ve ever been. Thing is, the lagoon is a geothermal spa surrounded by stunning, mountainous scenery that reportedly has healing powers and definitely has a bar in the middle of it. If that’s not utterly cool, we don’t know what is. As we agree whilst floating around with a pint in what is essentially some sort of heavenly bath/fountain of youth hybrid, it certainly beats the Camden Crawl.
A delayed return from the lagoon means that a last minute chat with another recent One Little Indian signing is given to the Airwaves veteran in our number who chose to grab a lunchtime coffee in a child-friendly cafe while a hardcore band played for ten children instead. He doesn’t regret it. Because this is Iceland. And that happens here, right? The intriguing Ásgeir is no stranger to Best Fit and has seemingly come from nowhere to take the Icelandic music world by storm. He’s currently outselling the mammoth Of Monsters and Men with a record that, we’re told, contains some of the most beautiful poetic lines of recent years. We rope in the inimitable John Grant alongside Ásgeir, the two being acquainted. The Bella Union-signed singer/songwriter is now a Reykjavik resident and translated the young Icelander’s record into English for its January release. We talk about the challenges of singing in a non-native tongue as the sun sets over Tjörnin (Reykjavik’s compact central lake).
John Grant and Asgeir (photo by Sebastien Dehesdin)
It’s understandable that the locals aren’t as enamoured with something that’s on their doorstep as those who previously thought they might never witness such things (we’re told a local saying is “the guest’s eye is discerning”), but sometimes we wish these otherwise wonderfully friendly people would keep their nonchalance about the sheer amount of natural wonder here to themselves. As one of our number stands considerably drunk on the balcony of a house overlooking Tjörnin, a swathe of the sky turns lime green and starts jumping back and forth: It’s the Northern Lights! “That’s the Northern Lights!”, we excitedly tell our new Icelandic friends, only for them to apologise for them being “not very good Northern Lights”.
View over Reykjavik
Two of the most notable performances of our cold but heart-warming, long-weekend in the Icelandic capital come from artists who have also made the trip over from the UK. The wonderfully juxtaposing, but equally enjoyable MONEY and Jon Hopkins give Airwaves a glimpse into our scene that pulls its weight so brilliantly alongside the plethora of incredible homegrown artists dominating the line-up.
Both get slots deep within Harpa and the Bella Union new boys are welcomed by a healthy crowd; a jumbled mix of intrigued festival-goers and genuine fans. And it’s no surprise the band has acquired these followers: with The Shadow Of Heaven the Manchester four-piece created an incredible debut. Dangerously pathetic in places, it’s also a particularly brave record and its translation to the live stage is nothing short of spotless. Frontman Jamie Lee’s dulcet falsetto cries out across the dark room with all the passion and intensity so familiar from the record. There is respite though, as Lee leaves his bandmates to circulate a bottle of red wine – a fittingly romantic beverage it must be said – amongst the crowd before returning to the stage and another gorgeous, woozy number with a small beer can balanced on his head.
From the makers of a would-be album of the year to Jon Hopkins, the man behind one of the most impressive and eye-opening full-lengths of 2013. The reserved Londoner is the leading light in intricate electronic music and in a year that has seen him emerge from a relatively underground name into the sought-after producer and live performer he is now, it’s no surprise to see him closing Saturday’s night’s proceedings.
While Immunity is all carefully crafted and subtle atmospheric work, his live show cleverly welcomes-in thunderous and wholly satisfying drops: “Light Through The Veins” from his 2008 Insides LP explodes out from its twinkling layers of synth into a full-on, drop-heavy rave that sends the festival-like crowd into pandemonium; genuinely spine-tingling stuff and a memory of the festival that will live on and on.
Apparat Organ Quartet never fails to bring our the crowds at Airwaves – or, indeed anywhere they go. A band that really needs to be experienced in the flesh rather than listened to on record, their engender a cult-like following during their Airwaves set that feels like the high point of some people’s entire festival experience. There’s a healthy dose of humour ripping through their delivery and a real sense of community that fits the Airwaves mood. We’re equally cheered by Sometime, whose singer Diva de la Rosa sports a black feather headdress that’s perfectly in keeping with the particular night of their set (Hallowe’en). Depeche Mode on a Sally Bowles-trip, the mad pop sound that Sometime create jumps all over the place, wrong-footing us pleasantly rather than annoyingly.
We get all sides of Yo La Tengo at their Airwaves show, apart from maybe the band who occasionally perform entire episodes of Seinfeld in place of an actual set. Their gig at Harpa Silfurberg jumps in style as often as the members of this rightly legendary band hop between instruments (Georgia Hubley’s forays away from her drum kit toward the front of the stage to deliver fabulous, delicate ballads are a recurrent highlight). We get the helium-soul of “Mr Tough”, the obligatory indie classic in “Sugarcube” and a version of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” that becomes so monolithic one suspects it never might end. Though the set’s diversity is at least half of its appeal, the rest of it comes from this mesmeric final number, its ludicrously simple six note bassline and metronomic drumming deftly underpinning some of the finest assaulting of a guitar we’ve ever seen from Ira Kaplan.
They’ve a reputation for being “moody”, those Savages. But Jehnny Beth and drummer Fay Milton spend their time before their headline set at Best Fit’s Airwaves night – at the Reykjavik Art Museum – comically lunging around the backstage, body popping to Gold Panda. On stage too, they couldn’t be any less po-faced, launching in to a set that offers us the majority of this year’s marvellous Silence Yourself like a cork’s been lifted from a shaken bottle of Champagne. It’s dark (“Fuckers” is especially dark) and it’s aggressive (“Husbands” is especially aggressive), but it’s also communal, fun, and takes itself as seriously as it realises that this is only rock and roll. Whether Jehnny Beth would be quite the frontwoman without the help of our Editor Paul holding her by the calves so as to ensure her stilettos don’t give way and send her falling in to a frenzied crowd however is up for debate.
Savages indisputably provide the set of the night, but the quote of the evening comes from the aforementioned Panda himself, who replies to our congratulations on a killer gig with nothing other than “I don’t really get my music really. Just don’t see the appeal, if I’m honest”. A good few hundred or so Icelanders disagree.
We’ve never seen Mac DeMarco not enjoying himself. On stage at Harpa Silferburg on the festival’s penultimate night, he’s cracking between-song jokes and taking mid-song detours in to extended jam sections and classic rock covers with all the joie de vivre of a man who can’t honestly believe he gets to do this for a living. And it’s infectious; one can’t imagine his excellent LP 2 shifted zillions of copies in Iceland, but when its instantly memorable riffs and singalong choruses are delivered with this much pizzazz, lacking prior knowledge of how the songs go is no barrier to enjoyment. “Freaking Out The Neighbourhood” and “Cookin’ Up Something Good” are first received with a gentle foot tap that develops in to full on, pints-aloft reverie, whilst a set-crowning “Ode To Viceroy” has everyone in the audience considering whether they should either take up smoking, start smoking again, or smoke a hell of a lot more. Mac lives it like he sings it, too – joining us for an impromptu breakfast mere minutes walk from our hotel the morning after, he lights up a Viceroy for the walk, one whilst he stares at the menu in the window, and one whilst he waits for his order to arrive.
The first time we catch sight of Björk (who isn’t playing the festival), we’re so excited that we take a photo (forgetting that she’s not taken too kindly to such behavior in the past). She’s down the front of Harpa Silfurberg dancing to Syrian dabke singer Omar Souleyman, acknowledging the Middle-Eastern techno legend’s delivery of the festival’s first large scale communal party. As strangers spin each other around their heads, there she is, smiling, shaking her hips, looking like a normal person but instead being Björk. It’s a bit overwhelming, but thankfully everyone around us is either too preoccupied with Souleyman’s magical set or just as intimidated by her presence as me, and thus nobody spoils her evening by doing anything as gauche as going up and saying “you’re bloody Björk, you are!”.
Because, really, what else can you say to Björk? She’s bloody Björk.
It turns out later however it’s a lot easier to spot bloody Björk in Reykjavik than it is to glance upon, say, some foliage or a bird that isn’t a seagull. She’s everywhere; walking past us as we queue for venues, sitting on the floor at the front of the crowd as her son’s band rock out in a record shop, even plonking herself in a seat directly behind us and donning her 3D glasses for Kraftwerk’s highly anticipated headline set. The novelty however doesn’t subside, and neither does the elegance of the German electronic pioneers’ two hours on stage, despite there clearly being only four people in the building who know exactly what it is they’re doing (and them all being members of Kraftwerk).
Though mixed reviews met their unveiling in the fields of Latitude and Bestival, when clad in the plush walls of Harpa, Kraftwerk’s 3D visuals are an excellent accompaniment to the motorifik grooves and childlike melodies of the quartet’s songs, prompting communal mutterings of “wow!” when a spaceship flies directly in to the faces of the audience in “Space Race” and a polite smattering of applause when an image of Iceland itself comes in to focus on the giant screen – a nice touch, indeed. Everything about Kraftwerk, though baffling, is continually classy – they treat the audience to a veritable ‘best of’, and though the likes of “The Model” (performed in German at the request of the festival organisers, we’re told) and an epic “Autobahn” are as amazing as one would predict, it’s the songs you’d slightly forgotten about that provide the biggest thrills; “Man Machine” is like being under the spell of a benevolent android, “Computer Love” like one singing you to sleep. Perhaps the only point at which you could compare it to a normal gig is at the show’s cloe, when each member takes a brief solo before stepping away from their instrument (whatever it might actually be) to take a bow at the side of the stage. So forceful is their entire aesthetic approach that it’s also the only point at which you believe that they might not be actual robots.
Retrobot provide the festival’s final homegrown delight for us. One of our number choose to give away their Kraftwerk ticket to a fan who missed out in (tears are actually shed) and opts for a trip to the compact upstairs room at Harlem for one last shot of genre-max-out. The four piece are confusing as hell: there’s some Robert Fripp guitar her, a hint of Depeche Mode and bits that sound like Everything Everything on a call-and-response trip. When it works – and it shouldn’t really work, it certainly doesn’t on paper – it’s beautiful. They tell jokes between songs then tease us with the punchline. And the jokes aren’t funny but we’re on such a high right now and it all just seems to beautiful to even matter under the influence of fine locally produced Reyka vodka.
We stumble downstairs as the set ends to hook up with Fucked Up’s frontman Damian Abraham for a drunken chat. We’re the drunk ones – Damian’s on the water and, later on, bergamot tea. He’s lyrical about Reykjavik; it’s a week of the most superlative experiences for him and his family who’ve stayed beyond the band’s set for a few days of R&R. “Iceland is like Nova Scotia and Victoria had a child but with a Scandinavian design”, he reasons. Despite a failed day of whale watching, he went swimming in a volcanic crater and hit up the best flea market he’s ever been to. Joining us for a late drink in the hotel lobby later on, we merge into a beautiful ramshackle collection of international music fans, Icelandic musicians, music writers (hey, Michael Azzerad is here!) and all get poetically tipsy about the wonderful week we’ve had. Just before sleep claims us, we spot Midlake queing for chips outside while the Northern Lights break through the sky one more time.
Because this is Iceland. And this is Airwaves. And this happens here. When can we go back?
Tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2014 – which runs from 5-9 November - are onsale now.
Lead photo by Sebastien Dehesdin