Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Airwaves Festival – Reykjavik, Iceland 15-19 October 2008

01 November 2008, 11:22 | Written by John Brainlove

Reykjavik’s Airwaves Festival is one of the biggest events on Iceland’s cultural calendar. A celebration of the country’s thriving scene and prolific musical output, Airwaves introduces local bands to an international audience whilst bringing a tantalising selection of cross-genre bands to Reykjavik from around the world.

Our guide Halli was a brave leader, stewarding us through Opal, Viking, Thule and Tópas; the local brews of choice. After mooching around a few warmup shows in downtown Reykjavik (including a memorable early blowout from noiseniks Dr Spock and a couple of folky numbers from Iceland’s current number one-selling artist Lay Lo), the Kimi Records party was the place to catch some of the best Icelandic bands on offer.

Airwaves stalwart Benni Hemm Hemm produces a seemingly ever-expanding band over the course of his set. Brass and string players stream through the crowd, instruments held high above their heads, climbing onto the packed stage and crowding around the sound desk. Spectacular as it all is, much of the sound goes astray in the mix, and Benni’s songs flounder slightly above the heads of the chattering crowd. I’m later told his recordings are excellent by a Norseman with awesome taste and even awesomer hair, so giving Benni Hemm Hemm a proper listen remains on my long post-Airwaves to-do list.

Borko play gentle post-rock-influenced instrumentals and delicate slow-motion ballads laced with spidery electronica. “Hondo & Borko”, the final track from their current album Celebrating Life, really must be seen live – its climactic shoutalong finale blows the roof off the packed Tunglið.

Retro Stefson are clearly a much-loved band and get a rapt response from the heaving Tunglið crowd. They play clean-cut indie-dance with shuffling drums, tidy electric piano and squeaking synths, not unlike Foals dressed in their Sunday best.

Hjaltalín play very neat and tidy “Krútt” music: easy on the ear, slightly twee, faux-naif Icelandic pop with a childlike sense of wonder but a knowing gleam in its eye. They lean towards the Beach Boys’ classic, multi-instrumental pop, employing drums, guitars, bass, piano, violin, cello, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet, keyboard, accordion, harmonium, banjo, trumpet, trombone and French horn (according to their Myspace) to great symphonic pop effect. It’s perhaps a little too candy-sweet for some tastes, but they give a highly accomplished and enjoyable performance.

Reykjavik! are the finale and they proceed to rock out with the gusto of McLusky. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air after all the cuteness and jumpers. With the exception of Æla, Reykjavik! are the rockingest band in Iceland.

On Friday, we listen to Ólafur Arnalds‘ swooping, melancholy arrangements for piano and strings. Powerful and engrossing, he’s currently garnering well-deserved attention on our side of the Atlantic – if you’re lucky you might still be able to catch him on tour in the UK. Dyrdin, meanwhile, play straight-up indie-pop with shades of Bearsuit, the Concretes and Cardigans. They’re perky and energetic, with a high-sheen finish and catchy songwriting.

Æla play headline shows on both the Friday and Saturday night, first in bar venue Hressó, and then in the legendary party venue Kaffibarrin (aka “the Blur bar”). Both sets are tense, combustible affairs that see the band painted in glowing paint or dressed like fairy godmothers, pogoing in their pants or stripped down to gold lamé leggings walking down the bar. The band’s frontman Halli Valli is a deserving Reykjavik legend. 6’5″ and dripping with Cobain levels of charisma, he has a Frank Black scream and a fondness for getting naked, laughing maniacally mid-song and invading the crowd with regularity. Æla are a taut and wired live spectacle, and an Airwaves highlght.

Planningtorock, aka Berlin-via-Bolton resident and ausio-visual performer Janine Rostron, puts on an almighty solo spectacle, fusing hip hop beats, clipped strings and that sensational yowling purr of a singing voice. She dances in a variety of masks and homemade voodoo headwear against huge projections of her characters playing out rites and routines in slow motion. This is an engrossing, sensual and danceable fusion of high and lowbrow elements into a pungent, ritualistic post-pop brew.

Fuck Buttons turn in a characteristically immense performance at Airwaves’ largest venue, the palatial Reykjavik Art Museum. Drenched in beams of light, they storm through songs from their stunning melodic noise debut Street Horrrsing and give some of their glitchier, dancier new material an airing. 2009 will only see things going even crazier for these TLOBF favourites.

Æla

Saturday in Iceland was a pretty amazing experience. We got up at noon and headed out to the Iceland Airwaves Blue Lagoon party in an expensive taxi, having missed the coaches.

The Blue Lagoon is an incredible place, a milky hot spring flanked by volcanic flats, birthing huge jets of hot steam into the cold air, visible for miles around. The water itself tastes of minerals and salt, hot bath temperature and emitting a curious high-frequency sound from the surface. White mineral slime forms on the bottom, which is processed into world famous regenerative mineral skin compounds, available free by the ladle in the centre of the lagoon. At points, nothing was visible around but hissing white steam, blue sky above, and warm white water below… this place is a little earthly paradise.

One pool held the Airwaves party, with a variety of DJs including the increasingly renowned French electro/dance bloggers Fluokids and Iceland’s top DJ Margeir, who played a warm, glowing set of house and electronica, with welcome cameos from Zero 7 and Nina Simone. Partying like it’s 2008, with our hands in the air waving the passing planes, in a hot spring, with a bar serving cold beers… unforgettable.

Here, I hand over to my companion and photographer Oli. Because after being on the losing side of a glasses-smashing argument with the icy Reykjavik pavement, I completely missed Saturday night.

Oli Horton: After our life-changing time in the Blue Lagoon, John proceeded to lose his mind with our Icelandic hosts and a bottle of rum, so it’s here I step in as memory man to fill you in on Saturday night.

I went off for a pre-party snooze which unfortunately resulted in me missing the first half of PNAU at Tunglið. For all its shirt-removing bravado, the second half of their set did succeed in making me dance around so they got something right. I’d heard their record but the rock/dance crossover comes over much better live. Unfortunately the best track of their set (“No More Violence”) gets cut off by the venue due to time restrictions. Bo-ring.

Crystal Castles were dogged by technical hitches, causing them to start their set several times. Unfortunately during this time they lost me, and themselves, it seems. I’m sure it felt bad to have their entrance ruined but they could have tried harder to save the situation instead of giving up. Clouds and silver linings, though: the disappointment led me to make new friends in the crowd and wander off halfway through the set to the safety of Kaffibarinn for a quiet(ish) drink.

Later we headed to NASA, just in time to catch the last song or two of Robots In Disguise, which admittedly I was hoping to avoid, but actually was pretty entertaining. We came to see FM Belfast‘s festival-conquering party show, which was just that, leading me to waving my hands around to songs I’d never heard before. Some lighthearted commentary on the current problems in Iceland got the crowd on side (“What the fuck is going on” to the tune of Toto’s “Rosanna”) and their spot-on murdering of “Killing In The Name Of” had me in stitches.

For the melancholy synthpop of Familjen, I tried to dance but was caught up and moved around beyond my control by a sea of bodies. They sing in Swedish so I have no idea what it was about, but it was great nonetheless.

There were more drinks but no more bands so I’ll hand you back over to John to fill you in on the rest..

Sunday was spent in a Nissan 4×4 carving out a path around the distant Snæfellsjökull volcano, stopping at black sand beaches, wind-whipped fishing villages and craggy lava caves along the way. Iceland’s landscape is every bit as dramatic and magical as you can imagine, with huge scrapes and clefts torn out of the earth by ancient tectonic movements and violent eruptions. And perhaps because of all the jagged gray around them, the Icelanders’ fondness for careful design and splashes of colour on buildings, cars, boats and houses is endearing and welcome.

The final night at Nasa had the feel of a classical event as much as a pop concert, and saw Boys In A Band take to the stage with their slick, mannered pop-rock show. They’re somewhere between Busted and the Libertines, but nowhere near as bad as I just made them sound.

DJ Margeir rounded off the festival in spectacular style by playing his trademark soft-focus house and electronica with the accompaniment of a full orchestra. He signalled to the conductor to indicate which record was coming next from a crowd-facing podium at the back of the stage, who in turn signed to the musicians – a complex communicative process that was riveting to watch and as musically exciting as anything from the whole of the weekend.

Airwaves was one of the best weeks of my life, and Iceland one of the finest places. Huge thanks go out to all the organisers and the people who made it so special. If you can find a way to be there next year, then go. It’s a wonderful, magical event… and you might just be able to see a Brainlove Records band or two as well.

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