Reawakening the wonderfully isolated Ásbrú Enterprise Park – a former NATO military base located next to Keflavik international airport – ATP Iceland returns for its third consecutive annual outing with a perfectly polarising line-up keenly balanced with acts of spectacular weight and sublime restraint.
Headed by heavyweights including Iggy Pop, Public Enemy and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it’s yet another three-day ATP mecca of like-minded music lovers from far and wide, framed by Keflavik’s arresting backdrop of panoramic seclusion.
With a second, much smaller venue at Andrew’s Theatre and a makeshift cinema (with its Mogwai-curated programme, no less) just around the corner, the main scene is at the aforementioned former aircraft hangar, a towering film studio called Atlantic Studios that somehow manages to retain a sense of cloistered intimacy despite its size. Early on Day One – a drab Thursday afternoon of steady cultural re-adjustment – the surrounding terrain of multi-coloured block accommodation, abandoned shipping containers and asphalt-strewn roads is soundtracked by last-minute soundchecks; none proving more apt than the wasteland-inducing spell of Godspeed You! Black Emperor rumbling ominously from a huge, empty room.
The first of several Icelandic acts dotted throughout the festival, Stafrænn Hákon get things under way via a prosaic set of “power-ambient” played to a trickle of onlookers. Despite the odd symphonic pop swell hinting at some early Do Make Say Think, the band’s set proves little more than an inoffensive preamble to Chelsea Wolfe’s de facto initiation. A spectral apparition in a vast plume of smoke, she immediately commands throughout an increasingly intent-drenched set that peaks on new tracks, the Nine Inch Nails-evoking “Carrion Flowers” and the pummelling “Iron Moon”. Instantly setting a benchmark, it’s an exceptional dose of heft from an act on the cusp of going stratospheric with their imminent fifth full-length, Abyss.
Their first show back after their first break in excess of three months in three very busy years, Deafheaven continue the Sargent House theme with a potent set only mildly marred by early sound issues and the fact it doesn’t stray from their recent formula: opening with “Dream House” and bowing out – in extraordinary fashion, all the same – with set highlight “Unrequited”. As anticipated, frontman George Clarke goes far and beyond high expectations, a boundlessly imposing figure up front, gesticulating feverishly and delivering his obsessive, howling refrains with unbending tenacity and resolve. With daylight still peering through the massive entrance at the back of the building, in the space of just two hours the innate dusk of Chelsea Wolfe and Deafheaven manages to acclimatise attendees to the inverted curiousity of ATP Iceland at a time of year in a country where night-time doesn’t really happen.
All but obscured by a sea of crimson light, stood behind a table of full of equipment stage-left, London’s Kevin Martin AKA The Bug concocts an irresistible maelstom of dense, dub-heavy noise shortly afterwards. Whilst the two previous acts hit hard, Martin’s deep bass, Dancehall perforations hit that little bit harder, bursting through the speakers and bounding throughout the hall, backed up with vocalists Miss Red, Manga and Flowdan. With “Dirty” featuring the latter standing out near the close of the set, Martin’s tweet the previous day of his set going to show “no mercy” hits home. It’s an unrelenting and brilliantly brutal throwdown of the very highest order, very clearly splitting the bustling crowd into the agog and downright bewildered.
- Public Enemy
With Tall Firs finishing over at Andrews Theatre, a sea of eager heads start to fill out Atlantic Studios to await the arrival of hip-hop royalty in the form of Public Enemy. With fists raised in the air, choreographed dancing soldiers (you had to be there) and an incredibly fluid, decades-spanning set, it doesn’t take long for it to feel like less of a show and more of a happening. In fact, with Flavor Flav on typically wired form – “I swear to you, this is the greatest audience we have ever, ever had – ever!” it all verges on the positively pantomime-esque, and all the better for it. Featuring a tribute to the recently passed BB King by guitarist Khari Wynn – and despite a misjudged interval segment by DJ Lord featuring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Seven Nation Army” – the flow of the set is an out-and-out triumph. Public Enemy’s Icelandic debut will – or at least should – go down in ATP history.
- Iggy Pop
From one of the festival’s more deified acts to another, witnessing the appearance of 68-year-old Iggy Pop leaping out on to the stage to “No Fun” proves nothing short of a bona fide bucket list moment. Juttering, posing, bending and hollering like an Iggy Pop a third his age, he blitzes his way through a set that reaches some sort of mirage-like “moment” during a swift triad of the utterly timeless “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “The Passenger” and the ecstatic “Lust For Life”. Not unlike Flavor Flav before him, there has always been a tangible childlikeness about Iggy, something that is more than apparent when he gushingly thanks the crowd like a bashful on several occasions tonight. And yet, the eternal punk side to him is, of course, the main draw: whether it’s flinging his mic stand off-stage (hitting a member of security), screaming into the audience after dropping his mic or breathlessly tearing through the likes of “Fun Time” and “1969”, Iggy comes good on an immaculate set of throwback mastery.
Appearing in the wake of such revered musical royalty might not be an altogether enviable position to find oneself but Stuart Murdoch and Belle & Sebastian more than live up to the challenge, bringing the decibels down a notch or fifty whilst managing to retain the buzz. Opening on “Nobody's Empire” from Girls in Peacetime, classic material including “I’m a Cuckoo” and “The Boy With The Arab Strap” are superbly interwoven with newer material and a whole slew of anecdotes from Murdoch. With Run The Jewels set to close the stage for Day One, Belle & Sebastian brilliantly bridge the gap between punk rock and hip-hop supremacy, safe in the knowledge they will always be “go-to” acts for ATP organisers and aficionados.
- Bardo Pond
With its golden rule of “no assholes” unheeded late into Thursday night when someone brought the after-party to a premature end by setting off a chemical fire extinguisher, Friday afternoon bursts into glorious, riff-fuelled technicolour via an inexorable effort from New York’s White Hills. With their protracted, groove-laden, solo-soaked psych-rock, Dave W. and Ego Sensation shake any residual cobwebs from the night before with blistering forays including the bombastic “£SD or USB” and “No Will”. Following in their footsteps, Bardo Pond’s set of tripped-out, borderline transcendent psych make for possibly the most ingenious scheduling choice of the weekend. Featuring the subtle rapture of “Kali Yuga Blues” and culminating in the all but beatific “Tommy Gun Angel”, the band – Isobel Sollenberger on flute and vocals in particular – summon majesty with ease.
A brief traipse over to the makeshift cinema reveals a quiet room with a couple of dozen people immersed in the second episode of French supernatural series The Returned. Amongst the soundless crowd is Ben Frost who – rather than performing at the festival as he did the year previous – soon takes to the stage to commence his wonderfully undisturbed Literature Hour. Taking a little while to find his feet (perhaps something to do with the low lighting in the room, which is soon resolved) he reads from Fred Pearce’s The New Wild, a provocative exploration of new ecology, including sections reflecting “invasive species”, which he makes sure to draws parallels with the fact he’s an Australian who has adopted Iceland as his homeland. With credit to the foresight of the organisers, it’s a nice little period of calm repose.
Due to clipping. having to reschedule to the following night, English psych-indie quartet Younghusband are moved from their Saturday morning slot to just before Mudhoney back in Atlantic Studios. Despite hints of something more imposing or fertile bubbling under the surface, their set makes for more of a lulling experience than initially expected. With the likes of new single “Better Times” certainly hitting home, it all feels a little misplaced in the vast hangar that effectively swallows up their sound. Mudhoney, on the other hand, soon come storming out the traps to a much larger crowd, nailing one of the most urgent and powerful sets of the weekend. Featuring an insatiable Mark Arm up front (at his most commanding sans guitar) “Sweet Young Thing (Ain't Sweet No More)” and “Suck You Dry” are just two highlights from a band whose recent renaissance is doubly underpinned tonight.
Over at Andrew's Theatre, a seated, 450-capacity venue directly across from the cinema, Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and violist Liam Byrne collude to summon an hour-long, genre-splitting soundtrack to nature and decay. With the Friday evening in the venue curated by Icelandic collective Bedroom Community, their set – veering between exquisite viol playing by Byrne and some wonderfully forceful electronica by Sigurðsson – goes some distance in distilling the subtle magic of the aforementioned imprint whilst sound-tracking the soundless downtime of hundreds of hidden heads in a packed out and obviously very attentive theatre. Back in Atlantic Studios, Californian post-hardcore heroes Drive Like Jehu are in the final stages of their seventh show since reformed last year after disbanding back in 1994. Ending on ferocious ten-minute crusade ‘Luau’ – hands down the best single song performance your writer witnessed all weekend – the band, not least frontman Rick Froberg bow out in a brutal, sweat-drenched tempest of feedback and fury.
For many the definitive unmissable act in this year’s line-up, the anticipation for Montreal nine-piece Godspeed You! Black Emperor is almost touchable as they begin to assume their positions on stage before midnight. With a couple of thousand huddled bodies packing into the front of the venue, the band slowly start excavating their set with a blizzard of strings and static by way of “Hope Drone”, inducing a collective, darkly stupor throughout the room in ways only they can. Featuring a couple of promising, as-of-yet untitled tracks, the band – an effectively anonymous collection of bodies on stage, as ever – induce a nigh on two-hour, nine-track symphony peaking on “Moya” and closer “The Sad Mafioso”. Overlooking some early sound issues due to a broken bass amp and a shorter set length than expected, it’s yet another cathartic masterclass from a band that continue to defy comparison, bringing Day Two – minus the late-playing The Field – to a triumphant end.
With the unmistakable "third day" sense of solidarity amongst strangers settling in, Saturday at Atlantic Studios gets off to a bleary-eyed, start only marginally improved by Montreal-based art-punk band Ought. Not unlike Younghusband the day previous, their music hints at but rarely materialises into anything more substantial than an impassioned regurgitation of their very patent influences. Admittedly, said bleary-eyedness might well encompass bleary-earedness in this instance but frontman Tim Beeler’s Jarvis Cocker-meets-Mark E Smith shtick conclusively irks to the point of deflecting from most any of the band’s better material. Soon afterwards, self-proclaimed “dinosaurs of the Icelandic alternative scene”, HAM play swaggering, ridiculously heavy songs about the likes of – wait for it – “trucking” and “love, hate and very real horses”, revealing precisely why they have garnered such a fanbase amongst Iceland’s metal community. An auspicious discovery for many.
Over at Andrew’s Theatre, another Icelandic act, Reykjavik four-piece Börn are about to play the most derivative brand of stripped-back, revivalist post-punk with an almost inconceivable amount of zeal. Located somewhere between Savages more primitive efforts and the supremely slapdash spirit of the young band in Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! they knock it out of the park with a set very nicely balanced between equal parts grit and charm. Giving room to expand upon their sound and fanbase, one feels there’s no reason why they can’t shed the skin of familiarity in time in favour of something much more daring. Back at Atlantic Studios, English quartet Loop are the latest recently-reformed act to let loose with their own relentless brand of masterfully repetitive alt-rock. Whilst frontman Robert Hampson is the only original member of the band, who originally formed in London in 1986, their set – one that sees them completely immersed in smoke and lights from start to finish – is impossibly tight, deafeningly loud and hugely enjoyable.
- Lightning Bolt
Eardrums suitably shagged, arguably the greatest noise-rock duo to have ever existed, Lightning Bolt divide the crowd in much the same way The Bug did on Thursday. With their unbridled, utterly unabashed brand of experimental, occasionally experimental rock, new tracks “The Metal East” and “Over The River And Through The Woods” stand out in a set full of searing, moshpit-inducing mayhem. Whilst newcomers cower at the periphery of the venue, a mass of hardened fans lose their shit at the altar of Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendale’s psychotic noise explosions. Come the end of their set, the last two hours feels like something of a rite of passage – a journey to be embraced before the most crushing main event.
With their three-decade long pursuit of summoning fleeting encounters with ecstasy, induced by masterfully orchestrated swathes of devastating noise, incantation and repetition, Swans are the living, breathing definition of a band whose seismic might can only truly be heeded live. With Atlantic Studios filled out with a sea of grave faces you would almost think were about to witness a public execution, the band start into the as-of-yet unrecorded “Frankie M”, a building, frantic beast that sees Michael Gira snarling mantra-like refrains into the mic, hovering above borderline rapturous noise. The comparatively short swagger of “A Little God In My Hands” follows a wave of eager applause from tonight’s visibly euphoric Day Three crowd. A highlight from To Be Kind, it’s a strutting, scourging, feculent masterstroke, brooding and bragging in unison, expelling in a haze of swelling drone that essentially sums up the whole two-and-a-half hours of Swans’ livid, earth-shattering escapism tonight. Expectations met, exceeded and transcended, it brings the curtain down on this writer’s festival experience, a like-minded mecca in which spectacular weight and sublime restraint went hand-in-hand. Planning for next year has already begun.