7 - 10 November
When you first step out of Reykjavik airport, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of Iceland. Look out into the distance, and all you see is an endless azure landscape; the atmosphere is deceivingly calm, like you’re the only person around for miles. Head into the city centre for Iceland Airwaves, though, and it couldn’t be more different.
Reykjavik’s buzz is low-key; the narrow, winding streets are punctuated with traditionally colourful houses, all inhabiting the same area as the multi-venue festival. For the majority of the day, the city centre remains peacefully intact – locals and tourists stroll around alike, most of them quietly. But the moment Airwaves opens its door, it’s the drop of the hat. A quaint maritime town transforms into a gateway for live music and a lot of thrashing bodies.
This year, the eclectic festival celebrated its 20-year anniversary with its biggest-ever line-up. The first festival to completely close the gender gap between performers, Airwaves bills occupy a unique space in the festival circuit – always championing local talent and overseas acts alike, it’s a largely genreless affair. The 2018 edition saw the likes of Icelandic experimental composer Ólafur Arnalds, bedroom indie favourite Snail Mail, bubblegum electronic producer Cashmere Cat and Scandi pop angel Alma. They even managed to bring North Philly art rapper Tierra Whack for her first-ever European performance.
Tierra Whack’s world is surreal, on and off stage. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old rapper released Whack World, a fantastical, shapeshifting 15-minute audiovisual journey exploring self love and dud relationships, nonchalantly flipping through genres like it’s been done like this all along. Whack’s Reykjavik Art Museum performance lasted just about as long as her record. Flying through R&B sparklers Hungry Hippo and Hookers to Dirty South country bop Fuck Off, her presence was captivating and straight-up carefree, further proving that she’s the eccentric saviour we all needed this year.
Tommy Cash followed suit on the eve of his debut album announcement. Projecting visuals of notebook scribbles – yes, even that ‘S’ we all used to draw in school – and Boston Dynamics robots doing the washing up, the Estonian trapper channelled riotous energy for his viral hit Winaloto before body crumping off stage. Down the road at Gamla bíó, Nadine Shah’s cinematic post-punk made for an arresting performance. Taking a moment to dedicate her set to Jo Cox, the UK Labour MP that was murdered in the wake of the Brexit vote, her set felt urgent and vital in our fraught times.
There’s no shortage of bands at Airwaves – in fact, it’s where the festival truly thrives. Acts like Soccer Mommy, Sorry and Fufanu all enraptured audiences with their diverging styles of guitar music, but it was South London newcomers Black Midi that made a mark. The elusive noise band – if you could even call them that – is made up of four teenage members, all frenetic on stage in their own right. The band only have one distinguishable song online – the explosive bmbmbm – but their sparse riffs, motorik drum beats and stop-and-go vocals diminish any desire for song structure. Instead, you’re in the crowd wishing their harsh sounds were playing on a never ending loop.
“There’s no shortage of bands at Airwaves – in fact, it’s where the festival truly thrives”
A glowing Blood Orange set on Saturday night closed the festival, perfectly encapsulating the familiar vibes festival goers experienced the entire week, as Dev Hynes and co worked through their slinky R&B numbers. Hynes isn’t usually one for crowd interaction, but a pack of enthusiastic barrier-dancers compelled him to shout “keep dancing like that, I love that shit!” in the middle of Freetown Sound highlight Augustine.
There’s a strong sense of camaraderie that runs through the fibre of Airwaves, like everyone is sprinting towards the same finish line. A multi-venue, multi-act inner city festival runs the risk of feeling impersonal, or, in worst cases, incohesive. That wasn’t the case here. Instead, the festival feels like a unique meeting point, everyone kindred in community on this otherworldly pocket of the globe.