Lying just outside of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a place that you expect to find covered in snow in mid-February. In fact, grey sheets of rain lashed the menacing volcanic geology that the nation is famous for as we arrived for Sonar Reykjavik.
Now in its fifth year, the event is housed in the twinkling Harpa concert hall in the stylish downtown area of the city. The suspiciously British climate didn’t go unnoticed – the locals were genuinely distressed that the freakishly warm weather (while parts of Australia on the other side of the world baked in record temperatures) had robbed them of the winter that makes Iceland the unique, frozen, imposing paradise that it is.
But if the snowmobiles were parked up for the season, the Sonar line-up, spread across four floors of the concert hall (including a carpark), offered an abundance of distractions from the no-winter blues. Sonar Reykjavik is a slickly run festival in a city – and a country – that continues to punch above its weight creatively and culturally. It amply does justice to the Sonar name, a name that is as much about the diversity of the programming as it is a recurring style or genre.
True to Sonar tradition, the three days of programming crammed in an eclectic range of artists. Local Icelandic acts were scattered throughout the schedules – Halldór Eldjárn and his robotic drum whipped up a gentle rhythmic storm, while the dark-side, spacey trap of sxsxsx got two airings in one evening, the second to replace Nadia Rose, whose flight couldn’t land in the fog smothering the island.
Down in the carpark, the sounds were darker: after a drilling by the monotone majesty of Ben Klock on the Thursday, both Helena Hauff and Blawan back-to-back with Exos stepped up to shake the foundations on Friday. Hauff – now surely one of the hottest tickets going – carved a path through taut, gothic electro, while Blawan and Icelandic veteran Exos pummelled their way through a set that was somehow dripping in style despite being executed at a thousand miles an hour.
With a raft of Icelandic and international hip-hop in the programme, rappers were well represented. The playful intensity of Tommy Genesis landed a big crowd on the first night, with the bravado of Execute’s “I’d rather be snake than a ladder” line getting a welcome encore. Elsewhere, while hearing De La Soul’s hits first hand was still a treat, the frustratingly extended call and response sections rendered the performance more pantomime than privilege.
The unexpected highlight, though, was a raucous and life-affirming set by the techno experimentalist Vatican Shadow. To a room seated in a cinema style, he whipped up the crowd into a reverential frenzy as he shook and jerked around the bank of equipment at the front of the auditorium. There’s something irresistibly decadent about leaping around in a cinema, and Vatican Shadow provided just the excuse to lose it in the aisles.