Harpa Music Hall, Reykjavik
18 - 20 February
Icelanders have got the right idea.
They are number one in the world for gender equality (according to the gender gap index), 99% of their electricity is produced from renewable sources, and they incarcerated their own bankers after the financial crash. Even when the stunning Harpa Music Hall on Reykjavik’s waterfront (and home to Iceland’s Sonar edition) was left unfinished due to the 2008 financial crash, the population decided to club together to finish off the build.
One of my first observations is how perfectly weighted the schedule is for what most people need in February. Striking a perfect balance between musical programming, as well as a healthy amount of downtime, means you can take advantage of the huge appeal of the festival for any non-native: you get to explore Iceland.
With the Friday and Saturday schedule not starting till the evening, and with Thursday’s programming finishing at 1am, we were introduced gently to proceedings. A key element of Sonar Rejkavijk is to give a platform to Icelandic artists, and with the country already boasting a disproportionate amount of household names per capita (Björk, Sigur Ros), we were keen to discover some less familiar names on the bill. The 16-piece all female rap group Reykjavikurdaetur were particular home-crowd favourites with an engaging stage presence.
In the seated auditorium of the SonarComplex stage, Tri Angle Records affiliate WIFE worked through a dark and brooding set of atmospheric electronica before we headed down into the Harpa Hall’s carpark-come-basement stage; SonarLab, where The Black Madonna kept the crowd warm and focused with a pristine selection of house that worked well despite the blustering winds. As quickly as it had started, Thursday’s programme was drawing to an end, and back in the Sonar Auditorium, Zebra Katz roused the capacity crowd in the fully seated venue to a swarm of clamouring stage invaders. Leaving the venue at 1pm and facing an Icelandic blizzard for the first time, you were quickly reminded where you were in the world.
For our first stop on Friday we headed down to catch the much talked about Icelandic rap group; Vagina Boys. While their name naturally polarises, their live show entertained. Autotuned vocals strung alongside sparse trap beats and decked head-to-toe in all white apparel, there were more than a few were shades of Yung Lean in their sound and look. Holly Herndon performed a festival defining set with her swirling electronica hypnotising the absorbed crowd. The ever-captivating visual live-time narrative of her show left her usual rhetoric about the NSA in the visual drawer, instead choosing to complement the country on its morals.
There were pinch points to the festival, but seeing as the next room was never more than 30 seconds away, we went over to find Floating Points meandering through his live rendition of Elaenia, before heading back to see Oneohtrix Point Never gradually thin out the crowd. While sonically outstanding, it was perhaps being a little too uncompromising and not helped by the continually abrasive twisted-audio and mid-song speeches. To end the night we headed back to the SonarComplex auditorium to sit down and watch Mumdance whip up a frenzy of rare grime classics alongside his own sparse and moody productions.
If Friday was serious, Saturday injected the fun as Hudmo tore threw a mixture of his big hitters whilst interweaving nods to happy hardcore, and TNGHT’s Higher Ground still proving impossible for an oiled crowd to ignore. Sadly !!!’s party in their pants didn’t quite work, so it was back down the the Harpa’s basement to see Ben UFO perfectly work his inert techno knowledge before Rødhåd’s dark techno closed the proceedings.
One of the merits of the Sonar Reykjavik edition is that the line-up isn’t overbearing, and you can easily get to know the country without feeling you’re missing out on loads of acts. Day trips to natural thermal spas hidden in haunting snowy peaks, huge sprawling waterfalls, and even witnessing the Northern Lights (if you’re lucky) are all completely achievable in and around the festival’s schedule. Sonar Reykjavik is a must for anyone wanting to combine the experience of some breathtaking natural beauty alongside a programme of world-leading electronic music.