Various Venues, Reykjavik
5 - 8 November
Considering the country’s population numbers just over 330k people – that’s around the same as Sunderland – there is little doubting that when it comes to breeding idiosyncratic, lasting musical artists, Iceland punches well above its weight.
From arena-sized icons such as Björk and Sigur Rós to the experimentally-minded Gus Gus and a constant flow of innovative music vaguely strung together an almost-entirely-invisible thread’, it’s a neverending font of talent. A glimpse of the landscape, spending time with the people, simply breathing the air – it’s easy to see that this seemingly distant, far northern isle is no normal place.
Now in its 15th year, this year’s incarnation of the acclaimed Airwaves festival once again presents an array of both established and emerging music that crosses multifarious genre boundaries. Originally designed to extend tourist season, this showcasing event sees the numerous bars, record shops and cafes that make up downtown Reykjavik welcome a host of artists that may be familiar names to locals, but remain unheard of to the legion of Brits and Americans that are magnetically drawn, moth-like, towards this celebration.
Among the local names to have caught the attention this year is M-Band who, despite the name, consists solely of one man who posits himself behind a table creaking with electronic devices that pump out unfurling electronic anthems with the vocalised overtones of Thom Yorke delicately cascading over a Burial style backing.
The more widely known Asgier was another name being whispered around industry types. His indie-led folk pop soothed and entertained a large audience inside the festival’s largest venue. Splitting his time between singing in his native tongue and English, his melodic set inevitably led to one conclusion: this is a rare talent.
Like SXSW and Brighton’s Great Escape, many bands take the opportunity to play several shows over the course of the festival, often resulting in some veering off piste when it comes to venue choices. Here that amounted to Grísalappalísa make an unruly appearance in a hotel lobby for a chaotic set. The dual-fronted post-punk band are Iceland’s equivalent of a slightly more polished, cleaner cut version of the Fat White Family – not quite as punishing on the eye, but surrounded by that same air of unnerving unpredictability.
Lily The Kids frontwoman Lilja K. Jónsdóttir may have once been of Bloodgroup, but this new project seems her venture into a more rhythmic infused electronic pop and shows ample promise to suggest that success on a wider scale could be within her grasp. Electronic duo Nolo’s 80s-indebted, synth-driven pop, and the folk inflected vibes of Ólöf Arnalds also grabbed attention amongst the maelstrom.
While every act we’ve mentioned can lay a decent claim to sounding, and looking, like no one else, that is stretched further still by Reykjavíkurdætur – a rap collective that have nibbled on American culture and arrive as a street version of one time Beastie Boy disciples Northern State or Princess Superstar. The theme that flows throughout the performance is one of unbridled, unadulterated fun and not taking yourself or the things around you too seriously. The more established likes of Samaris and Sin Fang also shone brightly, proving that the Icelandic music scene is in rude health, and continues to embrace external influences while cultivating a distinct approach to music on a wider scale.
While Airwaves may have originally been devised as a showcase to promote and highlight local talent, hidden in and amongst the locally bred there is a sprinkling of offshore artists also looking to leave a mark.
Jungle and East India Youth were two much-hyped British names who dropped out for vastly different reasons, so it was down to the Fall-esque noise of Irish noiseniks Girl Band to leave a big impression; basslines throbbed, cymbals clasped, half-spoken James Murphy style vocals firmly clung over jaggedly distorted backing. American Ezra Furman was another newish name to have made a positive impression on his first visit to the country. Resplendent in a bright red frock, he channelled the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of Lou Reed funnelled through a performance that rattled and hummed with a classic spirit.
While the five day long festival also saw queues snake around corners for Future Islands and Caribou, it was the glass-walled venue Harpa that saw The Knife draw their critically lauded, constantly confounding career to a close. The Scandinavians using this platform to draw a final line beneath their being by delivering a typically challenging, almost-techno oriented set marked by the now-staple, tightly choreographed routines and dramatic lighting. It is, of course, profoundly poignant, yet bold, unyielding, refusing to give way to nostalgia. The closing utterances of Silent Shout, and that’s it. The Knife, and Airwaves 14, over.
In all, throughout the five day duration of Airwaves in downtown Reykjavik, you were never more than a few hundred steps away from accidentally stumbling on another startling new talent to grab you by the ears and gently lure you into their midst; enough so to ensure that this year’s incarnation can be considered nothing but another resounding success.