There’s more of a feeling of adventure arriving at Iceland Airwaves than at any other festival with the dramatic weather and landscape, and it’s fitting enough that we seem to drive through a neon-bright rainbow on the coach in from the airport. The high levels of organisation mean that it’s so easy to get your wristband and get all the info on the on- and off-venue acts leaving us with enough time for a reindeer burger, a local Viking beer and a piece of the local ‘delicacy’, rotten shark. Only bearable with a shot of Brennevín straight after it is still the worst thing you will ever eat.
First stop is the Fríkirkjan church to see Dustin O’Halloran (Of American and German origin despite his most Irish of names), a signing to Fat Cat records’ modern classical imprint, 130701. The church is a simple and beautiful building, ideal for the string quartet and O’Halloran on piano. Like much of the labels signings (Max Richter, Sylvain Chauveau) the music has a very delicate tone, almost bedroom-made classical in feel. It’s much more accessible to a festival audience than imagined and O’Halloran’s sound is a friendly and a most enjoyable beginning to the evening.
Over in the gorgeous newly-built Opera house, we have found locals Nóra. After a quick show of hands it’s clear there are many more English speakers than Icelanders in the crowd but the band seem just as happy and amusing quipping in English, describing themselves as “the much heralded Icelandic band Nóra”. Though hidden behind keyboards, guitars and a dress sense that almost implies they weren’t expecting to be appearing public, they play a warm take on the boy/girl crossover with shared singing and charming keyboard riffs. Some members rush in from another gig to make up a brass section and lift the songs into a lively, pop/folk mood.
Back over to Fríkirkjan for one of our most eagerly anticipated gigs, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Another contemporary classicist, he’s found a place for his piano-lead, spider-web-delicate music amongst a more independent audience and credit to Iceland its record shops such as the great 12 Tónar who will publish and stock this work alongside local pop and rock. It’s this Icelandic attitude to music that probably allows genre-dodging bands like Sigur Rós to emerge. There’s something in Jóhannsson’s music that captivates even moreso than the earlier O’Halloran, though he is using the same string quartet. The minimal (and it is barely audible) use of some background recordings ads an atmospheric undertone and the eight-piece brass section that join for the last two tracks never sound too much, perfectly less in sound than their bulk on stage befitting the carefully constructed music. Yet it’s the memory of ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black’ that stays with us long after. The fuzzy electronic vocals like a thread through the most beautiful of bleak visions. Easily the most moving hour ever spent in a church without anyone being dead.
Over in Nasa Pat Grossi’s Active Child are beginning to squeals of delight from a clutter of Icelandic girls, very taken with the handsome, harp-wielding man. Grossi is confident and effortless, singing mostly in his falsetto while rocking the harp around without missing a note. Live, the band elevate the layered, electronic sound of the album and despite Beach House playing across the road we are too glued to Active Child until we are sure there is no more to come, and are happy enough to just catch ‘10 Mile Stereo’ as the hour closes.
Thursday is the ‘quiet’ night with most venues closing at 1am but it’s enough time to see Yacht coat the crowd in Nasa in some west coast pop, customised amusing visuals accompanying everything, even a between-song Power-Point explanation of where they all come from. Thirty minutes are all it takes to have the entire room pumping but in case you were expecting us to end the night there, we still had the experience of two unhinged ladies from Montreal’s Random Recipe delivering an a cappella version of one of their songs to State’s two trapped representatives in the corner of the hotel bar. Roll on tomorrow.
Pre-festival warm up – Wednesday. Additional reporting my Emmett Mullaney
And so it was i found myself, my first night in Reykjavik, attending the pre- off venue showcase in the KEX hostel right on the waterfront of the capital.
First up was Soley , who just released her debut EP last year. Backed by a drummer and making use of guitar loops along with her piano, she succeeds in warming up the crowd of the bar in KEX, half of whom seem to be locals. Half an hour later and she has put a smile on the faces of the patrons gathered on this bitterly cold night in this northernmost capital.
Next up is Prinspolo, who bring the party vibe (as if there wasnt going to be one already in a hostel like this ). They go down well with the crowd also, of which I notice 3 members of FM Belfast are present.
Then, a panzer division in the shape of Norwegian band Honningbarna take to the stage. These guys are simply incredible. There are six of them, still in their teens but they possess the energy of a band that has been touring for years. These Nordic punks proceed to blow the ears off everyone in the bar and quite possibly, the whole hostel. Whatever music store the lead singer buys his cello bows in must be making a killing, as he has it nearly wrecked after two songs. The political nature of the lyrics may be lost of the majority of the crowd as they sing in their native Norwegian but there’s no denying the energy is there. The name translates as “Honey Child” but there’s nothing sweet about these boys. With live shows like this i would not be surprised to see them become a household name in Scandinavia, and maybe even in the rest of Europe.
Photos by Jacob Bekker-Hansen