The colour scheme of Iceland is drab. Rain on arrival only casts even more drab over the barren land and tin houses as you make your way into Reykjavik city but we’re long enough at this trip up north to know that there is colour everywhere except the exterior in a part of Scandinavia that perhaps cares least for surface.
Anyone who has been here before knows it’s a Christmassy tingle you get as the Airwaves Festival opens up to you. Wednesday is a perfect entry point as it’s almost solely Icelandic bands on the bill. Feeling opportunistic, we call into the first place we pass and find that the old cinema, Gamla Bió, has finally been stripped of its seats and is now an ideal Airwaves venue. Lush smoky pop laced with live sax, Vok have a huge local following here and beam from the stage. Outside the queue has snaked around the block for Agent Fresco’s appearance but we leave this bun fight to the hardy Icelanders and fight our own way into the Silfurberg room at the Harpa concert hall to find a local who already has reached out beyond. Ásgeir’s album in Icelandic is a household item here and his English version (translated by John Grant) has had a foothold internationally. It is much more interesting to listen to it in Icelandic though, backed by brass and strings. The somewhat clunky lyrics are now just sounds removing some ‘your mother might like it’ middle-of-the-roadness. Crowd-pleasingly lush though it’s all rounded corners.
Lay Low are next door in another hall and the pastoral quality is roughed up by a choppy guitar but some idle banter and tuning between songs causes us to drift looking for a wake-up. So we sidle into Sin Fang who have an impressive set up that look more promising, with a table of electronics flanked by two drummers. It’s a pounding but easy-listening sort of electronic affair. Beautiful to see a room so big wedged for them but the live vocals struggle a bit and it just feels that there’s one or two too many sugars in it.
A quick ping-pong back to town to see the locally legendary Ghostigital, a cross between experimental hip-hop/electronic and a sermon from the iconic Einar Örn. He links to almost every strand of musical DNA in this country from his time with the Sugarcubes, Bad Taste records etc. He still has enough anarchic spirit for the entire country, ranting, raving and coming down hard on the audience’s phone addictions. And then Airwaves served us just what we needed. A father/son/other trio with five albums behind them, Stereo Hypnosis took the seated basement of Harpa. As soon as we sat down the warm ambience slowed the heartbeat. The father (Óskar Thorarensen) lays out the landscape while the son (Pan) brings in undulating beats – keeping us just floating enough and Thorkell Atlasson brings in filtered guitar. Half an hour not enough, both the body and mind begged for another two hours at least but it was all we had and was a good enough note to send us home, keeping the powder dry. A surface barely scratched on the festival and a great introduction to the island’s musical produce.
Asgeir photographed for State by Jakob Bekker-Hansen.