Flying into Icelandic airspace while listening to some soothing sounds on the in-flight entertainment system, a peek out the window reveals the Northern Lights dancing on the horizon. Such are the perks of flying up here at this time of year. Having attended Iceland Airwaves back in November and heard that there was a new festival to be sampled in mid-February it didn’t take any convincing for State to head north once again to the land of fire, ice and magnificent music.
Sónar Reykjavík, an offshoot of parent festival Sónar in Barcelona, has found a home in Harpa, a wonderfully designed concert hall on the waterfront across from the majestic Mt Esja. With four stages to choose from, this inaugural outing has plenty to offer.
It’s quite fitting that the opening act on the Friday evening is American composer Paul Corley, as it was his music we were listening to on the flight while witnessing the Aurora Borealis display. Here, he sits at a Steinway grand piano while also making use of a Mac and controller to augment his compositions. The stage in Norðurljós, which again, in a nice twist of fate, means Northern Lights in English, is bathed in a purple glow as he weaves his magic with some lovely, ethereal and ambient soundscapes. After a couple of songs, he is joined on stage by a lady playing violin and two gentlemen taking up cello and bass guitar duties, the bassist being none other than renowned composer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Half an hour later, having played a number of beautiful compositions Paul moves to percussion duties while Valgeir takes his position at the Steinway.
The changeover is seamless as the founder of the Bedroom Community record label takes to the helm and reels off a number of his compositions, with classical instrumentation combining with the electronic world to great effect. A longtime collaborator of Björk and a producer with an impressive CV, Sigurðsson guides the sonic schooner as it ebbs and flows and reaches peaks and troughs on a vast ocean of neo-classical magic. Simply magnificent.
After this it’s down to the Bay View Area on the ground level to catch Sóley. The place is absolutely packed, but we manage to score a spot sitting on the floor up the front as Sóley Stefánsdóttir, backed by a guitarist and drummer treats us to a selection of songs from her magnificent debut album We Sink. There is a real feeling of camaraderie here as she weaves us all in her magic spell of wonderful harmonies and beautiful melodies. ‘Smashed Birds’ and ‘Pretty Face’ draw smiles from everyone gathered. By the time her final song ‘I’ll Drown’ is belted out, we are all warm and fuzzy inside.
At this stage it’s 10pm and time to take things up a notch or ten, so it’s back upstairs to catch German act Diamond Version. The first thing that catches our attention is the two huge screens on which flashing images of random numbers, playing cards and racing cars flash before our eyes. Then comes THAT sound. Buzz-saw synth lines that would melt faces even in the depths of an Icelandic winter and beats that literally shake you to your foundations. We knew absolutely nothing about this duo beforehand but our eyes were glued to every second here. Without doubt one of the highlights of the entire festival.
Left shaken and stirred we stumble in to see Modeselektor do their thing. Pounding beats and thundering basslines emanate from the stage as bottles of champagne are sprayed into the audience. We even spot an Irish flag in the middle of it all. Great stuff.
Then it’s time for one of the undisputed kings of Icelandic music in the shape of GusGus. We made the mistake of leaving the massive Silfurberg venue half an hour before they came on, to catch a few minutes of a Kasper Bjørke DJ set and ended up having to queue to get back in along with half of Reykjavík. There’s no denying just how popular they are here. And for good reason. A roar goes up and they start the show with a brand new song called ‘Crossfade’. We spent the last few days with the chorus “Do you remember the days? When we used to crossfade?” going around our heads. Their last album Arabian Horse gets an airing too as tracks such as ‘Over’, ‘Within You’, and the album’s title track are belted out with gusto by vocalist Daníel Ágúst and Hjaltalín frontman Högni Egilsson, with Biggi Veira and President Bongo in the engine room keeping the booming armada on a course towards a sonic Valhalla. By the time ‘Deep Inside’ has finished it’s 1am we are dripping in sweat. This, in fact is the fourth time we have had the pleasure of catching GusGus and they just keep getting better and better. Outstanding.
Saturday evening sees us back at Harpa, where we arrive just in time to catch Ólafur Arnalds in Norðurljós for an all-seated show. We even manage to grab a seat while latecomers have to make do with the floor. This young Icelandic composer has just released his latest album entitled For Now I Am Winter, and here he is showcasing some tracks from it. He starts off proceedings, sitting at the piano, by asking the audience to hold a note and then loops the result into his own particular blend of neo-classical wizardry backed by a cellist and violinist. There is plenty of on-stage chat here but since it’s entirely in Icelandic and our vocabulary is limited to “thanks”, “goodbye” and “with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly” we don’t have a clue what he is saying. No matter though, as the music does all the talking, and it’s not long before he is joined on stage by Agent Fresco frontman, Arnor Dan Arnarson who takes up vocal duties. The new songs go down a treat with the congregation gathered, and he departs the stage to a huge round of applause.
Dark, broody electronic music augmented by clarinet is what greets us next door in the Silfurberg hall in the shape of Samaris. Who knew the clarinet could sound so damn spooky? Here we are treated to most of their latest effort, the Stofnar Falla EP and they do not disappoint with eerie, hushed vocals and their trademark dark as the Icelandic winter style of electronica. This threesome really know how to create an atmosphere and succeed in casting a spell over the masses gathered with a blistering set of magnificent music. Brilliant.
It’s downstairs then, to catch Kippi Kaninus who seem to have been reared on a diet of Krautrock and improvisation. Indeed, the guy on percussion looks old enough to have been around when the likes of Can and Popol Vuh were doing their thing. As far as we can make out, Kippi Kaninus is the name of one of the band members. Which one, we don’t know, but there are six of them on stage here and the whole affair has a very loose feel with trombones, double basses and percussion utilised to great effect. No verse-chorus-verse carry-on here and all the better for it too. Great stuff.
Back up the well-worn stairs then to see what Tom Jenkinson has to offer. You might know him better as Squarepusher. Backed by a giant LED screen and wearing a helmet with a visor that lights up, he treats us to a selection of tracks from his latest album Ufabulum. Images flicker and strobe lights flash as he belts out ‘Unreal Square’ to the packed-to-the-rafters venue. Shouts of approval greet the track ‘Drax 2’ as he loads bass, synths, beats, bells and whistles into his arsenal and lets fly. None of this however is enough to stop two guys in front of us carrying on a full-blown conversation at top volume so we move away to the side and enjoy the majestic ‘Dark Steering’. This time the kitchen sink is thrown in, plug and all. The man is a genius and this set has confirmed it. Unreal.
A couple of hours and several random encounters later we are stumbling towards a club in downtown Reykjavik having thoroughly enjoyed two days in Harpa at Sónar Reykjavík. Let’s hope it becomes a regular fixture as we want as many excuses to visit Iceland as possible. Now, how many months is it to Iceland Airwaves again?