Clash rocks out in Iceland to the cream of the local crop...

So what do you think is the northernmost music festival in the world? Take ten guesses and I bet you can’t even get close. You certainly wont find it on the web… yet…

The answer is the riotous springtime showcase, Aldrei For Eg Sudur (translated: I Never Went South), situated 66°4'14"N, 23°7'46"W, just shy of the Arctic Circle on the most north-western tip of the volcanic wonder that is Iceland.

Devised over a beer after a gig at the ICA London, Aldrei is a wonderful, unique and utterly freezing celebration of the Icelandic hot-pool of talent, led emphatically by virtuoso of music and merrymaking Mugison, alongside his father PapaMugi, local hero and Harbour Master of the festival’s location, Isafjordur (Ice Fjord).

From the 50-seater flight from Reykjavik over majestic mountains and round coastline contours seemingly chiselled by the Norse Gods themselves - landing about five metres from the waters edge on a sheet-ice runway - through to waltzing with my Icelandic hosts at the festival’s closing Viking-style banquet under the sonic sunset of PupaMugi’s famed yearly karaoke rendition of Elvis’ ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’, Aldrei ‘09 was a non-stop experience of new music, unique culture, insane adventure and lots of laughter that instantly forged a heartfelt resonance I won’t quickly forget.

With the incredible backbone of the IMX (Icelandic Music Export) at its core, the Icelandic music community is as close-knit, well supported and as proud as any you will find. The IMX, set up to take Icelandic music overseas and bring overseas attention to these great shores, heavily invests in showing fortunate foreign guests both a deep insight and a rip-roaring time. This experience was no different – offering up a mix of snowmobiling, kayaking, ice fishing and arctic jeep safari alongside the unique wonder that is the festival itself.

Aldrei For Eg Sudur is set in an old fishing warehouse on the edge of town, with fairly simple rules of engagement: 20-minute sets per band, no soundcheck, and most importantly no headliners. The event is about placing the surprisingly abundant local talent alongside national treasures and the very occasional international star. It’s a bonkers affair, showcasing electro-pop pageantry alongside male choir rock operatics, and folk fragility alongside breakneck rock brutality. The crowd is about as wide ranging in age as I’ve seen at a music event, and they accept everyone’s efforts with rapturous encouragement, regardless of chin-stroking muso-purist protocol.

The fact that one of the busiest, and rapturous, moments of the weekend is when local hero Hemmi Gunn (Iceland’s most famous footballer, turned alcoholic, turned reformed alcoholic, now daytime TV show host) takes to the stage with his own brand of pretty awful swingin’ après-ski style euro-skiffle, just about says it all, yet the crowd response doesn’t fail to charm.

The music is by no means all about lapping up the tongue in cheek. The Friday night at Aldrei ‘09 is the stronger offering for serious music heads with a funky dance tinged set by newcomers Who Knew kicking proceedings off perfectly, before the rock anvil is dropped firmly with Brot and Sleeping Prophets both taking on guises clearly influenced by Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine. This reviewer’s favourite of the night, and very possibly of the whole weekend, Sin Fang Bous take to the stage next for a well-structured and assured set of melodic rock meanderings occasionally lifted with crashing keys and rousing bass, reminiscent of an arctic Arcade Fire. They are a stunning five-piece that you’ve got to check out.

Icelandic legends long transcendent of these fjords, Múm, are eagerly welcomed on-stage but, in keeping with the respect and beauty of the festival’s unwritten ethos, their gentle and intricate set is mellifluously delivered but remains respectful to stage-mates by retaining a focus on subtlety. Next up, Bix and then Dikta, pick up proceedings sharply with the latter sounding reminiscent of early Manic Street Preachers.

By now the venue is absolutely packed and ready to rock to the rafters, and the night’s closers don’t disappoint. The crowd-baiting punk metal ballistics of Dr Spock (pictured), sporting pink elephant mask and trademark yellow marigolds, creates the archetypal mosh-pit, turned into a bounce-pit by Iceland’s current favourite FM Belfast, also heralding the kind of sing-along euphoria and stage invasion MGMT would be proud of. All in all, an end of night moment that will take a long time to be beaten.

With our travelling party sitting down to a delightful spread of sheep’s head and coleslaw for some Saturday sustenance, Mugison typically sneaked in his own rocking blues-tinged set right at the start of the day, leaving the limelight for his chosen guests.

The Saturday line-up represented the full range of the Icelandic spectrum, offering as much fun as there was funk and punk, with all present in heavy doses. From the awesome rock operatics of 20-plus-piece male choir Prostur Og Pufutittlingar, to Agent Fresco and their amazing wild man drummer and electric double bass, to Mammut with talented flame haired frontwoman Kata piercing the evening sky as the sun sank. Hemmi Gunn and his euphoric audience led us into nightfall before the more contemporary rocking sounds and stage-diving antics of Reykjavik then the jaunty arctic psych-pop of festival closers Boys in a Band, brought proceedings to an ecstatic end.

The second night electrified and confused the musical palette in much the same way as sheep’s head did the culinary one! Bewildering yet something that simply had to be experienced. The after-parties across town took us all way into the early hours as the Icelanders proved that they out-drink and out-party most, often whilst trashing their own parents’ house.

The final day happened to be this writer’s birthday and kicked off with a hangover, cured swiftly by a virgin yoga session and an Arctic hot pool, before watching a Mugison-led Aldrei supergroup play an impromptu gig by the poolside to rapturous splashing and semi-naked jiving and diving.

This led us to the festival’s famous closing banquet on the edge of local town Bolungaravik, where a fish soup and ham hock feast, cooked by PapaMugi himself, is served to the bands and the friends and family of the festival, with the odd lucky visitor like myself invited in. It’s an open mic stage with varying levels of comic performance and rousing calls-to-cheers with musical interludes. I was hauled on-stage for a rendition of Happy Birthday in both Icelandic and Faroese before being sent homeward in a hail of hugs and backslaps, with PapaMugi’s Elvis croonings gliding out the door behind me.

The journey home included a mountain road crash at 80mph with the temperature at minus 11 degrees outside, which at the time seemed all part of the hilarity of a truly surreal weekend experience, but this laughter probably perpetuated by the fact that as we were mountain rescued the Northern Lights danced their eerie electric green jig in the ice-clear skies above.

It was only the next day the potential gravity of the situation hit me, but it didn’t and still hasn’t stopped me smiling.

An unmissable experience for anyone who likes a little more than the ordinary in a music festival or travel experience. Those that are like-minded: get there soon.

Photo: Paul Sullivan - full gallery HERE

View video of Dr Spock, FM Belfast and King Creosote performing at Aldrei For Eg Sudur HERE

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