Iceland Airwaves 2010: Friday

With Hjaltalin, Hjalmar, Zach and Foe, James Blake...
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Clash were back in Reykjavik. The colourful city of sights, sounds and people that fuelled our musical hunger and desire for adventure for five years. Repeated effortless musical hedonism.

We were invited to sponsor a stage for the fifth year, and with gusto we did. More on that later since Saturday felt like a lifetime away with so many activities to crunch through in this fascinating musical microcosm.

Friday daytime was spent driving around this expansive and weird island letting its coarse beauty flood back in. The Icelanders know how to be great hosts, which is perhaps why their main airline Iceland Air were the ones to start this great festival, now running for over a decade. Five days, 290 shows, 1050 artists in 252 bands. It's an orgy of exotica in the cosiest city in Europe.

Much like its diverse yet taut music scene, the physical landscape offers vast contrast in taste, tones and temperature. Being treated to visits to geothermal locations, power stations, its rugged coastline, black seas and lightening white waves set a subtext of the power found on this volcanic isle and having been thrust from the heat to the cold and back again we were driven to a rare musical treat. Pulling outside a warehouse in Reykjavik's harbour I spotted Sigtryggur Baldursson, a former member of The Sugarcubes, Bjork's breakthrough band and all round musical godfather of this intensely musical nation.

Dressed like astronauts and standing in front of a huge drum they proceeded to launch our musical journey with an avant-garde percussive performance that saw them project video of them drumming against the drum upon which they drummed. This fractal funk was then raised a gear by Sigtryggur dashing between two salvaged telecommunication nose cones that had been converted to electronic drums with crackly sampladelic results. The brief but exhilarating set was a perfect opening shot to Iceland's isolated yet relentlessly innovative music scene. After all of the country wide vistas of the day trip our ears were ready.

Hungry for more we hit the venue trail. With a national population of just 300,000 it's easy to understand how most Icelanders know what everyone else is doing. It's a country of gossip. Yet this plays delightfully into the hands of diversity since no one can be seen to be imitating each other's bands leaving innovation the opening refuge of any musician. It also adds a huge shot of surrealism to the nature of the bands. Since many players are found to be active in about three different bands they need distinct names. Queue a line-up in 2010 that is populated by collectives such as Sexy Lazer, XXX Rottweiler, Worm is Green or IKEA Satan. That literally is the tip of this musical iceberg with most players being in numerous bands and every person we met being able to play some sort of instrument.

So hurl into this epic cauldron an international line-up that included Robyn, Mount Kimbie, Bombay Bicycle Club, Hercules and Love Affair, Teeth, Tori Y Moi and the mind bending Factory Floor and the appeal of musical discovery is irresistible. Get ready, let's go Airwaves.

Friday Night:

First stop was Hjaltalin at club NASA. A swooning folk troupe whose elevated ballads have caught our ears on several visits now. They won Iceland's equivalent to the Mercury music prize several years ago and this base leads them towards the more international acclaim they deserve. In a svelte appropriation of wind instruments, indie essence and falsetto ballads they sound akin to Belle and Sebastian being fronted by Dave Davison, the singer from Maps and Atlases. Majestic material and stuff that may have breached your sonic levies already.

Hanging around in NASA meant next up was Iceland's most popular reggae act, Hjalmar whose splicing of the universal soul of reggae with the seemingly familiar but obviously alien Icelandic tongue meant a captivating new experience for us. It also featured a musician from the warehouse drumming surprise gig. Like every trip here, a strange pattern of familiarity emerges quickly. Also, much like how Sigur Ros engage in Trojan Horse tactics with their language and lyrics, Hjalmar did a similar trick with their warm Jamaican odes. Warming vibes in a sweltering venue in a freezing city. We're feeling welcomed back already.

The clubbing landscape of Reykjavik rarely stays still. Even if the buildings do, so a quick dash across the tiny city centre to a new venue Amsterdam (in an older venue we cant quite remember the name of) saw a new group called Zach and Foe, the singer the leader of Boys in a Band, the Faroese adventurers in sound who hit acclaim in recent years. Zach and Foe however look to need to a bit more writing time since whilst their songs were all vivid, delivered with punch and energy they were reasonably varied, if not inconsistent in tone.

Next up was Friday's highlight, the UK's James Blake. In general going to Airwaves to sample UK bands is slightly belligerent and mostly a missed trick in stumbling upon a great seam of northern exotica. However James Blake is a great prospect for next year so his DJ set, riddled with his own productions alongside a restrained glimpse of the dubstep and future bass anthems from the UK, was an essential stop.

Looking worryingly young, Clash were reminded that our last interview was cancelled due to him needing to focus on his exams. Yet the small hurdle of academia hasn't diminished this young visionary's ability to knock together next-level electronic beats to support his soulful vocals. His CMKY single of 2010 was a sonic flare warning of what was coming. His album out in January is already sounding like a scene leader. Thus Jamie Lidell may want to watch out since this new talent's rhythmic nuance screams freshness whilst his soul vocals are as incisive whilst his ability to fit in with the current scene but stand out within it makes him a massive tip for Clash in 2011.

After this the later hours were a fuzzy rave up in the legendary Kaffibarinn, which is erm… a café. Here Alfons X, a local DJ doled out seething and trippy electro house that had us hanging off the rafters. Literally so. Iceland used to have an incredible little club called Sirkus that was sadly knocked down, yet Kaffibarinn seems to be picking up the torch for tiny venues, stacked to the eaves and making locals dance till dawn to sophisticated club bangers. Predictably we returned on Saturday night at 4am for the same shake up. Job done guys.

More reviews from Saturday and Sunday to come.

Many thanks to Iceland Air for starting and continuing Airwaves and thanks for their hospitality.



Visit ClashMusic's Iceland Airwaves 2010 hub page HERE.

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