As Anglo-metropolitan muppets, our start in Iceland couldn’t have been much more of a birth of fire. Or more aptly, wind. Fierce wind that could slice your face like young cheese. We decided to explore the culture of Snaefellsnes for three days before hitting Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves. Between eating reindeer, flirting with glaciers and hiding in thermals like androgynous faux-hunters, we barely scratched the surface of the Skjalfandi. Three wretch-inducing tastes of Hakari later, we were finally gracing the capital for a veritable feast of musical Norse necromancy.
But our experience began with a New York tone. Phantogram took to the stage at The Art Gallery. A keys led instrumental drew keenly before Sarah Barthel’s vocals whooshed out like ghosts above the crowd. In return, the onlookers became static. Fixated. Hypnotized by her hushed swooning. It teased, and like a sonic boom follows a bullet, a wall of bass trailed her. Songs that appeared moderately mellow and slow-building on track, became huge electro percussive monoliths, with live drums aiding their epic transformation. Their stone-wall classic ‘Running from the Cops’ raised the crowd mid-set, and provoked an impassioned response from the Icelandic faithful. The momentum carried into new material, before the addictively tepid vocals of ‘When I’m Small’ laid the foundations for the cutting jangly guitar lines to build upon.
We moved. We had to. Variation was key, and Idno Church offered itself. Here we found Caterpillarmen: good natured and mismatched. They unleashed their calm demeanour upon us. If people were after “prog” then perhaps “prig” was more preparatory as they fuelled schoolboy hope with the canonical and cacophonous stature of Led Zeppelin and the mung of Ziggy Stardust. Breaking down their missives increasingly into thirty-second skits, it was digestible rock tit-bits… in the extreme.
On to the next catacomb: Reykjavik's glistening geometric wonder Harpa, to immerse in Iceland's newest heroes Of Monsters and Men. Resembling an embryonic Arcade Fire, they belted out a slew of stompers from 2011’s ‘My Head is an Animal’ all jubilantly roared back by their hordes of bouncing mini-monster devotees, and with a fine cover of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Skeletons’ the fact was underlined that the growling hype has quite a bite.
As America’s hurricane Sandy blew herself into an indulgent frenzy over the Atlantic, it became clear that headliners Swans would struggle to paddle over. Thus, the dark and vast shadow cast by the absence of one of 2012’s best hard rock albums had to be filled. Here entered a cult hero: Icelandic rock patriarch Mugison. This Northerner didn’t welch on his hastily scrawled contract. Delivering just enough acoustic apocalypse over the threat of an Elvis cover and confounding us with his wailing electric blues - Mugison more than filled the aching room with energy, and sizzled personality.
His shattered Southern rock zig-zagged as incisively as his house-proud badinage and showed that big name hype can often be remedied by the adoration of a well heeled local. Mugison is one of the arch-dukes of Iceland’s music scene, as comfortable curating his own festival up in Isafjordur as he was residing on Matthew Herbert’s label Accidental Records. Thus long-live the immediacy of legends such as Mugi. Long-live revelling in the unexpected. And with such tasty wares ricocheting through our finely fed ears we headed out to be hurled and sliced by those gargantuan gales with swirls and swooshes of the Aurora Borealis dancing like a neon rave dragon above our frozen heads.
Words by Matthew Bennett & Joe Zadeh
Photo by Marc Sethi