Reykjavik when the weather turns can be a formidable sight. It’s Sunday, the day of rest for pretty much everything apart from the howling, roaring gales that batter against the Icelandic capital, sending sheets of rain slicing from street to street. The temperature has tumbled, light is fading, and the cool comfort of indoors has rarely been so tempting.
Out in the city’s myriad music venues, though, it’s a different story. Frozen, weather-beaten fans knock on doors, politely asking them to be unbolted before entering to gain some much-needed warmth, and – more importantly -to explore the final day of Iceland Airwaves.
Of course, that commitment has been there from the start. Now approaching its 20th year Iceland Airwaves is one of the most important cultural platforms the country has, a chance for its phenomenally creative, stylistically voluminous music scene to make its mark.
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There has rarely been a more opportune time to explore Icelandic creativity. The country’s pseudo economic meltdown spurred on its tourism thrust, with the virtually the entirety of the nation’s way of life being sharply turned on its head.
One bank was reclaimed by the Icelandic government, transformed into the plush CenterHotel Midgardur – although the still-attached revolving door is a bit of a giveaway.
Indeed, banks form a prominent presence in the Off Airwaves set up. Working adjacent and complimentary to the main line up, Landsbankinn hosts some fantastic talent during Saturday’s run, with Icelandic R&B star-in-waiting GDRN catching our attention. Creative, flexible songwriting, her album ‘Ein’ is well worth seeking out.
But economic upheaval locates itself in ways other than cheekily re-housing musicians in shuttered banking establishments. The tourist boom has largely gentrified the downtown area – the 101 post code – and this has led to dive bars becoming re-developed, and rents sent soaring. With the population of Iceland more than trebling during the summer season, the island can at times feel swamped with people who have little to no knowledge of the nation’s culture and history – little wonder one shop is named I Can’t Speak Icelandic.
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It’s this need to find renewed express that perhaps fuels the country’s formidable rap scene. Sturla Atlas – who recently supported Justin Bieber on tour – makes a stellar appearance at the Art Museum, a clean, clinical building that spends the weekend reverberating to shuddering bass and flouro-drenched melody.
Yet, in a way, Sturla Atlas is an outlier, for the real fulcrum of Iceland’s rap scene – to use the Airwaves line up as a primer – is female. Reykjavikurdaetur are a 15 strong all-female rap choir, a group whose sheer strength of force is absolutely shattering. Placed together onstage, the physicality and expressive confidence of the group’s live set up is inspirational, while the material marries Stateside hip-hop – think Gucci Mane, Kanye, Kendrick – to something that feels distinctly Icelandic.
Splintering into a myriad of solo projects, the members of Reykjavikurdaetur becoming one of the festival’s prevailing sights. Cyber emerge onstage at the Art Museum in a coffin, carried by some of the country’s top drag artists. An incredible introduction, the set picks up the energy even further from this point, the interweaving lyrics dominated by the percussive flow that kicks against the percussion.
Glowie has a pop edge, with her track ‘No More’ becoming Iceland’s breakout success of 2015. Recently supporting Jessie J, her innate confidence more than fills the cavernous hall – in fact, she could probably do with an arena of her own.
Alvia Islandia is one of the first artists we catch, and also one of the last, since she pops up at various stages of the bill. Still remarkably young, her track ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ is sheer love it or hate it, an in-yr-face introduction that matches trap production to a PC Music edge.
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One of the best facets of Iceland Airwaves’ programming is that the line up expansive but also quite compact, with most artists playing more than one set. Miss out on that acoustic set in a local café? Well, they’ll be doing a DJ set in a few hours down the local thrift-store.
Far from a purely local affair Iceland Airwaves is international in scope, the sign of a country confident in its ability to continually reach outwards. As such, there’s plenty of music here hand-delivered from Europe and North America, including some Clash favourites.
Arab Strap play a sterling set at Gamla, the culmination of more than 12 months on the road. The set is tight, muscular, and rooted in the almost physical weight of sound that runs through their expanded line up. Aidan Moffat takes time to joke with the crowd – “Hang on, didn’t you lot rinse the English at football?!” – before revealing that this will be Arab Strap’s final set together for some time. Weeks? Months? Years? On form like this, they surely can’t leave us hanging…
London rapper Daniel OG plays a super set at Hurra, a real sweatpit of a venue when it gets full. Packed almost to the door, the MC brings a taste of East London to Reykjavik, his set veering from straight up grime to UK hip-hop, while retaining a resolute individuality.
Kelly Lee Owens’ debut album has been a perennial spin in the Clash office, and her visit to Iceland Airwaves is keenly anticipated. On record she tends to favour lucid, meditative electronics, but in the club tempos are pushing to blistering levels, a techno workout that truly inspires. Throw in a low-end saturated workout on Aaliyah’s ‘More Than A Woman’ and you have one of Iceland Airwaves’ true highlights.
With venues spread across the main thoroughfare of the city, Iceland Airwaves seems to occupy virtually every nook and crannie in one quarter of the city. Clash catches Aldous Harding in a tiny church, her impeccable, intense rendition of material from debut album ‘Party’ – Rough Trade Shops’ Album Of The Year, no less – sending temperatures plunging.
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Harpa is a huge, lavishly designed concert hall and conference centre close to the old harbour, a short walk from the intrepid and oddly moving Viking monument dedicated to those early settlers. A stunning 21st century creation, Harpa houses the weekend’s biggest sets, with Mumford & Sons closing the festival amid a storm-driven Sunday.
Clash opts for a rather more sedate Saturday evening with Fleet Foxes, however, and their Autumnal harmonies are perfect pitched for a crisp few hours in Reykjavik. There’s little to no talking between songs, with the emphasis purely on music – and we’re OK with that, as Fleet Foxes dip into that gilded canon for earnest, passionate, and striking moving renderings of some of their most fondly adored tracks.
But just as Autumn segues into Winter so too do clear skies segue into rain – and lots of it. One of our clearest memories from Iceland Airwaves is that long, stormy Sunday evening, of sitting in harbour cafes sipping on lobster soup (seriously, it’s a lifesaver) and darting between venues, desperately knocking on the door to escape the weather.
It’s a revealing experience. Having spent the weekend soaking up the rapid changes within Reykjavik, it’s clear that certain characteristics will never change – that hardiness, for a start, as well as a deep-rooted need to do something with all that time locked up indoors.
With the hours ticking down, there’s enough time to catch Fever Dream’s horror rap, Axel Flovent’s palatial indie folk, and Solveig Matthildur’s challenging synth-punk. Iceland Airwaves toasts its 20th birthday next year, and it’s clear that it’s importance as both a showcase and accelerator of culture remains as vital as ever.
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