Iceland Airwaves 2009

With Kings of Convenience, Metronomy, Casiokids...

It’s the land of ice, fire and one of the most effortlessly hip festivals in the world but, while ‘Iceland Airwaves’ is not necessarily the coldest anymore thanks to global warming, it’s up there with the coolest; inexplicably it remains a small and perfectly formed music industry secret.

Initial concerns over the future of Airwaves proved to be unfounded. Phew! With undoubtedly furious activity backstage, this highlight of the Icelandic music scene emerged relatively unscathed from its country’s economic meltdown, which made international headlines the week before last year’s festival. Revellers stumbled through Airwaves 2008 in a state of numbness and shock as the reality sank in. But Icelanders are nothing if not resilient in the face of adversity. And one year on, the anger may not feel as visceral to the festival tourists, but there is a bar with pictures of Iceland’s most wanted bankers in the men’s urinals for target practice. Well they did piss their country’s finances away….

For Airwaves 2009, once again musicians, fans and the immaculately dressed beautiful people rose to the occasion. There were as many international bands as usual (everything at the Clash night at Nasa) – and the home grown talent was positively bursting at the seams. This exceptionally patriotic country has a love of music at its very core. Everyone seems to be in a band (or three) or with the band; Par for the course when the population of your entire country is 320,000 (half the size of Nottingham). And now thanks to the financial freefall, it’s actually affordable to buy a drink. So let’s toast a shot of apple schnapps to the 10th year of the shebang. And what a triumph it was. Tickets sold out weeks before the event and it seems there’s nothing like a country in crisis to make the kids party like its 1999. Jumping spontaneously from venue to venue as the day became night and the night became day, the Icelandic kids run riot and chaos rules.

Explore in and around the main drag downtown (Laugavegur) and you’ll find most of the shops, cafés or art galleries double up as a performance space. There are happenings ago-go in every nook and cranny and it’s entirely possible to stumble across low key sets by artists due play a bigger gig later on. Some you may have heard of, but mostly it’s like a box of chocolates Forrest. You never know what you’re going to get.

My voyage of unexpected discoveries began on a sofa at Nordic House, the venue for a special program of intimate acoustic performances followed by a Q&A. The opportunity to get under the skin of these talented musos was not lost on some. Following an astonishing set from the Danish four piece Choir of Young Believers – stripped back orchestral pop with soaring vocals from a heavily bearded lead singer – one woman wanted to know what the band ate for breakfast. And no she wasn’t testing their sounds levels on the mic. For the record the bassist is a muesli kind of guy while the others like fruit, or was it toast?

I have no idea what Casiokids sing about because they sing in Norwegian. Nor do I care after witnessing their explosive electro pop rip up the Art Museum. The band comes from what’s turning out to be a hotbed of talent, Bergen. Earlier that day, they’d given little away of what was to come in an acoustic set. Who knew (not to be confused with Who Knew? also in this years line up) these seemingly introverted nerdy keyboard merchants would transform into serious contenders for best live act of the festival. Not me. The clincher may’ve been the stage diving, crowd surfing, monkey suit wearing band member, who literally went ape.

One of their main rivals for stage supremacy was Metronomy. Brit Joseph Mount and his outfit brought the house down with their quirky electronic dance pop and their light show. They have the honour of being the only foreign band that has been asked to play Airwaves twice. After this performance, next year could be the hat-trick.

The Clash night at Nasa was mental even by Icelandic standards. By the time Jessica 6 came on and revealed herself to be a man in drag, it was a question of survival of the fittest. While singer Nomi Ruiz prowled the stage with her dark club grooves, the 100% proof Viking teenagers took going mental to a whole new level. Next on were the ‘Ones to Watch’, Retro Stefson; All under 19 and there are loads of them. Last count 7. The day before, they’d played a set at a clothes shop and made every one sit down and do weird dance moves. The clearly like a bit of audience participation and at their big gig, there seemed even more of them jumping around to their calypso infused melodic indie pop rock. And I swear I heard a line from ‘Pass the Duchy’ somewhere in there.

With queues of teenagers round the building, the club was stuffed to full capacity by the time local heroes FM Belfast took the stage and blew the roof off with their catchy electro indie pop featuring ‘Underwear’ – an aerobic session of a sing a long featuring the lyric “running down the street in my underwear”.

The eagerly anticipated – some might say overhyped? – The Drums from Florida gave an energetic performance, especially the dude with the tambourine (he must have had three shredded wheat for breakfast). While not massively original, their sound was reminiscent of The Cure (the early poppy years) crossed with in places a bit of Martin Fry.

Outside the confines of this frozen landscape, the names of the Icelandic musical offerings sound, well a bit random. Like a list of phrases a la Bowie channelling William Burroughs. Where else are you going to get to hear Sudden Weather Change (guitar ninjas); Sing For me Sandra (no frills pop rock); Me, the Slumbering Napoleon (post punk) , Hello Elephant (goth folk), Don’t Dance Darling and the fast and furious Bummer (who played at a club called Sódóma. I kid you not) to name but a few. And let’s not forget Smoking with Mittens, Nana Wants to Know and Hot Pocket… Okay those last three were may not be strictly true but you get the picture.

Despite the culture, the food (still dreaming about that lobster soup) and the eccentricities (well everyone’s a little bit bonkers and not in a Dizzee way), this festival’s main USP has to be the geothermal spas. It’s the law that everyone who goes to Reykjavik must visit the Blue Lagoon. And so with ones civic duty in mind, even the most sleep deprived drag their weary bones to the hangover party. It’s really a pool party in a lava field where the steam from the hot milky white water to create nature’s very own smoke machine. Excited swimsuit clad revellers clutching beers, doing the conga and basically accessing their inner child in a grown up’s playground. Even the techno sounded good and when ‘Love is in the Air’ came on, the euphoria was palpable. This is what heaven must be like for clubbers. If God was a Dj, this is where he’d spin his discs.

Words by Sharuna Sagar

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