Live Report: Iceland Airwaves 2014

The Knife's final show, and the country rightly erupts...

Reykjavík is a city of innumerable enchantments. A cluster of colour and vibrancy, it hunches like a frozen figurehead, gazing out over the vastness of the Atlantic. But as is the case with such north-lying lands, much of its beauty is bolstered by pragmatism: a sentiment easily extended to the musicians and artists who live and work there.

Many of the people we’ve met in Iceland over the last few years have been madly inspirational – it’s a (in some places quite literal) hotbed of creative hydras involved in any number of genre-traversing collaborative projects. As such, it could easily be viewed as some sort of creative (if mildly claustrophobic) utopia. The reasons for this are both obvious and deep-seated: an oral storytelling tradition, months of darkness, and a dependency on people to share not only their ideas and time, but their instruments, gear and rehearsal spaces. Spewing forth such musicians makes it easy to populate the city’s largest annual music festival with local talent to rival any of the international acts that are in town.

In 2015, Iceland will be the focus country at the Eurosonic Noorderslag festival in partnership with Iceland Music Export. It takes place in the Dutch town of Groningen between January 14th-17th and acts as a networking platform for the European music industry, attracting thousands of delegates and hundreds of acts alongside a public ready to hear the best new music. And all of the artists on the 2015 bill are playing Airwaves.

With this in mind and a list of bands as long as our scarves, Thursday’s inaugural performance is Júníus Meyvant, performing in the warm, bookish and completely packed environs of Kex Hostel, situated on the dramatic waterfront. Best known in his homeland for the track ‘Color Decay’, which incorporates the strings and woozy percussion of Lee Hazlewood or early Scott Walker, we were more than pleasantly surprised at the fired-up soul of his set, which at times was verging on Jamie Lidell-style R&B with added brass. It’s a rousing start to a dizzying weekend.

Onto Gamla Bíó, as beautiful a provincial hall as you could wish to visit, with a minstrels’ gallery running around the sides and back, which we take full advantage of later in the evening. Unfortunately, the venue is experiencing some serious technical problems that bring the set of Fufanu to an early finish. That’s a sincere shame, as their bass-heavy, early Cure, Bauhaus-in-the-Batcave sound is as muscular as it is incongruous. The singer is a fair, sylph-like boy who carries on like a trouper when the problems occur. His mannered stance and strangely clawed hand dance suggest the embryonic form of the artists they aspire to be, and it’s promising stuff.

Reykjavík Art Museum hosts local heroes Samaris (pictured above). It’s a hangar-like space with a wrap-around balcony; a large room to fill, but they achieve it with some ease. Their clarinet-led sound has become increasingly synthesised and trip-hoppish, a trance-fuelled journey through the landscape of the country. It’s not mere laziness to say they evoke the spectre of Björk’s ‘Debut’ album. It’s admittedly difficult when you share such a singsong accent and the vocalist has that same heavy breath quality to her voice, and a forced push on the upturn, which makes it all a little too familiar.

We head back to Gamla Bíó, this time with a bird’s eye view from the balcony to watch madly prolific Australian psyche lords King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. Were it not for a recommendation we’d probably have given an outfit with such a truly terrible name a miss. As it is, they are thrilling – absolutely hang-onto-your-hats, hair-flying and fingers-tingling great. Their super-tight stoner psychedelia, with added surprise flute, has people dancing like it’s Woodstock (yes, you, girl with the white feathers in your hair) and actual crowd surfing. It’s magnificent stuff.  

Friday heralds a fierce wind, the sort that actually blows people off their feet, so we thought it best to breakfast on local liquor Brennivín to ground ourselves and warm up for the press conference to announce the final list of bands playing at this year’s Eurosonic (noted at the end of this article). After the announcement, proceedings are turned over to the Nordic Playlist radio station featuring Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, who broadcasts from the festival over the weekend.

After this it’s just a skip to Bravó to see Low Roar, an American based in Reykjavík, play a solo show. It’s impossible to get in, it’s so busy – but not easily defeated we stand at the doors’ threshold, heater above our heads, flutter of snow on our backs. There’s even a guy standing precariously on the window ledge, to hear the glacier-clear voice of Ryan Karazija, who draws parallels with Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver to our ears. Amidst such ethereal loveliness, braving the snow has been worth it.  

Our next musical encounter is equally odd, but for different reasons. Laundromat is an American-style diner, and this is where Rökkurró are playing, beside tourists and Airwaves attendees there more for the food. It sounds like a quirky idea on paper, but in actual fact it’s a little off putting. Despite this, they play an impressive set of soulful, Nordic pop sung in both Icelandic and English. The stage is so small that the bass player needs to stand on the counter top, which is amusing and a great Instagram opportunity. The singer’s voice is really strong, a multi-octave instrument that she wields like an old pro, and their set is more satisfying than any meal we could have eaten there.

Gamla Bio is the setting for inspiring electronica from Finnish darling Jaakko Eino Kalevi, after which we head onto Harpa, the incredible honeycomb concert hall which hovers on Reykjavík harbour like a giant, glinting meteorite. We’ve traipsed through a gale to catch the incredible, indefinable Zhala – and boy, is it worth it. The daughter of Kurdish refugees to Sweden, her heritage can be heard weaving its way through her crisp Scandinavian pop like a trail of opiate smoke. She’s a refreshing figure of aspirational ‘I give not one f*ck’ dance moves and sinuously strong vocals. A naked girl languorously eats cherries on stage and throws away the stones as a masked boy ‘dances’ in slow motion. It’s a twisted kind of cabaret, and it’s sensational.

Next up in the same venue is Kiasmos – a wonderful-on-paper pairing of Janus Rasmussen and Ólafur Arnalds, both key players in the Icelandic music scene. They play the subtlest of techno, finding the space in minimal electronic music between Nicolas Jaar and Pantha du Prince. Despite some truly stirring sounds and bold beat making, something fails to ignite in this large hall. It’s solid yet somehow not immediate or dynamic enough, and we leave happy but mildly unsatisfied.

So it makes sense to end the night on an off-piste adventure to see Boogie Trouble, Reykjavík’s premier disco dance band. Entering the venue is like walking into an Arctic Circle Studio 54. Lead singer Klara is resplendent in a scaly mermaid dress, surrounded by a new brass section. Abba-worthy backing singers and a dancer dressed as Elvis herald the biggest party in town. For 40 or so fevered minutes the place is a sweating, smiling dance off. An unexpected and massively triumphant reading of Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ as their encore is as perfect an end to an evening as we can imagine.

The next day we visit a converted power station on the outskirts of town, which is now being utilised by a group of creatives ranging from designer underwear makers and sheep skull sculptors to ground-breaking engineers and musicians. We’re shown around the complex by the prizewinning novelist Andri Snær Magnason, a humorous and informative host who fills us in on the many projects taking place there. It’s a stimulating way to spend the afternoon.

But when evening comes around, despite what anyone else says, it’s all come to this. The farewell show, the adjö to Swedish sorcerers The Knife, who have chosen Airwaves as the place for their last-ever performance. These pagan, techno-pop shamans have viscerally thrilled the public with consistent left turns throughout their career. Choosing to leave it all behind (no doubt to focus on their own solo careers) at the absolute peak of their powers is a masterstroke, and tonight is an inspired performance. 

Ushered in by a wisecracking aerobics instructor, who instigates the crowd in an audacious manner, they commence with a tour de force of turquoise jumpsuits, dance routines, a who’s-who mime off and a thunderous crescendo. It’s a sublime set and one that will remain in the heart for some time. An unexpected bonus is that we also bump into Björk in the foyer, hanging out like a punter, being pretty much ignored. Everyone in Iceland is a star. 

We dip in and out of a few other shows, but our final treat of this year’s festival turns out to be DJ. Flugvél og Geimskip, a slip of a girl who plays bonkers cyborg space music of crazily high-pitched vocals, glitchy dancing and ear-splitting electronics. It’s mystical, mischievous and entirely marvellous.

We have to leave the next day. No War On Drugs or Flaming Lips for us. But that’s less disappointing than it sounds given the windswept whirlwind of transcendent folk, scarred soul, progressive psych and girls who ride on the backs of guinea pigs (Google it) than we’ve had the pleasure to witness over one deliciously jam-packed weekend. We’ve whetted our whistles in considerable style for the upcoming Eurosonic, and look forward to catching all the bands we missed here in January.

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The acts appearing in January are: Low Roar, Kaleo, Kiasmos, Júníus Meyvant, Rökkurró, Samaris, Sóley, Vök, Árstíðir, dj. flugvél og geimskip, Fufanu, M­Band, Óbó, Skálmöld, Sólstafir, Tonik Ensemble, Ylja and Young Karin

Related: Eurosonic playlist

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Words: Anna Wilson
Photography: Harpa Silfurberg (The Knife, Samaris), Gamla Bíó (Low Roar) 

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