Welcome to part two of this review/travelogue of my visit to this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavik. If you haven’t seen part one already, may I suggest clicking here. If you have, then let me continue from where I left off…
Friday 2nd November
As the ominous notices posted around our hotel indicated, the high winds that had been present throughout Thursday got much worse overnight – we’re talking 40 mph winds, strong enough to knock me off my feet and blow Alex across the road as soon as we leave our hotel. We’re supposed to be going to the Blue Lagoon today, but as we stand around uncertainly in the lobby clutching our swimming towels and waiting for pickup, we’re eventually told that all the buses have been cancelled. The postponement of our trip actually proves to be a blessing in disguise, as it means we can go watch more bands. The day is mostly spent in a bar called Hressó in the centre of town, where they have a tent set up in the courtyard. Throughout the afternoon we hear some indie-pop from Passwords, a slice of luscious folkiness from Half Moon Run, and the hit-and miss electro of Doldrums – half the time they nail an interesting, expansive sound, but the other half is a mess of mis-matched beats and aimless scratching. We also catch FM Belfast percussionist Borko playing in a fish restaurant – his off-kilter, often melancholy alt-pop is a genuine surprise by comparison, but a very pleasant one nonetheless.
The afternoon’s most engaging set is provided by Reykjavik locals Retro Stefson, whose sound ranges from the anarchic, African-tinged ‘Kimba’ to the sleek, cutting-edge electro-pop of ‘Qween’. The tent is packed and very much ready to party, with frontman Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson oozing charisma and even leading us through a simple but effective synchronised dance routine at one point (jump four steps to the right, jump four steps to the left, repeat) – it’s daft, but it’s a lot of fun.
For dinner, we continue our theme of going to a restaurant and not eating anything vaguely appropriate with Tabasco’s, a Mexican place in the centre of town. I admittedly get closest with a large rack of BBQ ribs, while Alex has an Icelandic fish soup, and Pete goes for a very nice piece of salmon.
Alex and I then make our way over to Fríkirkjan in order to get a good spot for Patrick Wolf – Pete, not being the biggest Wolf fan, heads off in search of alternative entertainment. The church is actually rather lovely inside, though the sight-lines aren’t exactly the best for the purposes of a gig – fortunately, we’re early enough to bag ourselves seat next to the aisle, so that’s not a problem for us at least. Icelandic singer-songwriter Lay Low provides our warm-up, opening with a couple of songs on acoustic guitar before being joined by a full band. Her folky songs are sweetly sung, and there are even a few sung in Icelandic, whose lyrics are inspired by some of the countries female poets – they’re particularly lovely regardless of my complete lack of understanding.
Even with the church crammed to capacity, Patrick Wolf takes his sweet time appearing, but he’s worth the wait and his performance is sublime throughout. Highlights include the ever-beautiful ‘London’, a never-more-appropriate rendition of ‘This Weather’ (“the storm blows around this harbour town…”), the stirring ‘Overture’ and the stripped-back version of ‘Vulture’ that sounds the way it probably should have all along. He’s accompanied, as ever, by violinist Victoria Sutherland, but he’s also joined on stage by his sister Jo Apps for a couple of songs – her haunting vocals make tonight’s rendition of ‘Teignmouth’ spine-tinglingly good. Alex tells me after the gig that it’s one of the best she’s ever seen (by any artist, period), which surprises me – not because it was at all bad, it’s been wonderful in fact. It’s only now that I realise why – having never been disappointed by Patrick Wolf in the 10(!) times I’ve seen him before today, I’ve sort of come to take these things for granted. But all things considered, this is probably the best Patrick Wolf performance I’ve seen in the past few years – and he seems genuinely humble and happy to be here.
We could probably go home satisfied after that to be honest, but the night is young and we decide our next stop should be Gamli Gaukurinn, where Icelandic classic rock band The Vintage Caravan prove to be entertaining and (unintentionally) amusing, even if they’re not really my sort of thing. We’re really here to see what Thee Attacks have to offer in a fully electric capacity, and I must admit their show makes a lot more sense this way. It’s a brazen display of lust-driven rock and cocky showmanship from Jimmy Attack, who commandeers a guitar that’s been left backstage after his own breaks, and at one point suspends himself from the lighting rig whilst continuing to sing into a dangling microphone. There’s nothing desperately new or original about what they’re doing, but the Danish band are worth watching for the showmanship alone.
Finally, because one FM Belfast party just wasn’t enough, we head back to Harpa to re-unite with Pete and catch their headline set at Silfurberg. See part one of this review for more details, but suffice to say their show still works on a larger scale, pretty much matching Wednesday’s performance for sheer fun factor -and it makes me very much happy to be here.
Saturday 3rd November
It’s fair to say that Iceland Airwaves throws up its fair share of oddities. For example, one of the ‘off-venue’ locations is in fact a very small house (more of a shed, really) in the town square, where artists play to about three or four people (and anyone else who wishes to stand outside and listen. It is there that we find ourselves watching oddball Icelandic folk-punk band Pollapönk at three in the afternoon, and it’s a slightly surreal experience. Ólafur Arnalds takes his turn in the shed a little later, playing a three song set that’s as soothing as the weather is cold. We also catch Low Roar playing some delicate solo tracks at a record shop inside Harpa.
Dinner comes courtesy of Icelandic Fish & Chips, which is a little bit tricky to find (it’s slightly to the west of the central area) but worth a visit. They basically offer a more refined take on your traditional British chippy, with neat little chunks of fish instead of a single large portion, crispy potatoes instead of deep-fried chips, and a variety of different sauces on offer. I decided to try a fish that’s imaginatively titled ‘Red Fish’ – by doing so, I discover that it’s actually a white fish, so I can only assume it’s red on on the outside.
Musically, Fríkirkjan is our first stop for the evening once again. We arrive to find Ben Frost & Daníel Bjarnason’s performance of their avant-guarde classical work Solaris already underway. Personally, I struggle to engage with it – there are sections towards the end that are quite impressive, but it proves a little too formless more often than not. There’s also a slightly awkward moment at the end where the music appears to have stopped for a good 15-20 seconds before the audience finally starts applauding. But perhaps the silence is, in fact, part of the composition? If so, I guess it confirms that such things are far above my puny musical brain.
I’m really here to see Daughter though – Alex contemplates fighting her way out of the building to go see Sin Fang again, but ultimately decides to have a bit of a power nap in the pews instead. I basically can’t see anything at all as we’re in the back corner of the church, but musically their performance is wonderful. The fragile emotions of ‘Candles , the stark love/hate dynamics of ‘Landfill’ and the trembling atmospherics of ‘Youth’ are all beautiful highlights of the band’s set, and they seem overawed by both the setting and the crowd’s response. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, 2013 is going to be a big year for them.
We then head back to Iðnó so we’re not left out in the cold later on. Ólöf Arnarlds (yes, she’s Ólafur Arnalds’ cousin) is playing when we arrive, but her floaty voice is a little too Joanna Newsom for our liking. Sweden’s I Break Horses prove to be a more entertaining proposition – I was hoping to give them another chance after not being able to give them a fair appraisal at Latitude this year, and their performance here seems more impressive. Occasionally their sound does verge on being too hazy and indistinct, but more often than not they really nail their electro-shoegaze aesthetic – ‘Hearts’ and ‘Winter Beats’ are particularly successful in that regard. While not one of my absolute festival highlights, they nevertheless proved very enjoyable.
I was quite looking forward to seeing US post-punks Diiv, but their show proves to be a disappointment for a couple of reasons. First, the sound is absolute crap, as whoever is mixing is doing a pretty awful job of keeping things balanced, and over-compensating for that with the volume. Secondly, the band themselves fall into a trap of repetition, to the point where I experience déjà vu on more than one occasion. “Have I heard this song before?” I think to myself – no, but it sure feels like it. By the time ‘Doused’ comes along to inject a bit of variety into proceedings, the sound is so bad that it sounds like the engineer has decided to sack his job off entirely and just whacked all the faders up to full – the song’s urgent guitar lines are buried under the weight of bass and drums, making it feel like an exercise in squandered potential.
I’ve heard via Twitter that Patrick Wolf is playing a DJ set at some sort of ‘Pink Party’ that’s being held at a nearby hotel, so naturally Alex is very keen to go there. And thus I spend my last 1000 Krona on entry to a gay night – we then stay for about two songs, one of which is ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba, the other of which is some Godawful piece of shit I’ve never heard before in my life. With no sign of Patrick Wolf behind the decks, we decide to leave and come back later (I actually walk right past him as we leave, but am completely oblivious to the fact until Alex points it out).
On a tip from Alex’s friend Nik and an intriguing description in the program, we head over to Þýski Barinn/Deutsche Bar. I’m really glad we did, as Elektro Guzzi prove to be an absolute revelation. On record, they don’t necessarily sound much different to a lot of other dance acts – but live, they play all their music using just drums, guitar and bass (and presumably a fuckload of effects pedals). The result is a thrilling, constantly evolving, non-stop feast of propulsive sound – think Battles gone techno and you’re pretty much right on target. They’re probably my best surprise discovery of the festival.
After that, it’s back to Hotel Borg, where Patrick Wolf’s DJ set is well underway – the mix of music we hear starts out with a selection of empowerment-friendly female-sung anthems (Florence & The Machine, Gossip, Lykki Li) and ends up sounding like every other Saturday night in my recent existence (Rihanna, LMFAO, Azealia Banks). We decide it’s time to leave again when Patrick disappears without warning and his replacement starts playing something that sounds like someone vomiting on a track by The Knife.
We make it back to Deutsche Bar in time to catch the very end of Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán. Their music is basically what would have happened if Europe were a shit punk band – terrible, but hilarious. After that, we end up in Factory, where after spending a while in the queue we’re eventually let inside the packed out venue to bear witness to both Icelandic hip-hop (Emmsjé Gauti) and Icelandic dubstep (Hermergervill) – both things I of I never thought I’d find myself listening to, but there you go. I end up dancing with some crazy woman from Estonia, and the venue winds up at about half four in the morning – I decide to make the short walk back to the hotel, while Alex and Nik continue on to find the after-after-party.
Pete’s awake when I get back, and we’re both still chatting when Alex returns shortly after, having beaten a hasty retreat from some weird, dimly-lit nightclub where a whole bunch of Icelandic people were making out. I almost wish I’d stuck around, if only out of morbid curiosity.
Sunday 4th November
Sunday is about two things – the Blue Lagoon, and Sigur Rós. The stormy weather of the past few days has all but disappeared – the sun is out, the air is still and it’s a positively tropical 4-5 degrees, making the trip infinitely more pleasant than it would have been on Friday. It’s also a good chance to relax after the past few hectic days, so visiting on Sunday turned out for the best in more ways than one. The warm, milky waters of the lagoon are reputed to be good for the skin, as is the silica mud that’s available to use as a face mask – I don’t know if it’s just a placebo effect, but my skin does feel a little softer after my visit. Without wishing to ruin the romance of the place, the water in the lagoon actually comes from the nearby geothermal power plant – even Icelandic entertainment is environmentally conscious.
After we get back to Reykjavik, we walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to Svarta Kaffi (Black Coffee), where we have one of the best meals of the holiday. The concept is simple – get a decent-sized circular loaf of bread, hollow it out, and fill it with soup. The restaurant offers both a meat and vegetarian option, which changes daily depending on what ingredients are available. Pete and I go for the meat soup, which is chilli and lamb, while Alex takes the vegetarian one, ginger and coriander. It’s also pretty damn good value, and with a sizeable amount of bread to go at you can’t really complain about going hungry (I eventually manage to finish the lot, though I wouldn’t blame you for giving up). A group of friendly locals call us a cab, and then we’re off to Laugardalshöllin, despite my utter failure to pronounce the name of the venue correctly to the taxi driver.
Fortunately, he understands that we want to go see Sigur Rós, and we’re not the only ones – there’s a long, snaking queue outside the venue. The gig takes place in a dark, featureless barn of a room, and the band make us wait an hour past their advertised stage time with nothing more than an ambient drone as a soundtrack, but when they finally take to the stage, such gripes are forgotten. Tonight’s show features both a re-vamped version of the band’s stage show, in which spectacular videos are projected alongside the music, and the debut of a brand new song ‘Brennisteinn’ (‘Brimstone’ – or sulphur, if you prefer. Perhaps it’s a nod to Iceland’s geothermal power, and the fact their hot water smells like eggs because of its sulphur content?). Beyond that, I won’t attempt to gush about specific songs or regale you in any great detail, but suffice to say the band’s performance is imposing and breathtakingly powerful. Like the casual fan that I am, my ‘moment’ comes during ‘Hoppípolla’ – and in an instance that seems all-too rare for me these days, I feel like I can forget everything else while I’m listening to it. That it somehow actually means something because of that. Which could be considered ironic, given that the song is sung in a nonsense dialect of a language I don’t even understand in the first place, but I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of my enjoyment. It’s a reminder that, at its best, music can overcome any such barriers – and tonight, Sigur Rós were absolutely transcendent.
Monday 5th November
This journey ends as it began – on a plane, sleep-deprived, contemplating how different things will be when we arrive. I feel like I’ve seen so much, yet only just scratched the surface of Iceland and its music scene. To be honest, I wish I’d had the opportunity to spend a little more time in Reykjavik before and after the festival – fear not, I tell myself, you’ll be back some day…