Monthly Archives: November 2012

Under This Weather: An Iceland Airwaves Adventure, pt II

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…

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There Was An Englishman, An Irishman, And A Swiss Woman… – An Iceland Airwaves Adventure, pt I

Sensible people might want to go somewhere with a bit of sun for a holiday in November – but I’m prone to not being very sensible, so together with my friends Peter and Alex, I headed off to Reykjavik in Iceland for the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival. Before I get started, I’d like to thank them for their company (putting up with me isn’t always easy), and also for any uncredited musical comparisons or opinions I’ve taken from them for the purposes of this blog. Thanks again guys.

Wednesday 31st October

This journey begins as it ends – on a plane, sleep-deprived, contemplating how different things will be when we arrive. But let’s skip most of the boring travel crap – suffice to say that by Wednesday evening, Peter, Alex, and I have all arrived safely at our hotel in Reykjavik. And I should probably start out by saying how accommodating the good people at Fosshotel Baron were – reception seemed to be open pretty much 24 hours, and they were always friendly and helpful when it came to asking questions and making travel arrangements. We’d paid to have an extra bed in a double room, but in fact we ended up in a room big enough to sleep four people in it, which was a nice bonus.

We head off to the centre of town soon after – picking up our wristbands proves to be a quick and painless process, so after a brief walk around the centre of town, we pick The Laundromat Cafe as our first stop for food. We get some reasonably-priced burgers, and Peter and Alex try their luck with the Icelandic beers (I go for a tasty caramel milkshake, because I’m a wussy non-drinking type). Once we’re finished, it’s just a short walk to our first venue of the festival, Iðnó.

In perhaps the most questionable bit of scheduling I’ve ever seen, some of the hottest Icelandic bands are playing in this tiny venue – a deicision that must feel inspired to those who’ve managed to get into the room, but no doubt seems insane to the ever expanding queue outside. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in the latter position to begin with, arriving slightly too late and spending all of Pascal Pinon’s set stood tantalisingly close to the front of the queue. After being usurped by various press-pass wielders and other entitled types, we finally squeeze into the back of the room to watch Sóley. And at this point it’s pretty clear why several hundred people have been queuing to get into the venue – these songs are beautiful, delivered in sweetly accented tones as fragile arrangements float around them. ‘Pretty Face’ and ‘I’ll Drown’ are spellbinding highlights of a set that’s received in hushed, awed silence.

Next up is Prins Póló, who starts out by hopping into the crowd and handing out crown-like hats. I’ll admit I’d kinda written him off after listening to a couple of tracks beforehand, but bolstered by a live band the likes of ‘Niðrá Strönd’ become a hell of a lot more dynamic and engaging – even if he sings almost entirely in Icelandic, and thus I don’t understand a word. A pleasant surprise from an artist who I was expecting to be little more than filler.

Following on from that, we have a man who’s been described by Rolling Stone as “the Icelandic Beck” – Sindri Már Sigfússon, otherwise known as Sin Fang. Alex has been excited to see him for ages now, and while I don’t recognise most of the songs he plays, his dreamy alt-folk sound is still very much pleasing to my ears – the gorgeous ‘Slow Lights’ is mesmerising, evolving subtly as it washes over you. There’s also a healthy sense of humour in the Sin Fang camp, as indicated by a new song called ‘See Ribs’, whose inspiration is about as literal as its title might suggest – Sin Fang’s producer seeing some ribs and subsequently wanting to eat them. Creativity’s a funny thing, huh? Sóley is also playing here as part of Sindri’s band, and in an amusing moment she takes him to task for saying that he won’t be watching her show in the program. Sin Fang might only on stage for about half an hour, but it’s certainly enough time to convince me to listen to more of his recorded material.

Peter’s been banging on about FM Belfast ever since we booked the trip, so of course we weren’t going anywhere. The band’s live setup turns out to be one guy with a laptop and a bunch of electronics, an Icelandic Tim Harrington on percussion, and four other people taking up singing/dancing/general party-starting duties. The result is a gleefully chaotic spectacle that the band’s recorded material just doesn’t do justice – live, these songs are shot through with a thousand volts. The throbbing synths of ‘Delorean’ seem that much more arresting, the soaring falsettos of ‘I Can Feel Love’ that much more delirious, the sheer joy of ‘Par Avion’ that much more palpable. ‘Underwear’ becomes a fist-pumping anthem, interlaced with random rap-battle interludes that reference ‘Fuck Nicole’ and ‘Can’t Touch This’ – and then the trousers come off in a literal nod to the song’s chorus “we are running down the street in our underwear.” The encore of ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Sleep Either’ is lunatic, grin-inducing fun – and it would be fitting if it wasn’t for our lack of sleep and the fact we need to be up at 7am tomorrow…

Thursday 1st November

We’ve heard rumours of storm warnings and excursions being cancelled, but nevertheless Icelandic Guided Tours (http://igtours.is/) pick us up shortly after 8.30am for our planned trip around The Golden Circle. Our guide is called Javier, and if you’re thinking that name doesn’t sound very Icelandic, you’d be right – he’s from Spain, and was originally a geologist. Throughout our trip he proves to be very knowledgeable, providing a plethora of information about Icelandic history, industry, politics, folklore and more besides.

The tour gets started with a couple of warm-up stops – the volcanic caldera Kerið, and the very picturesque Faxi waterfall. But the real spectacle is yet to come – the majestic Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is truly a sight to behold, the Hvitá river plunging deep into the earth. I’d try to find the words to describe it properly, but to be honest you may as well just look at the pretty picture.

Gullfoss

We also visit the Geysers at Haukaudular – the original Geyser that gives all the others its title is now pretty much dormant, but there is an active one called Strokkur that still erupts every few minutes, propelling a column of water around 30 metres into the air. We also visit a nearby cafe and sample some Icelandic lamb soup, which is rather good as it turns out.

Our final stop is at Þingvellir, the site of what’s thought to be the oldest parliament in history – 10th century Icelanders would travel from all over the country to meet here, at the convergence of several major routes. If you’re looking for a perfect snapshot of the bleakly beautiful Icelandic landscape, then this is an absolute must-visit.

Þingvellir

What these pictures don’t quite capture is just how windy it was – little did we know that the worst was yet to come in that regard…

After a fact-filled journey home, we realise we’re just in time to go catch Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds playing a set at Norræna Húsið (Nordic House). Playing the piano, and accompanied by a violinist and a cellist, his delicate but stirring music is the perfect way to wind down a little after our trip. For his final song, the string musicians leave the room to allow Ólafur to play solo – only for them to circle back round and start playing behind us as the song comes to an end. It’s a clever use of the space, and an excellent touch to what has been a beautiful performance.

After that, we stick around to catch an acoustic performance from Danish rockers Thee Attacks, who even in this capacity are intriguing and energetic enough to warrant further investigation. Dinner this evening comes courtesy of Café de Paris, though none of us eat anything particularly French. Alex and Peter going for the fish of the day – ling, a locally sourced white fish – while I decide on a big bowl of nachos with cheese, chicken, salsa and sour cream (because I’m culturally appropriate like that).

After that it’s time to get involved with the evening’s music, and so we head over to the Reykjavik Art Museum. First on the list are Samaris, an unconventional Icelandic three-piece – the minimal electronic music of Þórður Kári Steinþórsson is embellished by clarinetist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir and captivating vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir. The end result sounds like Björk fronting Fever Ray – the kind of glacial, haunting electronica that could only come from a country like Iceland. Mesmerising set-closer ‘Góða Tungl’ cements them as my favourite new Icelandic band of the entire festival. Next up are US electro-rock band Phantogram, who by comparison are competent but lack a certain something to make them truly engaging – Pete pins it down to a lack of dynamic range, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

We decide to make tracks to Harpa, an impressive glass construct on the harbour that houses various concert halls. We stick our heads into the largest one, Silfurberg, to find Jamie N Commons wearing a silly hat and sounding pretty dull, so we chill out for a while on the upper levels of the building. We return to the hall in time to catch Dikta playing out their last track, and I get the feeling that I probably didn’t need to hear much more than that to get a handle on their fairly harmless, upbeat indie rock. Due to a scheduling change (thanks for nothing, Poliça), Purity Ring had been moved to headline the Art Museum instead of playing here, but I was interested to check out their replacement, Bloodgroup. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best choice – the band’s dark electro pop sound isn’t bad, but their set is largely lacking in the kind of astmosphere suggested by their final track ‘My Arms’.

We’re really here for Of Monsters And Men though (I say “we”, but I suppose that only really applies to Pete and I – Alex later tells me she wasn’t that bothered about them), and for the most part they don’t disappoint. Their performance doesn’t quite feel as truly triumphant as it could have and I’m too fatigued at this point for them to truly win me over, but even in my sleep-deprived state I can’t really fault them too heavily. You know you’re doing something right when you can use the clichéd “for instant ‘epicness’, just add la-la-la’s” trick about half a dozen times without it getting old. Looking back, perhaps I ought to have checked out some bands I hadn’t seen before, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the band’s performance. And then, to bed, as we’re all tired and in theory we have another trip planned for midday tomorrow. As it turns out, nature isn’t done with us yet, not by a long shot…

Part II of this review can be found here.

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