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.
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.
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.