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Iceland Airwaves 2012 – Part I

December 4, 2012

Photos by Nick Miners

With every musical festival experience it’s never fully about the music – it’s a chance to envelope yourself into a specific culture for a few days of your life, and to peel then remove yourself from the day-to-day humdrum that many of us inhabit. Even as somewhere as seemingly conventional as, say, Reading or V Festival, the overall experience outside of the act of listening to music still permeates strongly (negatively or positively, you can well argue amongst yourselves).

In the lexicon of the festival existence Iceland Airwaves is the ultimate in the marriage of music (whilst showcasing the music of Iceland), with that ‘something else’. It’s about the real headline act: the marvellous, dynamic and wild city of Reykjavík. Airwaves, now in its 13th year, started in 1999 in a large hangar on the outskirts of the city, though over the years has developed into the classic city festival and is now spread out over 10 venues/bars within walking distance of the city centre, ala SXSW, The Great Escape et al.

That’s just the night-time stuff; during the day Off-venues provide an eclectic mix of entertainment in various pubs, cafes, bookshops and laundrettes – wherever you can cram an oboe in. All this of course under the watchful eye of snow-dusted mountains, with the promise of Geysers, active volcanoes and glaciers not too far away.

Having fallen in love with the place on our first visit in 2011 where we stock-piled our serotonin levels by gorging ourselves in its magical presence, The 405 headed back to the delightfully desolate isle for another fix that included hurricanes, making bands vomit, beards, more beards and a smorgasbord of beautiful music. Let’s hope it’s not a parallel to a Kingsley Amis thought – we only keep drinking in an attempt to replicate that first-beer drunk and oh-so warm feeling (paraphrased edition).

Wednesday

After a flight spent mostly listening to the Swans album in preparation for their set (I calculated that in one song alone I travelled 750 miles, thank you ‘The Seer’), the first noticeable thing after touch down in comparison to last year is the biting cold. At a towering 0°C, it feels more like -10°C with the windchill factor (more on that later).

The Icelandic landscape tends to do things on a grandiose scale – the huge outdoor naturally heated pool on the way to Keflavik, Eyjafjallajokull (that volcano what erupted violently in 2010), towering shoots of water etc. So with that in mind our first taste of music is in Iceland’s smallest venue, Ingólfstorg, in the main square by Tilbury – with a capacity of two persons. It’s hard to get a grasp of what’s going on given that I can’t see them in the diminutive pop-up house, but it’s all good, quirky fun, and the light-synth folk-pop brightens the mood of the curious crowd.

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As night ever-so-slowly comes in at a glacial pace, extra layers are thrown on for our first gig ‘proper’ in the shape of Úlfur, not to be confused with fellow Icelandic hip-hop types Úlfur Úlfur who are also at IA. Harpa Kaldalon is the sit-down section of expansive cultural centre Harpa that resides on the seafront; apparently modelled loosely on The Southbank Centre. Úlfur is a touring member of Jonsi and formally known under the moniker of Klive, and tonight eases us into the jam-packed schedule of IA with a thawing sea of avant-garde noise, complete with visual stimuli projected onto the large screen.

It’s reminiscent to that of my Semibreve Festival experience in terms of the audio/visual balance, that I waffled on extensively about; thus allowing myself to be taken in by the swirling, hypnotic vivid purple visuals, as the sussurus, semi-improvised tones did their dream-bound thing. An introspective chillgasm – do check out the video for ‘Black Shore‘.

The trip across town to Iðnó sees us miss out on Pascal Pinion as the queues are such; pro tip, any act that is homegrown is likely to be popular, get there early. So instead Sóley is the first act, and by the very first track am captivated by her delicate, whimsical piano-tickled aesthetic, and this before she even starts talking. Her stage presence is so utterly charming, polite and quirky – but not in a forced Wes Anderson way, this is an earnest and endearing character trait. All this seeps into the the tracks seamlessly throughout the set, most coming off 2011’s gorgeous, and subtle We Sink.

Even a mess-up of first track and ‘Smashed Birds’ proves to be an engaging moment, though once the tender track gets a full play it is a highlight of the set as Sóley coos with childlike grace and playful language “And then I took all your words/And I ate them by the fire”. There’s a lot of joy in this hall tonight. A clever use of vocal feedback loop is used on a couple of occasions such as with a gentle piece of whispered beatboxing, then suddenly we’re at an end when she announces forthrightly “I have to… go off stage now”, not before profusely thanking the utterly respectful crowd who remain silent in the quiet bits, the way it needs to be for this kind of dreamy – and highly dream-influenced – minimal, beautiful tones.

Though Sóley is soon back on stage after Prinspolo’s set as part of Sin Fang, the project of Sindri Már Sigfússon and also lead singer of Seabear (who Sóley is also in). One thing you’ll come to realise; the Icelandic scene is kinda incestuous – collaborative is a more gentile word I guess. No room for ego’s in this scene, you’ll soon get found out.

Soley4

Sindri differs from Sóley in terms of approach to song-writing, opting for a more real-life based style of story-telling as opposed to a surrealist dreamscape. ‘See Ribs’ is evident of this as he explains in dry elongated tones “I was out… with a friend one night, who was hungry so bought some ribs… and, yes… I could see his ribs” to much laughter. The set is a pop-based Belle & Sebastian-a-thon, played to perfection bundled with subtle electronic flares to maintain an upbeat air – crisp, clean icelandic air. Ahhh. ‘Clangour and flutes’ demonstrates this with a tidy aplomb.

Sin Fang6

Iðnó really swells up inside and crowds gather outside to see final act of the evening, the party-tastic FM Belfast who are venerated around these parts. Immediately the six-piece Icelanders launch into a full-scale electro assault with ‘Par Avion’, an overtly buoyant paean to summertime “I wish I had a house in the Carribean” that is as infectious and wild as a child snorting crack-cut sherbet. It’s the perfect size venue to witness them in, expansive enough for that sense of audience interaction, but not too big that you feel disconnected from the band.

Theatrics is the word of the set, which is aided by a couple of highly energised dancers with batshit (and exhaustive-looking) dance routines, and of course FM get to do their “down, down, down…” routine where the crowd get orders to crouch down, then all leap together in an explosion of energy on chorus cue. It may be minus whatever outside, but in here right now it’s like one of Iceland’s infamous steam baths thanks to the kinetic energy and sweaty characters bouncing around me. Continuing the incestuous theme, the unmistakable figure of Borko is on stage thrashing drums, though thrashing in a paradoxically nonchalant way, having just been on for Sin Fang. I say unmistakeble, he actually looks a lot like Les Savy Fav frontman Tim Harrington.

As we get to the encores – yup, plural, we get to a second encore – the band have counteracted the sweaty interior of Idno by stripping off, only wearing their underpants. I wonder if Sigur Ros will be like this on Sunday? It’s all wild fun; still not something that I could imagine myself sitting down and listening to on record, but it’s an experience to behold indubitably; hey, look how happy everyone is:

FM Belfast 18

Thursday

Thursday (or Fimmtudagur, literally meaning fifth day) contains a fuller line-up of acts than Wednesday – particularly as the Off-venues spring to life at an earlier juncture in the day. Icelandic singer/songwriter Ólöf Arnalds is on at Restaurant Reykjavik in the afternoon, and it really is a restaurant; a chap sporting a fine kaleidoscopic jumper next to me is even tucking into a delicious smelling steak. An 8/10 for sure.

Despite being somewhat suspicious of the at times derivative solo singer/songwriter/guitar format, any qualms are swfitly blown away with an elegant and gentle performance. Much like Sóley yesterday, a very warm, very Icelandic charm melts away frozen faces and toes in terms of stage presence and tunes “How many non-Icelandic speaking are in the room?” Every hand goes up. “..You win”, said with precise comic timing.

In second song ‘Innundir Skinni’ Ólöf invites audience participation in the latter half by encouraging soft “la la la laas”, and it works beautifully. The quiet bits are oh so quiet (speaking of which, Björk is in the room) thanks to another respectful crowd, so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Though, a clumsy waiter tests the phrase to the nth degree by smashing a glass near the bar; then somehow does it again in two songs time. Aside from this (amusing) misdemeanour, it’s a wholeheartedly twee and joyous way to spend an afternoon.

Olof 1

A problem we all face at festivals is that of clashes. Thankfully many artists play numerous times over the duration of the festival with the aid of Off-Venue shows, or, in the case of hip-hip collective Shabazz Palaces and THEESatifaction (two artists on my hit-list), by playing together at the same time. Hello efficiency! Two bands one stone. Hostel on the seafront Kex is home to the collaboration in a cosy, bookshelved corner, being broadcast live for Seattle’s KEXP Radio from where they both reside.

After a lengthy delay Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White of THEE get soulful as Shabazz lay their beats underneath – Irons and Harris-White of course provider of backing vocals for brilliant 2011 Shabazz LP Black Up. ‘Chuc’ sounds ace in this set-up “Survival, in sty-le”, this is hip-hop with danergous hooks, smart flow and a sharp brain, the collaboration working superbly in a live setting and adding real depth and style.

Oh and the Björk count is now up to two. I think she may be stalking me.

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As we go to step out from the former biscuit factory known as Kex, the door appears to be locked. On further mighty pushes, it turns out that it’s just a savage wind not letting us out. Not just a gust, this has turned into full-blown storm territory as we shake hands with Hurricane Sandy – or the arse-end of it at least. This not only makes going outside a hugely uncomfortable experience – it also means that Swans have had to pull out too who I was hugely excited to get my mind fucked over to.

It’s exposed here by the seafront so take the more sheltered town route and seek refuge in IA’s largest venue, Reykjavik Art Museum, where Samaris are to play.

Now last year I saw Samaris play to roughly 15 people in the intimate venue of Faktorý (ps SAVE FAKTORÝ), yet here they are one year later opening this cavernous thousand-capacity venue, and you can’t help but feel chuffed to bits for the electronic trio from this city. They’ve got a good little pre-party vibe going on as downtempo electronic vestibules coruscate, and they’ve got the added left field interest of a live clarinet player, Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir.

‘Stofnar falla’ from their latest EP of the same name translates remarkably well to a bigger stage, a crisp soundsystem working wonders as the bass throbs the building and pulses through my legs. Our own Nedry are a comparison of sorts; and, I’m about to do a criminal journalistic thing in the vocal comparison: Björk. But she really does. I’ve put some money in the journo cliche jar, don’t worry. Final and signature track from their 2011 EP ‘Góða tungl’ nails that celestial, spacious trip hop aesthetic and again a wobbling bass sweeps the floor and combs the psyche of those present. A must listen.

Samaris 2

I was fortunate to have a chat with the veteran and loquacious music journalist Bob Seacow involved with Icelandic cultural entity The Grapevine, in regards to the state of electronic Icelandic music. It was interesting to note that contemporary stuff has generally not found a place in the Icelandic music scene, with most output more a straightforward pillaging of the past, generally 90’s dance/house; and not in the contemporary sense of say Azarii & III. Well Samaris are the kind of act that are getting on board and dragging electronic music culture into this decade, and it’s something that more of is needed.

Purity Ring‘s debut and beguiling album Shrines has clocked-up a helluva play count in 405-land, and they take to the stage in front of a packed Art Museum, surrounding themselves in darkness before the esoteric stage lights convalesce around them. Megan James’s vocals sounds as heavenly and eerie as they do on record, especially with unnervingly visceral yet sweet lyrics such as during ‘Fineshrine’ “Get a little closer, let fold/Cut open my sternum, and pull/My little ribs around you”.

The delivery is crystal clear and sonic electronic textures palpable, the kind of slow-beats and heavy satisfying bass that makes you wanna pull up your hood and dance in your own introspective world. It’s similar to that of the LP in many ways – though the drawn-out intro for the delightful ‘Obedear’ creates lovely tension, and frequently the Canadian duo allow tracks to bleed into each other for a savvy momentum. Corin Roddick hits the self-built instruments on stage with a graceful effervescence, and the drums hypnotically light-up on each touch. Utilitarian whilst also bewitching. This is no laptop duo bowed down like slaves to their screen, oh no.

While their nebulous synth-ballads (‘Loftcries’ a heady example of this) mix the dark with the light, there is a confusion amongst some of the crowd, in regards to expectations. From the first heavy beat the audience go wild wanting to be taken into a dance frenzy; this soon dissipates as, well, it’s not that kind of music. Consequently the crowd thins throughout the set that ends with the melancholic-come-saachrine ‘Crawlersout’, but those (and the majority I must say) that do get it and stick around are on the receiving end of an astute, and enjoyable lesson in electronic paradoxes. And beautiful ones at that.

Purity Ring 1

Iðnó is fast becoming my second home (a similar thing happened to NASA last year, which sadly closed over the summer to make way for a hotel) as I battle with Hurricane Sandy to see Montreal’s Doldrums, the project of Airick Woodhead. He takes to the stage like a hobo-version of Jay Kay, sporting a baggy-slacker top with jaunty hat, though of course sounds nothing like him; his reverb-filled, shrieked vocals more akin to Memory Tapes. The set, aided by two extra pairs of hands is generally is a continuous affair, track after track of drum-thrashing over incongruous electronic melodies.

‘Egpyt’ is his signature tune to date (the title track from the EP of the same name), and tonight is a thrusting, ecstatic proposition that challenges the storm outside in terms of wild energy. It’s wholly devastating and a highlight of the festival thus far, one of those tracks that gets a new lease of life in abundance as a live entity. The tribal, melodic drumming takes centre-stage in the track, making even the most stoic of characters move some kind of appendage.

It’s interesting to note the comparison between Doldrums and FM Belfast at Iðnó exactly 24 hours previously; here we’re not being instructed when to dance, there are no cues as such and you can go with it in an instinctive manner. With FM, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers experience – the chorus explodes here, you jump-up there, and so on. Akin to having a laughter track. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that per se at all – I’ll stay and watch Friends until I’ve eaten a supermarket’s worth of big bag Dortios. It’s just that it’s often more satisfying to watch Arrested Development, ya know? Incidentally, the hotel that The 405 are staying at is called Hotel Holt. STEVE HOLT.

For the final track Woodhead climbs onto the erected drum stage and joins in on the pounding of drums to produce a frenzy of sound. If tonight is anything to go by, you should go guy debut album ‘Lesser Evil’ when it’s out in February 2013. I even totally forgot Swans were supposed to be playing tonight.

As if I hadn’t lost my shit enough to Doldrums, to top it off I step outside into the crisp, bitter very early morning night, and look up to see agile lights dancing across the open sky. It’s a moment. The words fail. Thank you, aurora borealis.

Head here for Part II

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