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Iceland Airwaves 2012 – Part II

December 5, 2012

Photos by Nick Miners

Read Part I here

Friday

As mentioned in Part I the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy hit Reykjavík hard yesterday evening, and I wake-up (after a very disrupted sleep. Sandy is a selfish, noisy sleeper) to find that the beast is still rampaging. It turns out that gusts hit 116mph, more intense than in the US, though thankfully without the devastating precipitation. I hear stories of bands in vans driving up and down the seafront on rescue missions between Kex and Harpa, as powerful waves crashed over the seawall into the road reducing people to clinging onto lampposts; ultimately 19 people were admitted to hospital. See this video from near Harpa.

It’s consequently later in the day for our first taste of music, in the form of Danish four-piece Thee Attacks at a Crunchy Frog showcase in Bakkus for some Off-venue action. It’s an Icelandic ‘tradition’ to indulge in some Hákarl whilst in Iceland – Hákarl being rotted shark meat, cured with a fermentation process and hung to dry for months on end. We get the opportunity to interview Thee Attacks pre-show, and as it’s their first time in the country, think it wise to introduce the garage-rockers to this. Naturally, we film it, gagging included, but also stink out all of Bakkus for the rest of the evening such is its terrifying potency. Apologies to those who saw any act there that evening (it was worth it though).

Anways Thee Attacks live are a prospect to be savoured (unlike Hákarl), Jimmy Attack commanding a classic rock ‘n roll stage presence, full of boundless energy whilst literally climbing the walls, furniture, and whatever could feasibly be climbed. A total lady-killer. They play a good chunk of latest LP Dirty Sheets and the set is a much-needed injection of energy, full of Black Keys licks and in your face tricks, coupled with engaging stage banter. More fun than you can throw a winklepicker at.

Over to Harpa for Berliners Me & My Drummer who provide 30 minutes of dream-pop sensibilities slathered in a charming dexterous veneer. On first listen it’s not too dissimilar to the mass of Florence and the Machine indie-pop that can be found on any blog, but the duo of Charlotte Brandi (Me) and Matze Prölloch (My Drummer) have enough twists on the formula to spark interest – and make quite a lot of voice for just two people. Brandi’s between-song chatter is up their with Sóley on the endearing and twee level “You Icelanders are so…tall, and blonde.. and sexy”, agreeing with Phantogram’s sentiments yesterday. And it’s very true, for both sexes. No wonder everyone seems to be making out with one another around me.

Iceland Airwaves 2012

A complete tonal change is on offer next back at Iðnó, where a Bedroom Community-hosted evening is taking place, with Valgeir Sigurðsson, who is the creator of the Icelandic label. The ambient, experimental nature of his work possesses a calmative effect on Iðnó, as he tinkers with various electronic gadgets to produce fragile, slow-building crescendos. At one point a deep, pulsating noise produces a mesmeric quality that rattles the venue more so than the wind outside, which is starting to fade thankfully somewhat. If you’ve heard light-techno remixes of Düsseldorf-based Hauschka, you’re in the right electronic, beautiful area, full of subtle bleeps and elongated, spacious notes.

Only a fraction of Apparat Organ Quartet I witness back at Harpa Silfurberg, with a raft of oscillator boxes, retro synths and high-energy. They do throw out some sweets in case the synths weren’t saccharine enough for you, and also get the audience to throw their arms in the air to create their signature gesture, like this:

Iceland Airwaves 2012

Following which I head to the venue next door in Harpa, Nordurlous, for some homegrown post-rock antics by For A Minor Reflection, and they’re loud on an eviscerating level from the very first crunching riff from the first track. It’s a much-needed shot/punch in the arm following some lighter acts on the eve thus far, akin to Explosions In The Sky on speed flailing in and out of a jazz room (when the brass section starts playing at least).

Everything about this is wrapped up in the paradigm of post-rock; the contrasty harsh lighting and silhouettes, the diaphanous muddy screen projection that suits the mood, the hair, everything. Only 20/25 mins in, the quartet announces that this is their final track; a short set I think to myself? Though the final track is simply epic, in both length and design. After an intro on the glacial scale, and as fast moving, numerous tempo changes are encountered – it builds, releases, repeats, all wholly fearless, all in your face. Kudos to the drummer, a crucial element in this set-up.

With a little bit of a lull between acts, we have a game of festival potluck and head downstairs to Harpa Kaladon for Shiko Shiko. The Ostensibly tranquil setting of this sit-down venue is transformed into a restless party by the ADHD, wildly animated display by the four-piece French band. It’s sort of post-punk though without all the weight and seriousness taken on board as can often be the case, it’s more a case of manic-rock as the frontman cavorts around the stage and venue (as far as his mic allows him to at least), pacing, running, hopping on a seemingly instinctive, spontaneous blizzard. To top it all off the bassist is wearing a gimp mask. It’s all like watching a live-action version of a cartoon. It’s also great fun. I can’t work out if the choice of venue is one of paradox-inspired thought (here usually reserved for more avant-garde, neo classical stuff), or a hindrance.

Iceland Airwaves 2012

It’s been a good run in Harpa, though I’m stating to miss my favourite place of Iðnó, where Bedroom Community-acts are still doing their beautiful things to noise. Final act of the night is adopted Icelander Ben Frost, whose set-up tends to differ from show-to-show, dependent on location, atmosphere and what’s right. Make the form suit the medium and all that. Here he is supported by two people, both on percussion duties, that during the dramatic and devastating moments really take the wall of noise to the next level; as you’d expect given the drums, it’s rather beat-driven at times rather than a pure lesson in electronic headfuckery.

Dynamic range is used like I’ve rarely witnessed before, the quiet sections treated with kid gloves for extend periods before all out apocalyptic, intense sound rumbles around the room and shatters your soul. It’s pious stuff to get easily swept away into, and lose sense of where – and who – you are. A perfect end to the evening, I don’t think I’d be capable of digesting any new experiences after this fervent fury.

Saturday

Thankfully the bulk of the storm has now passed, which makes our trip to the Blue Lagoon actually bearable. For the uninitiated, the Blue Lagoon is a huge geothermal spa that uses naturally heated water from lava flow to fill the pool – and you can’t see through the vibrant, blue water either so all that can be seen is a mass of floating heads. Icicles may be forming in my hair, but my body is toasty warm.

Iceland Airwaves 2012

Faktorý is the Reykjavík equivalent of Dalston’s The Shacklewell Arms, just a few hundred more stops on the London Overground line (perhaps); all low ceilings and archaic wooden beams thus possessing that cozy, intimate vibe. Fannar Ásgrímsson (of Plastik Joy) and Jonas Thor Gudmundsson make-up the duo of Asonat, where they create IDM-indebted trip-hop sounds since their formation a year ago.

However there are three present tonight, who create a delightfully chilled ambient stream, whilst maintaining a soothing, warm sound. Heroin-wave the kids will be calling it I’m sure. The tracks alternate between the male and female vocalist, and sometimes in harmony together – the male vox very Radio Dept./Maps in hushed tone and delivery. In fact that’s not a bad description for their sound as a whole, which is received warmly by the relatively sparse crowd present – 20 or so.

This time last year I witnessed fellow Icelanders Samaris play in the same medieval shoebox that is Faktorý to roughly 15 people, yet yesterday the electronic-mellowers opened the thousand-capacity Art Museum as described in Part I. Hopefully Asonat can replicate this kind of progression for 2013, and on the basis of this enjoyable and strong set it would be much-deserved.

Stop. It’s Harpa time, once again, for Philco Fiction of Norway. The first point of note is that lead vocalist Turid Solberg has moves; also, her voice is pretty spectacular and joyful to wrap ears around – especially with doleful lyrics such as “Your heart is colder than the winter of ’81” in ‘Finally’. The second is the luxurious synth-tastic display, finding a rare niche in this well-trodden pop-world with some sui generis stylisation – hugely playful and endearing much like the work of Metronomy and NZCA/Lines. Off-kilter, and, fun.

If Lykke Li were to gallivant on a merry-go-round with The Knife it may sound a little like this. The finale is an absolute hoot, a climatic frenzy of various noises/instruments that made me feel all giddy, yet happy to have been introduced to their sound. Following this I take the short trip along the concourse to the Harpa venue next door for a slither of 20-year-old singer/songwriter Ásgeir Trausti – described as the ‘Icelandic Bon Iver’. This phrase seems to have gathered momentum as it’s packed in here.

A much-hyped release in Iceland of debut album Dyrd i daudathogn has seen him become something of a glimmering sensation in the Icelandic music scene, and from what I see there are twinkles of magic that may well amount to something. He’s currently working on an English version, though as this performance is strictly in Icelandic it’s difficult for me to pass a full judgement on the showing here.

Iceland Airwaves 2012

Once again I take the well-travelled route from Harpa to Iðnó – maybe I enjoy this journey so much as it passes by Reykjavík’s infamous yet low-key hotdog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur that has existed since 1937 (as frequented by Bill Clinton. The locals love to tell you that factoid around here). Get one with ‘everything’ is my advice. The purpose this time: I Break Horses, the nom de plume of Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck.

The pair bizarrely met through an online forum where you ask a doctor about diseases/symptoms – it turns out they’re both hypochondriacs – and made astonishing debut album Hearts mostly in bedrooms on laptops. They’ve come along way since those days and their live set-up has now evolved into a four-piece, and here posses a calm confidence as they unleash their coruscating warm electronic wall of encompassing fuzz from the almost wholly darkened stage. The live, organic drums in particular add a visceral edge – title track ‘Hearts’ getting a very welcome elongated, slow building intro.

Think of M83 and My Bloody Valentine becoming involved in shoe-staring competition, and you’ll get IBH track ‘Pulse’; somewhat grandiose, though more nuanced than M83-reach-for-the-sky stuff, with the shoegaze and intense feedback of both aforementioned acts. ‘Cancer’ dazzles (an ode to their hypochondriac past?) and from the first unmistakable fade-in synth-lines of final number ‘Winter Beats’ the audience are treated to melodic, warped tones that keep growing and burrowing until a cacophony of chorus-modulation sweeps the scene. Keeping the feedback theme going, they leave the stage one by one over the course of four minutes, lead singer first, and let the instruments they leave behind glow and ooze their strung-out Tarot Sport delicious noise. All that’s left to do is explore the Reykjavík nightlife, safe in the knowledge that the following day only has a light schedule, with only the one act to see. You may have heard of them.

Sigur Ros day (Sunday)

Ah, this is the Iceland I love; crisp, blue skies, low sun that casts surreal towering shadows over parts of the city, sharp intakes of pure life-affirming (non-wind-swept) air, mountainous snow-dusted scenery enveloping the eye-line in almost very direction. Hungover breakfasts. And Sigur Rós.

We head out to the Laugardalshöll Arena (usually a sports hall) that is a short bus ride from the center for a 7pm start, though it’s actually delayed by an hour that I suspect may be part of their plan all along for a little tension building. Or patience testing. With 6,700 tickes sold it’s the highest ever number of tickets sold for a single concert in this country, and from the very first minute of opener ‘Í Gær’ it’s evident that this may be a bit special, as the twinkling intro is bulldozed by a gut-wrenching post-rock barrage of noise. A curtain remains in front of Sigur Rós, though a projected (possibly back-projected) montage of ephemeral footage and intense light-display is a sensory overload. I actually jump when that first barrage of noise/light gets unleashed in the track (listen to it now, turn it up, and imagine being dropped into the caldera of an active volcano suddenly), before settling down into letting the hairs on my neck do their thing.

‘Vaka’ (aka ‘Untitled 1’) and the ostentatious ‘Ný Batterí follow as the curtain remains down, flashes of Jonsi and co teasing the audience when lights are projected as such, and it soon becomes clear I’m going to run out of superlatives. At the start of fellow Ágætis Byrjun number ‘Svefn-g-englar’, as the unambiguous sonar-tones surface, the curtains fall down dramatically to unveil a gargantuan, panoramic screen behind them, and ooo there’s also a brass-band that I can see now too.

If you don’t feel anything one minute and 23 seconds into the grandeur of ‘Svefn-g-englar’ as Jonsi attacks his guitar with a bow, resulting in those classic majestical sound that makes you want to describe every part of the fantastical landscape, you must be dead inside. As is evident now, this is a set of ‘the hits’, we’re not a sounding board for a stream of new material; from Takk‘s ‘Hoppípolla’ and ‘Sæglópur’ to the manic ‘Hafsól’ from Hvarf/Heim and personal favourite of the night ‘Olsen Olsen’. The aforementioned projected footage and varied light show adds to the already emotional spectacle.

Iceland Airwaves 2012

‘Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust’ doesn’t get too much airing apart from ‘Festival’ that, however, provides one of the highlights. The intro consists of Jonsi’s heavenly vocals amid some very minimal background ambience, and, the section immediately prior to where the bulk of the track kicks-in, Jonsi holds a note for an unbelievably long period of time, that creates so much tension I think when it finally does end every geyser across the island will shoot off.

A song after the encore a new track is unveiled, ‘Brennisteinn’, and this is its first ever live airing as Jonsi explains in Icelandic. Translated as brimstone, it certainly is a fiery number that posses an eerie, ominous feel, heavy on the rock aesthetic and powerful, distorted bass. Genuinely not anything like they’ve crafted before, half-way through it wholly strips back to just Jonsi’s vocals and… whoa, we’re in some kind of techno-territory? The club-green lazer lights fire around the auditorium as the beats propel at a high bpm, and people are almost dancing. Listen for yourself.

There’s only one-way to end a Sigur Ros show: “Popplagid”. Or, the diametrically opposed monikered “Pop Song”. If you’ve listened to this in headphones in a darkened room, or had the pleasure of experiencing it first hand, you’ll know what a cataclysmically immense ten/fifteen minutes, (though, time seems to becomes hopelessly irrelevant as you get so lost in it’s fury), of your life it is. The drums crash violently, restless crescendos suck the air out of the room, etiolated faces drop around me, it’s simply epic. A wingspan unbelievable. They don’t do things by half do they?

It rounds off two-and-a-half-hours of intense Sigur Rós action, and five days of memories from the celestial land of ice and fire (now with added wind) that will stick with me until the days that I become like the volcanic ash, ash that incidentally sticks to the windows all over town after Hurricane Sandy’s lengthy cameo. The real world will just not be the same anymore.

Check out our In Photos Special of Iceland Airwaves: Part I and Part II

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