Iceland Airwaves, 10/12-16

Active Child at Iceland Airwaves 2011

The 13th annual Iceland Airwaves took place from October 12-16 in Reykjavik, Iceland. A total of 252 artists played at 13 different venues in and around downtown Reykjavik with headlining acts such as Björk, Beach House, Sinéad O’Connor, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band and John Grant. 6000 festival-goers, musicians, media and industry attended, and over 4000 people downloaded the Iceland Airwaves Síminn app. In addition, Seattle’s KEXP (90.3 FM) recorded many great live performances throughout the festival at the aptly-chosen off-venue location, KEX. See many of their videos here.

The climate of the festival this year was the major obstacle everyone had to face; apart from the first day, it was mostly cold (40’s) and rainy, but too windy for umbrellas. Yet somehow, running up and down Laugavegur like Renton in Trainspotting, it still managed to be a beautiful, cheerful experience, with wet, yellow leaves peppering the street, different kinds of music playing everywhere, and a general warmth and energy all around.

In aiming to keep with the principle of brevity of Short and Sweet NYC, I painfully narrowed my top artists of Airwaves down to a Top 15 list and gave each one an award.

1. “Best New Solo Artist” Award: Sóley (KEX, Tuesday, October 11)
Sóley is one of the brightest stars that recently appeared in the galaxy that is Icelandic music. A member of the indie collective Seabear, she started her solo project in 2010 and has received serious indie acclaim for her recent album, We Sink. Her performance is a must-see; onstage, she’s positively sweet and imaginative, like a little girl, with her eyes closed and a smile across her face. At smaller venues like this one, the crowd was as engaged with her music as she was with her own lyrics; in fact, it almost seemed as though Sóley had been the only one in the room, singing to herself without a single distraction, happily feeling and re-imagining all the lyrics, keeping those stories somewhat to herself. It was this private performance style that made her so enchanting. In addition, her drummer had an interesting way of waiting to play until almost midway through certain songs; this definitely helped to carry her songs out into the audience.

2. “Shockingly Best First Impression” Award: Honningbarna (KEX, Tuesday, October 11)
I really didn’t expect to have to put earplugs in that early, but these Norwegian punk rockers, whose name translates to “Honey Children” (Hard as Cement, Sweet as Candy), would’ve taken my hearing with them if I hadn’t. Featuring a cello, a Hammond organ, two guitars, a bass, a drum kit, and loads of fresh young anarchism, these guys certainly made one of the most killer first impressions on an audience I’ve seen in a very long time (not to mention a killer part of the commencement of the festival, itself). Their dynamite rock-out, scolding sermons in Norwegian, and head banging was fronted by a lead singer who’d play the cello so aggressively that it was phenomenal no instruments (or people) were harmed in the process. Later on, he remarked that he’d actually had to tone down his set ever so slightly because he’d only brought two bows instead of the normal three he usually goes through.

3. “Most Interested to See Where This Goes” Award: Samaris (KEX, Wednesday, October 12; NASA, Friday, October 14)
Winner of the 2011 Icelandic Music Experiments, Samaris’ sound encapsulates that of several great artists in the trip-hop, dubstep realm of music (James Blake, Fever Ray, Massive Attack), yet they are very much their own creation at the same time. This is especially stunning because they are so young. The band consists of three 17-18-year-old students from Reykjavik who play on stage dressed in black with eyes painted like dark clowns or mimes. Their music is dark and gloomy but also hauntingly beautiful. Clarinet glides over carefully-orchestrated beats while vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir sings beautifully in Icelandic. They certainly know how to create a well-balanced sound that is beautiful in its simplicity. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this young group develops and grows artistically. The band has released a double EP titled Hljóma Þú.

4. “Most Mesmerizing Effect on a Crowd” Award: Jóhann Jóhannsson (Fríkirkjan, Thursday, October 13)
This Icelandic pianist is a musician, composer, producer, and active member of his country’s artistic community. It is apparent that there is more to this artist than just the piano he sits and plays at; certainly, there is a theatrical element, a soundtrack of sorts, running through his entire performance. The music he played started out as somewhat melancholy, but it began to build and get more magical. The stringed instruments added an additional element to his performance. What was most interesting about this performance was the fact that most listeners at his performance could be seen with their eyes closed, heads buried in hands or resting on the pews/railings of the church. Indeed, it was also impressive to see that few photographers were shooting; instead, they were quietly listening, resting, not scurrying to the next venue. Jóhann’s new album, IBM 1401 is described at length on his beautifully-arranged website.

5. “Artist with Highest Voice (Who Probably Also Should’ve Performed in that Church)” Award: Active Child (NASA, Thursday, October 13)
This was angelic dubstep with a harp unlike any other angelic dubstep music heard before. I may be the only person who thinks that it’s intriguing that this voice comes out of a man who looks like Pat Grossi, a tall redhead who carries himself like a regular guy. Maybe it’s best this way for a stronger effect on the audience. Upon seeing and hearing his spiritual ballads, this immediately elevates him to the level of some sort of angel (this effect is heightened with the addition of the harp). The performance he put on that night was flawless. The added visual bonus of the performance was the addition of bubbles a fan was blowing near the stage the entire show. At certain moments, Pat even reached out to catch them in between songs. Hear Active Child’s latest single, “Diamond Heart” here.

6. “Best Venue Choice with Her in Mind” Award: Sinéad O’Connor @ Fríkirkjan (Friday, October 15)
Indeed, I was worried about this performance… worried from what the media had said. Worried that this lady would take my image of her and tear it up in front of all of us that night in the old church. Instead, she made me pinch myself a dozen times and took my love of her music to new heights by interweaving her incredibly sarcastic wit between songs. The location for her spellbinding two-hour performance (a festival at which bands play a maximum of one hour) could not have been more perfect, and she recognized this as soon as she started the performance. Her look could not have been more perfect: Jesus T-shirt with a corset in the back; her image did not deviate from the one many had of her. Sinéad effectively blended new with old material, and her voice made that old church brighter and more beautiful. It was clear that everyone in that building knew this performance was special. We listened to her funny stories and her song dedications to her son, her daughter, and finally to a local paper (to thank them for helping her find a boyfriend). She later played one of my favorite songs, “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” entirely a capella. From this performance, we soon came to realize she still has the voice of an archangel and she still can move entire crowds of people. She announced that she will soon be touring in support of her new album Home. The show ended with a fake prayer and laughter. See some of my videos of her performances at Airwaves here and here.

7. “Highest Energy and Whitest Bodysuit Ever” Award: Yacht (NASA, Thursday, October 13)
One of the winners of Reyka Vodka’s Breakthrough at Airwaves contest, this band really seemed to approach their performance with the attitude “This is why we were asked to come to Airwaves.” Indeed, Yacht put on an incredibly tight, dynamic performance that really seemed to wow everyone in that venue. Singer Claire L. Evans was incredibly sassy and confident in an all-white bodysuit she rocked. And in return, the band got the response they earned. Later on in the show, Claire could be seen crowd surfing. Nothing like rocking spandex high above the crowd, I’m sure.

8. “Band to Effectively Make Me Cry… Again” Award: Agent Fresco (NASA, Wednesday, October 12; Nordic House, Thursday, October 13)
There is just something about this band. Any Airwaves attendee knows that you have to see this band to get a feel for emotional energy that is so rare, real, and uplifting. It all comes down to vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson, a singer who has the power to move people unlike any other performer I’ve seen in Iceland. This acoustic performance at Nordic House was one I attended last year, and although there was a lot of new music to hear this year, I found myself at Nordic House almost unconsciously yet again. There is just something so tangibly real about Arnór Dan’s emotional energy. He’s really inspiring in the way that he puts so much of his energy and being into a performance that even he doesn’t know what will happen. The entire group is highly supportive of each other and extremely close. Their song, “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher” is especially moving.

9. “Band That Sounded a Lot Better Live Than I Had Predicted” Award: Young Magic (KEX, Friday, October 14)
This band was an unexpected surprise because they played at a Reyka Vodka promotional event in the back of KEX while other bands were playing out front. I’d originally planned to catch them for a quick song and then move on, but I ended up not moving at all. Their music is described as “zombie pop,” but I find it to be more ethereal. They hail from Australia by way of New York City. Within moments of the start of their performance, many photographers abandoned their drinks at what was supposed to be a relaxing media event and began snapping photo after photo. This group created such a beautiful mix of tribal beats with dizzy synths and repetitious screams, chants, and mantras. It was pretty much the perfect sound to give an edge to that little party. Listen to one of their songs here.

10. “Band That Has Improved the Most Since the Last Airwaves” Award: Sykur (NASA, Saturday, October 15)
During this performance, I heard what would become one of my favorite quotes of the festival. An extremely passionate Sykur fan shouted to me, “This is my favorite f’in band in the whole world… and the world sucks!!” Indeed, food for thought. There is good reason for Sykur to be many people’s favorite band. It’s very solid electro/dance music that just keeps getting better. Last year, their performance at Faktorý was so creepy and over the top, with a flirty male and female vocalist pretending to be related to one another. I fell in love with their album Frábært Eða Frábært, a video game soundtrack masterpiece, and now I’m in love with their latest album, Mesópótamía. This album is of an even higher musical quality than the last one and also shows artistic growth. Onstage at NASA, their new vixen at the mic certainly put on nothing short of a spectacular show. The band was even joined by FM Belfast’s Árni Vilhjálmsson onstage; sadly, FM Belfast did not play at Airwaves this year.

11. “Happy Ending to a Sad Story” Award: Myrra Rós (Reykjavik Backpackers Hostel, Sunday, October 16)
Lead singer of the low-fi band Andvari, Myrra informed Airwaves attendees shortly before the start of the festival that Andvari wouldn’t be playing at all. This was especially disappointing since I’d missed seeing Andvari last year and had put them at the top of my list for this year. It was later learned that the band had broken up. Fortunately, out of the breakup came Myrra Rós’ solo project. I caught her tiny performance at this hostel, which was very intimate and relaxing after four hard days of running from place to place. Myrra is the type of performer who gets more beautiful as the performance goes on because she grows more and more comfortable with the crowd. Afterwards, I purchased one of her homemade albums (no two alike), which, she said, will be released in Germany soon. Indeed, there is nothing like her live performance, but you can hear some of her music here:

12. “Björk” Award: Björk (Harpa, Sunday,October 16)
What kind of award can I possibly give this artist? Most original artist? Most technologically advanced artist? How about just the award for Björk being true to herself? This performance was a ticketed event that took place twice during Airwaves and several times after the festival finished. The show took place in the newest venue of all, Harpa, a glassy piece of architecture that proved perfect for musical performances of any size and type. This performance took place in a space that consisted of a central stage, with all viewing points no more than twenty meters away. Björk stunned her audience by incorporating musical technology never seen before into her performances. This included the gameleste (Indonesian gamelan + celeste), a sharpsichord, a pendulum harp, and the hang (played by Manu Delago). In addition, she also incorporated the iPad into her performance. Björk spoke entirely in Icelandic, which was interesting to those who mostly hear her speak and sing in English. I’d later learn that she was battling a stomach virus that night, but no one would’ve ever known that from the professionalism she exerted onstage. I really enjoyed the jungle quality added to the song “Crystalline.” The image projections on the screens above the stage were very lifelike and also hypnotic at times. These moving images brought us into her world – the moving starfish during “Hidden Place,” the mushrooms during “Isobel.” I liked Björk’s performance most when the choir girls weren’t onstage with her, but they also did a very good job. It was a perfectly professional, perfectly-orchestrated, enchanting evening that went too quickly. This performance really helped all of us see her new album as a body of work with a message rather than just a collection of songs. Afterwards there was an exhibition outside, which explained all of her instruments in greater detail. Hear her song “Crystalline.”

13. “Artist That Sounded Great Whilst in Line Outside the Venue (Damn)” Award: Mugison (KEX, Thursday, October 13)
Yes, Reykjavik is small, but it’s not small enough to be able to make it to every show you want to see during Airwaves (on time). Upon my arrival at KEX for this show, I was greeted by a stationery line, as well as several bright individuals on a scaffolding above, peering through the windows. Nevertheless, the sound coming through those windows was pure solid energy and greatness. This beloved Icelandic singer-songwriter sang in both Icelandic and English, and the vocal and musical quality of all of his songs won over everyone in that room, as well as everyone outside.

14. “Most Talented Piano Ping-Pong Player I’ve Ever Seen” Award: Hauschka (Fríkirkjan, Thursday, October 13)
One of the most highly-anticipted acts of Airwaves, Bedroom Community’s Hauschka, or Volker Bertelmann, is an experimental German composer and pianist who added a playful element to his performance by putting ping-pong balls inside his piano so that everyone could watch them fly up into the air as he played his beautifully emotive classical music…. that is, everyone who could see past the photographers, who leaped at the opportunity to catch this artistic shot. There was more: attached to the hammers and strings, there was also gaffer tape and other unknown objects, all of which helped him create totally new sounds. The overall experience was positively cinematic.

15. “Band I’ll Be Hearing from a Lot More” Award: Of Monsters and Men (Glaumbar, Friday, October 14)
This band may be the biggest band in Iceland right now. They certainly have reason to be; you can hear a whole venue filled with people singing their melodies from down the block. Of Monsters and Men are a band of unknown size that produce engaging folk-pop to smiling Icelandic people everywhere. They’ve owned radio play for weeks and have just released a debut album. Shortly after Airwaves ended, Of Monsters and Men signed with Universal Music Group, a tremendous achievement for them and the best result to come out of an Icelandic music festival. It was a pleasure to witness the choral accompaniment to their songs in this venue. I actually stood atop the same chair two other people were also standing on to catch a visual to pair with this group’s sonic energy.

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