Americans have no shortage of options when it comes to music festivals, so heading all the way to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves may not make a lot of sense. But plenty of the people who actually attend all those Stateside festivals spend a fair amount of time complaining about the experience. Maybe it’s their scale—270,000 for Chicago’s Lollapalooza, the overwhelming array of options at South By Southwest—but it seems that, while festivals are more plentiful than ever, completely enjoyable ones have never been scarcer. A trip to Reykjavik starts to seem less outlandish that way.
Launched in 1999 as a single night of bands performing in an airplane hanger, the fest has grown into a spectacle featuring hundreds of bands spread across almost a dozen venues, plus even more performances during daytime showcases (which sounds like SXSW, but on a smaller scale). Mixing bands from Iceland, Europe, and North America, the fest transforms Reykjavik into the center of the music universe for a week—it’s the best music festival people know nothing about.
Reykjavik is small for a capital, just over 200,000 residents, though a little under 320,000 people live in the entire country of Iceland. Yes, it can get very cold—the weather during this year’s Airwaves was particularly wet and blustery with highs struggling to reach 40 degrees—but it doesn’t hamper the event, and post-fest activities last until sunrise on the weekends. Icelanders also speak English fluently, making for few communication issues, and there’s plenty of good food, ranging from the cheap (a very popular hot dog stand and small shack on the harbor that offers the famous lobster soup) to the highbrow (numerous gourmet restaurants that offer plenty of excellent seafood and tapas options). It can be on the pricey side, though, even after the country’s historic economic collapse. But there are a bevy of affordable packages for airfare and hotel accommodations, all at locations within walking distance of the city’s main drag of participating venues, helping to offset the cost of traveling overseas for a week.
All that said, this year’s incarnation of Airwaves did have something akin to SXSW’s Kanye show, but much more appropriate to the setting. Bookending the fest were a pair of intimate performances by Björk in Reykjavik’s new 800-capacity Harpa concert hall. The singer performed her new album, Biophilia, in its entirety (along with some other songs from her discography) surrounded on all sides by the audience. Björk sported a giant red afro wig and performed with three multi-instrumentalists and the 24-member girls Graduale Nobili choir while videos projected on the screens hanging above the stage. (Natural-history filmmaker David Attenborough narrated.) I attended the Wednesday and Sunday performances, and the mix of concert and performance art was easily summarized: stunning.
While as an album Biophilia has underwhelmed some—our own Jason Heller noted the album’s “yawning starkness”—these performances gave a new context to the work as a whole. Björk’s band played several of the unusual and, in some cases, custom-made instruments live, including a giant Tesla coil that descended from the ceiling for the show’s opener, “Thunderbolt,” and a gravity harp used to delicately pluck notes during the main set’s closer, “Solstice.” Throughout the show, Björk performed to all four sides, the choir going through choreographed moves as their vocals added a sublime, organic texture to songs that, recorded, depend too much on sparse electronics. The choir and organic percussion went a long way toward fleshing out the songs in a live environment.
While some of the songs still felt too sparse for their own good—“Dark Matter” still suffered for the lack of anything resembling structure—the visual elements, be they the video clip of the earth’s shifting tectonic plates during “Mutual Core” or the hypnotic swaying of the harp during “Solstice,” added to the music’s artistry. These elements, when layered below Björk’s unmistakable, ethereal voice, cast a spell over the audience that wasn’t broken until the set’s frenzied closer, a pounding, jagged rendition of “Declare Independence.” Björk screamed “Raise your flag” while the choir echoed “Higher, higher,” an indication of how high the bar was set with the festival’s first performance.
And with that, the fest was underway. There were known entities—Tune-Yards, YACHT, Yoko Ono, and Beach House—that I eschewed in favor of exposure to new bands. With so many bands performing, there’s no way to see them all. Following Björk’s show the first night, I set up shop at one venue. On the bill was a trio of Icelandic bands, beginning with Sykur, a sugary-sweet, cheesy electronic disco outfit that had the crowd dancing. Following that was the alt-rock of Agent Fresco, which was as bland and generic as any of its American counterparts—not that the enthusiastic crowd noticed. Completing the disparate trio was Of Monsters And Men, one of the non-Björk shows I’d most anticipated based on the strength of its new LP, My Head Is An Animal and its triumphant single, “Little Talks.” The band blends typical Icelandic folk sounds—accordion, acoustic guitars, horns—with poppier elements, creating a sound recalls Edward Sharpe And the Magnetic Zeros with a touch of Mumford & Sons. While Animal is out in Iceland, it’s slated for an early-2012 release Stateside thanks to a recent deal with Universal Records.
Thursday began with a visit to a café located in the Harpa venue for Orphic Oxtra, an instrumental Icelandic band (featuring a few multi-instrumentalists that split time in other bands like Utidur and Of Monsters And Men) that belted out tunes with an Eastern European flavor—the band cites Balkan music on its Facebook page—infused with jazzier elements. Later, I made my way to the KEX hostel for Seattle radio station KEXP’s daily broadcast, which featured brief performances by instrumental composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and the thundering indie rock of Mammút. The night’s sets stared with the melodic indie pop of Mr. Silla, whose set began as mellow, melodic indie-pop but grew steadily more raucous. Thanks to the close proximity of most of the venues, it was easy to make my way over to a neighboring bar for a performance by Lay Low, another in a line of folky, acoustic Icelandic bands, its lead singer exuding the same pixie-ish faux soul as Feist. Snorri Helgason followed with a similarly rustic approach, with delicate acoustic plucking and hushed vocals that occasionally rose to a roar.
Sindri Eldon’s off-kilter guitar-pop opened a Friday night of hop-scotching from venue to venue, followed by brief stops to check out the gloomy glam rock of De Staat and the equally gloomy but more dreamy trip-hop of Samaris. After a break for dinner, I saw Just Another Snake Cult belt out fuzzy, ’80s-style electro-pop with husky vocals. Oy’s experimental, spoken-word style owed much to Saul Williams, while Utidur’s brassy, orchestral pop—the highlight of this third night of music—recalled Beirut with alternating male and female vocals.
Ghostigital kicked off Saturday night with glitchy, chaotic beats coupled with frantic, flashing blinding lights. When singer Einar Örn began shouting “I’m bursting,” there was sense he may actually explode into a ball of light right on stage. The fragile, cyclical instrumental music of Ólafur Arnalds, who played a piano and accompanied by a laptop and string quartet, provided a come-down from Ghostigital’s explosive start, as Arnalds straddled a beautiful line between ambient and classical.
After a few days, the folky Icelandic sound can sound repetitive, and fatigue set in during Dad Rocks! Not that it’s necessarily the band’s fault; horn and string accompaniment made for elegant music that soundtracked a lovely breather during a busy night. But after hearing the same style every night, it gets harder to set the genre’s better bands, like Of Monsters And Men, apart from the rest.
Treefight For Sunlight’s jangly pop followed, as did the spooky, dreamy synth-pop of Austra, awash in pink and purple lights. The soaring, anthemic rock of Scotland’s We Were Promised Jetpacks provided an unusual segue between Austra and the pulsating, throbbing dance beats of Gus Gus, itself providing a strange transition to the pummeling punk of Ice Age. Capping it all off was a DJ set by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy at Faktory, the venue where I began the night with Ghostigital, bringing things full circle. Murphy’s set was at its best when he infused Motown and soul into his set, even managing to bring the house down (almost literally) with the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing.”
Sunday’s scaled-back schedule still packed plenty of wallop. After taking in Björk’s Biophilia show for a second time, I checked out We Made God’s version of deafening post-rock. Later, Hjaltalín served up yet one more set of standard Icelandic folk-rock, albeit with a gloomier, artier edge, more akin to Arcade Fire circa Neon Bible than Beirut.
But it was the funky salsa of Retro Stefson that provided the final night’s rowdiest performance: The band’s disco beats and ebullient, energetic stage presence got a tired crowd on its feet and bouncing. That the band was able to rouse the audience after hundreds of performances and hours of partying was a testament to Retro Stefson and the spirit of the Airwaves festival. In the era of megafests and bloated showcase marathons, room remains for festivals like this one, where distractions are minimal and the focus is on simply enjoying the music.