Iceland Airwaves 2012: A review

After several years of thinking about it, 2012, My 40th year on Earth, would be the year I travelled to Iceland, which is like another planet altogether. After a week of driving around the country, exploring its many weird and wonderful places, an experience I’ll write more about separately, we completed the round trip to Reykjavík by indulging in Iceland Airwaves, the country’s most well-known music festival. It’s five days of non-stop venue hopping, seeing local and international acts in arenas, bars, clubs, hotel bars and lobbies, pubs, bookshops, cafes and just about anywhere else with a power socket or room enough to swing a cat.

Here’s what we saw in across that extraordinary period.

WEDNESDAY 31 October
Blind Bargain – Dillon Whiskey Bar

Blind Bargain was your run-of-the-mill pub rock band. The line-up was simple, including a vocalist doing his best to emulate Lou Reed, a cute keyboard player swayed and added the sex appeal, but the songs quickly slipped from the memory. Still, it was in a whiskey bar, in Iceland, and everyone was as cool as the rocks in the drinks, so who cares. It was a fun opening to the Airwaves experience.

Skúli Mennski – Harpa
A short jazzy interlude while waiting for Úlfur. We sat with a beer and a wine and smiled at the other faces around us. They were all excited Airwaves was underway and the music had started.

Úlfur – Harpa Kaldalón
Gah, the disappointment. I’d fallen for Úlfur Hansson off the back of his clip for Black Shore, which was unleashed to the Internet earlier this year. I thought it was very col. Sadly, his performance at Airwaves bore no resemblance to this glitchy piece of electronic goodness. Instead, he plumped for an abstract weird-fest, where he spent the bulk of his time crouched over a laptop on the floor, clicking things and looking intense. For all I know, he could have been checking out Facebook or the Airwaves Twitter feed. Alongside was a quartet of wind instrumentalists who occasionally chimed in with what sounded like a tune-up. Not a good start to proceedings in the main venues. Massive “meh”.

Highasakite – Þyski Barinn

Our first visit to Þyski Barinn, and it was packed full to see one of Norway’s new musical darlings, and they didn’t disappoint. Highasakite played with great energy, with Ingrid Helene Håvik’s soaring vocals the highlight. The highlight was the last song, Indian Summer, and its fabulous all-in choral outro, which got everyone in the room bouncing with delight. I didn’t want it to end, but it did, but at least we strolled home with big smiles on our faces. After the hiccup of Úlfur, day one ended very well.

THURSDAY 1 November
Myrra Rós – Reykjavík Backpackers

I’ve been a fan of Myrra Rós’s angelic vocals for a year or two now, so I wasn’t going to miss her playing an acoustic show at the local backpackers. She was true to form, soft and ethereal, charming between songs, and brilliant in every aspect of her musicianship.

Agent Fresco – Icelandair at Hotel Marina

Recommended by our waiter, Agent Fresco is a staple of the Reykjavík music scene. Only four years old, they’ve made big strides quickly, and in 2009 were named as the best new artists at the Icelandic equivalent of the Grammies, the Íslensku Tónlistarverðlaunin. Frontman Arnór Dan Arnársson could be a big reason for that. Singing songs dedicated to his recently deceased father, the emotion and passion he displayed in his delivery of the lyrics was unbridled and watching the band became a completely immersive experience as a result. Drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson also stood out, his giant mop of curly hair bouncing along to some of the most complex parts I’ve ever heard, but all executed with extraordinary dexterity. For an example, just listen toEyes Of A Cloud Catcher, from the band’s debut LP A Long Time Listening. It reminded me a little of Australian band George, which made a big splash with a record called Polyserena in 2002. But Agent Fresco topped that, because just when you least expected it, Arnársson would launch into a death metal scream as the band exploded around him. But it worked beautifully. A stunning show in, of all places, a hotel lobby bar.

Samaris – Reykjavík Art Museum

One of the youngest band’s at Airwaves this year, I knew not what to expect from Samaris, other than something electronic. That it was, but lead singer Jófríður Ákadóttir provided a surprising twist with her energetic performance that reminded me of a young Björk. She was breathless at times, intentionally, all while her bandmates kept the music ticking along with nothing more than a laptop full of beats and samples and a clarinet. If this is the new generation of Icelandic musicians we have to look forward to, bring them forward. A great show, and their youthful excitement was also so lovely to see.

Phantogram – Reykjavík Art Museum

A louder show than this I can’t dredge up from my memory banks, and as a metal-obsessed teenager, you can imagine I’ve endured some ear-busting gigs in my time. The bottom end was ridiculously high, so much so my already fragile ears rang with pain and the clothes on my frame leapt to every beat here. That said, it was still for me a supremely enjoyable show. New Yorkers Phantogram made it through Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy to be at Airwaves, and they get a massive high-five for that effort. They also blasted out some top tunes in a memorable performance, including big hit Mouthful Of Diamonds. Sarah Barthel was as sexy as I’d anticipated, wearing all black, a bat-wing top and thigh-high boots over her long stockinged legs. She looked the part while sidekick Josh Carter stood ably by with his guitar. With the volume down a touch, this would have been a top-five show for me, but it all got a bit uncomfortable after three quarters of the set, and I was suddenly craving something more sedate.

The Echo Vamper – Gamli Gaukurinn

And the award for “Most Bonkers Performer” goes to … Iza Mortag Freund. We stumbled across this Danish “lunachick” at one of Reykjavík’s iconic music venues, the first place in town to offer live music to punters every night of the week. Acts such as TV On The Radio and The Antlers have played here, but I don’t think the place ever saw a performance like this one in its 30 years of existence. Freund paraded around the small stage like a possessed viper, topless but for two taped crosses across her nipples, while British bandmate James Brook pounded his guitar alongside. It was punk-rock to the max, interesting but wacky, fun, if unintentionally amusing as a result of Freund’s strange antics.

Sudden Weather Change – Gamli Gaukurinn
A space filler for us. Not bad, just generic local rock.

Nova Heart – Gamli Gaukurinn
You wouldn’t expect China to produce anything great on the rock front, but in Nova Heart it’s given us something truly fun to watch. Helen Feng is the brains and voice behind the project, which transports you back in time to an era when glam pop was all anyone cared about. Think Bondie, Kim Wilde, Transvision Vamp, and you’re in the right ball park. Her performance was superb, but her little drummer stole the show. Standing probably less than five feet, Atom, as she is known, was a powerhouse of pixie proportions. Boy, did she pack a big beat. Guitarist Wang Zongcan provided some beautiful parts too, making this show a really great surprise.

Haim – Gamli Gaukurinn

Haim was a band I was excited to see on the bill long before I’d arrived in Iceland. Having written about them previously, I wanted to see for myself if their excellent first records could be translated to a live setting. The answer was a resounding yes. From start to finish, the “three sisters and one mister”, as they’ve been tagged on various music blogs, were superb. Drummer Dash Hutton was a brilliant glue for the girls, who between them all provided highlights. Alana, the youngest of the trio at just 20, was a bundle of energy while Danielle held the crowd with a dark and menacing presence, not least when she unleashed guitar solos that any rock and roll guru of the late Seventies or early Eighties would have been proud to record. Este provided solid basslines, some truly bizarre facial expressions, and a healthy dose of comedy with her between-songs tales and shameless mockery of some audience members. “I hope I don’t get pregnant tonight,” she said after talking about getting it on with some of the boys in Iceland before the band launched into a fantastic finale of Let Me Go, with the battering drums by every member of the band at the end putting a full-stop on a truly inspiring set. Well played, ladies … and gentleman.

FRIDAY 2 November
Me And My Drummer – Harpa Silgurberg

This little German duo offered up a great little set to start the evening of day three at Airwaves. Vocalist Charlotte Brandi and her drummer Matze Pröllochs put together a tight set of electronic tunes with a twist that held a growing audience’s attention in a very big room at Harpa. It was an excellent show, a surprise to those of us that knew little about the band.

Kiriyama Family – Harpa Silgurberg
I’d heard good things about these guys, but was a little let down by their show. It wasn’t really the performance, which was assured and tight, but more a lack of x-factor that I look for in bands these days. They’d be popular with a younger generation, perhaps, but looked a little overwhelmed by their surroundings and a big room at Harpa. Still, with more practice they’ll get to where they want to be, and I think a lot of young girls around Europe will find a place for them in their pre-pubescent hearts.

For A Minor Reflection – Harpa Norđurlós

Without doubt, one of the highlights of the festival. These post-rockers ripped Harpa a new asshole with some staggering beefy tunes that were delivered with such energy it was impossible not to grin madly through the vibrations. Guitarist Kjartan Hólm took centre stage as this quartet of ludicrously talented 20 year olds played what will be their last show for a few months, with Hólm now an integral part of Sigur Rós’s extended 11-piece band. Second guitarist and keyboard player Guðfinnur Sveinsson was also a standout, but with the rhythm section of drummer Elvar Jón Guðmundsson and cool-as-ice bassist Andri Freyr Þorgeirsson, it wouldn’t have held together. The band has supported Sigur Rós previously, and was named by that band as the most likely to outdo British post-rock legends Mogwai. With form like this, that is certainly possible. The highlight was Hólm and Sveinsson sharing the piano for Dansi Dans, a cut from the superb 2012 album Höldum í átt að óreiðu. It’s on Spotify waiting for you to listen.

Exitmusic – Harpa Norđurlós

One word sums up a show that I couldn’t get to the end of: awful. While Exitmusic has been receiving rave reviews since sprouting from New York a few years back, we can but hope singer Aleksa Palladino gets more work acting, where she is a staple of many US TV shows. That could curb her musical ambitions. (You may have seen her in Boardwalk Empire as Angela Darmody.) The songs were dull, vocally bland and akin to Lana Del Rey’s recent monotonic drawls. One thing she and husband Devon Church have got right is the band’s name. It’s certainly music that makes you want to exit wherever you are hearing it. Leaving early was necessary to ensure For A Minor Reflection remained the abiding memory of the night.

SATURDAY 3 November
Rubik – Hressó

A must-see band for me, Rubik played its last show of Airwaves in the beer garden of Hressó, brilliant not only for its compact and intimate nature, but also because you could smoke there. The last time I enjoyed a cigarette and some live music at the same time had been long forgotten. But this was all about the show, and I was delighted by what I saw and heard. For those of you that don’t know, Rubik is from Finland, and fronted by Artturi Taira, who sings and plays guitar with great fervour. Despite the venue’s size, these guys didn’t strip back the band, including keyboards, percussion, even brass. They rattled off some crackerjack tunes, not least City And The Streets, one of my favourites for a long time from the 2007 album Bad Conscience, to make this a truly wonderful experience. I’d love to see these guys rip up a big place like the Metro or Enmore theatres in Sydney, so get listening to them so they have a reason to visit us poor folk Down Under, who too often miss this type of band through the tyranny of distance.

My Bubba And Mi – Iđnó
En route to Daughter we stopped in to see this quirky little trio. They sang about cakes, ice creams, and even composed a song on request from an audience member about smooching. They also performed some jingles from their “jingle factory”. Charming, funny and achingly cute at the same time, they’re worth a little of your time. I enjoyed their silly tales and amusing lyrics, but I’m not sure how it would work outside of a live setting, but you never know.

Daughter – Fríkirkjan
On after the mind-numbing performance of Solaris by Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason that almost sent this peaceful little church to sleep, London duo Daughter charmed us with its atmospheric tunes. Elena Tonra was faultless in her singing, and super cute in her shy nature. She giggled quietly after every song, clearly excited by her surroundings and the opportunities Airwaves offers all those that play there. Remi Aguilella was a little more confident chatting to the crowd, regaling stories of their hair-raising flight to the capital in some of the worst winds the city has ever witnessed. All up, a very enjoyable little set in a completely unique venue.

Ghostpoet – Þyski Barinn

Obaro Ejimiwe is a South London lad like myself, and made it to Iceland for the first time for this Airwaves, also like myself. I’m glad he did because he did a fine job of entertaining an enthusiastic crowd at one of the more grungy venues afforded the festival. With a small band, and his own vocal rig, Ghostpoet, as he prefers to be called, delivered his reasonably unique brand of hip-hop with aplomb. I particularly enjoyed Cash And Carry Me Home, a track I think is about depression or alcoholism. Not a happy topic by any means, but great lyrics.

GusGus – Harpa Silfurberg
When it comes to dance music in Iceland, every local will tell you GusGus is all there is worth listening to. They’ve been around the block a few times, remixed the likes of Björk, Depeche Mode and Sigur Rós and been a stepping stone for solo artists like Hafdis Huld and Emiliana Torrini. Certain elements in the crowd for this show were young and obnoxious, sadly, which led to an early exit for us. They do what they do well, but it’s hard to enjoy when you’re being harassed by the Icelandic equivalent of a bogan.

SUNDAY 4 November
YLJA – Eymundsson

This was a cute little show played in a bookshop for a healthy crowd. We were actually there to see Asgeir Trausti, but he didn’t make it in time before we had to leave for Sigur Rós. YLJA plays folk music sung by cute ladies, with the backing of an awesome slide guitarist. Sadly, said guitarist was hidden at the back of the set-up, so we couldn’t see his talents, but hearing them was good. The guy has talent.

Sigur Rós – Laugardalshöllin
I’ve posted on this show separately, such was its nature and magnitude. In short, the best live show I’ve ever, and probably will ever see.

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