Reykjavik is odd. It sits on top of the world in many respects: geography for one thing, as well as fashion, art and music. On the other hand, this town is bonkers. The cheapest foodstuff available is yoghurt – a brand called Skyr, which is beyond brilliant by the way – while vintage clothes are significantly more expensive than anything new. Everything is unpronounceable: names, streets, bands, everything. Also, did we mention how expensive Reykjavik is? The locals bat their eyes and say, “Well, it’s Iceland”, but really, a few things DiS bought exceeded expensive territory and entered extortionate. A personal pizza is fifteen quid and a pint of beer seven. The credit card is maxed out.
Some might say Iceland Airwaves is a bit like The Camden Crawl or The Great Escape – it’s an inner-city festival that makes use of conventional venues to host a number of bands over the course of a few evenings. But it's a whole lot more than that. Not to mention a hell of a lot colder.
Unlike those British affairs, Reykjavik's offering showcases a wealth of fresh, home-grown and genuinely unsigned talent for the eyes of foreign journalists like us. And said hacks come back year after year because Airwaves takes place in one of the most beautiful, and welcoming, cities in the world.
For three hectic days (not to mention nights), DiS made Reykjavik our temporary home. This is what happened - band-wise, at least...
Three venues host music, mostly of the local variety, but DiS makes poor decisions. Not least, in Rob's case, failing to sleep the night before he arrived. Of the bands seen, none are worth mentioning in a positive light. At least we can advise you to avoid the following: Lights on a Highway, Solid Gold and Smoosh. We heard good things about Naflakusk, an Icelandic high-school pop choir with five female singers, but we missed them. Drat.
Olof Arnalds opens up Thursday night with an acoustic guitar, a deliriously high-pitched voice and some Icelandic ditties. She used to sing in Múm, or so they say. Tonight she is a tad scary. Almost too Icelandic, maybe? Our hosts’ folk music is nice, but this is bit too folk. Ever shear a sheep and accidentally catch its skin? We guess this is what that sounds like.
Following that, we are told of a band that sounds like Arcade Fire, so off to see Sprengjuhollin we go. Everyone is everyone’s answer to Arcade Fire these days, but in Iceland’s defence elements permeating this domestic act’s sound resemble and even expand on Montreal’s finest. Sprengjuhollin have pop music at their core, with all sorts of tweaking, pokes and prods from folk, jazz, Latin and electronica. ‘Glumur’ is a winner, and even though we cannot pronounce their name (a theme at Airwaves), Sprengjuhollin impress.
Best Fwends, erm, don't. They have released through Moshi Moshi, normally a stamp of utmost quality. We say normally because tonight in NASA they do nothing but irritate the fuck out of us. What is this stuff? Fluoro karaoke? A bad joke? Neither, perhaps, but also both at the same time. Essentially, it's two guys with microphones chattering like ADD-afflicted chipmunks over the top of some homemade Lego Band beats. Dire.
Grizzly Bear have the plum slot this evening, on at midnight in arguably the festival's best venue, Reykjavik's Art Museum. So what do they do? They start promisingly before throwing it all away by forgetting to play songs and passing off ridiculous noodling as performance. Don't get us wrong: we are huge fans of second (and most recent) LP Yellow House, but what we see tonight, for the most part, just isn't anywhere near as inspiring or, well, good. Plus, the amount of pedals and gizmos employed onstage is downright frightening. Please tell us what every single pedal does, Grizzly Bear, and we’ll apologize.
It's 1:30PM at the Nordic House, a library of sorts on the other side of Reykjavik’s city centre. Jenny Wilson is on stage in the auditorium. Armed with a piano and three accompanying musicians, the Swede unfurls nothing but top-notch stuff. ‘Hey, What’s the Matter’ is glorious; as is the slightly off-kilter and deliriously cute ‘Let My Shoes Lead Me’. Five songs later, DiS is mystified, despite being stuck outside because the venue is overfilled. Her voice transcends though, filled with softness but buttressed by power. Plus, she looks and sings like Joni Mitchell and we like Joni Mitchell. Yep, in that way.
Afterwards, the in-store performances in the city centre kick off. Slow Club begin our roll around town. They aren’t bad, per say, but they need time to develop. The boy-girl kitsch duo prefer to scream rather than sing, write some nice oddball melodies but have trouble organising them. Perhaps it's the sound system or the occasion - we've seen them do much better than this. A few years and stronger songwriting may steer them in the right direction but, today at least, they're caught adrift.
But you know what isn't a letdown? Ice cream. Ice cream is good; monsters are not. This hypothesis is irrefutable, especially when sung by a gorgeous, blonde Icelandic girl. This is Hafdis Huld. She treats us to some relaxation at Iceland’s biggest music store, Skifan (it’s not that big). Plus, this is a family affair: parents and children are prattling about, almost in sync with the songs. With a keyboardist, banjo player and acoustic guitar, Huld treats us to tracks off her solo record and plenty of odd banter in between. Definitely a weird one, but weird is good.
We have dinner - and many free drinks (with these bar prices, you've got to fill your boots) - at an industry party. Mr. Silla & Mongoose kick off the evening's musical proceedings with folksy electro-blues, the kind to warm the cockles on this freezing Friday evening. Mr. Silla - the girl with the voice, somewhat confusingly - and her electro accomplice Mongoose are a pick of the Icelandic talent we DiScover at Airwaves. For sure she can sing, but it's the minimalist accompaniment that adds variety and holds the interest. A trumpet player joins for the final few laments, furthering their appeal. Nice.
Bloodgroup sound like they should be a heavy metal outfit, but here's the news: they most certainly are not. Rather, this Icelandic quartet deal in glitchy new-rave pop, the kind that should, in theory, ensure they're snapped up to some cash-happy major looking for the next Klaxons by the time you read this. Their sweaty set in NASA reminds us of Hadouken! fronted by a younger, geekier Madonna - in other words, they ain't that original but all their songs are a) about sex and b) riddled with filthy electro beats. They prove to be DiS's guilty pleasure of the festival.
Off to the Art Museum for a bit of Denmark’s Trentemoller. The trio, armed with keyboards, bass, drums and samples, shower the packed Art Museum in pools of live trance, techno and house whence we arrive. This is completely predictable, but marvellous. They tickle each melody until it explodes, then cover the cream that comes out in thick swathes of reverb, bass and electronic thumping. We are on the balcony, reserved for ‘press’ types, away from the packed and obviously sweating crowd. But Trentemoller still manage to immerse us in the party below.
DiS struggles to get into Deerhoof. In Guakkerinn, this isn't abnormal - even for those with press passes - but tonight the venue plays host to the DrownedinSound night. No matter, we don't sulk; instead we queue. Once inside, we're in good company: members of Grizzly Bear and Bloc Party are here, too. For the uninitiated, Deerhoof's isn't an easy sound to pin down - there's punk at work, snippets of post-rock, J-Pop and lots of other stuff. All of which is good, plus in Satomi Matsuzaki they have a delightfully idiosyncratic vocalist. Even if the PA does its best to defeat them, Deerhoof are pretty much unstoppable this evening.
Múm are not. While their albums overflow with blips, bleeps and god knows what, live this is all a bit of a kafuffle and very disappointing. Half of their performance comes from an iPod, and the rest is merely noisy garnishes served atop a below-par main course. The band played around the chords rather than within them. Much of new album Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ends up distorted, drawn out and depressing.
The constituent DiSsers reconvene for of Montreal. Their Art Museum headline slot, unlike Grizzly Bear's the previous evening, is an unmitigated success and a whole lot of fun. With outlandish outfits and leftfield pop songs to match, Kevin Barnes and company look like they're having a ball, and 'Suffer For Fashion' is nothing short of joyous as a result. "I brought these red boots here... you have great shopping," enthuses Barnes between songs. The Icelandic public should respond by shouting, "Yes, and you have great tunes". Pats on the back all round, then.
Friday night ends with Hairdoctor, an electronic act comprising a hairdresser and a pile of his shiny happy friends. Nothing mind-boggling here, but a whole lot of fun. In addition, running into a mate sporting a kilt with all the trimmings at the show makes the whole party that bit more interesting. Apparently Icelandic women love kilts, and DiS loves Icelandic women...
There is an old church sitting on the foot of the Reykjavik pond called the 'Free Church', down in the centre of town. Amiina, the string section for Sigur Rós, play there. We go. The set is glorious, invigorating, rich and poetic. This is heavily rehearsed and consequently, super tight. Strings, music boxes, handsaw, mini-harp; loads of instruments we hear, but DiS is at the back and the church is packed. This here is all that is good in ethereal Icelandic music, showcasing how much the weather plays a part in these melodies. We hear fog, wind, rain, snow and cold, as if the forecast truly had something to say about the emotional state of whom it affects. Wow.
A few hours pass. We drink to pass time. Finally, it is off to Mugison. He is a dirty little secret among some DiS staff; his idiosyncratic Icelandic ramblings recall Devendra Banhart and even Bob Dylan at times, and we like that. This set, however, is overcrowded (a recurring theme at Airwaves), sweaty and filled with new material that is not as good as his tested canon. He avoids, at all costs, the quirks or eccentricities that we love. Mugison seems to have changed. Ah well, it happens.
Afterwards, it's back to Guakkerinn to award the most ridiculous band name at Airwaves to Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán (with special mention, also, for Severed Crotch). What they lack in subtlety they make up for by being the most energetic band we see over the course of the festival - rather like a fluoro, techno-pop version of Gallows. Sadly, like their Watford sound-alikes-ish, their bravado comes at the expense of having tunes. Still, at least Gallows can play a bit. Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán, on the other hand, use an iPod plugged into the PA in lieu of actually making noises with their instruments. Poor form, boys.
Guakkerinn is too hot, so we head to The Reykjavik Art Museum. Annuals are one of the international acts DiS was looking forward to seeing most prior to Airwaves (we loved 'Brother' when it came out in the summer), but tonight they totally flatter to deceive. Their set should be way more exciting than this, replete as it is with melodramatic Arcade Fire-isms and six (count 'em) players on stage, but most of what they deliver tonight leaves us entirely nonplussed. They're competent, but since when was that ever a compliment? Not here, certainly. Bloc Party are next, and arrogant is less complimentary a description than competent... sadly, that's how the four-piece come across tonight to this half of the DiS team. The frontman suggests Iceland should be more enthusiastic because they're lucky to have his band (at least that's what we hear) - and that's just plain unacceptable. Their performance certainly doesn't warrant such chutzpah; it's sloppy at best.
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Most of DiS’s Icelandic team are safely back in the UK, but Shain still flies the flag. The Magic Numbers play, for some reason, and words can't really describe them. Not in a good way. The vocal melodies are top notch as always, but the songs bleed into one another so liberally the whole pile is stale by song six. ‘I See You, I See Me’ was wonderful though.
Cut Off Your Hands end the evening and, consequently, the festival. Unfortunately, they're a bit poor. Standard pop-punk meets a bit of dance. Maybe the flight tired the lads out. Or maybe we've just had enough by this stage. You decide.
Well, another Airwaves comes and goes. We leave Iceland significantly poorer, slightly inebriated and downright pooped. The bands were, well, up and down really. Some: fantastic, but many: mediocre - always the way with these kind of events.
The average acts, perhaps surprisingly, were by and large the international bands with many of the best sets coming from acts performing either at home or nearby. That Icelandic talent dominates the festival is undoubtedly a Good Thing - this is their festival after all. We are just visitors, and appreciative ones at that. Oh, and like we said earlier the yoghurt is gold. We hear they sell it at Fresh and Wild now, in London. Ace.
All live photography by Gary Wolstenholme: (from top) Grizzly Bear, Slow Club, Mr. Silla & Mongoose, Bloodgroup, Deerhoof, of Montreal, Ultra Mega Technobandið, Annuals, Bloc Party