Iceland Airwaves I 10.14-18 I Reykjavik

Words by: Matt Newby | Images by: Rich Smith & Matt Newby

Iceland Airwaves Festival :: 10.14.09 – 10.18.09 :: Reykjavik, Iceland

DJ at Blue Lagoon :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
In the light of our global economic meltdown, it cannot go unnoticed that Iceland has, prior to this year's Iceland Airwaves Festival, taken some of its hardest knocks since the infamous Cod Wars of 1975. It's been a tough year for festival promoters Mr. Destiny, with drained economies, nationalized banks, and financial volatility making the future of this festival somewhat uncertain. But with burly local support and focused effort from the organizers to pull through these dark economic times, the old Icelandic saying "Þetta reddast" (loosely translated as "it'll work out") comes to mind as downtown Reykjavik prepares its venues, bars and fashionista outlets for the festival. Throughout, the organizers have maintained a strong grasp of this nation's rich musical and creative heritage while working to promote the growing interest in Icelandic arts.

Iceland's primary music festival, now in its eleventh year, has gone from good to great. Originating in an airplane hanger in the late '90s, the festival has departed from the former aircraft space and into 101 (downtown Reykjavik), where the capital generously transforms its public buildings and other establishments into a mix of venues for the five-day event.

Reykjavik is an ideal festival city. With a high ratio of artistic people and over a third of the population living within the capital, Reykjavik manages to house a multitude of bands while remaining small enough to create close-knit musical communities, allowing each creative brain plenty of opportunities for exposure. This fertile environment is the backbone to the individuality of music from Reykjavik and its annual festival. The breathtaking natural backdrop and Reykjavik's plentiful and vibrant nightlife provides the perfect locale to host this unique event, which has become an increasingly attractive invitation to an international audience with each passing year.

Wednesday, 10.14

12 Tónar :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
As the first set of festival flights arrive at Keflavik Airport and the international festival crowd find their feet around Reykjavik, Airwaves opens its doors early. For many, the night began at NASA for the local label Kimi Records' night. With the first band set up and dressed up (spandex attire) they gave the audience "45 seconds to prepare" before Retrön, who seemed very pleased to be playing, fired through a set full of playful Thin Lizzy-esque guitar riffs and stadium rock sounds. Following this, Morðingjarnir's screaming, fast paced punk set played to an increasingly full room as folks were pouring through the doors. A highlight of the evening's events came when Morðingjarnir were joined by the vocal delights of Mammút's frontwoman Kata. Her powerful vocals and driving, feminine force led their masculine rock sound, illustrating the flexible nature of this musical community and pointing towards things to come throughout the five-day event.

The sudden burst of energy needed to kick-start the festival came from local chaos kids proudly named Reykjavik!. This youthful bunch of wild cats - with quite the local reputation for destruction - knows how to get a beer swigging festival crowd going. With added screaming vocals from Arnór of Agent Fresco, their energetic set, involving multiple stage dives, ensured the Airwaves party got off to a fiery start.

Quite accurately named after Iceland's unpredictable climate, Sudden Weather Change closed the opening night at NASA. This young band has been making a name around the city, and they took the stage with confidence, displaying guitar pyrotechnics and thunderous bass that called to mind the freedom and energy of Sonic Youth washed with the lo-fi ethics of Pavement. The performance utilized everything they had and delivered a healthy concoction of amp-hugging feedback and winding rock riffs. Sudden Weather Change managed to demonstrate to the fresh faced festival crowd that they are an impressive, outward thinking alt-rock band and a first class addition to Iceland's music scene.

Thursday, 10.15

Off-site venues are a big part of this festival's experience, inviting fans to intimate shows in more unusual locations across the city. The second day of Airwaves started gently at Reykjavik's famous record store and label 12 Tónar for an early evening in-store performance by Rökkurró. With the CD racks put aside, the espresso sipping crowd gathered in deathly silence, the krútt (cute) quintet delivered a carefully arranged, cello led set of ethereal new material in a tender performance that intertwined the fragile, natural sounds often associated with Icelandic music.

Over at the A-framed attic of newly named venue Sódóma, festival favorites Mammút needed no introduction as they played songs from their most recent record, Karkari; a performance as successful as the new release. Fronted by Kata, whose vocals and stage presence are reminiscent of Sugarcubes-era Björk, their sterling performance was intense, with weighty rock riffs and bass-heavy undertones. This band is at the crest of the emerging talents this festival and country has to offer.

New Mexico four-piece Kid Crash packed the punch of nostalgia in a sweaty pit of chaos and facial hair. One of the first international acts on the bill, Kid Crash played a set full of high speed hardcore propelled by the irregular rhythmic complexities of math rock. Their performance was memorable and arguably the most physical festival performance thus far.

Continue reading for more coverage of Iceland Airwaves...

Friday, 10.16

Æla :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
Friday morning we were welcomed by the snaking queue outside the Skifan record store for festival headline act Kings of Convenience. The line was overwhelming as hordes of enthusiastic festival-goers arrived in the early hours on the bitterly cold Laugavegur shopping street to get their pink wristbands for the evening performance at the Frikirkjan Church (Free Church).

As the weekend was upon us, the sounds of music spilled out onto the damp pavement from the many off-site venues along Reykjavik's main high street. We headed down Laugavegur to arrive at Karamba for an early afternoon pint and to watch the start of the U.K.'s Brainlove Records' showcase. This little living room of a bar with an awkwardly angled stage in the corner of the room hosted a community of bands, where we managed to catch singer-songwriter Matt Riviere and company. Following this, an improvised jam session from the Braindead Collective filled the bar, aided by audience harmonizing and an ongoing crescendo of noise that swiftly awakened the loose crowd.

Our next move found us at Reykjavik's infamous Naked Ape fashion outlet to watch electronic three-piece Sykur play amongst the store's fluorescent street wear. Their enjoyable electro 8-bit sound of synths and bleepy tones blossomed when a sweet jazz vocalist joined them.

DLX ATX :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
To end the early evening off-plan shows, it was back to Karamba to catch Æla. Having been absent from recent Airwaves festivities, the erratic punk rock quartet didn't hold back, with towering frontman Halli Valli confidently utilizing the whole bar as a performance space. The show was an inclusive, unique experience that was brought to life within the confined kitsch interior of Karamba.

Whilst not straying too far from the raw sounds of Æla, we strolled towards Reykjavik's grungy hangout Grand Rokk. With a sparse crowd gathered, perhaps a hint at the more acquired taste associated with this evening's lineup, we joined the event midway through to catch Irish/Icelandic two-piece DLX ATX (pronounced Deluxe Attacks). Dressed as psychedelic fairies, the bass and drum duo attacked their instruments, producing an abrasive onslaught of noise reminiscent of Lightning Bolt.

Swords of Chaos followed and put on a rather intimidating show, as their miniscule terrier of a frontman screamed at the thin crowd. For a guy who appears to have little in the way of physical strength, he managed to infuriate a few audience members by pushing his way around the venue, though the majority of the crowd enjoyed the sustained stream of hardcore energy his band created.

It was left to U.K. electro-pop act Metronomy at the auditorium of the Reykjavik Art Museum to close the evening's schedule and kick-start the energetic weekend nightlife. Mirroring the uniformity of Kraftwerk and draped in their infamous illuminated medallions, the electronic three-piece's efforts to transform the semi-crowded space into a party won over the predominantly local art museum crowd. With festival-goers and locals itching to revel in all night drinking marathons at the plentiful clubs and bars, all that was left was to head back out into the blistering cold to find the next party to see the night through.

Continue reading for more coverage of Iceland Airwaves...

Saturday, 10.17

Brasstronaut :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
With the festival crowd refreshed and raring to go from an extended soak at the "Blue Lagoon Hangover Party," it was back to where the previous night's events concluded at the Art Museum. Upon arrival, we managed to catch Vancouver-based quartet Brasstronaut. Playing the grandest venue at the festival, they appeared confident as their hypnotic, indie-jazz-rock fusion wooed the crowd. Having a stab at the local dialect is never easy, and many international acts have failed miserably at it during previous Airwaves. Local singer Hildur (who had kindly translated one of their songs via MySpace) did it justice as he added a sweet exchange of ideas to their soulful and successful performance.

More screaming and sweat was upon us as we pushed through the Sódóma crowd to enjoy We Made God. This strong group of metal musicians made themselves at home at the Kerrang! endorsed night, demonstrating their talents through a noisy set of well constructed rock songs and a thrilling display of heavy and delicate soundscapes.

As we moved back out into the cold, the weather forced us to dart inside as we ended up at Batteriði. By no means was this a bad move as we were welcomed by platinum selling Icelandic hip hop act XXX Rottweiler. The giant leap in genre was quite the experience, especially with a shed-load of adoring fans screaming what sounded like lyrics (I have been told the lyrics ARE good). We found our attention was focused on the energetic group's cohesion and instrumental qualities, which resulted in a drunken hip hop sway amongst the crowd.

Dr Spock :: Iceland Airwaves 2009
Over at Sódóma it was the turn of Músíktilraunir winning (the Icelandic version of a Battle of the Bands) Agent Fresco, who shook the audience up with a lung testing set of madness. The spotlight shone heavily on frontman Arnór, whose excessive screaming and ape hanging athleticism became tiresome. Their primary merit was solid musicianship, and no wonder given Agent Fresco has been awarded best guitarist, drummer, and bassist prizes.

As we vacated Sódóma, we were welcomed by the spectacle of a glam rock hillbilly cowboy, Viking strength fire-eaters, and four huge wheels. It was festival favorites Dr Spock let loose in the back of an open truck roaming through the streets. The totally extravagant rock & roll street party was in full flare and a rapidly growing audience pursued the vehicle as it aimlessly taxied around the city. Even though this was one of the most obvious secret "shows," the experience was one of Airwaves' most outrageous and enjoyable ideas to date.

Sunday, 10.18

Following four days of partying, Sunday morning in Reykjavik resembled a ghost or zombie town, with people who have hit the seven a.m. club curfew still strolling the streets. With a limited number of venues open for service on the final day of Airwaves, our choice was diverted elsewhere as we faced yet another snaking queue. The lengthy line at NASA was justified as home favorites GusGus were scheduled to close the festival in true patriotic style. For us, it was left to Sódóma to cap the festival off. With the beer still flowing and the festival squeezing the remaining life out of its attendees, we came in from the cold to experience Icelandic hip hop act Fallegir Menn (translates to "Beautiful Men"). It was difficult to establish if this was a serious act or not, but their performance did at least raise the spirits of the venue for one last celebration.

Dubbed "the first troubadour rapper in the world," we were curious to see what indie-folk-rap artist Helgi Valur & Shemales had to offer. With no real expectations, we found the indie-rap fusion worked surprisingly well as both the lack of connection with the previous act and familiarity of a reworked cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" and a carbon copy of Rage's "Bombtrack" had the audience moving. Helgi Valur & Shemales was an adequate act to sustain the party atmosphere as the festival came to a close.

In a city where news and information spreads at the speed of light, it did not take a mastermind to uncover the festival's final special surprise guests Crystal Antlers. Pushing the festival into the early hours with a therapeutic set full of strange psychedelic sounds and fierce energy, the band confirmed that there was still life at the tail end of Airwaves.

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