In the spring of 2010, the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland caused the highest level of air travel disruption since the Second World War. This fall, it was hurricane Sandy in the east coast of the United States that caused many headaches, affecting air traffic in the biggest city in North America. Sandy’s havoc sent an aftershock all the way to Iceland, not only affecting the number of expected attendees but also the regularly scheduled program.
Sold out months before the commencement of the festival on October 31st, anticipating some 7,000 visitors to checkout more than 200 acts, Icelanders were ready to receive the flood of visitors for the music festival that has grown from one off venue event in 1999 in an aircraft hangar at Reykjavik Airport to a citywide takeover. Thanks to the pesky superstorm, about a thousand people didn’t make it (according to one native), including one of the most anticipated acts, Swans. While the exact cause of Minneapolis R&B electronica popsters Poliça’s cancellation a week before of their headlining show on Day 2 isn't definitive, it had nothing to do with the Mother Nature’s rebellious offspring.
In my case, I was traveling from Portland, OR, with a connection in Seattle that brought me directly to Reykjavik, bypassing Sandy’s furry. The spaciously designed Keflavik International Airport was a tangled web of lines, constructed of people with passports from all around the world. Greeted with a bone chilling gusty wind, I thought, “Hey, isn’t this just the perfect time to host five-days of nonstop music festival to impress all the visitors?”. For someone who resides in a city that rarely dips into the freezing temperatures, the thought of enduring the frigid nights enervated this unaccustomed journalist. My perturbation was soon laid to rest and not even the icy wind strong enough to stop your lung for frightening seconds made me think Iceland Airwaves was a trip wasted.
Not sure how it was for the general public, but the treatment I received a the Airwaves’ Media Center, located at the Center Hotel in the heart of Reykjavik, was top notch. The clearly labeled designated que for regular festival goers, Icelandic bands, international bands, and press members made the process of picking up passes a cinch. I’ve only experienced four different festivals, but Airwaves was the only one that handed press pass with a bag full of goodies. But this was also the only fest that I had to pay for my press pass. A friendly volunteer staff showed me the press room with coffee and wi-fi. Anytime I was at a loss, there was someone at the Media Center to answer questions.
Apart from Treasure Island Music Fest where the shows never overlap, compromise is a key to dealing with an event where it’s impossible to catch every act on your wishlist. Airwaves’ up to date app tremendously aided in this department - that is if one could get online. For visitors from outside European Union, adding sufficient data plan to their smartphone was no small cost. Would have been nice if the whole city or at least if all the venues were Wi-Fied for the occasion. It didn’t seem like such an unreasonable request in a country with touch screen stove tops. Only Harpa had strong enough Internet connections for one to Instagram and tweet for up to date happenings. This was one of the reasons I decided to forgo conducting interviews. The other disheartening aspect of Airwaves was that unless you arrived way before the stage time for the act you wanted to photograph, it was sometimes impossible to get the shot. A designated path to the photo pit would have made my job so much easier.
For those who could not get hands on a festival pass, you could be part of the event since Airwaves had so many free off venue performances taking place all over the city - anywhere there was enough space to set up a stage. But if you were wristed with a pass, it was possible to fest for 20 hours straight!
At a glance, I wasn’t all that enraptured over the lineup except Sigur Rós of course. But my lack of enthusiasm attributes largely due to my ignorance of many of the festival acts, comprised largely of Icelandic bands. And that’s how Airwaves inaugurated its fourteenth year on Wednesday.
Since I had no idea nor preference, I took recommendations from my guesthouse mates. FM Belfast and Sin Fang were both scheduled at Iðnó - a charming old theater that overlooks the “swan lake”. We arrived just little after 21:00, and people had formed a line at least two blocks long, enduring the freezing cold. Once inside, the temperature spiked up to a balmy summer day. With no room to move, I about cried in defeat, not knowing how to get any decent photos. But cracks eventually appeared, and we moved closer to the stage with every new song. By the time, we reached the stage, Pascal Pino had just wrapped.
Sóley looking like a teacher from your grade school days with over-sized glasses, hair pinned up in a bun, and supporting a plain jumper, treated the audience with her delicate songs, evident of her Icelandic Art Academy piano and composition training. Also a member of Seabear and Sin Fang, Sóley is about to set sail on a sold-out east coast US tour with one of the biggest bands to come out of Iceland in recent years: Of Monsters and Men. Prinspóló - an alter ego of Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson passed out paper crowns to the crowd before performing his confessional indie folk rock (mostly in Icelandic). But the most pleasant surprise of the night was Sin Fang (alias of Sindri Már Sigfússon), the mastermind behind Seabear and a gifted visual artist. As one can imagine with such a resume, his music explores the artistic possibilities of soundscapes yet with harmony intact. FM Belfast was the perfect act to close out the night at Iðnó. They operate more as motivational party chiefs rather than a band who just performs for you. Colorful attires, silk lei decor, and oscillating moves - at times, it was difficult to keep track of everything that was happening on stage. But by 1:00 AM and well intoxicated, does one keep a tab?
After about four songs, I decided to play safe and head back to my base. It was way more difficult to get out than get in! Nobody wanted to miss a second of the dance frenzy of FM Belfast, and I almost turned into a pressed sandwich. So from the first night, I learned that more than any other festival, I had to stick to one venue for any chances of getting a decent view. The more lingering thought - I was thoroughly impressed by all these Icelandic acts oblivious to me prior to the night.
For Thursday, the most talked about act seemed to be Purity Ring, but I had already seen them during Musicfest NW. And my sister, who had just arrived at dawn to be my unofficial assistant, wanted to see Of Monsters and Men. It was almost 20:00 when we reached Reykjavík Art Museum where we decided to stay before moving to Harpa for the night. A unique combination of clarinet player, electronic musician, and a singer with an icy voice - like Bjork’s shy sister, Samaris was another pleasant surprise in the Icelandic band catalog. Jófríður Ákadóttir, who uncannily resembled Nicole Kidman, looked like a fairy in her vintage attire, withering on stage like delicate flower on a mountaintop. The downtempo electronica was as otherworldly as the singer’s presence. American electronic rock duo, Phantogram, followed Samaris with their bigger than three-piece band stage presence. Since their debut in 2010, they seem to be happy touring non-stop with no news of a new album. And the audience seemed to enjoy every bit of their hair flipping, fog fest.
When I had a layover in Iceland last March, cranes still hovered around Harpa - a concert hall and a conference centre opened in May of 2011. We battled the blistering wind towards the giant multi-colored glass structure on the water and what awaited us inside was a true marvel of modern architecture. Three halls were designated for the festival. We stepped into Silfurber hall where Of Monsters And Men were playing later and found a young, long-haired chap with a fedora hat. UK’s Jamie N. Commomns strummed his Gibson and let out a vintage voice tinged with Joe Cocker’s huskiness and soul. Sounding too Americana for my taste, we moved on to check out Norðurljós hall, where the icelandic band, Sólstafir rocked the stage, smothered with pink smokes to devoted metal fans. Of course one can’t escape metal music in the Nordic countries so I thought I’d stay long enough to get some shots and feel the crowd’s vibe - be open-minded. Realizing I’ll never be a metal head, we moved back to Silfurber where another Icelandic band of a different genre pleased my ear. Bloodgroup’s electro pop wasn’t complicated, but its simplicity of female/male vocal harmonics and an abundance of keyboards worked. Their melancholic electronica seemed unlikely warm up for the uplifting folk pop of the headliner. Ever since winning the Iceland’s Músiktilraunir competition in 2010, Of Monsters and Men’s fame has been growing steadily, in their homeland and abroad. The overflown photo pit and screaming audience through the confetti made me think this sixtet was Iceland’s version of Arcade Fire. Even I was starting to get sold on to their multi-faceted anthemic pop. But once again, I was not entranced enough to stay past my “safe time” (ending the night early enough to give myself couple of hours to do work before going to bed at 3-4AM and getting up at 7-8AM to start again). As we cautiously stepped out into the icy pavement, my sister noticed a faint streak of green light (aka the northern lights).
Friday in Reykjavik is the start of a weekend tradition known as rúntur - a weekly event that translates to a pub crawl. It was also a pretty hectic day for press members who chose to go on an afternoon-long press tour. We were originally scheduled to drive out of the city to visit the studio where Sigur Rós recorded all their albums. But Sandy’s tailend sent winds powerful enough to stop traffic going in and out of Reykjavik, as well as hospitalizing over 30 people. In spite of this misfortune, the Airwaves folks and the city council provided us with worthwhile activities. Watching an acoustic performance in a pool seemed typically quirky Icelandic, but meeting the mayor over their “world famous” hot dogs and the “Best Standard Lager Beer in the World” (Egils Gull) was a special treat. Jón Gnarr was an entertainer, best known as a comedian before unintentionally falling into politics. The ADHD sufferer with a very liberal view proclaimed that his office’s main goal is peace. Unfortunately, he didn’t come in his Darth Vader costume as he has been known to dress up in. Then we were treated to delicious Icelandic snacks and endless supply of Reyka vodka at the opera house.
Returning to our lodging around dinner time, I raced to finish and upload the photos from the previous night, in time to make it to Harpa-Norðurljós for Ólafur Arnaulds. By the time we reached the door, the crowd had packed to the brim, and I walked away with disappointment. So we headed over to Silfurber to checkout another Icelandic act utilizing the keys, but in a quite different fashion. With only two albums in ten years, Apparat Organ Quartet seemed to have built a strong following with their kraut rock tinged electronic pop. After couple of songs, their stage presence heightened when four sirens in glittery makeup came out to join the party.
We returned to Norðurljós where the man with a piano had exited the stage, and was being prepped for four lads with a traditional rock instrument setup. Iceland’s answer to post rock, For A Minor Reflection, performed with ferocious energy, dashed with playfulness. I later found out that the red-haired guitarist Kjartan, was a stage member of Sigur Rós, and this was their last show for awhile as he was to set to tour the world with Iceland’s most famous band. Though he often provides backing vocals to Jonsi, Kjartan did not carry a single note. For A Minor Reflection was all about how well they can make the instruments sing.
I was hoping to snap a few shots of Exit Music before heading to the Art Museum for The Vaccines, but their schedule was falling behind. Before it was too late to get to the photo pit, I headed to catch one of UK’s most popular rock acts. Young Icelandic girls beamed at the prospect of catching the jean-clad rockers. Among all the eclectic acts I’ve witnessed in this festival, The Vaccines were most ordinary. They delivered textbook rock performance - it was solid but not all that exciting if you weren’t a die-hard fan. Ben Frost provided the nightcap at Iðnó - an experimental electronic soundscape that may have been more enticing paired with abstract projections since one could only gaze for so long at a man with knobs and wires, accompanied by two percussionist in a dimly-lit stage.
Saturday was the highly anticipated Blue Lagoon Chill with DJ Margeir. If there is one thing one must do in Iceland, almost everyone will recommend the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa experience. The generous Airwaves folks provided the press with free transportation and entry to the event. It is inconceivable to be in an outdoor pool in a weather that calls for heavy layers from head to toe. Once you found the hot spot, it wasn’t so bad, but wish I had thought of wearing the beanie that came with our press gift bag. As Sisy Ey performed in their fur coats to the pool full of nearly naked and most likely intoxicated crowd, hounds of photographers and videographers tried to capture the surrealness of it all.
For our night program, we planned a route that was the most convenient for our walk back to our lodging. First stop - Fríkirkjan (Free Church), where a church is also a music venue and drinking is allowed! We spent about fifteen minutes, trying to see if there was any possibility for me to get good photos of Daughter but to no avail. Pity - the nineteenth century building couldn’t be more appropriate for the haunting folk of English songstress. We had about an hour before I Break Horses would come on stage at Iðnó. Until then, Iceland’s 2010 Composer of the Year, Ólöf Arnalds, entertained and charmed the crowd. With a help from a bassist, Arnalds commended the stage only with her acoustic guitar and an uncanny voice that sounded ancient and unnatural. This was a confident woman, not scared to stare at you with a big smile that made me uncomfortable at times because I didn’t feel I was in the same place she was.
I Break Horses replaced Arnalds timeless folk with computer generation fuzzed out pop. Maria Lindén’s fragile angelic vocals gently weaved through the jagged soundscape that was dark and light simultaneously. Following the captivating music of the Swedish duo who performs as a four-piece on stage, the crowd pushed in a little closer for one of the most anticipated acts: DIIV. Though I had witnessed their amphetamine-zed set during Capture Tracks showcase at Musicfest NW, I couldn’t wait to see them again. Yes their set could’ve been one long track as variety is not DIIV’s best asset. But their performance is so visceral, I couldn’t help to be swept off into their jingles, jangles, jumping around, etc… Though my sister could not understand what the fuss was about.
Before the night was over, I had to check out Faktorý. Just the name conjured up all kinds of coolness. Upstairs, we found a very engaging redhead with a “Mondrian” sweater, who threw records, coasters, and perhaps pancakes(?) into the crowd before unveiling his plump white belly. Berndsen played imitable eighties new wave, providing one of the more comical moments of the Airwaves.
Sunday’s lineup downsized in anticipation for the biggest show of the festival. It has been four years since Sigur Rós last played in their hometown. With 6700 tickets sold, the event was held away from the city center at Laugardalshöllin - a multi-purpose complex that felt like entering a warehouse in a sci-fi film. Door time was set for 18:00 and show time was scheduled for 17:00. We arrived about ten minutes prior to door and wasn’t early enough to get close to the stage. An hour went by after the scheduled show time before Sigur Rós entranced us with their heavenly art rock. The expertly choreographed visuals and impeccable backing band - sometimes it was euphoria overload. All the discomfort of waiting in the inhospitable arena dissipated. Some may have found the two-hour set bit long and grandiose but for a fan like me, a Sigur Rós concert could never be excessive. The next day, all the music blogs would tweet about the new song "Brennisteinn", hinting at a darker shade of Sigur Rós to come.
After the epic performance, only couple of hours remained before festival’s end. We walked back twenty minutes to the city center, catching couple of Icelandic electro pop bands. First up, Sometime at Þýski Barinn/Deutsche Bar, led by a lady with a permanent smile, Diva De La Rosa, whose vocals recalled suaveness of Basia. They were fun and lively but tame compared to Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán over at Gamli Gaukurinn. The men armed with synths looked innocent enough - Singer Sigurður Ásgeir Árnason was dressed in an oxford shirt and a blazer. But soon that all came off, and he was all over the stage and in the crowd. The locals loved this type of manic performance.
All the venues except for Laugardalshöllin for Sigur Rós were within blocks of each other, unlike Musicfest NW, where one definitely needed some type of wheels. And finding lodging within a walking distance from the shows was not a problem. The weather on the other hand was like an annoying kid in school you wished would just go away. According to the locals, we just happened to pick a year for unusually crappy weather to come. At least it didn’t rain much.
In spite of the bitter weather, unreliable wi-fi, arduously accessible photo pit, and lineup conflicts, I couldn’t help feeling certain je ne sais quoi that made me want to return next year after the first night. The festival's shortcomings was well made up by the people, who were friendly, helpful, and open-minded. The level of relaxed atmosphere in this country will be sorely missed when I return to a country that symbolizes freedom: USA. And the superb press package well made up for the cost we had to pay for our passes. I’m sure I drank enough during the press events to run over a $100 tab. But for the general public, make sure to stock up on your alcohol at the airport shop before getting on that bus to the city - can save you as much as 60%.