Last year, Iceland Airwaves had a climactic feeling to it. Since it takes place in early November, chances are it’s one of the final festivals you can go to in a year. And as 2014 drew to a close, Airwaves’ lineup was anchored by bands that had a big year. Caribou’s popularity had grown to the point where they could offer a triumphant late-night Saturday set to a packed room at the Reykjavik Art Museum. Ascendant artists like Future Islands and the War On Drugs delivered awe-inspiring sets in very different ways. The Knife played their “final” show, too. There were some weeks left in 2014, but if you attended Airwaves, it was a dramatic enough experience to sum up and finish the year.
Iceland Airwaves 2015 looked a little different. Father John Misty was the one American artist here whom you could probably say had a year similar to Future Islands and the Drugs in 2014, but the attention swirling around him doesn’t have that same frenzy. A lot of the big-name weekend headliners were of a sleepier brand, like Beach House. In a way, this made for a great counterpoint to last year. Instead of checking out bigger names you could see in a lot of cities in the States, it made for an Airwaves that was more based around running from venue to venue, seeing smaller bands, Icelandic and international alike.
As far as the non-Icelandic artists go, those bigger names like Father John Misty and Beach House were accompanied by Perfume Genius, Ariel Pink, and Battles. Out of these, FJM was the standout, even if it was weird to hear such a hyper-American artist in a theater in Reykjavik. (“I still miss the whale meat back home,” he quipped at one point, in prime Josh Tillman form.) The set mainly revolved around material from I Love You, Honeybear, building to a wild-eyed reading of “The Ideal Husband” as a closer, with Tillman screaming the song’s intense final passage the way I always hoped he would live when I first heard the recorded version. Perfume Genius is a little meditative for a Friday night set, but Mike Hadreas is a mesmerizing performer; aided by a great soundsystem in a performance hall, the synths and beats of his more recent music were intensified, enveloping the audience before Hadreas broke the revery with ragged screams. On Saturday, the crowd for Beach House was ridiculous. Like, spilling out of the auditorium, with a long line of people hoping to get in well after the set had started. They sounded like their albums: pretty and pristine, but not the most emotionally evocative. Still, their aesthetic makes sense for a November night in Iceland.
It was a good year at Airwaves for raw rock music in some form or another. Weaves brought their wiry grunginess to the stage at Kex Hostel. After Beach House, I walked over to a venue called Gaukurinn to see Canada’s the OBGMs and Japan’s Bo Ningen. This was a good call, because I now needed something to wake me up, and both these bands are very well-suited to that, both offering possessed, furious sets. And then there was Fufanu.
I first saw Fufanu by happenstance with a friend at last year’s Airwaves. They were one of the standouts then, and they were the band I was looking forward to seeing the most this year. I wound up going to all four of their sets, because a year later Fufanu are even more impressive. From what I remembered of last year’s set, they were intense at moments but also brooding, settling into a sound that was a dark hybrid of psychedelia and post-punk. That’s all still true, but there’s a ferocity to Fufanu that I didn’t remember (or that they have grown into), and it is totally overwhelming. They had a set at a venue called Nasa on Friday night, and it was the best gig of the entire festival. Frontman Kaktus Einarsson walked out, looking like he’d learned some things from a few great, arrogant Britpop frontmen. Wearing a red tracksuit jacket, he spread his arms out like “Come on, then,” and asked the audience: “Should I move the gear closer to you? Or should we do it the easier way and have you come closer to me?” And that was it — for the next 40 minutes, a mosh pit developed as Einarsson thrashed and jumped and swung his mic as if directing the maelstrom the band kept building. It was one of the best, most cathartic shows I’ve seen this year.
Fufanu cast a long and impressive shadow over Airwaves 2015, but there was a ton of other Icelandic music to check out as well. Fufanu’s guitarist, Gulli Einarsson, is also in another band called russian.girls; they also do a kind of trippy interpretation of electronics-laced post-punk, but it’s more droning, druggier. I caught them twice, including one set at a record shop where the crowd spilled out into an alleyway full of Icelanders chain-smoking, which seems about the right way to witness this band. This kind of stuff was what I gravitated to as far as Icelandic music went — there’s something very fitting about the aesthetics of post-punk for a place that’s often very cold and very grey. Likewise, a dreampop band like Vok — who I caught on the first night, and who were part of the lineup at Vodafone Hall on the final night — makes a lot of sense in a country with such an amazing landscape.
The last days of festivals in general often wind up being anti-climactic. Real life is looming again and you can feel the comedown hitting you early, especially if the festival in question doesn’t have a Sunday headliner who can make the whole thing feel as if everything, all along, was driving to this moment. The tricky thing with Airwaves is that it sets a pretty high standard for itself all week, and then Sunday can feel removed, like an epilogue to a slightly different story. Reykjavik is swarming with people for the preceding several days; by Sunday, many people already have to leave. There are some shows in town, but the main attractions are over at Vodafone Hall, a little outside the center. This year, there were a bunch of different artists playing in two different rooms in Vodafone, and it was easy to feel as if this was something separate from what we’d already experienced. But there was Hot Chip, and Hot Chip have a way of erasing any concerns when they’re onstage. They’re one of the most euphoric live experiences I’ve ever had, especially when they’re on the festival circuit and loading their set up with all the heavy-hitters. Last night, as they closed with their “Dancing In The Dark” cover with the “All My Friends” tag — that is, combining two of my all-time favorite songs — for a second it didn’t matter that Airwaves was ending.
Airwaves was my 10th and final festival this year. Most festivals feel like a removal from life for the three or four or five days they’re occurring. Many of them, though, act as if they’re casting a spell when, in reality, a lot of it can all blend together. Maybe Airwaves has the unfair advantage of, you know, taking place in Iceland, but it’s different here. There are artists and fans from all over the world meeting in this surreal place. There are chances to see artists you would never see otherwise, and chances to meet people and hear stories that you wouldn’t in, say, the merch line at Lollapalooza. Chalk it up to the mystical effect Iceland seems to always have on visitors, but Airwaves is a festival that does achieve that alternate reality. When it’s over, it feels like a collective dream. Here, the spell is real.