After nearly 20 years in existence, Iceland Airwaves has gone through a few transformations. From modest beginnings — a much smaller and more contained affair in an old airplane hangar — it grew into an event that takes over pretty much the entirety of Reykjavik at the beginning of each November. What can otherwise be a quiet and insular town erupts into (semi-)controlled chaos, a frenetic array of shows that start early in the day and go until early the next morning, spread out amongst the town’s various bars and clubs and restaurants and hostels. The festival has grown up in tandem with the uptick of tourist fascination with Iceland’s striking and diverse landscapes, with the festival now feeling like a congregation not just of local Icelandic musicians and international industry types, but also of visitors curious about this mythologized, beautiful country and its robust, often-alternative music scene.
There were two big differences that Iceland Airwaves’ 2017 iteration had from past years. The festival has now expanded north to Akureyri, Iceland’s second-biggest town behind Reykjavik. (Though with a population of just 18,000, it’s still pretty tiny.) The other distinguishing quality of 2017 was a relative lack major international names compared to recent years, with a decidedly mainstream option of Mumford & Sons serving as the festival’s main headliners on Sunday night.
That isn’t to say there weren’t exciting names from elsewhere. Fleet Foxes were one of the other main headliners, and they delivered a pristine and gorgeous Saturday night set in a theater, an ideal setting to let the subtleties of their new songs breathe. The briefly reunited Arab Strap were revelatory. Recent Best New Bands honoree Kelly Lee Owens played a set that was both hypnotic and furious to a tiny, packed room; recent Artist To Watch Mikko Joensuu played a set of simmering intensity that finally broke in the dual catharses and peaks of “There Used To Be A Darkness” and “Drop Me Down,” two of his finest songs and two 10-minute epics that were enveloping.
But really, Iceland Airwaves 2017 was a great chance to dig deeper into the Icelandic music scene, with most of the country’s best acts appearing on the schedule multiple times across five nights. As the mayor of Reykjavik put it at a kickoff event on the first night of the festival, the thing about Icelandic music is that the alternative is the mainstream. Across Iceland’s scene you’ll find heavy and visceral music, aggressive and confrontational music, dreamy and seductive music. Metal and synth-pop and celestial folk all have their way of conjuring up the alien nature of the country; they all have a way of making you feel as if you’re coming to understand Iceland more when you see these artists play live on their home turf. There’s always way too much happening at Airwaves for you to see or absorb it all, but these were some of the artists who really left an impression.
P.S. – I can tell you from past experience that had I been able to get into Mammút’s Saturday night set, they would definitely be on this list. But the venue was so beyond capacity they turned the mayor of Reykjavik away, so was pretty much out of luck there.
More so than your typical festival with all the standard touring indie acts, Airwaves is a place that guarantees you’ll see something you’ve never heard of based on someone’s recommendation, and half the time it’ll be something you are not at all prepared for. Hatari was that this year. It’s sort of very dark synth-pop, it’s sort of industrial, with growled or screamed vocals atop sinister grooves. Oh, also: They play this music in front of videos featuring close-ups of blood-soaked mouths gritting their teeth, while the members of the band are dressed in bondage gear and their backup dancers are dressed in black jumpsuits augmented with sci-fi armor.
Högni seemed to be everywhere at this Airwaves — including, apparently, a set on a tour boat. He’s one of those artists that is emblematic of a cross-section within Icelandic music, artists where a few genres meet in a place where it becomes hard to classify. Having fronted bands in the past, Högni’s only recently struck out on his own. You could call him a singer-songwriter, but it’s an idiosyncratic take on the tradition built on synths and moody, smokey atmospherics, all delivered by a guy who looks like a viking. It is, in short, very Icelandic.
One of the buzzy names this year was Between Mountains, a duo that won Iceland’s Battle Of The Bands earlier this year after forming shortly beforehand with the express purpose of competing. The members are still teenagers, but the music has a world-weariness beyond what their young age might suggest. They mostly stick to a woozy indie-folk sound that served as perfect Airwaves comedown music late on Sunday night, and that also made them come across like Iceland’s answer to Sharon Van Etten.
The counterpoint to Between Mountains on Sunday was Sólveig Matthildur. She performed solo, bathed in dramatic purple and red lighting and backed with heaving and twisting electronics. It was a gothic and foreboding brand of synth-pop fitting for the horrific weather that befell the festival’s end — a hellish mix of severe winds, rain, and snow that led to all flights being cancelled and the roads surrounding Reykjavik being shut down. If you were one of the lucky ones that escaped inside to the dark little club Matthildur was playing in, you would’ve found a set that channeled Zola Jesus-style apocalyptic, cosmic power.
One of the pleasures of Airwaves is the unique choices in venues, the fact that you get to see artists in uncustomary locations like boats and churches alongside standard venues. One of those instances was aYia’s set at Bíó Paradís, an independent cinema near the heart of Airwaves’ action. That yielded a certain degree of quirkiness, like the fact that you were watching chilly electronic music while people snacked on popcorn between beers. But the atmosphere was perfect for aYia’s entrancing and enigmatic music: The band was nearly invisible in the shadows at the bottom of the theater, playing underneath a screen occupied by a spinning, red 3D triangle symbol. It felt almost like a performance piece, those barely visible band members’ own shadows bleeding up the wall and adding to the whole mystique.
Pink Street Boys
Pink Street Boys are one of the most straight-up fun bands in Iceland right now. They play a loose and amiably caustic version of old-school garage rock and punk. It’s like the MC5 or the Stooges on somehow harder drugs, with their singer — a perpetually howling, sweating man who has a beard that flies off in all directions and always wears a red headband — going so far as to yell that iconic line “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” at one point during the set. (They did not play “Kick Out The Jams.”) Aided by the twin-guitar attack and the fact that they have a member who’s primary responsibility on every song is tambourine — yes, really — Pink Street Boys’ sets are nonstop train-barreling-at-you kind of rock shows. It might not sound as exotic as some of the other bands in town, but it was one of the most enjoyable and infectious sets of the festival.
It is not uncommon to meet an Icelandic musician and find out that they play in half a dozen other bands of various genres; the community is small and overlapping. Jófríður Ákadóttir had been around in bands like Samaris and Gangly, but she still found time for her solo project, JFDR. And it is completely stunning music.
I have vague recollections of seeing JFDR in the past and it being straightforward, pretty acoustic singer-songwriter kind of stuff. The set that JFDR played at the KEX Hostel on Thursday, however, was a completely different beast. It was the early afternoon, and the room was tightly packed already, and for good reason: JFDR’s music is some elusive hybrid of electronic and post-rock and folk and classical. (Amongst her fans is Iceland patron saint Björk, but I can’t say whether she was at KEX.) The songs are long and floating, built on elliptical guitar parts and mournful sax drones and trickling synth parts. They are elements that are, on their own, quiet. Then Ákadóttir’s emotive voice takes the songs in the direction of gently building storms, the resolutions often seeming just as pained as the starting points.
Then on Saturday, JFDR did a very different set — backed by piano and a string section, Ákadóttir brought a more hushed set to an old church on one of Reykjavik’s main drags. She ended that set on a light note: a love song to Kanye West that she’d written in tribute to a Kanye-obsessed friend years ago. “Kanye will you be mine/We could be together all the time,” the opening lines went. The thing is, even when JFDR was joking around she was still playing the most beautiful music of Airwaves. Based on a few years’ experience with this festival, she’s one of the greatest young talents Iceland has to offer.
For the past several years, Fufanu have been the most impressive young Icelandic band at Airwaves. And each year, they get a little bit bigger and a little more impressive. They made a leap from 2014 to 2015, going from a moody post-punk band best-suited for tiny, dark clubs to a band that wielded a little more danger and a little more forcefulness; their singer, Kaktus Einarsson, had suddenly developed the kind of baiting swagger perfected by very confident Britpop frontmen. Last year, they took over one of the big rooms at Harpa, the building Airwaves often uses for the biggest acts, complete with a new visual backdrop ahead of their second album, Sports.
That album came out earlier this year, and it found the band making another leap: Snarling post-punk now mingled with their techno roots and a hookiness that was more derived from the moodier corners of Britpop. It was those songs that stood out when they did their two Airwaves sets this year — the first crammed into a tiny Tiki bar called Bar Ananas, the second a prime Saturday night slot headlining at the Reykjavik Art Museum. They’ve grown into a band that understands propulsion perfectly — the groove driving Sports’ title track is impossible to resist and it’s revealed itself as their best song — and how to use it to repeatedly build and release tension across their sets. There are a lot of acts at Airwaves that can write a hell of a song, and there are a lot of acts that really explore performance and presentation, often in an artsier way than a typical show. Fufanu are one of the bands that seems to have it all. They are already a band that have their look and their sound down perfectly, and they’re a band that’s working at a prolific clip. Out of any of the Icelandic acts at Airwaves, this year or in recent years, it isn’t hard to imagine Fufanu being destined for bigger things.