Compared to other festivals of its longevity and international stature, Iceland Airwaves – the music festival launched 18 years ago with a proud emphasis on homegrown alternative rock and experimental pop – is a tempest in a shot glass: a compact high with sustained force. You can walk to most venues, from the city center in Reykjavik, inside five minutes; most are the size of a neighborhood bar. Except for the concert complex Harpa and the Valshöllin sports hall, even larger rooms like the Gamla Bío theater and the Fríkirkjan church have the intimacy of clubs.
The 2017 edition of Airwaves, which ran November 1st through the 5th, was at once bigger and smaller than in recent years, with a hit in scale and international attendance due to local economics, a weakened dollar and an even more battered British pound. But a spurt in venues, up to 13, offset the reduction of shows at Harpa, where the American band Fleet Foxes and the Icelandic singer-songwriter Asgeir played to full houses in the main symphonic room Eldborg. The only arena-worthy international act, Mumford and Sons, closed the weekend at Valshöllin.
But Airwaves, founding sponsor Icelandair and the regional airline Air Iceland Connect opened a branch of action in the far north this year, adding two nights of performances in Akureyri, about 90 miles short of the Arctic Circle. The location was apt: A proto-Airwaves presented by Air Iceland was staged there in March 1999. That October, the first Airwaves was held in a hangar at Reykjavik airport; the headliners included a young Sigur Rós.
The basic numbers this year were 207 artists playing 229 official Airwaves sets in Reykjavik, with 7,500 tickets sold (and another 1000 in Akureyri). There were lines – and inevitable disappointment for those in them – at shows that could have used bigger capacity: Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini; the eccentric English soul singer Benjamin Clementine; the iconic local band Mammút. But there was no shortage of options. This was my eighth or ninth Airwaves – I’ve lost count – and, for me, a traditional mix: reconnecting with music and bands I know, then walking into the new.
That included: the strings-and-electronics quartet Amiina, performing a live soundtrack to the French silent film Fantômas; Skelkur í Bringu, a rattling, minimalist trio fronted by a perky stick of vocal dynamite, bassist Steinunn Eldflaug, who sang in Yoko Ono–like yelps and wildcat exclamations; and We Made God, a guitar-symphony quartet of some vintage (I bought their 2011 album, It’s Getting Colder) and addicting vigor. In Akureyri, I got the neighborhood effect when 200.000 Naglbítar, a power-punk trio formed there in 1993, instantly got the crowd on their feet, singing along to what were obviously local hits. I also found out from one band member where the name – 200,000 Pliers – came from: a character in the 1948 novel, The Atom Station, by Iceland’s Nobel Prize–winning author Halldór Laxness.
Back in Reykjavik, there was some nostalgic afterburn from a reunited version of Tappi Tíkarass, a key band from Iceland’s Eighties post-punk scene best known for its original singer, a teenage Björk. (She was, on this night, otherwise occupied.) And the country’s great renegade sage, Megas, performed twice with a two-dozen-strong complement of electric band, strings and choral singers: a November 2nd theater spectacle reprised, in brief, three days later at the KEX Hostel, part of a weeklong series of live broadcasts there by Seattle’s KEXP-FM. Now in his mid-seventies, the Bob Dylan of Iceland has a voice as reduced by age and wear and the sumptuous accompaniment evoked Dylan’s recent red-velvet stay in the Frank Sinatra songbook. Except Megas sang his own rebel songs, about street life and bohemian aspiration in Iceland – including a Fifties-style rocker in Icelandic that was, I was reliably informed, very simple and extremely pornographic.
This five-man garage-droog rush of staccato-punch guitars, barely melodic bark and cardiac-attack drumming has not let any finesse gather on its mayhem since my first Airwaves bruising in 2015. But the Boys’ fast, frantic set to celebrate their second vinyl-only album, under microscope conditions in the living-room squeeze of the 12 Tónar store, revealed an embedded attention to tension – a euphoric all-for-one grip – in their hairpin-curve riffing and Viking–Dead Boys charge. A perfect example on the LP, until you see them live: “Wet (Get Sober),” two minutes of raw, alcoholic blur, served with feral clarity.
I’ve seen the electronic composer and vocalist Sigrún before – as a touring musician with Björk and Sigur Rós. Fronting a female trio in this small, packed club, she opened alone, firing clean, sharp spears of wordless incantation and operatic whoop through charred, arhythmic programming. The fuller music was at once earthier and even more alien: an acoustic bassist, grounding the electronics with nimble, woody figures; and a woman literally playing a set of football-helmet-size rocks, manipulating a note-like punctuation of hum and crackle with her hands, as if from a theremin, via mics and wires run through the stones. You can’t see that conjuring when you stream Sigrún’s three EPs: Hringsjá and Tog, both from 2016; and this summer’s Smitari (Bandcamp). But you can hear those worlds collide.
These gigs – in the formal calm of Akureyri’s concert hall and an overflow Reykjavik crowd the following night – were my second and third sightings just this year of a band that has grown exponentially, in force and dynamics, since my initial Airwaves sighting a decade ago. After their fierce closing-night set at the festival last year, I wrote that Mammút were “ready for the world” – a declaration confirmed this summer by their first English-language album, Kinder Versions. “Breathe Into Me,” “Pray for Air” and the album’s seven-minute opener “We Tried Love” were sustained sorcery: ascending whirlwinds of arctic psychedelia spinning out of Alexandra Baldursdottir and Arnar Pétursson’s arpeggio-and-effects-pedal crossfire and Katrína Kata Mogensen’s binary vocal spell of avenging Kate Bush and late-1966 San Francisco. English may be Mammút’s second language, but Kinder Versions is native poetry.
There are two-man bands. There are power duos. And then there is Xylouris White, the exploring, swinging collaboration of Giorgos Xylouris, who plays the Cretan lute, and drummer Jim White of the avant-rock trio the Dirty Three. Xylouris was born in Crete and comes from a distinguished family of folk musicians; he and White met in Australia, where Xylouris was on tour, and became a band – in the most empathic sense – in 2013. At Airwaves, previewing material from their sublime and propulsive third album, Mother (coming out on January), Xylouris White hit the ground running like an ouzo-fueled Cream of ecstatic, circular riffing and urgent, rolling syncopation. It was Eric Clapton’s original vision of that band as “blues ancient and modern,” shot forward through Cretan mountain-village song and psychedelic improvisation. I also had periodic flashbacks to the Middle Eastern jamming and climbing drive of the late-Sixties Los Angeles band Kaleidoscope – as White’s thunderclap fills and Xylouris’ sinewy licks kept that transcendence firmly in the present.
This seven-piece titanic-drone ensemble – four guitarists, two drummers, a bassist and beards-a-plenty – was a profound shock last year: an elegantly glacial post-rock assault of massed sustain and ritualistic percussion, suggesting an impressionist-noise dream team of Mogwai and the drummers from both Can and Pink Floyd. Two more exposures – an off-venue mini-set at KEX, simulcast by KEXP-FM; then an Airwaves gig that night at the Hard Rock – affirmed the intricate, overlapping precision of those guitars and the connected drumming inside GlerAkur’s mounting, orchestral din. For that experience-to-go: The Mountains Are Beautiful Now, the group’s explosive and expansive debut album (following a 2016 EP); and KEXP’s YouTube video of the KEX broadcast. For proper immersion: Play ’em loud.
This Icelandic singer and programmer, one third of the electro-gothic trio Kaelan Mikla, was described to me as the local “high priestess of dark wave.” What I actually got was a loamy-alto vocal noir set in cello-register soundscapes played on an iPad: a tablet-age reincarnation of the post–Velvet Underground Nico, in the harmonium-wasteland setting of 1969’s The Marble Index and 1970’s Desertshore. Released in December, 2016, Unexplained Miseries sets Matthildur’s arias further back in the twilight – and drawing you with them.
There are no records – yet. That is sure to change soon. This female duo from the Westfjords hit the national radar last April when Katla Vigdis and Ásrós Helga, only in their mid-teens, were the surprise winners of the 2017 Músíktilraunir, a national battle of the bands. (To give you an idea of the calibre of acts and judgement, the 2010 winners were the folk-rock export Of Monsters and Men.) Tonight, the din back at the bar was distracting. Between Mountain’s accomplished multi-instrumental blend of keyboard, electric guitar, marimba and accordion floated through with feathery vocal harmonies that moved in pinpoint Byrds-like formation. The songwriting was sugary optimism and lovesick blues; the duo writes what it knows. But the playing and singing were a soft-psych pleasure with room and time to grow. Next year, I can see how far.
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