Modern Day Musical Vikings: The British Invade Iceland
“As the sole female representation on this stage tonight, I’d just like to say thanks to Airwaves for letting my vagina be here”.
Of all odd sentiments to laud during a concert, Beach House’s Victoria Legrand’s musing is up there with the more bizarre, but it was a thanks shared by the packed Harpa Silfurberg audience. The Maryland duo was one of the standout performers at this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival, with Reykjavik again transformed into a musical hotbed for five chilly days.
You want to see Retro Stefson lead a full venue dance-off? Come this way. Catch John Grant perform with a fifty-member orchestra? Please, take off your shoes and make yourself at home. Witness BBK’s Jme and Skepta bring their east-London grime numbers to the Reykjavik Arts Museum? Take a seat and put your feet up.
As a festival, Airwaves is one of the most diverse going. The venues range from converted hostel kitchens to a 5,000 capacity hall, and performers cover everything from Danish metal to Icelandic rap. To utilise a fitting cliché, there’s quite literally something for everyone.
That’s not to say everything is brilliant – there’s some pretty dubious sets that were witnessed over the festival. The ridiculously titled VaginaBoys were nothing short of atrocious with their excessively auto-tuned R&B, and previous Bam Margera-assaulters the Glacier Mafia were as aggressive with their late night show as they were off-beat.
But for the most part, Airwaves was - again - a resounding success. The negative press following Björk’s cancellation was soon forgotten, and great music sprawled across the city from noon til night
Initially set-up as an event to showcase the best in new, and developed, Icelandic music, Airwaves stayed true to its roots in providing an international platform for its homegrown performers. This year however, it was the British and American artists that stole the prospective shows.
John Grant’s Thursday evening set with the Iceland Philharmonic Orchestra was utterly spellbinding, highlighted by ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ starting with a five-minute classical strings introduction. The former Czar’s frontman has a vocal range that works unbelievably well with a major backing band, be it searing on Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’s ‘Geraldine’, or meandering through melancholic set-closer ‘Caramel’.
Beach House, when breaking their vagina discourse, were Saturday’s standout performers; their set covering the lack of production gloss with some beautifully languid music. Victoria Legrand’s vocals can occasionally seem one-paced, but Alex Scally’s guitar adds the required element of excitement – most notably on Depression Cherry opener ‘Sparks’.
But from hereon in it was UK artists that were the weekend’s finest, performing to packed venues that frequently had queues snaking from the entrances.
At the Arts Museum, Lucy Rose’s folk music was beautifully melodic, and in complete contrast to the location’s following set from Skepta and Jme. The grime resurgence has a surprising foothold in the Icelandic capital, with the Brennivin soaked audience shouting along to ‘Too Many Man’ and ‘Shutdown’ with the same voraciousness that any rave in Bow would deliver.
Elsewhere the recognition and development of two new acts continued; backed by a live band Nao’s confident set at Nasa was perfect opportunity to show off her stunning lower pitch vibrato, whilst LA Priest held the Gamla Bio stage by himself when sampling sounds from the audience and mixing them into tracks such as ‘Learning to Love’ and (the outstanding) ‘OINO’.
Sleaford Mods, the weekend’s penultimate act, seemed constantly on the brink of being lost in translation, yet somehow Jason Williamson’s energy and East Midland’s dialect resonated with the Icelandic audience. It seems criticism of capitalism and frequent swearing is relevant in all countries.
Closing 2015’s Airwaves was London-based electronica godfathers Hot Chip, taking time from their headline tour of sixth album Why Make Sense? to travel (way) north to the Vodafonehallön. The group’s ability to build songs layer-by-layer through the introduction of different instruments is a great showcase of their individual talents, but frustratingly doesn’t allow tracks to flow as initially written. The exception – and the evening’s standout – was ‘Over and Over’, again proving itself to be one of the last decade’s best pop songs.
At a time of year when the John Lewis advert is getting the majority of media focus, it’s great that some of the attention can be wrestled back courtesy of Iceland’s premier music festival. And anyway, the Northern Lights, frosty footpaths and overpriced Christmas beer are much more festive than spying on old men.
Images courtesy of @lucasbish, Erik Luyten and @joshuastocker