Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 1

It’s 7AM on Thursday morning in Reykjavik, and I can’t sleep.  For whatever reason this entire trip has been a blurry week of going to bed barely able to keep my eyes open, then snapping wide awake about four hours later.  I know this kind of thing happens to people this far north during the summer, when the daylight is endlessly long and you feel the urge to take advantage of the sun because you know that the dark season is coming.  But Reykjavik has been a nothing but gray, from the impenetrable blanket of clouds covering the city and the battleship gray of the ocean in the harbor.  I should be able to wrap a comforter around myself and sleep for days.  But my head is still buzzing from last night’s shows, so instead I’m in a dark room, looking out a window at a tree wrapped in white Christmas lights, and writing this, my first postcard to Airwaves ’16.

I started the day over at Lucky Records, where King Lucky and Gestur had a whole pile of tapes, CDs, and records awaiting my perusal.  Figuring out what I already had was the first step, and I’ve finally reached the point where I can’t conclusively do that without the help of Discogs, which thankfully I was able to access on the store computer.  I only had an hour in the morning for records, so my friends at Lucky put my growing “buy” pile in the back for me to return to later in the trip.

The reason I only had a hour at Lucky was because we were doing the Reykjavik Music Walk, a tour of the city led by music journalist and PhD student (and brother of Ghostigital’s Curver) Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen.  Arnar led us through a rambling tour of downtown, pointing out the Sugarcubes’ old rehearsal space, locations of long-forgetter venues, and Björk’s old apartment.  He’s knowledgeable and engaging, and despite having to dodge a few raindrops, our group of eight people plus a film crew shooting a documentary all had an enjoyable time.  These tours usually take place in the summer, so if you find yourself in town and want a taste of the country’s music scene, it’s a fun way to spend a hour.

From there we grabbed some burgers and our wristbands before popping over to Reykjavik Record Shop to visit our friend Reynir and, of course, buy some records.  I didn’t go too crazy, but did walk out of there with Wormlust’s The Feral Wisdom, Box’s Skuggahliðin, a 12″ by Sniglabandið that I didn’t have, plus a four song 12″ comp from Icelandic label Thule Records.  I’ll likely be back there again before the end of the trip once I see how full my record bag is.

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After that we headed to the movie theater Bíó Paradís to catch an electronic set in their lobby area by Lady Boy Records artist Andi (left).  I thoroughly enjoyed his self-titled cassette that came out back in May, and his live show was quite good.  It started a bit slow, but moved into some more danceable beats that actually had group of a half dozen or so people dancing by the bar before it was all said and done.  At times Andi subtly alters the BPM during the build-up, which can throw off your timing a bit but adds an interesting element to the music that keeps you on your toes.

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The drizzle became a bit more consistent, but that didn’t stop us from a quick stop-off at the new Icelandic PUNK Museum, which had it’s grand opening at 5PM.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hang around long enough to get inside and check out the cramped quarters, which are in an old disused public bathroom underneath a city sidewalk, but were were there to hear none other than Johnny Rotten (of Sex Pistols fame – right) address the crowd and talk a bit about punk rock and the current state of music (revelation –> Johnny isn’t terribly impressed).  He was an entertaining speaker, though you could tell he wanted to interact a bit more with the crowd, which was actually being quite quiet and almost looking at him as a curiosity, a museum piece in and of himself, which is too bad because he was quite witty and making a strong effort to connect.  I’m going to try to make it back there today to see the inside of the museum.

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From there it was a mad dash to KEX Hostel to catch Singapore Sling (left).  While we didn’t think we had a shot at getting a good spot, a table opened up in the front right at the corner of the stage area and we immediately took it over.  The position offered a fantastic vantage point for taking photos of the band’s droning psych rock set.  The only other time we’d seen Singapore Sling they were hamstrung by some horrible acoustics at the venue, but they suffered no such problems this time around, kicking out 25 minutes of killer music that was carried live by KEXP radio.  Look for some videos of the set online in the upcoming weeks, and give a listen to their latest album Psych Fuck.

After a delicious pulled pork sandwich and a beer at our fortress of a table we were treated to the OG garage rockers hailing from Tacoma, Washington, The Sonics (below), who have been blowing people’s minds since 1960.  Not only were we stoked to see this seminal band play in Reykjavik, but it was doubly exciting because our friend and old high school classmate Evan Foster now plays guitar with The Sonics when they tour.  It was obvious right from the packed soundcheck (after which the band remarked, “we don’t usually soundcheck in front of this many people…”) that this was going to be a high intensity show, and by the time 8:30 rolled around KEX was absolutely packed.  Right in the front just off to our right were the members of Seattle’s own Thunderpussy, who were obviously just as pumped as we were for the show.

And The Sonics rocked our faces off.

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When you’ve been doing rock ‘n’ roll for 56 years, you learn a thing or two, and The Sonics brought all that knowledge and all those lessons to the stage at KEX where they completely and utterly destroyed the room.  There was a heavy Seattle contingent in the crowd, which just increased the intensity level, and they band fed off of it from start to finish playing a blistering set that could have been a “How To” guide for rockers who want to start their own bands.  Yeah, I get it, Nirvana defines the Seattle sound and all that.  But just listen to some of those garage punk elements of The Sonics and you’ll realize that all that late 1980s/early 1990s grunge owes at a minimum a head-nod and a bro-hug to trailblazers like The Sonics.  And they’re still bringing it long after all those other bands have disappeared.  Long live The Sonics!

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We hung around after the show and had a drink with Evan before departing for Iðnó, where we arrived fairly soaked but were fortunately able to find a few comfortable seats in the back where we could relax a bit.  First up was a jazz rock type outfit called Ambátt, but the band we were really there to see was the darkwave trio of Kælan Mikla (left).  They totally blew us away at Airwaves last year, and their self-titled 2016 release will most likely make at least one of my year-end “Top 5” lists.  They brought intensity (and incense) to their set in front of a packed and appreciative room, and it was interesting to hear how much they’ve developed since the last time we saw them.  The electronic beats had more variety, the bass playing more confidence and power, and the singing… the singing… when Laufey Soffía Þórsdóttir decides to go off it’s startling that so much power can come out of that person, a mix of anger and rage and fear that is more cold and clinical than raw emotion, perfectly attuned to their style.

We only saw five bands, but it was a full and rewarding day.  We actually had a conversation about just that with our friend and ex-pat Leana – that there were times at Airwaves when seeing as many bands as was humanly possible seemed to be a goal in and of itself, but that over the years we’ve been able to step back and take Airwaves as it comes, taking the time to re-connect with friends and enjoy the ride.  And that’s definitely what we’re doing this year – enjoying the ride.

Well, I’ve been at the computer for just over an hour.  It’s a little after 8AM, and still as dark as midnight outside our apartment window.  I may just need to crawl back into bed and see if I can sneak in a few more hours of shuteye before hitting the mean streets of Reykjavik again for another day of music.  But probably not.  And that’s why they invented coffee.

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