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Iceland Airwaves 2019 – Reflections

It was great to be back in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves after a one year absence, with the added benefit of this being a milestone for us – our 10th Airwaves.  It’s bizarre to think that as someone closer to 50 than 40 I’ve attended an Airwaves during over 20% of my years…

Because we missed 2018 this was our first time experiencing the festival under the new leadership and with the shorter four-day format.  There were considerably few bands in 2019 than in 2017, and perhaps even more noticeable way fewer off-venues.  My understanding is that the fee for being an official off-venue increased significantly, and based on the numbers I heard from folks in town the cost was prohibitive for many of the small businesses that hosted shows in past years.  This was also the first time I remember hearing people referring to Airwaves as a “showcase festival”.  With all that in mind, there wasn’t as much music happening as in years past, and bands played significantly fewer shows.  Despite that, there was plenty going on and we got into the groove of the slower pace, taking advantage of the extra time to connect with friends.

And friends were the theme of Iceland Airwaves 2019 for us.  While I missed the music last year as I sat in the basement of my workplace and desperately worked with the team to try to get a software release done in time, at the end of the day what I missed most was seeing all of our friends.  So this year we made a point of connecting with everyone possible, while also making some new friends along the way.  Some folks weren’t sure if they’d be coming back in 2020, but by the end of the week most of them were already talking about early bird passes being available.  The smaller, more intimate feel of Airwaves, and Reykjavik in general, creates these opportunities to build relationships, and that’s a big part of what makes it special.  If you’d have told me in 2009 how many people we’d know and stay and touch with due to Airwaves I wouldn’t have believed you.

Best Venue:  It was a strange year without Harpa, and while KEX Hostel was elevated to on-venue status we somehow never made it there.  In fact we spent most of our on-venue time at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which while adequate is never going to be anyone’s favorite spot.  Ultimately I come away with feeling that once again Gamla Bíó is the best place in Reykjavik to see a show, despite the fact that we only saw one band perform there (Glass Museum).  The strangest place we saw a show was definitely Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir, a local school where we were surrounded by kids.  You’d never see that in the US, my friends.  Here if a bunch of foreigners show up at a grade school, someone is calling a SWAT team.

Best Show:  For the second Airwaves in a row I’m going with Hatari (below).  To say that their set is a performance would be an understatement, and since I also love their music it was more or less a no-brainer.  A super close second was a bit of a surprise – the off-venue Lucky Records show by Hermigerville.  Not only did he have half the crowd actually dancing, but he also dropped in a couple of The Magnetics covers since he’d performed as part of their retro set the night before.  We ended up missing that show because it conflicted with Hatari, so it was awesome to catch a few of those old 80s-style synth bangers.  Honorable mentions to Mammút, who I hadn’t seen in forever and who sounded fantastic, and the up-and-comers Blóðmör with their straight-ahead style of classic metal.

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Best New-To-Me Band:  The winner here is definitely Lydmor.  We’d never heard of her before seeing her at Hressó and her performance was one of those experiences where even if you’re not 100% into whatever is happening at the moment, you’re still captivated by it and don’t want to leave because you know something completely different and unexpected is right around the corner.  I’m not sure how this will translate to listening to Lydmor’s music without the live component, but I’ll definitely be checking out some of her stuff.

Coolest Music Purchase:  I bought a TON of stuff this trip.  So much, in fact, that I couldn’t fit all the vinyl in my DJ carry-on bag which left me with a hard choice – try to pack some in my suitcase or spend a bunch of money to have it shipped.  I opted for the former and the guys a Lucky provided me with a solid box and some extra 12″ cardboard pieces, and after strategically deciding what I’d put in my suitcase (i.e. less expensive stuff) and what I’d carry on (more expensive stuff) we got the box into the suitcase surrounded by clothes and… it worked <phew>!  The finally tally was something absurd like 45 records of various sizes, probably 25 CDs, and a fistful of cassettes.  Restraint is not my strong suit. Plus I had a lot of catching up to do after having missed a year.

As for the coolest purchase, well, it’s actually something we picked up in London at Sister Ray prior to heading to Reykjavik – Sensational‘s debut album Loaded With Power.  I pretty much never find Sensational vinyl in the US and this was released by a German label, so I was stoked to find it.  Honorable mention for the super limited (edition of 20) Blóðmör demo tape Á Hljómleikum that a friend snagged and held onto for me.  Those guys are definitely going places and this stuff will be even more impossible to get in the future.

Biggest Regret:  There were a few bands we missed who I’d like to have seen, especially Agent Fresco and the Biggi DJ set.  However, the biggest miss was not seeing Berndsen perform at a clothing story, because everyone who went said it was off the charts.  And having seen some photos, it clearly was.  So I’ll make a point of catching up with the big redhead next year.

 

We didn’t see nearly as many bands in 2019 as we have in the past, even when you account for the Airwaves being one day shorter.  Typically we’d see somewhere from 35-40 performances in five days, but this time around that number was probably in the low 20s.  And I’m fine with that.  In fact I liked not feeling like I just had to be on the run all day every day, tracking down show after show like I was just filling out a checklist.

I’d say there’s probably a 90% chance we’ll be back in Reykjavik in 360 or so days for the next installment of Airwaves.  Hopefully we’ll see you there.

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 4

This is our first Airwaves since the festival was shortened to four days.  It seems weird to be heading out on Saturday night and knowing “this is it”.

We opted to pass on the big closing show at Valshöllin, opting instead for a more low-key evening.  We started with Hermigervill‘s early evening set at Lucky Records.  We’ve been to a ton of shows there in the past, but this was the first time we’ve seen people dancing and grooving and Herigervill bombarded us with his funky beats.  As an added bonus he trotted out a pair of jams he’d performed the other night with the early 1980s synth act The Magnetics, which was super cool.

From there we headed to Hressingarskálinn, aka Hressó, where we caught the tail end of Sunna Fridjons set while settling in for the band we were there to see, :PAPERCUTZ, Bruno Miguel’s project that this time saw him performing with a female vocalist.  Their set was low key and fun, though the PA did give them a few problems here and there.  After that was local electronic artist Einar Indra and his unique approach, one that is sometimes freed from the constraints of traditional song structures to provide something both atmospheric and environmental, yet also neither at the same time.  It’s hard to explain with words (clearly) and it definitely holds your attention.  Last up, at least for us, was Danish musician/DJ/singer/performer Lydmor.  Artists take risks when they get on stage and do something that’s way different that what others are doing, and often it fails flat.  Honestly that’s what I thought was going to happen as Lydmor’s set opened, but she reeled me back in with a performance that was both familiar and unpredictable, her approach seemingly changing instantly and leaving you constantly wondering what was coming next.  I’m not entirely sure how this will translate to a non-visual album, but I’ll be checking out her stuff when we get back to the states.

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And after a late-night hot dog (left)… it’s over.  At least the official festival is done.  We still have one more full day in the city to catch up with friends, and to try to figure out how I’m going to get all these records, tapes, and CDs home…

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 3

Day 3 began with me sorting out my big stack of potential purchases from Lucky Records.   Turns out I’d put aside way more stuff than I realized, so much so that I may in fact be throwing away at least one pair of pants to make room (♠) enough in my bag.  I may need to re-evaluate my willpower.  But not until we get back home from Iceland with all this vinyl.

From there we hooked up with Rob of Revenge of Calculon fame for lunch, then caught up with him again later to see is solo set at Lucky Records in the afternoon.  It was every bit as funky and dirty and sleazy as we’ve come to expect from Calculon (below), and the crowd was definitely into it, including the one lucky fan who came away with his own luchador mask thanks to his dancing efforts.

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That took us to the on-venue portion of the evening, and for the second time this trip we decided to post up at the Reykjavik Art Museum for the entire evening.  The first two performers were pop-centric, Icelander Hildur and Norwegian Anna of the North.  Hildur’s set was reflective, the artist providing a bit of context for each song before it began, while Anna of the North was about unadulterated energy and joy.  Next up were Icelandic rock veterans Mammút (below), a band I believe we first saw all the way back in 2010, and man they have come a long way.  The music was tight and Kata’s vocals powerful, drawing tons of support and energy from the crowd, especially the Icelanders.  It was one of the best sets of the festival so far.

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And that, my friends, brings us to Hatari.  Ah, Hatari, a band loved by some, hated by others.  They garnered significant attention as Iceland’s entry for Eurovision 2019, the finals of which were held in Tel Aviv, for their pro-Palestinian statements prior to the finals, their pre-final release of a collaboration video with Palestinian singer Bashar Murad, and capping it off by showing a Palestinian flag on live TV immediately following their performance.  So again, loved by some, hated by others.  They’ve also received criticism for appropriating certain subcultural fashions on stage.  You can decide for yourself.  As for me, I clearly like their music, having ranked their four-song EP Neysluvara as my favorite release of 2017.

The show at the Art Museum (below) was, of course, a spectacle of bondage and fetish fashion cocooned in a story arc of impending global demise.  There were dancers.  There was a video projection.  There were lasers.  There were canisters shooting showers of sparks.  There were guest performers, including, I believe, none other than Murad himself. And there were beats, growled invectives, and falsettos.  In other words, it was absolutely fantastic.

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Three days in the book.  One more to go…

(♠) Seriously.

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 2

We weren’t out too late on Wednesday night, so we hit the streets relatively early by Airwaves standards – probably about 10:30AM.  I headed straight over to Lucky Records to spend a few hours digging and building large stack of music to pick up later in the trip (see the Day 3 post…), before meeting up with the gang for lunch at one of our all time favorite joints, Noodle Station.  From there we popped over to Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir to see the hip hop duo Cryptochrome.  What was particularly notable about this show is that Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir is, well, a school.  So we were in a room that was about half adults and half little kids watching a performance, which is about as surreal as it sounds. (♠)  After that we popped over to Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar to catch one of our favorite Icelandic bands, and one we’ve never seen live, Foreign Monkeys.  And despite playing inside a bar nestled within a hotel, the Monkeys (below) absolutely crushed it with a blistering 40 minute set that included songs from their original album, 2009s , as well as the recently released Return.  Even the folks in our group who don’t generally gravitate to hard rock loved this set, with the strongest compliments being given to the drumming.  I know we’re only half way through the festival, but so far this has been my favorite show.

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After another record shopping detour, this time at Reykjavik Record Shop, it was time for dinner and the official on-venue portion of the day.  We started at Gaukurinn (formerly Sódóma) because we wanted to check out our friend Haukur and his metal band Blóðmör (below), and the young men did not disappoint, rocking our faces off with a blend of metal and punk, replete with long hair, head banging, and a Flying V guitar.  They destroyed all comers.  If these guys represent the future of heavy metal, then the future looks bright my friends.

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Blóðmör were followed by the always solid Kontinuum.  After that we bounced over to Gamla Bíó for Glass Museum (below), an intriguing Belgian duo who play instrumental songs using keyboards and drums.  The house was nearly full for their set the crowd responded with approval to everything the pair performed – clearly most folks in the room knew of them already.  Their style is hard to describe, the vibe more electronica than traditional popular music, with definite jazz and contemporary influences.  I know that may not sound like it should work, but trust me, it does.

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We wrapped up the night early as I’m still battling a cold I picked up during our flight from Seattle to London, but given how strong all five bands were today I don’t feel like I got shortchanged.  Plus we still have the festival’s two biggest nights ahead of us.

(♠)  When we arrived we agreed that if four guys, unaccompanied by children, showed up at a grade school to watch a musical performance, someone probably would have called a SWAT team.

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 1

After a one year absence, Holly and I and our intrepid friend Norberto made it back to Reykjavik for our 10th Iceland Airwaves together.  Joined by Tristen (4th Airwaves) and Andy (3rd) we are rolling deep this year. And while I certainly missed the bands last year as a work project kept me confined state-side, what I missed most was seeing the friends we’ve made over the years attending the festival, be they folks who live in Iceland or those who, like us, make annual or sometimes sporadic visits to this rock in the Atlantic.

But first, Holly and I spent a few days in London at the start of the trip.  We did so specifically to see A-Ha perform at Royal Albert Hall (below), a two-set performance that featured all of Hunting High and Low in order, an intermission, then another dozen or so songs from the band’s catalog.  To see such a great band perform at such a seminal venue was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we enjoyed every minute of it.  A-Ha still has it, that’s for sure.  If they ever make it stateside again, we’ll definitely consider a trip to go see them.

aharoyalalbert After seeing A-Ha on a Tuesday night, it was off to Reykjavik for the start of Airwaves the very next day.  By time we got into the city, dropped off our bags, and made our way down to get our wristbands it was getting close to 6PM.  At the media center we got to say hi to our friends Bob and Ingvar from Lucky Records before dashing into the night in search of food followed by the first band at 8PM.  It wasn’t relaxing, but it’s why we’re here. Some nights we bounce around from venue to venue, others we camp out in one spot all night.  For Day 1 we opted for the latter and headed to the Reykjavik Art Museum because we really wanted to see the opening and closing bands there, plus as an added benefit sandwiched in the middle was up-and-comer and recently signed Sub Pop artist Orville Peck.

And away we go! First up was the trio Kælan Mikla.  We first saw them live at Airwaves back in 2015 and I for one was blown away by the sheer emotion their songs were drenched in, all angst and doom and beauty wrapped into one.  Since then we’ve seen them two more times at Airwaves, and again a couple of months ago in Seattle opening for Test Dept. That Seattle show revealed a more refined and intentional band, one confident in their abilities but one that also felt like it lost a little of that raw edge, that slightly open wound that you just can’t help but pick at.  However, they brought that back at Airwaves, especially in the vocals.  They owned the big room with both their music and their presences and it was definitely the best all-around show of theirs I’ve seen.  Next up was aYia, an intriguing trio about who not a lot is known and who have not yet released any material in a physical format, though they do have some stuff on Bandcamp HERE.  This was our second time seeing them and they delivered a dreamy set comprised of fluid electronics and almost mystical vocals.

That brought us to Orville Peck (below), the country-styled masked crooner who seems to be taking the online world by storm at the moment.  And it’s easy to understand why, with his (and his band’s) unique style of dress, easy presence on stage, and songs about transvestites who work in country bars.  They played ’em fast and they played ’em hard, and while this generally isn’t my thing, Peck is a great performer and it was a fun set, one I’m glad we got to see.

orvillepeckairwaves Last, but definitely far from least, we arrived at the promised land – Une Misère (below).  With a new album, Sermon, due on the shelves any day now, they found themselves in top form, a five-man hardcore and metal attack that will tear your spine from your body.  They flat out attacked the audience, which responded with a series of mosh pits and a fair amount of head-banging.  As if that wasn’t enough, one of my all time favorite Icelandic vocalists joined them on stage for a song – Arnór Dan Arnarson of Agent Fresco fame.  Never one to shy away from screaming into the mic, Arnór and Une Misère vocalist Jón Már Ásbjörnsson battled it out to see who could shred their vocal cords first, ending in a tie as neither broke down nor gave in.  I’m very much looking forward to their new album.

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As an added bonus, we were able to connect with some of our friends as well.  “Scotland Paul” (♠) and members of his crew caught up with us earlier in the evening, followed by “Vancouver Matt” (♣) and Tanya.  Catching up with old friends and making new ones is one of the best parts of Airwaves, and we can’t wait to hook up with more of them as the festival continues.

(♠)  As we refer to him at home, as in “did you see what Scotland Paul posted on Instagram today?”

(♣)  See above