Iceland Airwaves 2016 – Day 4

We didn’t do any off venue stuff on Saturday, instead using it as a chance to do some things around town.  Plus we had tickets for Björk’s show at Harpa which started at 5PM, so by time we rolled out of bed and got done having “breakfast” with our friend Leana it was already almost Noon… and only about 3.5 hours until our pre-show dinner.

So about that Björk show…

This was our first time seeing Iceland’s most famous export perform, and going into it I knew she was going to be accompanied by strings from the Icelandic Philharmonic Orchestra and would be playing material from her 2015 release Vulnicura, an album that explored the collapse and dissolution of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney.  I’d intentionally avoided the album in advance of the show as I wanted to go into this show with as fresh a perspective as possible.

Based on reviews of the album I expected Björk to bring her pain to the stage, but I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of her emotional exposure.  The string arrangements were intentionally disjointed and jarring, upping the unease that already flowed from her lyrics as she described the trauma of the dying relationship.  It was like she cut out her heart, put it on a table in front of us, and then poured salt on it and tore at her own wounds.  If the purpose of art is to make us feel, then Björk accomplished that with her first 45 minute set, making us feel her pain, making us squirm in our seats at the sheer discomfort of listening to her completely expose herself to us.  I’m glad I got to experience it.  And I hope to never experience anything like it again.

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I was a bit concerned we were going to get more of the same following the intermission, as frankly it would have been almost been too much to bear.  But fortunately the strings came to life harmonically and beautifully as we entered a more upbeat second half of the show.  Björk’s voice soared throughout the hall designed for orchestras and operas, the sound perfect and the crowd quiet and attentive enough that you could hear a pin drop.

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We headed back to our apartment for a post-Björk break, but then it was right back down to Harpa for another full night of shows.  The on-venue schedule opened for us with Gunnar Jónsson Collider (left) and his brand of experimental rock accompanied by what were definitely the trippiest and coolest visuals we saw at the festival.  At times it bordered on prog, but the electronic elements kept things fresh and interesting.

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Tonik Ensemble was next, though truth be told Holly and I were chilling out for most of their set, so much so that I literally forgot to shoot photos.  I feel a little bad about that because I enjoyed 2015s Snapshot as well as the entire set they played at Harpa.  From there it was onto a more up tempo performance by Hermigervill (right), who we first experienced as the musical backing for Berndsen, then later seeing some of his solo performances.  He had some witty and funny banter with the crowd and you could tell he was genuinely excited to be up on stage playing his music, which always makes the entire experience more enjoyable.  As an added bonus, the big redhead Berndsen came out and did a couple of his dream-pop songs with his old partner in crime, which was a lot of fun.

The teenage duo Let’s Eat Grandma was next in what was a bit of a challenging set that sometimes seemed like it tried to hard to be avant garde.  These ladies have some very obvious talent and there were moments within the set where things came together nicely.  I respect them from getting outside of the box, but would have enjoyed it more if they played a bit more to their strengths.  That being said, I’m certainly aware of the possibility that this could indeed be Advanced work that is simply beyond my comprehension.  SG Lewis followed them and showed us a thing or two about how to be both interesting and different, the multi-instrumentalist wearing many hats throughout his set, one of the interesting features of which were some songs that had all the vocals pre-recorded and not being sung by anyone on stage.

That brought us to the finish line and Iceland’s best party band, FM Belfast.  As always the gang from FM Belfast packed them in and the crowd density nearly reached critical mass.  Holly and I stayed for about half the set before attempting to make it from the far back corner of the room to the exit doors on the other wall (♠), which took us nearly an entire song to accomplish.  Eventually we rode the coattails of a bunch of dudes making a single-file path through the crowd while others filed in behind us, but it was a bit touch-and-go for a bit.  So if I stepped on your foot during this, my apologies; if you stepped on mine, no worries.

Four days down… one to go!

(♠)  I have yet to fully comprehend how the decisions are made as to which doors are opened and closed, and when, at those upstairs rooms in Harpa.  It’s a tough floor to be on – the main walkway the two rooms share is pretty narrow in parts and it can make for some super densely packed crowds that can barely move.  I get wanting to control traffic flow… but having exit doors that can’t be used at times just makes it harder to get people out of the rooms.  And here’s another idea -stagger the start and end times a bit!  I get that having shows in both rooms starting and ending at the same time makes some sense in terms of people being able to catch entire sets, but it’s a foot traffic disaster when you have 1,500 people trying to leave two rooms at the exact same time and spilling out into the same small space.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 – Day 3

How did we get to Day 3 already?

We’ve been away from home for a little over a week now, and I have to say that other than missing our dog, I have not missed the day-to-day of being there one little bit.  This isn’t some boo-hoo complaint about my life – far from it.  I have a pretty outstanding life full of amazing people, and I get to do things like travel to Iceland to go to music festivals. But a week or so of not going to or thinking about work, paying bills, cleaning clogged gutters, and trying to figure out if the milk in the fridge is safe enough for one more bowl of cereal, well… travel has its benefits.

The weather has turned from mostly dry to mostly hit-and-miss, but that won’t keep us inside.  We wandered town a bit before I caught up with Life in the Vinyl Lane reader and someone I email with regularly, Arni, who was down the street at Reykjavik Record Store.  We hung out with shop owner Reynir for a bit and talked about music and records and their mutual disbelief that I still don’t own any Sigur Rós records.  It was great to finally meet him in person.

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Copyright Life in the Vinyl Lane 2015

From there Norberto and I headed down to KEX Hostel to see one of my favorite all-time Icelandic bands (and frankly just bands period) Agent Fresco (above).  I reviewed their new album Destrier a few months ago and have been loving it.  We got there about 45 minutes before show time, which was good enough to secure spots in the second “row” of standing fans – which if you’ve never been to KEX means we were maybe six feet front the band.  Being close to the action is important at KEX since there is no stage and the performers are at floor level, and I wanted to make sure I could get a few pictures, so an early arrival was a must.  As expected, they killed it with their emotional, high-energy six-song set, which I’m almost certain was all drawn from the new album.  After 25 minutes they were all soaked in sweat and the crowd was hoarse from cheering.  While Holly opted not to join us (the room at KEX can get packed to the point where it’s a bit uncomfortable at times), she followed along online because Seattle’s KEXP radio station broadcast the entire thing live.  The video of the performance will likely be out in the next month or two, so keep your eyes open for it on YouTube!.

We headed back to the apartment, picked up Holly, and then it was a dash two blocks down the street to the Geysir clothing store to see another of our Icelandic favorites, Berndsen, who performed a happy, smiling set of electro-pop.  The store was already packed when we arrived, but eventually we managed to wiggle our way inside so we could get a bit closer and hear the sound better.  Most of Berndsen’s act was drawn from his most recent album Planet Earth, but he also reached back to his debut Lover in the Dark to play my favorite of his songs, “Supertime.”  And, as always, by the end he ended up shirtless and touching people’s faces in the crowd.  “It’s ten Euro to touch my body… or you can buy one of our CDs instead,” he told us at the end of the show.  Love that guy. But I think I’ll stick with the CD.  Thanks.

Our last off-venue show of the day involved a trip back to KEX to see the Japanese acid punk band Bo Ningen (I believe this is pronounced “bo-nin-yin”).  I was intrigued by the clips of their music I heard prior to the trip, and when we’d been at KEX earlier in the day our friend Jim from KEXP told us they were expecting a big turnout for the show.  And Jim was right – we were about four or five people deep in the crowd when we arrived 30 minutes before show time.

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And (un)holy hell, what a show!  This was one of those moments you live for as a music fan, when you go into a show with minimal expectations and something incredible happens.  Because Bo Ningen brings it in a way I’ve never seen anyone bring it before, and when they kicked into gear it’s like they had battery acid burning through their veins and were flailing about trying to get it out.  Taigen (above) was like a possessed cult leader on bass and vocals, summoning demonic spirits to come up to KEX and fry our minds with a sheer wall of noise.  Taigen played the bass behind the back… over the head… upside down… holding it out like a gun… and almost decapitated the camera man not once but twice, and when the guitarist started windmilling his guitar (not his arm in the act of playing it… swinging the entire guitar in circles) in that confined space I was fairly certain someone was going to end up with a concussion.  But it held together until the end, and the cheering that erupted from the crowd at the conclusion of the set was the loudest I’ve ever, ever heard at KEX.  Bo Ningen.  I’ll be buying some of your music as soon as I get home.

For the evening on-venue program we visited Harpa and caught the folk band Árstíðir, the sort of adult contemporary-ish Hjaltalín, and finally Seattle’s own Perfume Genius.  After nearly three long days of festival going we were all a bit tired, though, and the quiet music played by these three performers didn’t do much to help our flagging energy levels, so we walked up the street, got a few slices of pizza, and called it a night.

We’re past the half way point of Iceland Airwaves 2015 now, and it seems like we just got here.  With the normally sparse off-venue on Sunday, and the big blow-out already planned for Sunday night, that leaves us with just one more day to truly pick and choose.  I hope we choose wisely…

Berndsen – “Planet Earth”

“Is this New Order?”

“No.  It’s new Berndsen.”

<long pause>

“Well you can see why I’d think that, right?”

Yes Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, I can.  I had just been thinking the same thing as I listened to the first few songs of Berndsen’s 2013 release Planet Earth, so when she came home in the middle of “Gimmi Gimmi” it just reinforced what I’d already been mulling over in my head.

We first discovered Berndsen when we stumbled upon one of his live off-venue sets at Iceland Airwaves 2011, which prompted us to go right out and buy his debut CD, 2009s sad-pop masterpiece Lover In The Dark.  We saw him again in Reykjavik last year, this time at KEX Hostel, where he played a set exclusively pulled from his then just released sophomore effort Planet Earth, a high-energy set that found me a bit uncomfortably close to a big, sweaty, shirtless Benrdsen as he climbed onto the bench I was sitting on.  I’ve been told there is some awkward photographic evidence of this incident, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to have made it to the web (and please don’t consider this a challenge if you have possession of such images!).  I’m not sure how we came home from that trip without a copy of Planet Earth in hand, but that’s what happened.  I kept telling myself I’d pick it up on iTunes, then never did.  Finally I found myself putting in an order with Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, remembered this hole in my record collection (it includes a download card for a free mp3 version of the album too, BTW), and added it to my purchases.

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Planet Earth finds vocalist Berndsen once again teamed up with electronics genius Hermigervill, himself a talented electronica solo artist.  The two groove together so well that it’s impossible to tell if they start with the music or the words with their seamless integration.  Fellow electronic music stud Oculus is credited with mastering the album, which could do nothing but make it even better, and bassists Arnljótur Sigurðsson (Ojba Rasta) and Jakob Smári (Tappi Tíkarrass – yes, Björk’s early 1980s punk band) make this a pretty impressive group of Icelandic all-stars.  Surrounding yourself with talented musicians and producers is never a bad idea, and it paid noticeable dividends on Planet Earth.

The new album finds Berndsen branching out a bit from his pure, 80s sad sugar-pop sound on Lover In The Dark and moving in a more spacey, faux futuristic direction – think visions of what we thought the future would look like back in the 1980s.  Visually you can see it not just in the album cover, but also in the track list that includes songs with titles like “Data Hunter,” “X-Cryonics,” and “Lifeless Planet.”  The electronics are still the primary drivers of the musical sound, though the aforementioned bassists get into the act and there’s even some guitar solo work in “X-Cryonics,” so Berndsen and Hermigervill branched out a bit in terms of the music itself. There appear to be some guest female vocals (in French!) on “Two Lovers Team” as well.

I have to admit that it wasn’t until the second listening that I started to get into Planet Earth. I fell into the typical fan “trap” of wanting a record that was just a continuation of what I loved from the last album, and while Planet Earth has plenty of similarities to Lover In The Dark, it’s also maybe a half step move towards the darker side of the 80s pop sound, hence the previous New Order reference.  Lyrically Berndsen sticks with a lot of relationship themes, but seems to be less straight forward and overt than on his earlier effort, using more metaphorical language that in a way gives his songs more depth – after the first few listens I thought he’d actually moved away from the themes of Lover In The Dark until I took a closer listen and realized I just hadn’t been paying as much attention to the words as they deserved.

My favorites are the Cyndi Lauper “She Bop”-esque “Gimmi Gimmi,” the beautiful “Two Lovers Team,” and “Monster Forest,” the last of which is the most like his material from Lover In The Dark.  The vinyl will probably be pretty hard to find in the US, but with Planet Earth being just a few clicks away on iTunes for less than $10 you don’t have an excuse to not at the very least take a listen for yourself.  You’ll be glad you did.

Berndsen – “Lover in the Dark”

In 2009 we were getting ready to fly to Reykjavik for our first Iceland Airwaves experience, and the folks at Airwaves were nice enough to put out a series of YouTube videos featuring various artists.  The earliest of these were all in Icelandic, before they eventually switched to English, and one of the first featured Berndsen.  Even though I couldn’t understand a word of it, I was intrigued.  Here’s this redheaded dude with a crazy-ass beard wearing a pink sweater with a heart on it, and his music video clips look like they’re out of some demented early 80s video game.  We didn’t catch Berndsen at that first Airwaves, but we did eventually track him down at an off-venue show in 2011, and he didn’t disappoint.

He wore the same sweater he had on in that 2009 video, which was an immediate win in my book.  We’d bought his CD Lover in the Dark earlier in the trip and were all captivated by what sounded like some really good 80s-style pop, with lots of synths (courtesy of Hermigervill, who we saw do an electronic set later in the festival) and drum machine beats.  The bunny rabbit hat was like icing on my Breakfast Club cake.

I mean, seriously.  Check my man out.  Now mind you, we’re standing around in an outdoor tent that is shaking like crazy from all the wind, but he’s just up there like 1985 called and invited him to get down.  After the show he milled about in the crowd talking to people and posing for some pictures.  A really classy guy.

My initial impressions of Lover in the Dark was that it was a solid synth-pop album, but later in the trip my opinion evolved.  I listened to Berndsen on the iPod while we rode on a bus through the Icelandic “countryside” (think volcanic rocks and moss, with absolutely ZERO signs of civilization in every direction… then imagine something more desolate, and you’ll get the idea) on our way to the spa and I was struck by the tinge of sadness in many of his lyrics.  If you don’t really pay attention to the lyrics you’d think these were poppy love songs, but in fact many are about lost loves and relationship confusion.

I don’t know what love is about,
I don’t know why I feel so sad,
Chasing the clouds around,
I thought I loved you…

There are some impressive, yet simple, soundscapes on this album, which is really a showcase for Berndsen’s vocal stylings (which are modulated to some extent to fit the music).  The opening songs are simply amazing pop music – “Lover in the Dark”, “Supertime”, and “Young Boy” are the most notable tracks in my mind, though there really aren’t any clunkers here.

Lover in the Dark was just recently released on vinyl (pink, naturally), and I fully intend on picking up a copy when at Airwaves this year, even though I already have the CD.  We’re hoping to see him live again as well – his live show is top notch, and I believe he has some new material.

You are only a young boy,
With too much love to give,
So why do you cry?

Which came first?  The music, or the misery?  That’s a paraphrase of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but it’s sort of true of Berndsen as well.  These are great pop riffs with clean sounds, but a hint of sadness throughout many of the songs.  Not in a bad way, though.  This isn’t “sad bastard” music – it gets the toes tapping, and you’ll find yourself singing it softly while it’s on, even if it’s just in the background.  Check out his music videos on YouTube, and prepare to be amazed.

Good work, Berndsen.  Hope to see you again at Airwaves, brother.