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 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.

Blóðmör – “Líkþorn” (2019)

I first connected with Haukur Valdimarsson on Facebook back in 2017.  The thing that an Icelandic teenager and a guy from Seattle on a collision course with turning 50 had in common was our mutual love for the metal band HAM. (♠)  We are HAM!  We’ve stayed in touch both via Facebook and on Discogs over the last few years, generally to commiserate about Icelandic metal and punk, particularly favorites like HAM and Skálmöld.

Then out of the blue a few months back I see Haukur tagged in an article about the 2019 winners of Músíktilraunir, a.k.a. Icelandic Music Experiments, a.k.a. Iceland’s Battle of the Bands.  Could this be the same Haukur?  Did I even know he played guitar?  It was, and he does, and his metal band Blóðmör took home this year’s top prize.  Oh, and in case I forgot to mention it, Haukur was also recognized as the event’s top guitarist.  Damn!  I mean sure, if there was an award for the most valuable Microsoft-Excel-user-guy at my company I’d have an outside shot of winning (♣), but to be named the best young axe-wielder in an entire country?  That’s pretty great.

Blóðmör (named after Icelandic blood sausage) just put out a five-song digital EP on Bandcamp (HERE) back in June, and I have to say it’s some damn good stuff.  I strongly encourage you to head over there, download it, and kick the kids a few bucks – yes, they’re offering it up for free, but I’d be willing to bet any cash they get will be spent on gear, studio time, and other music related stuff, so help ’em out.

I of course took full advantage of my relationship with Haukur and asked if he’d do an interview for Life in the Vinyl Lane, and he readily agreed.

Haurkur, you and I originally connected due to our mutual love of HAM. What metal bands drove your passion for the genre?

My biggest inspirations for writing songs for Blóðmör have been all kinds of bands. Mostly Icelandic but also bands from other countries. HAM has obviously had a massive impact. Then I would have to say the Megadeth has affected me a lot as well. Icelandic punk bands from the 80’s have had an impact on my writing. That would be bands like Purrkur Pillnikk, Fræbbblarnir and Þeyr.

How did Blóðmör come together as a band?

Blóðmör started right after another band I was in called it quits. This was in the fall of 2016. We just wanted to make punk music but we struggled a lot and quit after just a few months. Then in 2018 we got a new drummer and started playing again. Soon we played our first concert and have been in the scene since.

Blóðmör recently won Músíktilraunir, and you were recognized as the best guitarist.  What was that experience like, both preparing for it and ultimately winning the competition?

We prepared for Músíktilraunir by rehearsing the songs we were going to play over and over.  Even when we knew them 100% we just pushed them even more until they sounded perfect. When we made it to the finals we were so happy but after winning the whole competition we were left speechless. It was an amazing experience.

Your new five-song EP Líkþorn came out in June. How was the experience of recording that album?

Recordings of our EP started in October last year. We went to the studio very inexperienced and basically just didn’t know anything what we were doing. It took a few months to finish the recording, they were over in February this year. After that our friend Biggi from Alchemia started mixing the album and after that Oculus mastered it. Then on June 14. it finally got released.

How were you able to get Óttarr Proppé to join the band on “Frumskógurinn”?  How was it working with one of your idols?

I’ve known Óttarr for some time now for a few reasons. So it was easy for me to contact him. He was very open for the idea so he came. It was an amazing experience having him in the studio with us. When I heard him sing to our song for the first time I just couldn’t stop smiling.

What’s next for Blóðmör?

Our next step would be writing enough new material to record a full length album. We have almost 3 new songs ready at the moment, 2 of which we play live already. But I think we will not go to the studio again until we have at least 8-10 songs ready. We will take as much time we will need. I think it’s better to wait rather than doing this in a hurry.

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blodmorI was intrigued when Haurkur mentioned Purrkur Pillnikk and Fræbbblarnir as influences, because even at first glance there’s more than a bit at punk at play with Blóðmör – after all, the longest song on Líkþorn clocks in at a very un-metal-like 3:04, definitely a departure from the ambitious lengths of so many metal tracks these days.  Stylistically there are punk elements as well, though make no mistake – this is guitar-driven metal through-and-through.  Right from the opening of the title track “Líkþorn” we’re treated to driving riffs, followed by growled vocals, then right into a classic metal instrumental interlude before reversing course and taking us to the finish line in less time than it takes to make a cup of coffee.  But lest you be afraid the guys are going to stay in this zone for the next 12 minutes, au contraire mon frère, because “Klósettið” is a pure rocker, its vocals cadenced in pop punk fashion and slightly at odds with the brief metallic solo burst in the song’s second half.  “Skuggalegir Menn” takes us in a doom direction, the vocals going lower and more primal, the rhythm section pulsating with plodding weight, a HAM-esque crusher that still maintains a dose of youthful enthusiasm.

The first time I heard “Frumskógurinn” I stopped dead in my tracks and said out loud to no one in particular (I was home alone at the time), “wait, that’s Óttarr Proppé“, the one and only vocalist for HAM and Dr. Spock!  And I have to say he fits perfectly into this track, probably the most punk jam on Líkþorn, one reminiscent of some of the finest first wave Scandinavian punk bands.  Óttarr takes the middle of the song in a raspy, accusatory direction before the guys bring it back home perfectly, picking up right where they left off before his vocal interlude.  The album closes with “Barnaníðingur”, another rocker characterized by a driving rhythm, though one that picks up speed along the way like a car with no breaks heading down a hill, going faster and faster until the collision at the end that brings the whole thing to a sudden and jarring stop.

I suspect that we’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot more from Blóðmör in the coming years, and hopefully they’ll land a few shows during Airwaves this year so that I can check them out live.

(♠) And the English language, because mercifully for me Haukur’s English is probably better than mine.

(♣) OK, maybe I’d be in the top three… or maybe the top five… but spreadsheets are cool, dammit!