We’re back home from Iceland Airwaves. The laundry is done, the records have been cleaned and put into sleeves, and I’m a couple of days into Kókómjólk withdrawal. It was a bit more of a chill festival for us this year – after eight years of going to Reykjavik to gorge on music we don’t feel as obsessed with going out all day every day and seeing as many bands as possible, instead taking a bit more time to enjoy being with our friends in the city. I think the final tally this year for me was around 30 shows attended, compared to 41 last year.
The quality of the performances continues to improve year after year, which is great but can also make it hard to choose who to go see. However, a number of the more established Icelandic bands didn’t play this year (I’m looking at you, Gusgus… Legend… Skálmöld…), and some of those who did seemed to have limited schedules. If anything Airwaves ’16 seemed to be set up more for the little guy, which in many ways is a good thing. The off venue schedule has now reached the point where it’s almost impossible to grasp who is playing where and at what time, and with the rise of KEX Hostel as a legitimately good space it seems to me that you could very easily come to Airwaves in 2017 without a festival pass and still see tons and tons of amazing music all day and all night.
I’m sure it’s pretty obvious if you follow the blog that I’m kind of a music nut, so it’s probably not surprising that I came home with an overflowing record bag. Including the stuff I picked up in Stockholm in the days leading up to Airwaves I came home with something like 40 records, a dozen or so CDs, and another dozen cassettes (I upped my cassette game this year!). Most of my purchases came from Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, plus some cool stuff I picked up over at Stockholm’s Trash Palace. Going back to those haunts is like going back home, and while I didn’t bring back any super rarities (I almost pulled the trigger on a copy of Sororicide’s The Entity, but I just couldn’t do it) I’m pretty pleased with the stack of vinyl and plastic on my “To Listen To” shelf right now. I have enough material to carry the blog well into next year.
Without further ado, here’s my “Best of Airwaves” 2016 edition.
Best Venue: Last year I gushed about the return of NASA, but this year I somehow managed to not step foot in its doors for the entire festival. The same was true for Gaukurinn and Gamla Bíó. In fact the bulk of our on venue shows were at Harpa and Húrra, with only one quick check-in at Iðnó. So knowing that you’d probably think that one of those two would win Best Venue. But you’d be wrong – it was actually KEX Hostel. KEXP radio hosts shows there throughout the festival and since they’re broadcasting live you know they’re going to take the time to make sure the sound is great. Plus as an added bonus this year they built a small riser for the bands to play on – so instead of being at floor level like the have been in the past, now they’re raised maybe a foot or so which makes a huge difference for the folks watching from the back of the room. We saw four shows and a couple of DJ sets here and all of them sounded great. Plus the pulled pork sandwich is delicious.
Best New-To-Me Band: This one just keeps getting tougher every single year, but ultimately I was able to narrow it down to two bands fairly quickly. The runner up is Hórmónar who played a blistering set at Húrra on Thursday night, rocking out and bringing a ton of energy to the room. But my favorite was Dream Wife who despite playing one of the larger rooms at Harpa made the experience feel like you were seeing them in a small club. I referred to them as pop-punk in a previous post, but don’t let fool you into thinking that Dream Wife aren’t real punk, because they absolutely are. They were the only band I saw this year that made me immediately think to myself, “I have to go find one of their albums tomorrow”.
Best Show: This one wasn’t too tough for me, because the band I was most looking forward to seeing at Airwaves delivered. I speak, of course, of the good doktor, the sonic surgeon who will destroy your mind and leave your ears bleeding, Dr. Spock (below). Húrra is a small club – I’m guessing the main floor excluding the bar area might hold 150 people, if that, and it was slam packed. The mosh pit was intense but well-mannered and Dr. Spock delivered exactly what the fans wanted. I’m not sure how their other shows went, but this will probably go down as the most intense show we’ve ever seen at Airwaves. They closed it with “Sons of Ecuador” and tore the place down.
Coolest Music Purchases: In years past this has been “Best Record Shopping Experience,” but at this point I may as well retire that as Lucky gets it every year. As mentioned previously, I came home with a ton of music, but there are two items that particularly stick out. The first is a copy of the Dead Skeletons‘ Om Mani Peme Hung 7″, which is pretty tough to find especially here in the US. The other are the two cassettes put out by the Icelandic Punk Museum, one of which is a “Best Of” of early Icelandic punk while the other includes previously unreleased and live material. These were 3.000 ISK each or the pair for 5.000 ISK (about $45 US) and they come with download cards. I’m really excited to check these out, so look for them soon on the blog.
Biggest Regret: My biggest musical regret was not catching Agent Fresco on the festival’s last night. I caught a cold on Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon I was pretty much dead on my feet. I made it through the first two bands on the on venue schedule, but didn’t have the energy to last long enough to catch Fresco. We’ve seen them plenty of times in the past, though, so it only stings a little.
We had a great time at Iceland Airwaves ’16, catching up with old friends and making some new ones along the way. It’s amazing to look back over the past eight years and see how what was once a pretty small festival has blossomed (some might argue ballooned) into a serious international event. Tons of bands come to town solely to play off venue gigs and there’s music playing just about everywhere you go. Do I kind of miss the old days? Sure. Things seemed a bit simpler to wrap your arms around back in 2009 when there were no “headliners” and you didn’t have a massive music palace like Harpa. But the quality of bands has improved dramatically, and you never know when you’re going to discover something truly great that blows you away. And that’s what it’s all about.
Someday I suppose we’ll stop going to Airwaves. But that someday won’t be in 2017. Just 51 more weeks to go, and Icelandair packages go on sale before the end of the month…