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…

Hermigervill – “II” (2018)

You will never witness a live electronic performer who looks like they’re having more fun on stage than Hermigervill is obviously having.  Sheer keyboard-andbleeping-blooping joy incarnate.  In addition to having remixed a veritable Icelandic music Who’s Who (FM Belfast, Quarashi, Retro Stefson, Moses Hightower, Gus-freaking-Gus…), he’s also know as the electro-druid behind a couple of albums by the Ginger Bearded Wonder a.k.a. Berndsen.  The man is in demand.

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II is Hermigervill’s sixth full length, a tapestry of ones and zeros that ranges from great 1980s Nintendo video games (“Solitaire”) to bizarro IDM-electro-trap (“Vape Aquatic”), and everything and nothing in between. A blend of low and smooth with high and bouncy,  II has a dreamy quality like that strange moment when you’re literally falling into sleep, straight into a dream, the instant things shift from being familiar and patterned to something other.

I’ll never pass up a chance to catch Hermigervill play a set, and his new material just reinforces the wisdom of that stance on life.  You can listen to some of it HERE, along with some of his older material.

Hermigervill – “I” (2014)

hermigervillIWe first became aware of Hermigervill via his work with the synth-pop maestro Berndsen, only later catching onto his awesome solo work.  We’ve seen him live a couple of times and he probably has the best banter with his audience of anyone we’ve seen at Iceland Airwaves over the years – his English is impeccable and he has a quick wit and great sense of humor, always coming across as genuine and spontaneous.

Released in 2014, I is Hermigervill’s most recent solo album.  Primarily an instrumental work that could be described as electro-disco, Herigervill does bring in a pair of guest vocalists to mix things up a bit. The R&B “2D” includes Uni Stefson of the late, great party band Retro Stefson, while the incomparable John Grant makes an appearance on “Between Wolf and Dog”.  While I love Hermigervill’s electro beats on their own, his true genius is when he composes for vocalists, creating great sonic foundations for those artists to explore.

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.